Influential Figures in Fantasy, 7

Transitional Figures I
Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)
Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

Transitional Figures II
Jack Vance (1916-)
Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011)
Gabriel García Márquez (1927-)
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-)
Michael Moorcock (1939-)

So far, we’ve seen ‘Fantasy’ begin to take shape. MacDonald, Dunsany and Morris have achieved quiet success with what we might call ‘Romantic Fantasy’ (with a capital R – ironically, romance in the modern sense has rarely had much attention in Romantic fantasy…), while Burroughs and Howard have evolved the ‘Lost World’ genre in the direction of ‘Sword and Sorcery’, achieving commercial – if still niche – success. Machen, Hodgson, and Lovecraft have provided a darker, more horrific take on the genre. “Science Fiction” writers who stray perillously close to outright fantasy, like HG Wells, have received critical acclaim, and perhaps the most influential and respected author in pre-War England, GK Chesterton, has spoken out in support of the nascent genre.

But Fantasy is still a minor, niche product. So are Science Fiction and Horror, though they’re both a lot bigger than Fantasy. That’s why I’ve called this section ‘transitional figures’, as they all wrote between the establishment of Fantasy and its arrival as a significant genre, yet are distinct from the Chestertonian strand of writers I discussed above. I’ve divided them into two chronological sets: the first three (along with Lewis, Tolkien, White and Borges) wrote when Fantasy was still small and undirected; the second set had to write in a landscape dominated by The Lord of the Rings (published 1954-1955) and to a lesser extent Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (published 1950-1956).

Of the first, Leiber represents the most succesful representative of the next generation of Sword and Sorcery, the genre that dominated fantasy until the 1980s (albeit without ever producing single works with the mainstream crossover appeal of Tolkien or Lewis). Leiber knew Howard and Lovecraft – indeed, he was, strictly speaking, of their generation, though his later start as against their precocious fame and untimely deaths puts him in the second wave of the genre rather than the first. Like the other pulp writers (though Leiber’s career long outlived the pulps that gave it birth), Leiber wrote voluminously and eclectically across SF and Fantasy as well as in realistic settings, but he is best known for his long series of S&S short stories – indeed, he is credited with coining the term ‘Sword and Sorcery’ to describe his genre. He was a pioneer in the yet-to-be-born genre of urban fantasy.

Mervyn Peake, unlike Leiber, did not continue any literary school. A painter, poet and illustrator, he was no doubt aware of Chesterton, Morris, Dunsany and so forth, but his own inspirations were Dickens and Stevenson, and the Gothic movement in general. In some ways, his Gormenghast novels might be seen as a sui generis strain of fantasy, resulting from an independent intensification and exaggeration of Gothicism, and in particular a fusion of the Gothic with the popular English comedy of manners (a tradition in which Chesterton sits alongside Wilde, Wodehouse, and in particular the macabre and mordant Saki). Indeed, though typically considered Fantasy, it shows few outright fantastical elements, and those that it does show are closer to SF than to conventional Fantasy.

Isaac Asimov, on the other hand, is closer to Fantasy than most people consider him. Although famous for his ‘hard SF’, Asimov in fact incorporated many fantasy elements into his fiction – the Foundation novels, for instance, revolve around magical prophecies, and feature mind-controlling psychics, collective consciousness, and sorcerors able to destroy spaceships with their thoughts alone – but masked in a veneer of ‘scientific’ explanation. More importantly, however, Asimov led the movement for a shift toward ‘social science fiction’ – fiction, in other words, that explored not merely technology, but alternative social structures and their effects on psychology, blurring, in effect, the boundaries between fantasy and science fiction. His most famous ‘SF’ story, Nightfall, is notable for containing no science fiction elements whatsoever, instead choosing to explore a broadly 20th century human society (there is no attempt to disguise them as aliens) on a planet where the mutiple suns mean that nobody has ever experienced night. He is also notable for leading the way in designing genuinely alien aliens (most famously, The Gods Themselves takes a break from the economics of a new technology to spend its middle third exploring the society and sex lives of three-gendered aliens). [He also wrote a number of outright fantastical stories (he wrote virtually everything at some point in his career), though none are generally considered among his best work]

In this endeavour to soften sci-fi, one of his most prominent followers was Ursula Le Guin, who takes SF so far that it is hard to distinguish from Fantasy. Her The Left Hand of Darkness, for instance, takes place entirely on an alien world (with magical/mystical elements), and the only two real SF elements – a spaceship and an ansible radio – hang over the story like Chekhov’s gun, present in thought but not in body. Blending the genres even further, her Rocannon’s World may again feature relativistic space travel and an ansible, but also features sword-wielding heroes, castles, and ‘aliens’ suspiciously similar to elves and dwarves. Meanwhile, her outright Fantasy novels, A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels, became the most popular books of the genre, after the works of Tolkien (and probably shaped the decision of later writers to concentrate on similar coming-of-age stories, rather than Lewis’ children or Tolkien’s middle-aged adults). The Earthsea novels in many ways continued the legacy of Tolkien, while challenging some elements of it (in particular, in seeking to de-Europeanise Fantasy).

Another writer on the borderland of Fantasy and Science Fiction at this time was Anne McCaffrey. A science fiction writer in origin – and always a science fiction writer in her own estimation – her most famous novels, the Pern series, were nonetheless (despite arguably being SF themselves) among the most popular and influential fantasy novels of the period, set in a broadly mediaeval world governed by a knightly class riding teleporting dragons. Her emphasis on character and relationships, and in particular her many female characters, allowed her to appeal to a broader audience than most genre writers of the day, as did her decision to orient several of the Pern novels toward younger readers. McCaffrey is, if not the originator, at least the populariser of many modern fantasy tropes, such as mystical human-animal pair-bonding and, of course, dragons themselves, who had played a surprisingly peripheral and largely villainous role up to this point.

Alongside Leiber, meanwhile, completing the triumvirate of Sword and Sorcery writers of the era, Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock (considerably younger than the other writers in this section, but more precocious) both tried to take the genre in new, more literary directions. Vance, a prolific author of Science Fiction, did not so much directly follow on from earlier Sword and Sorcery as take Planetary Romance in a similar ‘social science’ direction to that in which Asimov and others were taking hard SF: his adventurers became anthropologists and ethnographers, observing the baffling alien societies around them. In his ‘Dying Earth’ novels, Vance created a new subgenre by combining this sociological impulse with the adventure stories of Sword and Sorcery in a genre-blurring far-future ‘science fantasy’ setting. Meanwhile, as Vance tried to colour and deepen (and enstrangen) the settings through which his heroes/antiheroes moved, Moorcock turned his attention to the characters themselves, as well as to the genre as a whole; most of his stories fit into an overarching framework, the story of the ‘Eternal Champion’, in which a cast of fixed underlying characters are projected into various (intentionally only semi-realised) setting in order to pastiche other writers and subgenres; most famously, the melodramatic weltzschmerz of his Byron-inspired ‘Elric’ stories parodises earlier S&S, while itself being parodied by other Moorcock stories. Moorcock was a leading figure in introducing more ‘postmodern’ and self-consciously ‘literary’ elements into Fantasy, and in particular served as the leading voice of the opposition to Tolkien’s legacy, which he found childish, old-fashioned and politically reactionary.

Finally, Gabriel García Márquez was the foremost writer in a new subgenre of Fantasy that took place largely independent of contemporary English-language traditions, and that, through the cunning expedient of being written in a foreign language, was able to be considered serious literature at a time when English-language Fantasy was increasingly being exiled from the attention of ‘serious’ readers. This ‘magic realism’ (or ‘Fantasy written in Spanish’, as Gene Wolfe fans may call it) was inspired by (though as much to opposition as to devotion) Borges, and the influence remains clear, yet García largely rejected Borges’ elevated and artificial style and concerns, prefering more traditional story-telling and closeness to ‘reality’. As a result, his work is closer to Chesterton than to Borges, and much of the stylistic project of magic realism is very close to Chesterton’s own stylistic ideology – in particular the determination to describe the quotidian as though it were fantastical and wondrous, while describing the wondrous and fantastical as though it were ordinary and unexceptional, in order to impress upon the reader that, as García puts it, “reality isn’t limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs.”

Diophel: Historical Development

A third post about the diophel, an alien species

Diophel primitive society survived a long period of time – unusually, many practices typically associated with more advanced societies, including metallurgy and writing, were first developed among primitive flocks. As a result, written records exist chronicling the birth of Diophel civilisation; however, this is of little interest to scholars, since the records are in long-forgotten languages that cannot be deciphered.

In any case, the status quo could not continue forever. In particularly fertile area, alliances of flocks became more long-lasting and solid – vendettas arose between rival alliances, which gradually were resolved through conquest. Within alliances, divisions of labour spread, followed by urbanisation. Flocks had many of their social functions usurped by new ‘super-flocks’ formed by binding and branching. In short, civilisation arose.

But the biggest change came a short while after the rise of the first small city-states: a total reversal in gender politics. As explained above, diophel society had previous centred on female-female relationships, which prototypically were fixed blood-relationships, or rigid emulations of blood-relationships. Females in primitive and early civilised society were fixed in a social network that was concrete, and highly local. Within the flock, and to a lesser extent the super-flock, females had strong relationships, but outside this territory they had little contact with others and even less a relationship with them. Males, however, enjoyed far more fluid relationships, as they moved between groups, and groups moved between areas. When cities arose, it was male relationships that came to the fore. One part of this was the arising of organised priesthoods, but of greater lasting significance was the development of trade networks, currencies, and commercial groups. Females continued to relate to others largely in their role as individuals enmeshed in social relationships; males found it easier to adopt new practices in which they related to others in more abstract and universal terms. The cities became dominated by merchants, all male – at first, in a liberal and mercantile fashion, but later with increasing authoritarianism. Rich males sought to control their poorer rivals; guilds and merchant syndicates sprang up to control access to wealth. Females were increasingly compelled to take the rich as mates, as the poor were prevented from seeking mating opportunities. Poor and young males were increasingly mutilated to signify their inferiority; polling of horns, and even castration, became common. Females were themselves eventually brought under direct control by the ruling males, entire flocks being claimed as harems by individual oligarchs. The greater physical strength and aggression of the females could do nothing to maintain their dominance, when opposed to the greater organisation of the males – a flock of a dozen female hunters could hardly be expected to stand against a mercenary army of a hundred or a thousand male warriors. Nor did these mercenaries confine themselves to dealing with local law and order issues (more or less equivalent to ‘controlling females’ – male diophel are generally peaceful and biddable, whereas females are prone to aggression when dealing with diophel from outside their immediate flock; this was made worse by the mass-production around this time of intoxicating substances); city-states would employ their male forces against neighbouring rural flocks and rival cities. Slavery was invented (though very rarely became widespread). City-states became empires. Some empires grew to envelope large parts of the globe.

This was the imperial age – a golden age in many ways. Science, arts and literature were advanced immeasurably, and for the most part, barring occasional border wars, peace and harmony prevailed across the planet. Population exploded.

However, the oligarchs could not ignore the potential of half their species forever. Females were increasingly elevated from the lowly position into which they had fallen – and in particular females were incoporated into the armies. This only stood to reason. Females were stronger, more vicious, and if deployed in flocks (or artificial flocks bred in the barracks) they showed greater loyalty and teamwork than the males. Gradually, females replaced males as the armed force of the oligarchs, and as a result bare financial systems of payment were replaced with systems of control more based on honour, kinship and loyalty.

This was the end of the imperial age. First cities and then empires began to experience revolutions, with the female armies seizing power from their oligarch masters. Not that the military revolutions should be seen purely in gender terms – many low-ranking males supported the change in leadership, and those who opposed the revolutionaries most strongly were typically the dominant females, as the new military hierarchies overthrew and subordinated the system of kinship and alliance between flocks that had always underlain the rule of the oligarchs.

What mattered most, however, was the impact on geopolitics. Polities ruled by female juntas quickly lost (largely through disinterest) their ability to orchestrate actions across large expanses – empires retained their names, but power devolved rapidly to the level of city-states once again.

The middle ages began. For diophel, the middle ages were a time of a literal war of the sexes: city after city experienced continual cycles of revolution, exchanging power between the female militaries and the male merchant elites. Now and then a polity succeeded in securing the primacy of one sex by destroying the power-base of the other – but in a world of many thousands of polities, a state that staved off internal revolution would eventually fall to external forces intent on restoring the basic rights of whichever sex had been disadvantaged. Other states experimented with liberalism, but fell victim in the same way to external aggression.

Finally, ‘modernity’ arrived, largely by accident. A particular form of political system – extreme female legal dominance combined with a great deal of liberalism in interpretation of the law – managed to secure itself on a small and neglected continent. Stability brought the implementation of many scientific advances (the middle ages had not been scientifically stagnant, but war and revolution and small polities made implementation of many advances impractical), which allowed population increases and military dominance that enabled these polities to spread their system of government around the globe. The victorious society was largely composed of C diophel, who rapidly transformed from a minor and geographically-restricted species into one of the most numerous.

Space exploration soon followed, and colonisation. The result was, again, war, both external (against turigd raids) and internal (between colonies who chose to adopt alternative forms of society). At home, too, ‘native’ states were rejecting the ‘modern’ governments in favour of their own, often masculine, regimes.

Diophel have now been in space for a millenium and a half. A general state of peace has largely obtained for the last six or seven centuries, though not without localised interruptions.

N.B. no, I don’t think that the tripartite classical/mediaeval/modern development of history is inevitable for all species and civilisations (it’s not even necessarily applicable everywhere on Earth), and I hadn’t originally planned for diophel history to mirror our own so closely. It just worked out like that.

Continued ‘booooo!’

Not posting as often as I’d like because it’s still ridiculously difficult to use this blog from the UK. Really don’t want to have to abandon it and start another on another host, but seems increasingly like it might be the only way. It’s been months now and wordpress and the government still haven’t managed to work out their differences, and so far as I can see no updates on the situation either. I can just about use proxies to get here, but now even a lot of them load horribly slowly, or don’t display things properly (so, for instance, I’m having to manually format everything, because the automatting formating buttons don’t show up).

Well, bah humbug.

Diophel: Primitive Social Structure

Diophel in, or near, a ‘state of nature’ live in societies centred around matrilineally-related groups of females, ‘flocks’. Each flock of diophel prototypically contains a number of old sisters, their daughters, and their granddaughters. Within this flock, there is a strict hierarchy determined in almost all cases by birth – daughters inherit the rank of their mother, with sisters ranked by age, with the eldest outranking the youngest, so that the eldest daughter of a younger sister is still lower in rank than the youngest daughter of an older sister. However, generation takes priority over order – the younger sister of a female’s mother still outranks her niece. Exceptions to this system are usually negative – that is, certain individuals may have lower rank than is proper, on account of defects of character or body, but outstanding individuals are not ‘promoted’. A curious anomaly, however, is that the the lowest ranked individual in the flock is the youngest daughter (of the youngest adult generation) of the most senior female in her mother’s generation (i.e. usually the youngest daughter of the eldest daughter of the eldest sister). This is a temporary position, as this female (the ‘tail’) regains her ‘expected’ rank when a younger generation is born, but this does not seem to ameliorate her treatment. It may be that by placing the younger sister of the future flock-leader, the younger daughter of the current leader, at the bottom of the hierarchy, this encourages dominant females to be more respectful and enables a greater feeling of solidarity among females of different ranks.

Confusingly, females can breed throughout much of their lives, leading to two conflicting concepts of ‘generation’ within the flock. Rank is by age-cohort first, then by number of generations from the alpha female, then by age-seniority of each generation of grandmother counting down to the present mother and to the female herself.

However, although this hierarchy underlies all relations within the flock, it may be circumvented in certain circumstances, particularly regarding particular skills and occupations – a more dominant female may, for example, defer to the command of a superior (or simply designated) hunter for the duration of a hunt. Flocks can develop quite complex arrangements of task-oriented hierarchies, so that while the underlying dominance hierarchy is never lost sight of, the specific chain of authority in any given context may be more complex and difficult to discern.

Male diophel are outranked by females – the eldest son of the alpha female has a lower rank than even the tail female. Males grow up in flocks – childcare is communalised into age-streamed nursery groups – but leave the flock as they reach sexual maturity (often they are driven out by older females and by their sisters, and through conflicts with older males). Adult males can be solitary, but more often form into groups of between three and half a dozen. These groups may change their membership over time, unlike the relatively fixed female flocks. Most adult males do not live with the female flocks, but their groups usually ‘orbit’ around a given flock, interacting with the females periodically and opportunistically. This association is not unvarying – a group of males encountering a different flock will not pass up the opportunity for interaction with them. If a group of males generally finds favour with a flock, they will stay closer to them and interact with them more often – if they seem less in favour they will stray to other flocks more often, and eventually may leave the area altogether. Sometimes, particularly favoured males will be so tolerated by the females that they are able to live with the flock for months at a time – so long as it is not breeding season.

Female diophel go into heat cyclically in the spring months. Males are more attracted to females in these months – but individual females do not display any clear signs of their reproductive status. Females select mates partly on physical criteria (they prefer males that appear most graceful and healthy, not necessarily the biggest or strongest), partly on psychological criteria (they are attracted to bravery and confidence), but also on the basis of the ‘usefulness’ of the male. Males compete for attention primarily by showing a pleasant disposition and being helpful and companionable. Fathers do not explicitly care for their offspring in any way, but males do still contribute indirectly to childcare by demonstrating their usefulness to females. Typically females retain roles involving primary hunting, construction, and primary childcare; helpful males are allowed to temporarily take over roles involving luxury hunting and gathering (finding rarer foodstuffs), the artificing of non-essential items, and any roles (support childcare, standing guard, etc) that involve presence more than skill. Males are also favoured if they can please and entertain the flock, and can also be used as go-betweens, either diplomatic or commercial, between flocks.

Though society has changed somewhat since these times, females still tend to favour the same characteristics. One record from a mediaeval civilisation lists the various skills a male ought to seek to acquire: beauty; dance; sexual potency; sexual touching (females can physically copulate when not in heat, but are far more likely to engage with other, non-penetrative sexual activities, both with each other and with favoured males, which have an important social function and are often ritualised); massage; pratfalls; juggling; self-mockery; observations both amusing and wise; calming speech; caring for skin, nails, velvet and horn; mediation of acrimonious disputes; the carving and shaping of wood, soft stones, silver, gold and copper; communion with the spirits of wild creatures; conveying the souls of the dead into the afterlife; the dyeing of fabric and leather; the playing of instruments; song; memorisation of tales and anecdotes; the catching of songbirds; the discovery of precious fungi; the pleasing arrangement of stones; barter and peace-negotiation between flocks; prophecy and transmission of divine commands; the building of traps and wind-chimes; the milking of gall-vipers; the sharpening of weapons and tools; the composition of perfumes; the cooking of fresh meat; ever-present cheerfulness; and above all watchfulness, reliability, and obedience.

Primitive societies, however, were not wholly atomised into flocks. Flocks could be related also through branching and binding relations. When a flock grew too large (generally indicating a fertile area with little competition), it could branch into two parts, often through the departure of its least dominant females into a new group. The new flock often exhibited a degree of transience at first, perhaps only remaining distinct during the most fertile periods and recombining when food supplies dropped, or relying on the mother-flock for aid against external aggression. Even when the daughter-flock fully established itself, it would typically act in a subordinate manner toward the mother-flock, at least for the first few generations. Daughter-flocks might themselves go on to birth more daughter-flocks, creating family trees of flocks. However, while mother- and daughter-flocks might, at least at first, see themselves as closely connected and allied, this did not extend into any form of clan identity – sister-flocks, cousin-flocks, grand-daughter-flocks, all might be vaguely aware of a sense of kinship with one another, but little attention was paid to the details of the relationship, and it amounted for little in practical terms, with alliances more based on fruitful interactions between groups than on claimed blood ties. On occasion, blood ties could even be seen as negative things – sometimes, the process of branching out a new daughter-flock could be bitter and divisive, and could create lingering vendettas.

A parallel form of relation between flocks was binding, in which two flocks, whether related or not, enhanced their (otherwise transient and opportunistic) alliance through the exchange of females. Sporadic movement of females between flocks could always occur – if a flock was destroyed, or an individual did not get on with her flockmates, or if a flock was too large but had no opportunity to branch off a whole new flock – but binding exchanges quickly became ritualised and organised. The newcomer into the flock could either take subordinate rank, or else could ‘swap’ with a departing female. For most purposes, they became full members of their new flock – but they did also retain both formal and psychological obligations to their old flock, and in particular to their mother. These binding exchanges helped form stronger alliances between flocks – both strong bilateral relations between pairs of flocks and broader alliances among the flocks in a given area. Through unbalanced exchanges – a high-ranking female exchanged for a low-ranking female, loose hierarchies of dominance could be established between flocks.

The above all pertains primarily to the primitive social behaviour of A, C, D and H diophel. B and E diophel both tend toward flocks in which one or two specific males monopolise breeding for years at a time, fight violently to obtain these positions (and as a result are bigger, stronger, and generally more feminine than the males of other species), and typically have privileged positions involving little labour. F diophel tend to accept more males into the flock, to the point where most adult males, after an adolescent period of wandering, are flock members, though they remain more peripheral and potentially transient than the female core; G diophel tend to the opposite extreme, with males never accepted into the flock.

In practice, however, on most of the globe diophel societies combine members from multiple species – in particular, the dominant ethnicities for most of prehistory and history involved mixed A/B1 societies. The nature of the mixing varied: in some societies, the B1 diophel formed their own, smaller flocks spaced between the A flocks; in others, the B1s were accepted into the A flocks but retained independent hierarchies; in still others, hierarchies paid no attention to species. The other (sub)species were more restricted in distribution, and formed societies with each other or with the A/B1 cultures; the exception are the D diophel, who had an extensive distribution, in large part because of their early adaptation to insular and coastal environments. As diophel societies developed, they generally became more species-mixed, not only in allowing species to live side-by-side but in more fully integrating different species into the same social units. As a result, species is rarely significant in diophel history.

The Happy Prince and Other Stories, by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde: famous, succesful, wealthy, popular, well-fed, the darling of London society, the quintessential Englishman, dazzling his admirers with sparkling, if superficial, wit, tossing off ingenious epigrams, scribbling down ‘hilarious’ plays about the charming foibles of the aristocracy, not a care in the world.

He didn’t write this book.

A different Oscar Wilde, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, was born just down the street from Dublin’s largest railway station. His father was a respectable man, Sir William Wilde, editor of the Dublin Journal of Medicine and a noted surgeon, as well as a famous philanthropist. Sir William (youngest child of a local doctor from a small town in the west of Ireland) had at least three children out of wedlock, and had his reputation badly shaken in a legal dispute arising from a patient’s claim of rape against him – he invited notoriety by refusing to testify under oath on the matter. Sir William’s wife, Lady Jane, was even more notorious. She was a feminist, and a radical nationalist, who published pseudonymous poems not only supporting the cause of Irish nationalism but explicitly calling for armed revolt against the English oppressors (she failed to attract the martyrdom she desired, however – when the editor of The Nation refused to reveal her identity in court (the famous paper was closed down as punishment for having printed her works, and its editor sued), she stood up to publically declare her authorship, but when the authorities realised her identity they refused to prosecute her, and the whole matter was quietly hushed up, in much the same way that Countess Markiewicz would later be spared execution on account of her rank and gender). Wilde grew up in a house filled with distinguished literary and academic guests, and became a brilliant academic himself. Perhaps inspired by his father’s hobby of archaeology, Wilde became a prize-winning scholar of Greek and the Greeks (he reportedly picked up his conversational style and taste for epigrams from his tutor), first at Trinity in Dublin and later in Oxford, where he also won a prestigious poetry prize.

But early academic promise came to nothing. He was unable to secure any academic teaching position. His father died, the latest in a line of family tragedies (his younger sister had died when he was a boy, which had a lasting impact on him, and his two half-sisters burned to death when he was a young man; of his sister Isola’s grave, he later wrote “All my life’s buried here, / Heap earth upon it.”; his half brother was to die at 39 the following year), and it was discovered that the man had been virtually bankrupt. Penury would afflict the entire family from then on – when his mother died, Wilde, from his jail cell, tried to pay for a decent funeral (his elder brother himself being penniless), but could not afford even the smallest headstone, and she eventually had to be buried anonymously, in an unmarked grave in a common plot. Wilde came back to Ireland hoping for domestic bliss, but the woman he loved rejected him for Bram Stoker. It was said that her affections lay more with Wilde – but anyone could see that Wilde was a man of no standing, station, respectability, wealth, fame, prospects or any visible hope of success in life, at any endeavour.

In 1888, Wilde was, quietly, a failure. His one small book of mediocre poetry had been politely, even pleasantly received, but was neither critically praised nor even remotely commercially succesful. His play, Vera, had proven a disaster, unable to find a theatre in London and allowed to run for only one week in New York after receiving devastating reviews (his other play, The Duchess of Padua had done even worse, being instantly rejected by everybody and not performed until years later). He had acquired a limited notoriety delivering public lectures on matters of art and design, positioning himself as the high prophet of the new ideology of Aestheticism, particularly in his American lecture tour series – but interest had faded (critics said he seemed more interest in notoriety for its own sake than in the content of his philosophy), and he had never made any money at it anyway. He had tried writing reviews and newspaper articles, had even become editor of a small, struggling women’s magazine (“Lady’s World”, which he renamed “Woman’s World” as part of an attempt to increase its seriousness), but although he had gained some attention this way he was not a success (and he was to resign his editorship the following year as a result of low sales). He had somehow managed to carve out a little public identity for himself as a walking symbol of an Aesthetic movement he had neither originated nor noticeably contributed to, but this didn’t pay the bills – worse, to maintain his image as an arbiter of taste, he felt obliged to spend beyond his means to maintain a fashionable façade. As a young man he had once declared that he found himself increasingly unable to live up to his blue china – a comment that I suspect concealed more sincerity than people at the time assumed. The only thing that kept him from abject poverty was his marriage to a beautiful young woman with a healthy allowance from her parents (the ungenerous might worry that this was the reason for the marriage, given that they met in a chance encounter and were married only a few months later – however, his affection for her does sound genuine in surviving evidence, and it’s possible it was simply love at first sight). That brought its own problems – Wilde was certainly devoted to his two sons, who in ’88 were three and two years old, but they must have added to his financial concerns for the future greatly. And Wilde had recently been seduced by a young boy.

So that’s Wilde in 1888. He’s an Irish nationalist (writing in defence of Parnell), and an anarchist and socialist sympathiser (The Soul of Man Under Socialism defends a kind of anarchism in which everyone is free to explore their own artistry; more practically, Wilde joined the campaign for a pardon for the anarchists facing execution over their alleged role in the Haymarket Massacre). He is not entirely the effeminate dandy that he is thought to be – at Oxford he was a boxer, and once beat up three fellow students who had attacked him en masse. When he toured America, he had little time for the rich and sophisticated, but found friends among miners and labourers he could drink whiskey with. He views English high society with something approaching contempt – years later, when discussing how his The Ballad of Reading Gaol was to be published in a paper read by ‘the criminal classes’, he enthused that ‘for the first time I will be read by my peers’. At 36, after ten years of muddling through, he could no longer even be considered a talented young man, a promising talent for the future. As for his commitment to aestheticism, he himself expressed grave doubts:

To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead?


The Happy Prince and Other Tales is not, then, some minor footnote to Wilde’s more famous works. It’s what made him famous. The collection of fairy tales was well received; two more short story collections followed, and a collection of essays on art, and then a novel, and then one controversial and four immensely succesful plays. And then he went to jail. There is this popular image of Wilde, the socialite, but we forget how fleeting that moment was. In 1888, Wilde was mildly and inoffensively notorious among a certain literary and artistic set. The Happy Prince was his first success. In 1891, he made the big time with Lady Windermere’s Fan. In 1894, his career more or less ended with his incarceration. He was the darling of society for only three years.

Why does any of this matter? Because I think you may have to know who the author is to really understand what’s going on in The Happy Prince.
Ostensibly, this is a book of children’s fairy tales. This was a genre that was becoming popular at the time – the Grimm brothers had begun it, of course, but other authors had followed, not only with true folk tales but with their own concoctions – most famously H.C. Andersen. Despite Andersen, however, fairy tales were still inextricably linked to traditional storytelling, whether Christian or pagan, and traditional storytelling ran in the family – Sir William Wilde had (as another hobby of his) collected old Irish folk tales, and after his death Lady Jane had taken to trying to earn money by writing up these stories, and essays on Irish folklore, for various magazines. Wilde himself had included stories for children in “Woman’s World”. So perhaps the idea of writing his own collection of fairy tales wasn’t quite as out of the blue as it might appear to a modern reader.
There are five stories here: “The Happy Prince”, “The Nightingale and the Rose”, “The Selfish Giant”, “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket”. Certain common themes can be discerned between them. All five, but particularly the first two, show a commitment to a certain stylised, poetic form of beauty, most often displayed in descriptions of nature and natural things. Four of the five (all bar “The Selfish Giant”) are tragedies, and the same four also show a vitriolic (though delicately polite) condemnation of ‘society’ and the concern for social status. “The Selfish Giant” and “The Happy Prince” are both blunt religious parables, with “The Devoted Friend” a traditional fable-with-a-moral.
“The Happy Prince” is probably the most famous of the five stories, though it may also be the worst. It tells the tale of a beautiful statue who looks out at his city and is moved by the plight of its inhabitants (in something of an off note, Wilde naturally equates a poet who struggles with voluntary unemployment so that he can finish his play with children starving and dying of cold), and is helped by a migrating swallow. At the end, God arrives to explain the moral of the story, which, broadly, is that charity and love are more important than status and wealth. It’s hard not to wonder whether the story may be motivated by Wilde’s memories of his father, the philanthropist who ended penniless. Perhaps the religious angle is also related to this – Sir William seems to have been a devout man, given that he threatened to cut off his son’s allowance if he converted to Catholicism. Wilde himself had a long and contradictory history with religion. Though generally considered an amoral hedonist and an opponent of organised religion, Wilde was deeply fascinated by Catholicism – he was a day away from conversion at Oxford (he jilted the priest at the last moment, sending flowers instead of himself), and finally was baptised on his deathbed.

“The Selfish Giant”, in which a selfish giant tries to keep some pesky kids out of his garden, and in the end God arrives to explain the moral of the story, is even more obvious moral lesson (friendship and love are more enjoyable than material possessions, and sharing is more enjoyable than keeping things to oneself), but oddly works a little better as a result. “The Happy Prince” tries to put beauty and satire and morality and pathos all together, and feels a little disjointed as a result, but “The Selfish Giant” sets out to be a plain parable from the start. It’s probably the story most genuinely suitable for children – it has an appealing simplicity to it.

It should perhaps be noted at this point that there is another possible reason for the religious nature of these stories: in telling parables, Wilde puts himself in the position of Christ. This is a position he is very fond of. The myth he created for himself – first in writing and speech, and later in his life through his largely self-contrived martyrdom – sought to equate Wilde, and the artist in general, with the suffering Christ, and references to Christ are never far from the surface. Here, he evokes Christ in his role as a storyteller; in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde the penal reform advocate continually invokes Christ in his role as forgiver and protector of the sinful; in De Profundis, he explicitly compares himself to Christ in his supposed role as martyred artist-revolutionary, “despised and rejected of men”.

“The Devoted Friend”, on the other hand, is not religious, and merely tells the story of a linnet and a water-rat, in which the linnet tells a moral story to the water-rat about the value of friendship – the whole thing being in essence a socialist diatribe about the evils of the moneyed classes, and how they use social mores to exploit the working man. In the story-within-a-story, a miller exploits his neighbour, Little Hans, by appealing to the friendship between them, and creating false equivalencies in what they do for one another. In its commitment to social criticism and its implicit revolutionary politics, it wouldn’t feel out of place from a modern left-wing blogger, perhaps satirising Mitt Romney’s economic views during the last election. It’s a clever story, and well-written – but unfortunately it takes what is in essence an appealing and provocative joke and drags it out long past the point where we all know the punchline; the charming jibe becomes a wearisome polemic. The water-rat ends by storming off, angry that someone has told him a tale with a moral; both characters in the story and the narrator himself overtly say that stories with morals are to be avoided. This certainly accords with the overtly amoral aestheticism Wilde was known for, particularly during his three years of success. “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” he wrote: “a book is well-written or badly-written and that is all”. “An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style”. “An artist has no ethical sympathies at all”. “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike”. “If a man sees the artistic beauty of a thing, he will probably care very little for its ethical import”. But though the narrator here warns that moral stories are dangerous, he still choses to tell the story – and the sympathies of the reader are clearly intended to align against the moral-hating water-rat. [In a similar way, many of the most notable assertions of the primacy of art over morality come in The Picture of Dorian Grey – a novel which can almost be read as a sustained attack by Wilde on Wilde’s own public persona]. The entire collection of stories seems to mock and deride those who live hedonistically, aesthetically, without moral conscience. The form may be typical Wilde, but the content seems at direct odds to his usual professions.

And then there is “The Remarkable Rocket”, a fairy tale about how pathetic Oscar Wilde is. It’s the only one of the stories with a clear ‘Wildean’ figure, the eponymous firework, and as often with Wilde, the authorial stand-in is, in essence, the villain, or at the least the blinkered fool. The remarkable rocket is to be let off in celebration of a royal wedding (though he, of course, believes the wedding is taking place in honour of his being let off), and mocks and belittles the other fireworks for their pedestrian views. He arrogantly converses in epigrams and blasé self-obsession, and is fixated upon being seen and noticed and being a great success, but nobody really pays any attention to him. It is very hard not to see the autobiography here of a brilliant mind who had been relegated to the status of professional dinner-guest, invited along everywhere to provide some pleasant repartee in the background while the important people ate.

Why does Wilde continually turn against himself? It’s impossible to say. Perhaps he possessed a healthy sense of perspective and wasn’t afraid to mock or even question himself. Perhaps he had an unhealthy degree of self-loathing. Perhaps he was so desperate to be attacked, ridiculed, exiled, martyred, and generally the subject of notorious attention that he felt the need to be his own accuser in public (which might explain why, when The Picture of Dorian Grey was initially controversial, he responded by both removing the more explicitly objectionable passages and by doubling-down on his amorality by adding a series of aphorisms to the preface that flagrantly assaulted popular morality). Perhaps there was genuine tension between the two sides of Wilde – the passionate, moral man and the cultured work of studied triviality – or perhaps only one was the real Wilde. It may have been the aesthete who was the real Wilde, who felt the need, either for artistic reasons or for popular acceptance, to hint at a real, conventional human soul hidden somewhere within him; or it may have been that human soul who constructed the artifice of “Oscar Wilde” around him, either as psychological protection from the world or simply to make money. There really is no way of telling. It’s one reason I find Wilde so fascinating – other writers may have mastered the art of speaking paradoxes, but Wilde was able to embody them.

Finally – or second in the collection, but I’ve left it until last here – there’s “The Nightingale and the Rose”, which in my opinion is the stand-out story of the five. This is a story without a clear moral, exactly, though it certainly has a very clear sentiment, and it’s the most tragic of the five. At heart, it’s the complaint of a neglected artist, who feels that beauty – though crucially here true ‘beauty’ is shown as intrinsically linked with love and self-sacrifice – deserves more attention from an unfeeling and self-obsessed society. It’s difficult to make this sort of story work – to make it seem as though the suffering artist has a point, rather than just being a narcissist – but I think Wilde succeeds wholly here, despite hinting toward an undermining of his own position. It’s almost a manifesto for pure art over commercial success (which is probably why it’s been so often borrowed and adapted by other artists), but unlike at other places in Wilde, here ‘pure art’ is kept rooted in reality, not allowed to drift off into an untouchable world of reciprocal mirrors.

It’s also, in my opinion, stunningly written. Wilde’s style will always be divisive – it’s the sort of prose you can only write if you think the King James Bible just isn’t purple enough – and even I struggle with it sometimes. But I must confess that this story – the marriage of beauteous words and beauteous sentiment – was actually so beautiful that I cried.

And that’s what Wilde is about at his best. Underneath the games and the uncertainties, what is constant is a cry to observe the beauty of the world, combined with fear for the tragedies that can follow when beauty – and by extension the real world, in contrast to the conventional world of society – is ignored.

Wilde himself, of course, never quite lived up to his ideals. Following his martyrdom – in which he declared with the naivity of a man in love with both his own ideology and his own social status that “all trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death” – he fled to France (which he’d refused to do to avoid prosecution). His wife, echoing the concerns of his other friends, only consented to allow him to see her and their children if he avoided seeing the execrable Lord Alfred Douglas, the cause of his downfall – he chose to see Douglas instead (though Douglas eventually left him due to pressure from his own friends). Though he spoke of growth and rejuvenation, healing and new wisdom, the truth is that his new life had very little content. He adopted an assumed name, which fooled nobody – “Sebastian Melmoth” was, appropriately enough, half religious allusion, half literary allusion, and wholly self-glorifying in a martyred way. He continued to attend some fashionable salons (notably those of Natalie Barney, a young American he had first met when she was still a child, and who after his death became the lover of Wilde’s niece (and seemingly of every other woman in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century…)), but he wrote nothing beyond a few corrections and edits to earlier work, and spent more and more of his money on alcohol, until he became a living humiliation for himself and for his former friends, and confined himself almost entirely to his room. The man who had pilloried others for being too concerned with what society thought of them could not, it seems, live with the lose of his good social standing. His estranged wife died prematurely after a fall, and her relatives took legal action to ensure that he would never be allowed to see his sons (whose surnames had been changed) again. He himself died at 46. [His elder brother had died at the same age the previous year. Of Sir William Wilde’s six children, not one lived to see 47. Wilde’s niece, Dorothy, (by all accounts a brilliant but underachieving wit herself) would herself die, probably of a drug overdose, two months short of reaching 46; Wilde’s son Cyril died at 29 in the War. His younger son, Vyvyan, was the only member of the family not to die prematurely].

Of course, Wilde’s untimely death was an accident of history. Though one theory blames syphilis, most likely it was simply an unfortunate medical complication of a minor ailment. Most people don’t even know that Wilde died young – because, I suspect, he died when his life had already ended. Perhaps if he had lived, we would simply see that time as his fallow period, his wilderness years – certainly it’s possible to imagine an older Wilde enjoying great fame and fortune in the decadent twenties, and until his downfall his talent had grown with every work, so perhaps we never saw the best of Wilde. But it’s hard to escape the thought that after a lifetime striving for fame, three heady years of great success, and total and public humiliation, Wilde already believed that his story had come to a close. Whether a martyr to his art, or a tragic waste of talent misled by pride and hedonism, the final act had already taken place.

But anyway. The book.

Adrenaline: 1/5. In terms of excitement, this book is a miserable failure. That’s not a great surprise. Neither the fairy tale as a genre nor Wilde as a writer are really suited to adrenaline. Instead, the tone is elegaic and contemplative.

Emotion: 3/5. There is a pervading, as I say, elegaic quality, despite the constant flippancy; however, the absence of strong characters and a rather inconsistent tone do dilute the emotion. Nonetheless, I’m marking it up to average on account of the moving “Nightingale” and “Prince”.

Thought: 3/5. There are, as I hope the review has indicated, some intriguing elements here. On the whole, however, the stories are too simplistic and heavy-handed to captivate the intellect.

Beauty: 5/5. Perhaps this is generous, but it certainly applies to “The Nightingale and the Rose”, and I think the other stories have enough beauty in them not to mark down the collection. Wilde is a stunningly poetic prose stylist.

Craft: 4/5. A great stylist, but sometimes here not entirely certain what style to employ, and sometimes with mistakes in pacing, and a lack of nuance. The plots are simple, but then given the genre they’re meant to be.

Endearingness: 4/5. While flawed, I found the book very likeable and memorable – a lot more accessible than much of Wilde thanks to the childlike simplicity of the stories.

Originality: 3/5. On the one hand, taking the stories as stories, they could easily have been written by many other writers (they were criticised at the time as ‘echoes and ghosts’ of Andersen). On the other hand, in execution, they couldn’t be mistaken for the work of any other author.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Wilde’s talent is evident throughout – perhaps a little too evident – and it’s easy to see why this collection was a success at the time. Simple, accessible stories with a great deal of glitter and some deeper resonances. However, the limitations of the form, Wilde’s unfamiliarity with the form (he sometimes seemed to be straining to include more of his own brilliance, distracting from his own stories) and the straightforwardness of most of the stories do restrict the brilliance of the book. The result is now what it proved to be at the time: a limited but noteworthy exhibition, and an invitation to read more of the author.

P.S. This is a good book to get a special edition of. Wilde’s stories appealed greatly to many artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and there are some really beautiful illustrated editions out there.


P.P.S. fun fact: a translation of “The Happy Prince” was Jorge Luis Borges’ first published work (at the age of 9)

Minor ‘yay’

Apparently, last month was the most-viewed month for this blog since 2011, and the third-most-viewed month ever. I don’t feel I can take too much credit for this, since the viewership of this blog seems to fluctuate randomly with little connexion to what I do or don’t post, but it’s still pleasant to note.

Now it’s just a pity that none of you people actually say hello!

Sluggy Freelance, ch. 60-62, by Pete Abrams

Whoo. Well, that’s over with. Not really, I suppose – Sluggy is still continuing, and I’m still continuing to read it (even though at one point not long ago I decided quite passionately that I would never read it again – I suck at vendetta). But I’ve now re-read a huge arc in Sluggy history, and I suspect it’ll be a while before I write another of these reviews.

Today I’m reviewing chapters 60-62 of Sluggy Freelance. That might not sound like much, but it’s about two years of comics. These are big chapters. Big chapters, big stories.

In fact apart from the odd bit of filler here and there, there’s only really two stories in this period. Which I guess is why they felt soooo increeeedibly sloooooow when reading them in real time. But in review, at my own pace?
They’re fantastic.

Well, one of them is.

The other isn’t as bad as I thought it was.

The big arc of this period is the sixth (or seventh, if you count Storm-Breaker?) DFA adventure, and Riff’s first major solo adventure – Riff’s sojourn in the nightmare dystopia of 4UCity. And I mean big. But I’m not going to complain about the size or the length here, because this really is an incredible work. Nightmare city of the future? Check. More plot twists than you can shake a wet fish at? Check. Interesting characters? Check.

The characters make this one. There’s something hard to explain yet thoroughly grown-up about this one – there may never be any doubt who our protagonist is, but Abrams doesn’t take the lazy, and expected, step of simplifying the morality of the situation around Riff’s needs. Riff might be a hero, but he isn’t necessarily an entirely admirable one, and a great deal of the tension and suspense in this story come from the ways in which Riff is forced to wrestle with other, equally ambiguous, characters for control of the plot. It’s not always clear who ‘ought’ to come out on top, and it’s even less clear who will, or how. On top of that, the DFA premise (this is an alternative, parallel or divergent, world, with analogues for many of the prime-world characters we know and love) adds an additional dimension of mystery, of depth (to what extent is the portrayal, in particular, of this alt-Torg telling us something about the ‘real’ Torg? Just as the portrayal of alt-Riff in That Which Redeems put a different, and not wholly pleasant, layer onto our understanding of Riff, so too this complicated and flawed alt-Torg show us, perhaps, a different, no less heroic but perhaps less likeable aspect of ‘our’ Torg), and trepidation (in both directions – what we know about how this timeline turns out makes what’s going on in the prime world more intimidating, while what we know about the prime world puts some seemingly innocent elements of this timeline’s potential future into a bleaker light). This is a remarkably taut and effective story that’s probably the most mature and sophisticated entry in the Sluggy cannon so far.

The other story, I must confess, I hated at the time. Torg’s extended Bondesque escapades seem entirely tonally out of place (both against the backdrop of Riff’s adventure and against their immediate temporal context), often involve beating bad jokes with dead horses, lack emotional depth (due both to the fact that half the main cast are one-note gags that were tired at least five years ago and to the fact that the supporting ensemble are new characters introduced on the spot with no backstory), and goes on far too long. They’re not very good by Sluggy standards. However, on reading through the story again, in archive form, these problems became far less troubling due to the faster reading speed, and the result is, I think, a solidly entertaining distraction, with some entertaining moments. In particular, Abrams’ one great success in this story is the character of Crushestro – consistently amusing precisely because he is so one-note and hammy, and yet also, amazingly, possessed of real pathos.

Then again, if the Torg story has some unexpected virtues, we equally shouldn’t let the brilliant elements of the Riff story blind us to its vices. Most seriously, the pacing is uneven, weakened not only by excessive length but by interruption by the ‘B-side’ Torg story, and at times toward the end almost crippled by atrociously (and lengthy) bad infodump scenes. Not for the first time, Abrams scuttles his big finish with infodump, even having the climactic moment itself swaddled in diluting exposition. The ending may be extremely clever – but when your ending is so clever you need long paragraphs of exposition to explain to people what’s just happened, you’re doing something wrong.

What we’re left with, then, is an era of Sluggy divided into two parts: one serious, sophisticated, brilliant, and yet flawed; the other, trivial, silly, superfluous, irritating, and yet surprisingly fun. It’s not a bad precis of Sluggy as a whole, but the sheer size of the pieces turns it from a mosaic of tones into a strangely splodgy artwork that it’s hard to assess coherently. And for all the criticism, it would be wrong to lose sight of the positives: problems there may be, but this is still a genuinely impressive stretch of comic, with arguably superior characterisation, plotting and artwork to anything that’s come before.

Adrenaline: 4/5.Only an over-reliance on anti-climactic exposition spoils the excitement of these adventures.
Emotion: 3/5.Some emotional moments in the Riff arc, but overall too diluted to compliment it for this.
Thought: 4/5.It may not be deeply intellectual, but the intense convolution of the plotting, peppered with foreshadowing and in-jokes, keeps the brain active
Beauty: 4/5. The art is in general fantastic, with some great standout pages.
Craft: 3/5. Many things are so, so right. But other things are badly wrong. Abrams’ mastery of the details has maybe never been greater, but he doesn’t feel fully in control of the big picture anymore.
Endearingness: 3/5. Again, there’s enough here that I could love, but also enough I found annoying or dull to keep me from loving it.
Originality:4/5. OK, neither the SF dystopia nor the espionage adventure are truly original genres, and I have to mark the comic down for that. There are few elements here that are outright novel. On the other hand, the use of the elements is exceedingly fresh, distinctive, and imaginative.

Overall: 5/7. Good. A certain loss of tightness and focus mean that this isn’t, in my opinion, quite the best that Sluggy Freelance has managed. On the other hand, its ambition and scale are welcome, and make this probably an improvement over the immediately preceding era of the comic. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much better this worked in archive form than it had when reading live.