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Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?

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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 1 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 2 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 3 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 4 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 5 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


              [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
            • 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 6 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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