As both a writer and reader of fantasy literature -- both for some time now -- I found it very interesting. Having read it, I believe I followed the gist of her meaning, but at the same time, I found it somewhat abstract. In the end, it almost felt like she was saying that fantasy should be well-written and not badly written. True enough. Now, it would be immensely interesting to see what she thinks of the style of works such as Harry Potter, which is a very different type of book than the ones she seems to be discussing as good examples. I think the landscape has changed a bit since the writing of this essay.
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October 20, This post is not about roleplaying or interactive fiction, but about fantasy literature. I suspect that there will be more posts like that in the future, so my apologies if you do not care for the subject. The [Fantasy]-tag will help you recognise and avoid them. I am currently reading Ursula K. But more interesting than her comments on style which, though true, are not especially insightful is the framework of her discussion; the insight in fantasy that allows her to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate styles.
Her metaphor is that of a big national park, which people should go to in order to experience something they normally do not wilderness, nature , but which some people do go to "in a trailer with a motorbike on the back and a motorboat on top and a butane stove, five aluminium folding chairs, and a transistor radio on the inside.
They arrive in a totally encapsulated reality. It seems to me that Le Guin is right: fantasy, as a kind of literature, must be distancing, must always be about something Else. Having flying brooms is not enough, not if you use them to play a kind of football. Such literature may be whimsical, but is not fantastic - and it has a much greater danger of being pure escapism.
Why it is so widely praised is beyond me. What I want to suggest is that Robert Jordan, writer of that interminable sequence The Wheel of Time, has fallen prey to the same thing in his later books. Jordan is of course merely a token representing many of his colleagues. It may explain why so many people I have spoken to have become disenchanted with the series as it ran on: the series itself became disenchanted, in a very literal way.
This does not win Jorden a prize for originality, of course, but it does make his book proper fantasy. The world we are transported to is dangerous; these dangers are real and present; and people accept them as dangers they simply have to face, and have to cope with.
This primacy of danger is a typical trope of fantastic literature. It is alien to our common conception of the world we live in: if our house were to be attacked by anyone, we would expect the police to come to our aid, or at least attempt to punish the attackers afterwards. In our common conception of our world, danger has no primacy, but must submit to law and order, to rights, to insurances. We all know though we are not often aware of it that danger will not really submit to our all-too-human systems of protection.
Suppose that Jordan had followed up the scene with others in which the royal "Red Mages" had come to investigate the killing; had gone on a quest to kill the monstrous beings and imprison the elf that led them; and had sentenced the elf to pay for all the reconstruction work in the village he had his minions attack - than, no matter the monsters and the mages and the elf, we would not have had a fantasy.
We would have had a basically realistic novel dressed up in whimsical if somewhat overused invention. The fantastic would have detracted from, instead of added to, the message. Most of the books are now concerned with his attempts to keep all these people together; to overcome their natural prejudices and fears; and with the many, many power struggles among the various groups.
All of this could have happened in Poughkeepsie as well as in Elfland. But even that is not really true; it really could not have happened in Elfland.
It is too comfortable, too well-known - we see it around us every day. It is just politics. As Jordan changes his focus towards political power games, the fantasy loses its aspect of being a fantasy.
As the magic becomes a political tool and concern, it ceases to be magic. We find ourselves in Poughkeepsie, sitting on an aluminium folding chair and wondering why we went through the trouble of imagining such a vast, diverse and in the end curiously bland alternative reality.
This, I suppose, is where George R. Martin comes onto the stage and says, with a sly smile: "Well, but if one is a realist in disguise, one should have the courage to be a realist in disguise!
“From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” by Ursula K. Le Guin
From Elfland to Poughkeepsie
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