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Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?

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  • 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 1 of 16 , May 1, 2001
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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 2 of 16 , May 3, 2001
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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 3 of 16 , May 3, 2001
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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 4 of 16 , May 3, 2001
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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 5 of 16 , May 6, 2001
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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 6 of 16 , May 7, 2001
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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 7 of 16 , May 7, 2001
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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 8 of 16 , May 8, 2001
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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 9 of 16 , May 8, 2001
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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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