Thursday, April 28, 2011

Looking for the real Robert E. Howard in One Who Walked Alone

It couldn’t have been easy for Novalyne Price Ellis to write One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard the Final Years (Donald M. Grant Publisher, Inc., 1986). Price Ellis’ memoir of her relationship with Howard (roughly 1934-36) is illuminating in its raw honesty. It’s also painful, at turns disappointing and downright frustrating. We might find escape in Howard’s sword and sorcery tales but there is none to be found here.

But above all, One Who Walked Alone is brave. Price Ellis never sacrifices accuracy to save face. Howard was a successful writer and a free spirit, and told wild, vivid stories, traits that Price Ellis found irresistible. But she was also painfully embarrassed with the Texan, unable to accept his occasionally odd public behavior. She was disappointed that he didn’t conform to her own conception of manliness and began to date other men, including one of his best friends, Truett Vinson, which cut Howard to the quick. While her reactions were understandable, at times I found her to be rather shallow and unlikeable. And yet rather than off-putting I find that uncompromising truthfulness highly admirable.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Books I've read in 2011

One of my new year's resolutions was to read more in 2011. I've got an incredible backlog of titles to get through, and more stuff is being published that I have my eye on (like the forthcoming The Art of the Hobbit by Tolkien scholars Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, authors of the highly recommended J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and The J.R.R Tolkien Companion and Guide) that I despair of ever making any real progress. As I've said before, there's too much to read in the world and not enough time to do it.

I started out averaging a book a week this year, but have fallen off a bit, in part due to a week-long business trip in which I had almost no time to read (See? I'm already making excuses). In truth I'm a slow reader. I'm also prone to fits of stopping and jotting down notes that I later use in my reviews (this creates a very real problem when I'm driving in the car and listening to a book on tape when I'm hit with a flash of inspiration). I also surf the web too damn much, reading everyone else's interesting blogs when I could be reading books.

So here's the meagre list:

Roots and Branches, Tom Shippey
Legend, David Gemmell
The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett
Grails: Quests of the Dawn, Richard Gilliam, Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton (editors)
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens
The Burning Land, Bernard Cornwell
No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, J.R.R. Tolkien
Resolute Determination: Napoleon and the French Empire (The Modern Scholar)
The Company They Keep, Diana Glyer
The Desert of Souls, Howard Andrew Jones
The Brothers Bulger, Howie Carr
Phantastes, George MacDonald
Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, Jane Chance (editor)

The best one of the bunch so far? No Country for Old Men.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The irony of it all is...

... I don't even have a subscription to HBO, so if you're looking for episode-by-episode reviews of A Game of Thrones, you've come to the wrong place. I have read the books though and I'll be picking up A Dance With Dragons when it's published.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

GRRM, Salon respond to negative GOT reviews

Go George!

It seems George R.R. Martin himself has responded to the critical New York Times review referenced in my last post. Cool to see. From his livejournal post:

I am not going to get into it myself, except to say(1) if I am writing "boy fiction," who are all those boys with breasts who keep turning up by the hundreds at my signings and readings?

and(2) thank you, geek girls! I love you all.

And Salon's firing back too. From that piece:

Patterson's Slate review, titled "Quasi-Medieval, Dragon-Ridden Fantasy Crap: Art Thou Prepared to Watch 'Game of Thrones'?" is less a review than a creative writing exercise, penned in the style of....well, it's hard to say what, exactly. It's not a parody of George R.R. Martin's prose, which tends to avoid the turgid, translated-from-the-ancient-Hobbitesese diction that marks inferior sword-and-sorcery novels. It seems more like a goof on what Patterson imagines fantasy fiction to be.

Fantasy fans of the world, unite! Fight the power! Etc. etc. Now if we could only get Tolkien to respond to the likes of David Brin and Michael Moorcock from the great beyond...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Media disgracing itself with A Game of Thrones coverage

When the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga “True Blood,” things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. “Game of Thrones” serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot. If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

-- From “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms,” Ginia Bellafante, New York Times

I’m probably not the best candidate to come to the defense of A Game of Thrones. Despite the praise heaped on it in some quarters I don’t place George R.R. Martin’s series at the level of The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Once and Future King, The Broken Sword, or any of Robert E. Howard’s best short fiction. I do like it well enough. It’s gripping, unpredictable, gritty fantasy, and pulls together complex plotlines and multiple point of view characters in an impressive feat of sustained storytelling. I give author George R.R. Martin plenty of props for doing something different with the genre and for spinning a well-told tale. But I’ve read better.

But you know what? Martin doesn’t deserve the level of abuse he’s getting in some quarters. If you’re a fan of the fantasy genre you ought to feel insulted by what’s going on. I’m frankly appalled at the “open minded” media outlets that have savaged the series and/or fantasy by association at every turn. I’ve already mentioned one review from The LA Times, riddled with snark and anti-fantasy bias.

The next, courtesy of Slate (hat tip to Dweomera Lagomorpha), ups the vitriol. The title of the article says it all: “Quasi-Medieval, Dragon-Ridden Fantasy Crap.” This particular piece (of shite) is probably the worst of I’ve read (or I should say tried to read—it’s scarcely readable). A rambling, self-referential, near-incoherent opening morphs to a cliché-laden rant about fantasy as a whole. Its quite difficult to even determine the subject of the reviewer's scorn. Overall it’s an all-around poor job by Slate.

This piece from The Atlantic means well, but I think it reveals a problem with traditional media outlets whose reporters are expected to be jack of all trades (but wind up being master of none). When they attempt a deep analysis of a subject they know only on the periphery, it shows. Alyssa Rosenberg posits that fantasy always has a happy ending; this is typical of someone who doesn’t really get the ending of The Lord of the Rings, and hasn’t heard of works like The Broken Sword or Eric Brighteyes. And WTF is up with calling Tolkien “a religious skeptic?” (Having been a former writer for a newspaper, the safe bet in these instances is to just report the facts, and stop trying to pass yourself off as an expert).

Next is The Guardian, which engages in yet more patronizing. It’s not as terrible as the others, but it condemns most fantasy released prior to ASOIAF as for children. Someone better tell Tom Shippey he’s been wasting his time on a children’s book. Here's a cringeworthy statement from this piece:

Fantasy is not a genre you would ever expect to describe as having "grown up", but let's at least say it's moved on since Tolkien's day. If The Lord Of The Rings is like the gateway drug of high fantasy, then today's fans crave something harder.

The latest is from the New York Times, supposedly a bastion of open-minded thought. “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms” by Ginia Bellafante contains all the standard anti-fantasy bias (escapist, for children, etc.), but ups the criticism by introducing misogyny into the discussion: A Game of Thrones is “boys adventure” with gratuitous sex scenes added in solely to attract a female readership, Bellafante says. Huh?

The Times piece prompted an angry response from Amy Ratcliffe over on, who comes to the defense on behalf of female fantasy fans everywhere. Says Ratcliffe: How dare anyone say that Game of Thrones is “boy fiction.” What a crude and useless phrase. I am proof that it is not the case, and I am not alone. Also? I love The Hobbit.

Amen, Amy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Despite its immense readership and passionate fan base, fantasy continues to be treated like a turd in the punchbowl by most mainstream media. They don’t get it, great swathes of them actively hate it, and many of our “enlightened” 21st century media outlets refuse to treat it as a serious form of art. Martin must be wondering how he’s ever going to get an honest review under these circumstances.

On a side note, is anyone else tired of the ironic, cynical tone of these reviews? I guess this is what passes for hip, young, journalism these days.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Review of George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women

Warning: Some spoilers ahead

Advancing a claim that something is the “first” anything is daring a slippery slope, but saying a book is the “first fantasy” is rather like taking a leap onto a Slip and Slide greased with the gelatin exudate of Cthulhu. George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858) could be the first fantasy story … but then, what about Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, or … you get the picture. I happen to agree with Black Gate's Matthew David Surridge that Phantastes is likely not the first pure fantasy novel, for the fact that, although it involves another world, it “never quite [leaves] the real world behind.” It’s the stuff of dreams, with a clear path back to earth.

Regardless, Phantastes is without question one of the cornerstones of the genre, and stands poised at the cusp of early works containing fantastic elements, to those that feature fully developed, independent secondary worlds.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sale offers proof that J.R.R. Tolkien likely read Robert E. Howard

L. Sprague de Camp is not exactly known as a bastion of credibility among readers of Robert E. Howard. In his 1983 biography Dark Valley Destiny, de Camp combines research and first-person interviews with exaggeration and embellishment, speculation and psychological conjecture, and at times outright fancy to paint what is at best a suspect portrait of the man who brought us Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and others.

Unfortunately de Camp is the only source (that I know of, at least) linking Howard with J.R.R. Tolkien. This comes via a recount of de Camp hanging out with JRRT in a memorably described encounter, as detailed in his non-fiction review Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy:

"We sat in the garage for a couple of hours, smoking pipes, drinking beer, and talking about a variety of things. Practically anything in English literature, from Beowulf down, Tolkien had read and could talk intelligently about. He indicated that he 'rather liked' Howard's Conan stories."

In J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment by Michael Drout, de Camp adds the following explanation/equivocation of the above quote:

"During our conversation, I said something casual to Tolkien about my involvement with Howard's Conan stories, and he said he 'rather liked them'. That was all: we went on to other subjects. I know he had read Swords and Sorcery because I had sent him a copy. I don't know if he had read any other Conan besides 'Shadows in the Moonlight', but I rather doubt it."

I know I’ve always been hopeful but rather skeptical of the claim that Tolkien actually said he “rather liked” the Conan stories, given that the quote’s source is, well, de Camp.

But this sale which I recently found during a web search seems to provide proof that Tolkien at least read “Shadows in the Moonlight,” aka., “Iron Shadows in the Moon.” At the very least it provides concrete evidence that he owned the book, and that de Camp sent him the copy. Cool stuff. I can't help but wonder what Tolkien thought of this bit:

With a gusty laugh he lifted her to his fierce lips.

"I'll make you Queen of the Blue Sea! Cast off there, dogs! We'll scorch King Yildiz's pantaloons yet, by Crom!"