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Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?

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  • ERATRIANO@aol.com
    In a message dated 04/30/01 11:32:36 AM Eastern Daylight Time, tgshaw@earthlink.net writes:
    Message 1 of 16 , Apr 30, 2001
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      In a message dated 04/30/01 11:32:36 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
      tgshaw@... writes:

      << I know I've mentioned this before, some months ago, but I place a lot of
      the blame on role-playing games. Not that they're bad in themselves, but
      they're the only type of fantasy some people are "reading." Many writers'
      guidelines for fantasy magazines include something like, "No RPG threads made
      into stories," so they must be something the editors are tired of dealing
      with. >>

      LOL I have to laugh because I have always avoided books that had seemed like
      they might have a shred of RPG in their makeup, although I love to play D&D.
      Now, however, as I have been talking to more gamers, some 20 years of play
      and writing under their belts, I am noticing that their characters, systems
      and worlds have a depth and balance that I have to appreciate. So I'm
      setting my shudders aside and planning to read some, I don't know, some
      DragonLance or something, this year. Maybe it's just that I haven't been
      writing solidly the last ten years, just kind of in fits and starts, but
      there are holes in my creations that my gaming friends have, quite gently and
      nicely, been able to drive trucks through. Australian juggernauts, in some
      cases.

      I do prefer magic as being something beyond our understanding most of the
      time, but shouldn't it be consistent? Or can it seem to be sort of
      inconsistent, the way God doesn't always answer prayers, because after all
      it's magic?

      I have enjoyed some C.J. Cherryh in the past and perhaps should look up the
      Fortress books. So much reading, so little time.... I still have those
      issues of Mythlore tantalizing me. And where in the vast library of Tolkien
      I have yet to read do I find the most poetry? I love his poems. What modern
      authors use so much poetry? Anne McCaffrey does, or did, but the writers
      that haunt one more, like Tepper and McKillip, I can't recall whether they do.

      As for Pokemon, my son misplaced his Goldeen this morning. She's red and
      white, like a carp with a horn on her nose, and about the size of the end of
      your thumb. So if she turns up anywhere please let me know! Thanks.

      Lizzie
    • David S. Bratman
      ... No, magic needn t be consistent, and we needn t draw on religion to prove it. The problem is, few things in human experience work consistently and
      Message 2 of 16 , May 1 4:25 PM
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        At 09:13 AM 4/30/2001 , Lizzie wrote:

        >I do prefer magic as being something beyond our understanding most of the
        >time, but shouldn't it be consistent? Or can it seem to be sort of
        >inconsistent, the way God doesn't always answer prayers, because after all
        >it's magic?

        No, magic needn't be consistent, and we needn't draw on religion to prove it.

        The problem is, few things in human experience work consistently and
        predictably the way magic in consistent magic-using novels does. Science
        doesn't, though scientists pretend it does: real science is messy, and
        scientific laws are derived by from averaging a lot of messy, approximate
        observations.

        One thing that does purport to work consistently and predictably is
        technology. But we all know it doesn't really do so, or has your computer
        never crashed on you? Consistent magic in these books winds up looking a
        lot like an idealization of technology, the way it's supposed to work.
        That's not magic, that's science-fiction writers' pet dreams.

        I prefer to read about magic as working like interpersonal psychology.
        There are known procedures for getting people to react the way you want,
        and they've been codified. But they're rules of thumb: they don't always
        work, they work on some people more than others, some people are much more
        talented at applying them than others, and the mental state and care taken
        by the practitioner makes a big difference on how well it works.

        Also, the best magic books don't have impossible things happen. Magic
        works by manipulating the laws of probability. See Diana Wynne Jones's
        _Fire and Hemlock_.

        David Bratman
      • David J. Finnamore
        ... That s what all those different dice are for, ya know. ... What a coincidence! So does Game Mastering. ;-) -- David J. Finnamore Nashville, TN, USA
        Message 3 of 16 , May 3 12:25 AM
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          David S. Bratman wrote:

          > I prefer to read about magic as working like interpersonal psychology.
          > There are known procedures for getting people to react the way you want,
          > and they've been codified. But they're rules of thumb: they don't always
          > work, they work on some people more than others, some people are much more
          > talented at applying them than others

          That's what all those different dice are for, ya know.


          > Magic
          > works by manipulating the laws of probability.

          What a coincidence! So does Game Mastering. ;-)

          --
          David J. Finnamore
          Nashville, TN, USA
          http://personal.bna.bellsouth.net/bna/d/f/dfin/index.html
          --
        • Trudy Shaw
          ... From: David S. Bratman To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Tuesday, May 01, 2001 6:25 PM Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien? Also, the
          Message 4 of 16 , May 3 4:20 AM
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            ----- Original Message -----
            From: David S. Bratman
            To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
            Sent: Tuesday, May 01, 2001 6:25 PM
            Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?


            Also, the best magic books don't have impossible things happen. Magic
            works by manipulating the laws of probability. See Diana Wynne Jones's
            _Fire and Hemlock_.

            David Bratman



            Gee, I wasn't planning on doing PR for C.J. Cherryh's Fortress series--but this is exactly how it works in those books. She also makes a distinction between wizardry, which someone has to study, and magic, which is innate in a person. Even those with innate magic, though, have to learn to discipline and focus it and--even more important--to consider the possible outcomes of their manipulation, including ones that might be very different from what they intended. The comparison to interpersonal relationships, which I didn't keep in this reply, also fits very well with this series (all four books have been published now: Fortress in the Eye of Time, Fortress of Eagles, Fortress of Owls, and Fortress of Dragons).

            I haven't read the Diana Wynne Jones book; thanks for giving the suggestion.

            Trudy Shaw



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          • David S. Bratman
            ... I haven t read these books, but I should add that there are some novels whose authors understand this -- and which still make magic work mechanically.
            Message 5 of 16 , May 3 9:54 AM
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              At 04:20 AM 5/3/2001 , Trudy wrote:

              > Gee, I wasn't planning on doing PR for C.J. Cherryh's Fortress series--but
              >this is exactly how it works in those books. She also makes a distinction
              >between wizardry, which someone has to study, and magic, which is innate in
              >a person. Even those with innate magic, though, have to learn to discipline
              >and focus it and--even more important--to consider the possible outcomes of
              >their manipulation, including ones that might be very different from what
              >they intended.

              I haven't read these books, but I should add that there are some novels
              whose authors understand this -- and which still make magic work
              mechanically. Whenever you have a situation with 1st level wizards who can
              do A, 2nd level wizards who can do A and B, and 3rd level wizards who can
              do A, B, and C, and this is rigidly applied (except perhaps for the hero,
              who has the Gift and can do them all except for needing training to control
              that Gift), it's probably still mechanical. Consider science again: some
              people without degrees are naturally skilled without being possessed of
              perfect Gifts; some Ph.D.'s are ignorant klutzes, especially if they assume
              their degree implies mastery over all fields of science.

              David Bratman
            • WendellWag@aol.com
              As Trudy said, one of the reasons for bad fantasy novels is that authors import into novels characteristics that work reasonably well in games but which don t
              Message 6 of 16 , May 6 12:50 PM
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                As Trudy said, one of the reasons for bad fantasy novels is that authors
                import into novels characteristics that work reasonably well in games but
                which don't apply to novels. Indeed, these characteristics often trivialize
                the point of a good novel. A game has to have simple, quantifiable goals so
                that the game will eventually end and one player will be declared the winner.
                That's why the goal of most RPG-type games is something like "Find the gold
                in the dungeon. Completely explore the castle and collect the most magical
                items. Kill all the other players. Survive to the end of the game." None of
                those goals consistently applies to good novels. A good novel could have the
                hero sacrifice himself to save other people, or triumph over evil while
                ending up penniless. A hero in a good novel doesn’t travel all over the map
                on pointless tours or collect magical items for the heck of it. At best, the
                plot habits acquired in RPG's are useful only in a very narrow subset of
                fantasy novels.

                I think that there's another problem though. Too many fantasy authors steal
                plot devices from Tolkien without understanding what the point of those plot
                devices were for Tolkien. A lot of these clichéd plot devices are catalogued
                rather thoroughly in _The Encyclopedia of Fantasy_, from which David quoted
                that definition of "plot coupon." It's a great book that I recommend it all
                of you, but a quicker way to learn about these clichés is Diana Wynne Jones's
                _A Tough Guide to Fantasyland_. This pretends to be a tourist guide to a
                generic fantasy world (the title is a pun on the British tour book series _A
                Rough Guide to . . ._, which are guides for off-the-beaten-track traveling),
                but really it's a list of clichés in modern fantasy. When I read this book,
                I found myself looking at each entry and saying, "Which part of _The Lord of
                the Rings_ did some author misunderstand in order to turn this plot device
                (or type of character or standard setting or whatever) into a cliché?"

                This leads me to a dilemma I find in reviewing any sort of narrative. (I'll
                use narrative to refer generally to novels, short stories, movies, plays,
                epic poems, legends, mythologies, or anything with an overall plot. I'll be
                using movie examples because I do film reviews on a website, but I think my
                point applies to any kind of narrative.) On one hand, it's not a good idea
                if a narrative steals plot points from previous works without trying to
                understand how those plot points fit into those works. On the other hand,
                great works often can be fitted into a general plot schema or a tightly
                defined genre. So sometimes I find myself putting down a work for stealing
                and misunderstanding plot ideas from other works and sometimes I find myself
                praising a work for stealing its general structure from other works in a more
                artful fashion. I wonder then if I'm being consistent or if I'm merely
                making my criticism arbitrarily fit whatever intuitive feeling I have about a
                work.

                Let me give some examples. Take a look at the D.C. Film Society website
                (http:www.dcfilmsociety.org). Click on Reviews. Click on the reviews for
                _The Star Wars Trilogy_ and _The Phantom Menace_. (The review for _The
                Phantom Menace_ appeared in a slightly different form in _Mythprint_.) It's
                my contention that what makes the Star Wars films great isn't special effects
                (which look a bit old-fashioned now), nor acting (which wasn't really that
                good), nor is it that they have thrilling plots (in the usual sense of plot).
                What the Star Wars movies excel in is that they have a great Story, in the
                sense that C. S. Lewis uses this term in his essay "On Story." This is not
                plot in the sense of the events of the narrative, but some sort of
                overarching pattern to these events. It's reasonably close to what Joseph
                Campbell calls the mythic or archetypal elements of the plot. I contend that
                to some extent, the Star Wars movies, along with _The Lord of the Rings_ and
                _The Wizard of Oz_, and to a lesser degree the Prydain Chronicles, the Ring
                cycle, the King Arthur legend, and the Earthsea books are all exemplars of a
                Story pattern that I sometimes refer to as the Archetypal Quest Narrative.
                This isn't a perfect name, I suppose, since some of these narratives are more
                like anti-quests than quests, since they want to get rid of an item, but it's
                as close as I can get to describing it. Incidentally, most of the people who
                notice this about the Star Wars movies ascribe it to the fact that George
                Lucas read Joseph Campbell and deliberately tried to fit his plots into
                Campbell's Monomyth from his study _The Hero with a Thousand Faces_. I may
                be alone in thinking that Lucas does better when he goes back to the original
                works and ignores Campbell's attempt to fit them into a neat pattern.

                That's the good side to stealing ideas from older works. For the bad side,
                see my reviews of _L.A. Confidential_ or _The Gingerbread Man_ where I
                discuss the problems of filmmakers trying to make a film noir-type movie
                without really understanding what the point of film noir is. You can't have
                a film noir end with a blazing shoot-out in which the hero triumphs (that's
                an action film) or an ending in which a flawed hero is disappointed but
                resolves to become a better person (that's a sitcom with a moral at the end).
                Film noir is about the lack of trust in society. Such a film can only end
                with evil triumphant because the supposed hero was never anything but a
                patsy, or with everybody dead, or with a naive innocent surviving because
                everyone else has killed each other off, or with a hero surviving but no
                happier because no one trusts him. Film noir isn't about conventional happy
                endings, and any supposed film noir that ends with one has missed the point.

                So how can I resolve these two contrary statements about how an author should
                treat the narratives he wishes to imitate? On one hand, I want authors to
                understand the structures of the great narratives and to imitate them, but I
                don't want them to imitate minor plot devices in those narratives. I think
                the distinction I'm trying to make is that an author has to understand the
                overall Story and not try to steal minor plot points without fitting them
                consistently into a good Story. The reason that the clichés of fantasy
                listed in _The Encyclopedia of Fantasy_ and _The Tough Guide to Fantasyland_
                are annoying isn't that they are stolen from Tolkien but that they are stolen
                without understanding their use in the overall Story. A fantasy author who
                says that he admires Tolkien but who then writes a novel supposedly in the
                tradition of Tolkien, except that the novel ends with the equivalent
                character to Frodo becoming rich, getting married, becoming king, and living
                happily ever after, has completely missed the point of _The Lord of the
                Rings_.

                Wendell Wagner


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              • Trudy Shaw
                ... From: WendellWag@aol.com To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Sunday, May 06, 2001 2:50 PM Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien? A game has
                Message 7 of 16 , May 7 5:48 AM
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                  ----- Original Message -----
                  From: WendellWag@...
                  To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
                  Sent: Sunday, May 06, 2001 2:50 PM
                  Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?


                  A game has to have simple, quantifiable goals so
                  that the game will eventually end and one player will be declared the winner.
                  That's why the goal of most RPG-type games is something like "Find the gold
                  in the dungeon. Completely explore the castle and collect the most magical
                  items. Kill all the other players. Survive to the end of the game." None of
                  those goals consistently applies to good novels. A good novel could have the
                  hero sacrifice himself to save other people, or triumph over evil while
                  ending up penniless. A hero in a good novel doesn’t travel all over the map
                  on pointless tours or collect magical items for the heck of it. At best, the
                  plot habits acquired in RPG's are useful only in a very narrow subset of
                  fantasy novels.

                  Wendell Wagner



                  Reading these comments made me think of another aspect of many (not all) RPG's. There really isn't "good" and "evil." There's just "us" and "them." Talk about missing a major theme! How does a hero sacrifice, or even risk, himself for the good of others if there's nothing at stake except who gets the gold? How would you even define a "hero" in such a plot?

                  I also notice that Wendell specifies *plot* habits from RPG's not being very useful. That's probably a good point, although I would add characterization that goes beyond special abilities, etc. The world-building skills might be useful--for certain types of fantasies--but there are other ways of learning those.

                  The ones who have the biggest problem are people who don't read what Wendell calls "good novels," but think they know how to write one from what they've learned from RPG's.

                  Trudy Shaw


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                • ERATRIANO@aol.com
                  In a message dated 05/07/01 8:53:35 AM Eastern Daylight Time, tgshaw@earthlink.net writes:
                  Message 8 of 16 , May 7 8:28 AM
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                    In a message dated 05/07/01 8:53:35 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
                    tgshaw@... writes:

                    << That's why the goal of most RPG-type games is something like "Find the
                    gold
                    in the dungeon. Completely explore the castle and collect the most
                    magical
                    items. Kill all the other players. Survive to the end of the game." >>

                    tournaments, sure. But not regular games. Regular games are more like life,
                    they have a temporary goal (find the gold or whatever) which will in a good
                    game also involve issues of loyalties and other human (so to speak) themes...
                    then after the gold is found, another quest usually appears. At least if
                    you have a good group that enjoys playing together. It is not really
                    appropriate to try and apply the same standards to gaming as to novels. Can
                    someone put this better?

                    << At best, the plot habits acquired in RPG's are useful only in a very
                    narrow subset of fantasy novels.>>

                    So I think that my initial comment, about learning from gaming things that
                    can be applied to writing, does not apply so much to actual plotting (which
                    is a problem for me anyway), as to world-creating and character balance. A
                    good DM puts a lot of work into his or her world, it has to have an
                    incredible level of detail to stand up to the rigours of a good game. But
                    there is I suppose an aspect of that control which would be a drawback in
                    fiction, at least for me, where I like a more lifelike unknowable atmosphere.
                    Something like that. Maybe we are actually in agreement, Wendell, and just
                    can't make the words mesh. LOL

                    Lizzie
                  • WendellWag@aol.com
                    In a message dated 5/7/01 11:31:42 AM Eastern Daylight Time, ... True, and it s not really appropriate to apply the same standards to novels as to gaming. So
                    Message 9 of 16 , May 8 6:10 AM
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                      In a message dated 5/7/01 11:31:42 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
                      ERATRIANO@... writes:


                      > It is not really
                      > appropriate to try and apply the same standards to gaming as to novels

                      True, and it's not really appropriate to apply the same standards to novels
                      as to gaming. So the point is that only a limited set of criteria from
                      gaming carries over to novels and only a limited set of criteria from novels
                      carries over to gaming. I guess we are in agreement here. If you want to
                      write (or criticize novels), you have to learn about how novels work. You
                      shouldn't just automatically import things from gaming. If you want to
                      create (or criticize) games, you should learn about how gaming works. You
                      shouldn't just automatically import things from novels.

                      Wendell Wagner


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                    • David S. Bratman
                      ... As I put it in a review once, Tolkien s gold, like the fairies , turns to dust when it is stolen away. It is possible, though, to use Tolkien s gold
                      Message 10 of 16 , May 8 5:21 PM
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                        At 12:50 PM 5/6/2001 , Wendell wrote:

                        >I think that there's another problem though. Too many fantasy authors steal
                        >plot devices from Tolkien without understanding what the point of those plot
                        >devices were for Tolkien.

                        As I put it in a review once, "Tolkien's gold, like the fairies', turns to
                        dust when it is stolen away." It is possible, though, to use Tolkien's
                        gold without stealing it at all: in Brian Attebery's estimation (and mine),
                        Le Guin's Earthsea is the most successful example of this. (Has everyone
                        seen the new book, _Tales from Earthsea_, by the way?)

                        >So sometimes I find myself putting down a work for stealing
                        >and misunderstanding plot ideas from other works and sometimes I find myself
                        >praising a work for stealing its general structure from other works in a more
                        >artful fashion. I wonder then if I'm being consistent or if I'm merely
                        >making my criticism arbitrarily fit whatever intuitive feeling I have about a
                        >work.

                        Maybe you are. But it's more likely that your intuitive feeling is telling
                        you something important that your intellect is merely trying to analyze
                        afterwards. There is no point in evolving a personal criteria of literary
                        quality unless it helps explain what you like and dislike, and why. All my
                        own high-flown theories of what is good or bad in fantasy I've derived
                        inductively, by reading books and noting what works and what doesn't. To
                        create a theory of what's good and apply it rigidly, describing books as
                        good or bad by means of this pre-existing theory in isolation of whether
                        you liked them or not - that would be the worst sort of criticism.

                        >I discuss the problems of filmmakers trying to make a film noir-type movie
                        >without really understanding what the point of film noir is. You can't have
                        >a film noir end with a blazing shoot-out in which the hero triumphs (that's
                        >an action film) or an ending in which a flawed hero is disappointed but
                        >resolves to become a better person (that's a sitcom with a moral at the end).
                        > Film noir is about the lack of trust in society. Such a film can only end
                        >with evil triumphant because the supposed hero was never anything but a
                        >patsy, or with everybody dead, or with a naive innocent surviving because
                        >everyone else has killed each other off, or with a hero surviving but no
                        >happier because no one trusts him. Film noir isn't about conventional happy
                        >endings, and any supposed film noir that ends with one has missed the point.
                        >... A fantasy author who
                        >says that he admires Tolkien but who then writes a novel supposedly in the
                        >tradition of Tolkien, except that the novel ends with the equivalent
                        >character to Frodo becoming rich, getting married, becoming king, and living
                        >happily ever after, has completely missed the point of _The Lord of the
                        >Rings_.

                        There's another possibility, though I admit it doesn't actually happen very
                        often. The author or filmmaker could be trying to do something different,
                        by playing on your expectations for the genre and then subverting them.
                        (The term "deconstruction" is sometimes loosely used to describe this.)
                        _Tehanu_ certainly subverted most readers' expectations for a fourth
                        Earthsea book, but it was clear that the author was retroactively
                        reimagining the entire premise, rather than merely failing to understand
                        what she had created. I don't know whether the makers of _L.A.
                        Confidential_ thought they were making a film noir or not. But there's no
                        law that says they can't make a film that starts out looking like a film
                        noir and then turning into something else. And if the less perceptive
                        critics keep calling such a film a film noir, that's not the film's fault.
                        I thought _L.A. Confidential_'s ending had more problems with sheer
                        believability than whether it fit into the conventions of the rest of the film.

                        David Bratman
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