I’m thrilled to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie so popular, using the original books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) as a jumping-off point, mostly as a source of oddball characters.

Someone asked recently why the original books were so popular. There are several good reasons.

First, the main character, Alice, is an ordinary girl who falls down a rabbit hole, or passes through a mirror, into peculiar places filled with odd characters. Alice represents “Everyman” (Everykid?), the sane child amongst crazy adults. It is Alice’s ordinary nature that causes us to identify with her.

As Neil Gaiman said in a 1999 interview with Claire E. White, in The Internet Writing Journal, noting that his protagonist Richard Mayhew in the novel Neverwhere had elements of “Everyman.”

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay all about heroes and Everyman, where he said, “It is very, very important that a hero in a novel not be too odd. How odd events strike odd people is an oddity too much.”

[Lewis] pointed out that in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, Wonderland would not have been anywhere so interesting had Alice not been so dull, so plain. If Alice had been in any way interesting herself, it would have been a much less interesting book.

. . . [So] I wanted a hero who was not a hero. I wanted somebody who was a little bit everybody, someone who was not the kind of person who would make the list if you were putting together a hero roster, but who was going to get by on essentially a good heart and good intentions, which were going to get him into deep trouble, but perhaps get him out again as well.

—Neil Gaiman, interview with Claire E. White, The Internet Writing Journal (www.writerswrite.com), March 1999

As much as that, the Alice books have endured because they celebrate the sheer joy of creativity. As I wrote in A Guide to Fantasy Literature, one of the three cornerstones of fantasy literature developed in the period from Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis was a delight in whimsy. Many of these early fantasists had a pure playfulness with language, filled with nonsense, funny names or situations, and humorous banter filled with odd misunderstandings, stray thoughts, and asides – anything that tickled the fancy.

Significantly, the Alice story was first told orally; Charles Dodgson tested his tale on a batch of real kids, a captive audience in a rowboat excursion on the Thames near Oxford. The same was true for Richard Adams (Watership Down), who launched that remarkable story in a car on family drives, or the stories of Roald Dahl, and others. These stories are notable for their oral, let-me-tell-you-a-story approach. It works. It works because it follows the first principle of good storytelling: delight your audience.

So Alice has endured not because of great themes or structure or significance, but because of the playfulness of the story.

Personally, I know that’s true for me. “Jabberwocky” is one of the few poems I can recite from memory; it’s odd, but fun.

And as a writer, I’ve always enjoyed these words (from Ch. 6) of Through the Looking Glass, as Alice tries to have a conversation with that odd egg, Humpty Dumpty:

“Don’t stand there chattering to yourself like that,” Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, “but tell me your name and your business.”

“My name is Alice, but—”

“It’s a stupid enough name!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”

Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “My name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

[And then, this discussion of words and their meanings . . . ]

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what _I_ say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

“Oh!” said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

Such silly nonsense. And so delightful.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Here’s a link to a good review for my book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, that appeared mid-December in the excellent online journal, January Magazine.

(Despite the name, January Magazine is a year-round thing. Check out their page of interviews with leading authors, from Neil Gaiman to Isabel Allende to Kazuo Ishiguro.)

Anyhow, from the review (by Lincoln Cho) for A Guide to Fantasy Literature:

In addition to talking about specific authors and works, Martin addresses the genre in new and interesting ways. (. . .) Though in some ways, Martin’s work is a scholarly one, he never seems to lose sight of his readership, bringing interesting, learned and accessible thoughts on all aspects of fantasy fiction, from the history, through patterns, places, characters and so on. A GUIDE TO FANTASY LITERATURE is a very good book. Anyone with a strong interest in fantasy literature will come away from Martin’s guide knowing more than what they arrived with.

Thanks, Januaryists!

In a fascinating, slim volume, The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy, Harvey Cox, a Professor of Divinity teaching at Harvard fr0m the mid-1960s to 2009, made an eloquent prediction that it was time for festivity and fantasy to come back into a place of value (as it had been in the medieval world, before Cartesian logic and scientific method ruled for some centuries).

Cox was echoing what J.R.R. Tolkien had written earlier in a powerful essay, “On Fairy Stories” (written 1938, published 1947 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams). Tolkien called it “sub-creation” – noting how the literary invention of whole imaginary worlds, as in fairy stories, is a mirror of that God did in creating the world. Cox took up this case when he wrote:

Fantasy is the richest sources of human creativity. Theologically speaking, it is the image of the creator God in man. Like God, man in fantasy creates whole worlds ex nihilo, out of nothing.
—p. 59, Harvey Cox, in The Feast of Fools (Harvard University Press, 1969)

In the early pages of Feast, Cox lays out his case:

Though we have no annual Feast of Fools, the life affirmation and playful irreverence once incarnated in that day are bubbling up again in our times . . . rediscovering the value of two components of culture both of which were once seen in the Feast of Fools. The first is the feast or festival . . . the other important cultural component is fantasy and social criticism.

Cox continues:

In a success and money-oriented society we need a rebirth of unapologetically unproductive festivity and expressive celebration. . . . We need a renaissance of the spirit and there are signs that it is coming.

Cox’s book is a wonderful work (from which I quoted a different, equally thought-provoking passage in A Guide to Fantasy Literature).

Surely he is pointing to a key to understanding the role of fantasy literature: to celebrate (unproductively and unapologetically!) just how creative we can be in our storytelling . . . and yet to do it in a way that makes us even more amazed at the world beyond those fantastic ones that we return to, each time, after celebrating our various feasts of fools.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

The description of magic, and the underlying concept of it, is variously tackled in many a fantasy book. What does it feel like to use magic? Is it a tool, a technique? An external force? Or is it an art? A gift?

Tolkien wrote (in an undated letter, probably in 1951) that in Middle-earth, in The Lord of the Rings, there was a sort of machine-like magic used by the dark forces, used like a bulldozer to dominate or coerce, to gain Power. And in contrast, he offered the more wonderful high art of the immortal Elves, whose powers were simply “more effortless, more quick, more complete” than ordinary abilities of mere mortals.

To find an insightful description of magic and how it feels to use it, look to the writings of Ursula Le Guin, author of the famed Earthsea series, and more recently, an excellent series (Annals of the Western Shore) that includes the novel Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007).

About Powers, a reviewer in Canada’s The Globe and Mail said:

What if there were a writer who exhibited all the inventiveness of genre fantasy but played out the action with a cast of nuanced, gritty, convincing characters in a prose style that was as lean, distilled and rhythmical as poetry? What if there were a writer who could invite all those readers who duck at the mention of dragons into a fantasy world that was as compelling and familiar as any in realistic fiction? . . . Peer as you might, you can’t quite see how she does it. Events from the past reappear, the future is foreshadowed and every incident is deeply rooted in character.

Gifts, the first in the series, introduces the Upland tribes, strong in magical powers that are different for each family group, gifts passed down from father to son, mother to daughter – power to see, command animals, destroy . . . with “a glance, a gesture, a word.” It focuses on a young teen, Orrec, who has a wild gift, and his friend, Gry, a girl whose powers to work with animals is taking shape.

What does it feel like to use the great powers of magic?

“But what does it feel like, to use it?”

He [Canoc, Orrec’s father] frowned and thought a long time before he spoke.

It’s as if something comes all together,” he said. His left hand moved a little, involuntarily. “As if you were a knot at the center of a dozen lines, all of them drawn into you, and you holding them taut. As if you were a bow, but with a dozen bowstrings. And you draw them in tighter, and they draw on you, till you say, ‘Now!’ And the power shoots out like the arrow.”

That’s a description of magic . .  rich with the tangible imagery and cadence of poetry . . . the kind of writing that those who read Le Guin’s novels are hooked on.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Magic in fantasy occurs as a central nervous system of the fiction. And though is it the systematic underpinning of all that happens, it is frequently mysterious, capricious, often dangerous.

Its main logic: rules are rules, and woe to the person that offends or transgresses those powers.

This is at the heart of G.K. Chesterton’s observations about key elements of fantasy (that he extends to Christian philosophy), the first being an absolute sense of wonder. And the second: that transcendent, unknowable rules need to be obeyed and heeded, even if we don’t understand them.

This is the belief that fantasy is built upon. Fantasy rests not on a block-by-block foundation of logical understanding but on a hidden bedrock of great mystery and faith.

Robin McKinley is one of those treasured fantasy writers who has written a slew of wonderful number of novels over a career, and garnered praise and big-time awards (Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown, a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword, the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature for Sunshine).

Sunshine, by the way, is a great work, and gave rise to one of my favorite statements from McKinley: “There is no sequel to Sunshine.” Unlike so many others, she feels no need to write sequels. She writes when she’s ready to write:

It’s not up to me! I can’t do anything unless or until a story comes to me and says, “Write me – write me now.” (. . .)

Yes, there are lots of loose ends.  I like loose ends.  Loose ends are like life, and, proficiently deployed, make a story feel like life.

Here’s her take on magic in Spindle’s End. It wonderfully mixes an original look at magic that pervades everything . . . with a delightful sense of place, all in the first pages of that novel.

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (. . .)

If you lived there, you learned what you had to do . . . like asking your loaf of bread to remain a loaf of bread before you struck it with a knife. (. . .)

Generally speaking, the more mobile and water-dependent something was, the more likely magic was to get at it. This meant animals – and,  of course,  humans – were the most vulnerable. Rock were pretty reliably rocks, except of course when they were something else that had been turned into rocks.

And by the way, about magic settling on everything . . . on her website, she claims this as a personal motto, which many of us writers share:

My favorite sofa cushion reads, “My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance.”

Amen!

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Okay, maybe not the best idea I’ve had. But it combines a couple of hot movies of the year, G-Force and (coming in October) Zombieland.

Anyhow (segue!) . . . There’s a good LiveJournal discussion group called Fangs, Fur, & Fey, for writers of urban & paranormal/dark fantasy featuring fur (werewolves), fangs (vampires), or fey powers (dangerous fairies). And variants thereof.

On that site, I saw this great post by author Jennifer Lynn Barnes, evaluating the relative appeal, fictionwise, for those dark choices.

Ms. Barnes is the author of several books of urban supernatural fantasy for teen (and up) readers, such as Tattoo (2007), with this review from Publishers Weekly, via Amazon.com:

Barnes’s book about four friends who get special powers from their temporary tattoos has some fun moments, despite the far-out premise. [. . .] Delia [one of the four] also delivers the book’s best line when facing off against evil Alecca: “You think you’re bad?… I’m on the cheerleading squad; I know what real evil looks like.”

Here’s a bit from that Fangs, Fur, & Fey post by Barnes, “On Hotness”

I’ll freely admit that typical vamps have their drawbacks. Personally, were I given a choice, I’d prefer the heart in my guy’s chest to be beating, and normally, I go for more of a healthily tanned skin tone than the whole Creature of the Night thing. That said, there’s something about vampires that just seems tragic and strong and too, too dangerous in a really Forbidden Love kind of way.

When I think of werewolves, I automatically think of intense emotions – joy, rage, love, and the like, but I see vampires as more naturally stand-offish. They’re colder, more calculating. They’re often solitary. They distance themselves from people. But here’s the thing: I think it’s a million times hotter when a character’s human emotions come as a surprise or seem somehow discordant with their supernatural nature than when they don’t. When a vampire falls in love, it’s not just romantic. It’s a miracle. It’s eternal, and in a lot of universes, the odds seem so stacked against it that any tenderness I see from Mr. Fangy makes me go totally weak at the knees.

Interesting authorial thoughts . . . going to the question of why authors chose particular types of supernatural beings, given all the choices, to populate their fantasy stories.

In the world of genre fiction (prone to stereotypes), how do engaging characters come to life?

When it works, it’s that blend of (a) ancient archetype, plus (b) a fresh story and individual personality of a specific character . . . building a tale that merges classical and very personal forms of thrills and challenges and changes that throws fuel on the story’s fire.

Check out the Fangs, Fur, & Fey site if you’re interested in the hip, fun, and very popular field of urban & paranormal fantasy today.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

I have great respect for much of what J.K. Rowling has done:

  • succeeding as a first-time published author;
  • weaving a complex plot;
  • selling gazillions of books;
  • getting kids (girls & boys) and adults excited to read;
  • possessing the sheer courage of committing to 7 books.

But . . . I have problems with the series. My concerns aren’t that of a fan, who enjoys (legitimately!) every scrap of info, every paragraph (strong or weak), doesn’t want the series to end (ever), etc.

My concerns are how good the series is in overall quality. Especially when held up to other comparable series by great authors such as Ursula Le Guin (Earthsea), C.S. Lewis (Narnia), etc.

Frankly, in my opinion, the Harry Potter series started off strong. But the latter books suffered in the writing quality. Drawbacks:

1. The small group of main characters and settings.

Perhaps the series suffered from the weight of the author’s bold commitment to write a series of 7 books, following Harry through each year at Hogwarts. The pace, trying for 1 per year, was daunting. And Rowling decided to focus the 7 novels on the same main characters, following them from beginning to end. And she used the same settings, and the same overarching threat from Lord Voldemort and his minions, more or less. (Other great series writers – Le Guin and Lewis, for instance – did similar numbers of books but varied the settings and characters.)

By the second half of the series, less of Rowling’s immense creativity, storytelling ability, and humor comes forth. The latter books are bloated in length and dragged down by the demands of the complex plot.

Personally, as a reader, I found myself losing interest in the repeated scenes within Hogwarts; with the Dursleys, the similar conversations amongst Harry, Hermione, and Ron; the creeping around with the cloak of invisibility, etc.

Perhaps the series could have been better had it been done in fewer volumes, and had the second half of the series been done in shorter books instead of the mammoth doorstops that they became.

2. The complexity of the plot.

Like a grand tournament between chess masters, with move and countermove, stratagem and defense, ruse and revelation, game after game, the Harry Potter series is densely plotted, with all sorts of twists, turns, surprises, connections. The problem: it requires so much to spin it all out. By the last book, there are pages and pages and yet more pages of characters explaining to each other what really happened.

By the end of Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . . . sure, it’s fascinating how J.K. Rowling ties everything up as an intellectual challenge. But it just wasn’t as well-told as the first books in the series. The plot with all its puzzles has become an albatross, along with, perhaps, all the distractions of fan speculation, and the movies, and all the hoopla about what was going to happen next to whom, instead of just letting Rowling focus on writing a good story.

3. Huge plot holes.

Book 7 has some of the worst clunkers, holes big enough to drive a Gringotts armored truck through them. The most extreme occurs midway, when Harry & Hermione & Ron have taken off on their own, hiding out and moving constantly around the English countryside, camping in an invisible tent. Unfortunately, they have cut all ties with everyone else, and don’t know what to do next or where to go.

They are mystified . . . until finally Rowling has to create a fishing party of acquaintances who show up (amazing coincidence) to go fishing in the middle of nowhere right next to the (invisible) tent; they proceed to talk loudly about what’s up, so that H, H, and R can overhear the needed clue about what to do next.

Okay, that’s just lame, plot-wise . . . and suggests to me that Rowling had written herself into a corner, and came up with this desperate deus ex machina device to move her story forward.

As an editor, I wouldn’t let a new author get away with it. But Rowling was beyond reproach, or perhaps just under a tight deadline, and she and her editors were confident (and correct) that this would not affect sales, fan appeal, etc.

Sure, many fictional stories benefit from some luck, but that was a bit far-fetched. England is a big country, and the chances of hearing the needed clue while sitting inside your tent are pretty slim. You can’t let a plot depend on some random people showing up in the middle of nowhere to tell the protagonists what they need to know.

If this were the only instance . . . but other similar too-lucky or convenient magical things happen time and again, bailing out the plot. The explanations don’t really hold water, even given all the magic involved.

As many authors have said, especially in fantasy, the magic needs rules and limits, believable enough to create the proper dramatic tension, so that the good characters face real challenges. It’s a problem when magic (with its ability to produce the revealing conversation, letter, clue, homing device, secret weapon, or whatever) bails them out, time and again.

Rowling just goes to the well too often, coming up with fantastic ways that things work out. After a while, like watching a stage magician, we tend not to get too emotionally involved, suspecting that if trouble brews, the author will just pull another rabbit out of the hat.

4. Harry’s likability.

As the series progresses, Harry becomes more and more a chess piece, moved around by others, by greater and greater powers, by the grand struggle between good and evil, and by his own loose emotions.

Most of all, he undermines his own likability by getting angry, over and over, at his closest friends, Ron & Hermione, and at his likable mentor, Dumbledore. In Book 4, Harry is just angry a lot of the time, acting irritated and often mean to his friends.

In Book 7, he is still angry and argumentative. And he lets it get the best of him. He wants “the truth,” which means he doesn’t always seem to care if things do or don’t work out well. And he doesn’t always care about the trouble he gets his friends into. In fact, he does a number of fairly stupid things that gets them into major trouble, even when they are supposedly working together as a team. And when those excursions don’t work out well, and bad things happen like Hermione is tortured and cut by a knife-wielding maniac, Harry never really acknowledges what an idiot he was to give way to his personal anger and interests, and he doesn’t apologize.

I found myself feeling sorry for Harry. Sure, I hoped things worked out. But I stopped really rooting for him to get what he wanted. Instead, I began to identify with Ron and Hermione, who are so patient, and supportive, and truly kind, and in Hermione’s case, far more sensible.

Crossword Puzzles, Cricket Matches, and a Fantasy Series that Was Stretched Too Long

So in the end, I read all the books, and enjoyed many parts: the page-turning dense plot, the early humor, the wonderful place of Hogwarts. In the end, though, while at first a fan, I drifted away from true enthusiasm as the series progressed. For me, the series didn’t really live up to its earlier promise of grand appeal.

By the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that book, and the overall series, wasn’t exactly something I’d recommend to others.

It was more like how I enjoy a bit of chess, or the occasional crossword puzzle . . . or watching baseball or other games like tennis without time limits, back and forth, back and forth, appreciating the skills and athleticism . . . but in the end, being bored by the repetitive game happening over and over on the same court.

In length, the Harry Potter series is like a cricket tournament. Intriguing, but it goes on far too long, to the point of being interesting mostly to its true fans.

As an editor, I think Rowling would have had a better series, had it been tightened into four, maybe five volumes. Seven books focused on the same characters and the same struggle was excessive. And the length of the latter books . . . ho, boy. The excessive length was probably connected to tight deadlines (“If I’d had more time, I would have written something shorter,” as a famous author said).

So, while commercially successful – a gigantic fan phenomenon, and all power to Rowling for that – the series slid downhill in quality over time, in my opinion.

All this may undermine how enthusiastically the series is recommended, and revered, by new readers a decade from now, let along in forty or fifty years . . . as is true of the novels of Le Guin (first Earthsea book in 1968), or C.S. Lewis (first Narnia book in 1950), or the books of Madeleine L’Engle or Lloyd Alexander, who also wrote high-quality fantasy series but more succinctly, with far more variety, more literary appeal, and (I suspect), a more lasting readership.

Time will tell. That’s just my guess, based on what I know about good writing and fantasy literature.

[Part 2 to come]

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)