Title: Wizardry & Wild Romance
Author: Michael Moorcock
Publisher: Monkeybrain Books
Publisher’s Blurb: … this invaluable work analyzes the Fantasy genre from its earliest beginnings in Medieval romances, on through the notable practitioners like Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien, and up to the brightest lights in the field today. Insightful and often controversial, this is a book every fantasy reader should have on their shelf.
“Michael Moorcock – Extreme Librarian”
Introduction by China Miéville
“To read something that somebody else has written and have it make better sense of your own reactions than you have been able to, is a momentous thing.” (p14)
Miéville’s central thesis, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is we should all want better, demand “vision and passion” from the epic fantasy we read. Not because Moorcock says we should, but because so much of it has fallen into disrepair. A lot of it is imitative and limited. Fans can get caught in the Catch-22 of reading what’s available which keeps getting written because it’s what sells.
And yes, Moorcock is frustrating. He has a lot to say, all of it supported by citations of his arguments. His prose is dense, his meaning often obvious, but his insistence we should want better is absolutely right. And how in the hell has he read and studied so much and written so much?
“I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” (p 18)
In the first paragraph, Moorcock defines what he’s writing about. Romantic epic fantasy “whose writers invent their own Earthly histories and geographies.” Not, I am relieved to learn, that sentimental love story rubbish churned out by the likes of Danielle Steele.
This too, resonated with me. “I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” I’m finally able to admit to myself that much of what I have read wasn’t bad so much as boring. Too repetitive, unambitious, and often self-congratulatory.
“I believe that critical dissection of the fantasy story into its components does not detract from the story. Rather, it adds a new dimension to it …” This is what I’ve been fumbling around for much of my life, and was what I enjoyed most in my English classes. The many ways to look at a work and interpret it and the richness that adds to it.
Epic fantasy then, loosely defined, are the stories told which feature exotic landscapes from the imagination of the writer, with symbols which evoke strong sensations as a way to escape and discover ourselves. Moorcock references the escape from objective pressure, which can also mean an escape from the inward pressure we place on ourselves to survive an often unpleasant world.
Each chapter title takes on an aspect of Epic Fantasy.
Chapter 1 “Origins” gives a history beginning with 16th century tales deemed Chivalric Romance and its influence on Gothic Romance. Here, romance is defined most succinctly as exploration of the exotic. When Moorcock writes about early epic fantasy he writes, “… their chief purpose was to amaze and shock.” While the prose may not be easily read by contemporary readers, the presence of dragons, magic, castles, ogres, doom and tragedy are instantly familiar.
Chapter 2 “The Exotic Landscape” discusses the landscape of the internal as expressed in the external. The exotic landscape is used to distance the author/reader from reality. In some ways, as though realism is too much to abide.
An interesting brief topic was Moorcock’s discussion of “bachelor-fiction” written by the likes of Lovecraft. “… [Lovecraft’s] more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated …” (p. 55) (emphasis mine)
And then there’s this, “Too frequently one gets the impression that … most practitioners of epic fantasy read only one another’s work.” (p. 77) This continues explaining how epic fantasy can do better by its readers. Don’t just read your peers’ work, avoid the bloat and the boring and the stereotypical by reading works in other genres as well.
Chapter 3 “The Heroes and the Heroines” focuses on the lack of mature, nuanced, emotional reactions in epic fantasy characters. Most are adolescent, immature or “pretend-adult.” A frequent adjective he uses is “infantile.” The men are in charge, all knowledgeable and the women are fundamentally passive, waiting to be taken care of by the man. (This is the trope which made me uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere for my reading pleasure.)
Yet, there’s hope! Authors such as Fritz Leiber, Robin McKinley, and Gene Wolfe whose characters have “genuine passions, adult concerns, and complex motives.”
Chapter 4 “Wit and Humor” discusses the types of humor most suited for epic fantasy. Irony and melodrama, comedy and fantasy, closely bound to one another in showing the fantastic extremes of life (fairies, dragons, etc.) along with the reversals of fate represented in farce (custard pies, or pratfalls).
Comedy adds a dimension to the characters and the plot. Humans are complex, and often use humor to survive the daily grind. So too should epic fantasy characters.
It’s in this chapter, Moorcock explores the idea that fantasy should “have at its source some fundamental compassion, … ambition to show … what human life is actually about.” (p. 116) Further, he looks for readings which help us (as readers) understand how to deal with problems and respond in a positive manner to injustice and frustrations which hound us all.
Chapter 5 “Epic Pooh” is Moorcock’s tirade against authors such as Tolkien who write childish books and parade them as gentler adult books. The authors who preach moderation and politeness. Those who do not explore the harsher and extreme truths of life.
Moorcock’s explanation, “Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down, they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in …” (p. 120) tickles me no end. And while I happen to enjoy Winnie the Pooh, I have no illusions that A. A. Milne wrote anything other than polite, happy nursery rhymes.
Chapter 6 “Excursions and Developments” is the final chapter and deals with the thesis that categorization is destructive. Because it forces authors to pigeonhole themselves in order to sell books and attract an audience. (cf it doesn’t have to be good to sell in Chapter 1.)
This made me ponder how I read. I read books, in search of good stories, not genre. Yes, I like a good dragon tale, time-travel, cyberpunk, etc. but I like other things.
I read John Scalzi because I like his stories, not because he writes military science fiction.
Myke Cole tells the story of a village bullied by the religious government and the teen-aged girl who comes to the rescue. Strong female character (we need Heloise today), story about standing up to the bullies. That it’s categorized as fantasy meant little to me.
The Astronaut Lady series by Mary Robinette Kowal was a ripping good tale which read like the alternate history it is. But I read it for the women who fought for equal rights in the space program.
Wizardry & Wild Romance is rich, dense, and filled with authors I’ve never heard of. It’s also one I will gladly read repeatedly as I learn more about critical writing. Moorcock’s discussion of what is good in epic fantasy, and what isn’t, can be transferred to other genres, I’m sure. Albeit without the dragons and wizards, etc.