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Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?

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  • 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 1 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 2 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 3 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 4 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 5 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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