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Archive for the tag “urban fantasy”

Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso

I’ve become interested in literary genres recently, mainly because I’ve been reading several books that are difficult to classify. I’ve been looking for books that are similar to those of Charles Williams, and someone said that they belonged in the urban fantasy genre.

I would definitely include two of Charles Williams’s novels in the urban fantasy genre — All Hallows Eve and Descent into Hell. They are not my favourite Williams novels, but they are certainly urban fantasy, so I added them to the urban fantasy list on GoodReads, where Descent into Hell is rated 2657th along with Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny, and The Rakam by Karpov Kinrade.

It seems that I was the only person who voted for it, so if you think it deserves better company, please go there and vote for it too.

I’m not sure, though, that moving it further up the list would put it into better company,. because at the top of the list, with 2631 votes, is City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the reviews of which do not inspire much confidence.

And it’s not just the reviews. It’s the cover, which features a faceless male torso.

The faceless male torso seems to be a meme, or trope, or whatever you call it, that is featured on about one in ten books nowadays. I recently entered my latest book, The Year of the Dragon, in a book cover competition, and in those competitions there is almost always at least one cover with a faceless male torso.

It seems a rather odd thing to have on a book cover, and it makes me think of the the title, though not of the content, of a book by C.S. Lewis, Till we have Faces.

I checked to see what lists Till we have Faces was on, and it was only on one — Novels for grown-ups by authors better known for their children’s books. I added it to The Best of Mythic Fiction list, and one other. Again, go there and vote for it if you think it deserves to be found by more people.

Dropping back down from the face to the torso again for a moment, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams did once publish a book about the Arthurian torso. It might have been better known if it had been published with an illustration, like one of these.

That should keep us going till we have faces.

Now, back to literary genres, and especially urban fantasy.

Another book that I thought belonged in the urban fantasy genre, and I think it is the best urban fantasy novel I have ever read, is Elidor by Alan Garner. Yet it is 1727th in the urban fantasy list, and it seems that I was the only person who voted for it. If you’ve read it and think it deserves better, please go and vote for it here. If you haven’t read it and like urban fantasy, or think you do, please add it to your to-read list right now.

 

Memoirs of a Guardian Angel (review)

Memoirs of a Guardian AngelMemoirs of a Guardian Angel by Graham Downs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found it a bit difficult to review this book, for several reasons. One is that it’s hard to classify — fantasy? Yes and no. General fiction? Well, yes, but not quite.

At one level it’s a series of vignettes of people at crisis moments of their lives, as observed by a guardian angel. Then it takes us to the corporate headquarters of Guardian Angels Ltd, where the angels are assigned their charges and disciplined if they fail, or if they break any of the rules, such as one that prohibits a guardian angel from being in charge of anyone they had known in their life on earth.

There is plenty of drama in the vignettes of life on earth, which initially seem quite separate, but are eventually tied up together to make a single story, which is quite readable and held my interest.

The dialogue seemed a bit jerky in places, with a strange mixture of South African and American English (“curb”, “the hospital”, “exit” as a verb). But perhaps that’s just a generational thing, as the author recently reviewed one of my books and found the dialogue old-fashioned, so it works both ways.

Another difficulty I had in reviewing it is that I am writing a book that features guardian angels, and I have a totally different conception of them, so I found it quite hard to get my around the idea that angels had lived as people on earth, and are arbitrarily assigned to people to guard and then are taken off the job and set to look after someone else. But that’s just me, it doesn’t affect the book itself, and the story needs to be taken on its own terms and not judged on other criteria as a story.

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As I often do with book reviews on GoodReads, when I transfer them to my blog I make additional comments that go beyond the book itself and deal with issues that the book raises for me. In this case, one of the issues is angels, what they are, and how they are portrayed in fiction. In the review on GoodReads I tried to be a bit postmodern about it, and treat the text simply as text, and the story simply on its merits as a story — who knows what GoodReads readers are looking for in a book, or what ideas they approach it with?

But I approach it with certain ideas, and that’s what I talk about here.

In the Orthodox Church we take guardian angels seriously. At every Divine Liturgy we pray for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies…”

In the book the guardian angel seems to be a guardian of bodies rather than a guardian of souls, and as for being a faithful guide, in the book the guardian angel looks on helplessly while people make bad decisions.

The guardian angels were at work.

Of course the function of guarding bodies is quite important. An Anglican priest friend of mine (Fr Michael Lapsley). always invokes the guardian angels when he boards an aircraft. Many years ago I was returning to Windhoek from the Matchless Mine in the Khomas Hochland in Namibia. I had driven there in daylight, but returned at night. We came over a rise with the headlights up in the air, and by the time they were pointing to the road again the road was almost gone; it curved quite sharply to the right, and we were already on the loose stones on the outside of the curve. The bakkie spun and rolled, and we were shaken around inside. When the shaking and rolling stopped I was lying halfway out of the window on the passenger side, with my right hand stretched out into the gravel on the side of the road in a bunch of duwweltjie thorns, and the roof of the bakkie hanging over me. Would it fall on top of me, or wouldn’t it? It fell the other way, onto its wheels, facing back up the road we had come down, and I fell completely out of the window. Abraham Hangula, an evangelist, who had been in the passenger sear, came round from the other side of the bakkie, and said, “The Lord must still have work for us to do.” The other passenger, who had been in the back seat (it was a double-cab bakkie) was also largely unharmed. We all escaped with a few scrapes, sprains and bruises. And I thought yes, the guardian angels had been busy, and may be tipped the bakkie onto its wheels instead of on top of me. Guardian angels do guard bodies as well as souls.

There have been many portrayals of angels in fiction:

C.S. Lewis, in his Cosmic Trilogy, calls them eldila, and his portrayal largely fits my theological understanding too. In Memoirs of a Guardian Angel they are, as in Lewis, portrayed as bodiless powers, invisible to human beings, for the most part. But unlike Lewis, Memoirs of a Guardian Angel shows them as people who have lived on earth who become guardian angels after they die.

Tolkien shows, in his fictional Ainulindalë (published as part of The Silmarillion) how angels were created, with surprising theological accuracy. One class of angels, the Maiar, can also take on visible form, and are known among men as istari, or wizards.

In the Holy Scriptures angels take visible form and appear to people when they bring messages from God.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the ikon of the Annunciation depicts him in human form, but with wings. We are not told if that is how Mary saw him, but she was aware of his presence and heard him.

But one thing is clear from Christian tradition: angels are a separate creation of God. They may sometimes appear in human form, but they have never lived human lives.

Is there a way of reconciling, or at least comparing these views?

The ancient Romans, for example, believed the idea of the Genius. The genius was a guardian spirit of an individual that was assigned to each individual at birth, stayed with them throughout life, and after death conducted their soul out of the mortal world. The ancient Romans were expected to make a birthday sacrifice to their genius. If one had a good relationship with one’s genius it would become a lar, or household god, after death. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth. If one had a bad relationship, however, the genius could become a troublesome spook, plaguing the living.

This is not all that far removed from the Zulu idea of amadlozi, the ancestral spirits who are also associated with the isiku, the hearth.

Now some might object that these are pagan notions, and Christians should have nothing to do with them. Some, who are interested in the history of folklore and transmission of ideas might wonder if the Romans got their ideas of lares from the Zulu amadlozi, or vice versa, and if so, how were the ideas transmitted? And the folklorists might conclude that the Christian idea of guardian angels came from the Roman idea of lares, and classify it as yet another “pagan borrowing”.

The Christian theological explanation is a little simpler: if everyone is assigned a guardian angel at birth (no transfers, as in Memoirs of a Guardian Angel), then every society and culture must have some experience of them, and though there might be some differences in the way people described this experience, there should be enough in common for one to recognise the commonalities.

This leads on to the concept of egregores, which I have discussed in other blog posts here and here.Someone recently came up with the interesting notion that one’s social media persona or profile could be a kind of egregore, so would that be one’s genius too?.

And what happens if one’s genius goes bad?

In Rabbinic Judaism this is attributed to the yetzer hara (Hebrew: יֵצֶר הַרַע‎). Though in Judaism, while the evil inclination is present from birth, the good inclination, the yetzer ha-tov, only appears at maturity (for more on this, see here). C.S. Lewis, however, personified the evil influence (the yetzer hara) as a kind of guardian devil in The Screwtape Letters, And in everyday English we still say, of someone who seems wedded to “the dark side”, that “he has an evil genius.”

So how does one represent this best in fiction?

 

Five Children and It (book review)

Five Children and itFive Children and it by E. Nesbit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I had heard about, but never seen, until my eye lit on it in the library this week. It’s good bed-time reading, because each chapter is almost a self-contained story.

I suppose coming so late to it, probably many people have had an opportunity to read it before me, and it is too well-known to need much children — four children and their baby brother discover a Psammead, a very ancient sand fairy who grants wishes. And, as I’m sure many others have said, the theme “be careful what you wish for” runs right through the book. In each chapter the children spent most of their time, energy, and, sometimes, money, trying to undo the damage that their wishes have caused.

It is interesting that most of the best books for children that have lasted have been fantasy books. Most of the children’s books from before the First World War have probably been all but forgotten, but many of those that have lasted and been reprinted have been fantasy books.

Another thought is that the children in the story, and therefore many of the first readers of the book, would have been of the generation that fought in the First World War. They grew up in a kind of idyllic world that was to vanish in their generation.

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Elidor: children’s fantasy

ElidorElidor by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Elidor for the seventh time (or is it the eighth?), and was quite surprised to see that it was nearly 25 years since the last time I read it.

What prompted this reading was that someone wrote a rather nice review of my children’s book Of wheels and witches, and I began to wonder if it was worth trying to write a sequel, and I began to re-read Elidor to get me in to mood to think about it.

That’s because Elidor is, in my view at least, a kind of paradigm case of what a children’s fantasy novel should be.

It’s a bit like a combination of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Though Lewis wrote stories for children, Charles Williams never did, but I imagine that if he had he would have written something like Elidor. The first 50 pages are like Lewis — some children are snatched away into another world, the devastated dying world of Elidor. But the rest of the book is like Williams — the other world irrupts into this world.

The protagonist of Elidor is Roland Watson, the youngest of four middle-class siblings who live in Greater Manchester. In various parts of the story Alan Garner satirises bourgeois tastes and values and contrasts their tameness with the wildness of Elidor, which only Roland really appreciates until, in the end, the wildness of Elidor overwhelms them all.

We are not told how old the children are, though, because of the time that elapses in the story, a little over a year, they would be a year older at the end than the beginning. The one clue is that at the end the eldest, Nicholas, buys bus tickets for the four of them and asks for “one and three halves”. If Manchester was anything like Johannesburg, then children started paying full fares after they turned 12. So Nicholas is about 12, his sister Helen about 11, David about 9, and Roland, the protagonist, about 7 or 8. And they would all have been a year younger at the beginning of the story.

What I find interesting about this is that we are told that children like to read stories about children slightly older than themselves, and are less interested in ones about children who are younger. Yet in Elidor the protagonist, the one who takes the initiative, is the youngest. When my son was about the age of Roland in the story he tried to read it, and gave up because he found it “boring”. He was, however, quite happy to have it read to him. I think that may have been because he found it difficult to read. The reading level is more for 10 or 11 year olds.

So I wonder whether any children actually liked Elidor. Or any adults, for that matter. Perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I’m looking for inspiration in all the wrong places.

But then I looked at the GoodReads lists that Elidor is on, and it is on quite a number of them. And perhaps the most telling, in the light of what I have just written, is:

Books for an 8-yr old boy with an older reading age

That pretty much says it all.

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Postscript

I originally posted this on 3rd April 2017, right after I had finished reading Elidor. As I usually do, I posted a basic review on Good Reads, and copied it to this blog with a few additional comments.

Three days later, at our literary coffee klatch, Prof David Levey raised one of the points I had made here — about Alan Garner’s fantasy stories being as much about this world as about other worlds, and the other worlds entering this world, rather than people leaving this world to go to other worlds.

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