Tough Travelling – the fantasy-trope-based blog challenge, is back! I only took part once or twice in the individual version, and I don’t see this being a weekly thing for me. But what better time to join in than for the inaugural edition of the new version? (now operated by Fantasy Faction)
This week, the theme is “beginnings”, and refers to the common trope of fantasy novels beginning: “in rather poor circumstances in an unimportant corner of the continent; a kitchen menial, perhaps, or a blacksmith’s apprentice. From there, the Guide advises that ‘you will be contacted by your TOUR MENTOR (normally an elderly male MAGIC USER with much experience) who will tell you what to do, which is almost certainly to discover you are a MISSING HEIR.’” (the inner quote is from Diana Wynne Jones).
I’m largely going to ignore that. Well, I’m not, but for my response to that, see the bottom of this post.
Instead, I’ve just highlighted 8 (because I’m too indecisive for 5 and too lazy for 10) “beginnings” of fantastical novels that came to mind as particularly striking or interesting. They’re not necessarily meant to be the ‘best’ beginnings, just an interesting sample.
And we begin with:
- The Hobbit. R.R. Tolkien.
I seriously considered leaving this off the list: after all, everybody else already knows it, and several have already nominated it for this week’s challenge. But in the end, I decided that it had to stay.
The Hobbit is sort of where I started with fantasy – sort of, in part because I didn’t actually read it at the time, more had it read to me, and in part because if you’re familiar with children’s books you’ll know that fantasy is never far from them. Really, the remarkable thing is the way that at some age most people stop reading fantasy. Nonetheless, this was the first full-length fantasy book that I encountered, and where I fell in love with the genre. Well, developed a crush on it at least – love probably waited for The Lord of the Rings.
But biography aside, this is a book that deserves a mention here. It is, as it were, the beginning – or a beginning – of the whole of fantasy as we know it today, for all that it may not have seemed that radical at the time.
And it’s just got a really, really good opening. It deftly weaves the familiar and the intriguing, the paternally knowing and the childishly enthusiastic, luxuriating in the sounds of its words – it’s a great paragraph to read to a child…
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
- Dictionary of the Khazars. Milorad Pavić
Speaking of paternal, but at the other end of the spectrum of sophistication, there’s the beginning of Milorad Pavić’s thoroughly peculiar 1988 novel, which takes place in the form of a glossary – or, more precisely, three glossaries offering definitions of, in many cases, the same terms. Along with a pair of appendices. What those glossaries in effect do is pure fantasy worldbuilding, sketching out the bizarre, folkloric, dreamlike imagined world of the Khazars (a real-life nation of the late 1st millennium, about whom little is known). The glossary entries are interwoven with common threads, but the effect on the reader may change depending on the reading order, as there is no expectation that she read from front to back. Marks in the text of each entry, like pre-digital hyperlinks, encourage the reader to divert off to related articles, and the more skeptical reader may also choose to pass from one glossary to the next to compare the alternative, conflicting interpretations of the same subjects. There is therefore no formal beginning to the text – the reader might well begin anywhere in the book. Only alphabetical priority appears to order things so as to ensure that the first entry in the first of the three glossaries begin:
ATEH (9th century) – the Khazar princess whose role in the polemic concerning the Khazars was decisive. Her name is taken to be the term for the Khazar’s four states of consciousness. At night she wore a single letter on her eyelid, inscribed as are those put on the eyelids of horses before a race.
That, however, is still not the beginning that most readers will start with. Because before the glossaries, there is also a section of “preliminary notes”, which are themselves effectively part of the story. Thus the novel as a whole begins, if the reader chooses to read this part:
The author assures the reader that he will not have to die if he reads this book, as did the user of the 1961 edition, when The Khazar Dictionary still had its first scribe. Some explanation regarding that edition is in order here, but for the sake of brevity the lexicographer proposes to strike a deal with his readers. He will sit down to write these notes before supper, and the reader will take them to read after supper. Thereby, hunger will force the author to be brief, and gratification will allow the reader to peruse the introduction at leisure.
Pavić here is imitating the paternal tone of authors of yore: at once pedantically stiff and shyly familiar, as though erecting both a bridge and a barrier all at once. He combines that very old-fashioned style with something startling and new – the idea of a dictionary that kills its readers – from which he delicately moves on at once, leaving only lingering curiosity; and at the same time, the idea of ‘preliminary notes’ to a novel with neither a beginning nor an end is a paradoxical union of the traditional and the radical.
Mostly, though, I think that’s just a really nice conceit that he throws in at the end there – to the extent that I’m half convinced it must be an old proverb or something.
- The Stars My Destination. Alfred Bester
It’s not unusual for older books to have a preface. The Hobbit has one, even – a very brief note about runes. The extent to which such sections were part of the story itself, however, increased as their prevalence declined, developing from Tolkien’s note in The Hobbit, the only concession of which to fiction is the idea of the story taking place ‘a long time ago’, to the widespread establishing “prologues” of modern fantasy, which are unproblematically part of the text. In between these extremes, however – as in the case of the Pavić – there is something of an ambiguity regarding the status of the front matter, which could be written in quite a different manner from the story itself.
This is all a long way of saying: I don’t know where The Stars My Destination begins. It has two beginnings. That’s not unique. But what is thoroughly unusual about this particular book is: both beginnings are brilliant.
The first ‘beginning’ is a prologue explaining to the reader the fundamental technology of the novel (a technology that amounts to pure unexplained magic without even a veneer of science, which is why, despite its traditional shelving, I’m including it here); essentially, Bester begins his book with a colossal infodump not directly connected to the narrative, in an astonishingly brave, or foolhardy, authorial decision. It shouldn’t work; it surely can’t work. But it does, because Bester is just so damned good at it. Here’s how Bester starts his infodump:
This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.
All the habitable worlds of the solar system were occupied. Three planets and eight satellites and eleven million million people swarmed in one of the most exciting ages ever known, yet minds still yearned for other times, as always. The solar system seethed with activity… fighting, feeding, and breeding, learning the new technologies that spewed forth almost before the old had been mastered, girding itself for the first exploration of the far stars in deep space; but –
Wow. Only Bester can make infodumping not just tolerable but thrilling. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does – which is a pretty good description of the novel as a whole, come to think of it. And yet if you thought the prologue had a good opening, just wait until you meet our protagonist, in Chapter One…
He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. Then he lifted his mute face to Eternity and muttered: ‘What’s a matter, me? Help, you goddamn gods! Help, is all.’
This is Gully Foyle, “raised in the gutter school of the 25th century… of all brutes in the world he was among the least valuable alive and the most likely survive… too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love.” He’s trapped in the floating wreckage of a destroyed spaceship, surviving oxygen tank to oxygen tank, living in a space the size of a coffin. He has, echoing the analysis of his damning personnel report:
…reached a dead end. He had been content to drift from moment to moment of existence for thirty years like some heavily armourd creature, sluggish and indifferent – Gully Foyle, the stereotype Common Man – but now he was adrift in space for one hundred and seventy days, and the key to his awakening was in the lock. Presently it would turn and open the door to holocaust.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a beginning. Oh, and somewhere in that page and a half that kicks off the first chapter, we even have time for an updated Victorian nursey rhyme:
Gully Foyle is my name,
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place
And death’s my destination.
- Mowgli’s Brothers. Rudyard Kipling
Speaking of Victorian doggerel (and of stories named ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ – the original British title of The Stars My Destination and the title of the story of Mowgli’s revenge upon Shere Khan), here’s how the first of the Mowgli stories begins:
Now Chil the Kite brings home the night
That Mang the Bat sets free –
The herds are shut in byre and hut,
For loosed till dawn are we.
This is the hour of pride and power,
Talon and tush and claw.
Oh, hear the call! – Good hunting all
That keep the Jungle Law!
Night-Song in the Jungle
It may not be very long, but it perfectly conveys the world of Kipling’s Mowgli – that implausible synthesis between the thrill of wild power and the reassuring, orderly structure of the ‘natural law’. The world, in other words, of fairy tales, but with a uniquely feral, claw-bearing muscularity that is all Kipling’s. It’s not a coincidence: each of the Mowgli stories (with the exception of In the Rukh, which is not told from Mowgli’s perspective) begins with a poem that forbodes violence, and this is actually the gentlest of the lot, in that it doesn’t actually have anyone bleeding to death in it…
But if the kids are find that prospect a little too frightening, it’s OK… we immediately drop back into something homelier, something familiar… and yet still alien, still animal:
It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips. Mother Wolf lay with her big grey nose dropped across her four tumbling, squealing cubs, and the moon shone into the mouth of the cave where they all lived.
It is the tension of the fairy tale: the comfortable childhood land of Once Upon a Time, around which gather the dark clouds of almost apocalyptic menace. And it is the duality of Mowgli, half human and half beast.
And come on, who doesn’t want to start with a poem?
- Pawn of Prophecy. David Eddings.
If we’re talking about the comfortable childhood land, however, mention must be given to perhaps the purest expression of the epic fantasy schema: the Belgariad. Think that fantasy is about lowly farmboys discovering that they’re secret heirs and prophesied heroes against the evil dark lord? Yeah, this is that story. It may not be completely original in that regard – Garion is probably an evolution of Brooks’ Shea Ohmsford, himself an evolution of Frodo, and of course Mr. Skywalker has entered into the genes at some point – but 1982’s Pawn of Prophecy kicks off (for better or worse) one of the seminal cycles of epic fantasy, and it does so in trope-that-launched-a-thousand-clichés fashion:
The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.
It’s actually a pretty good start to a novel, if a little stilted in its prose – but then, that’s the house style in this genre. It anchors our farm boy securely in his… well, farm… and hints promisingly at his future good fortune; but it also gives us a peronal side to Garion, an element of simplicity and goodness, and an intimation of future wistfulness that will pervade the books – we, after all, will like Garion never forget that this is who he really is, where he’s really from. And from there, we get the prescribed first act, except that it was largely this book that helped prescribe it: after sixty pages of quiet farm life with dark shadows in the corners and the introduction of a cast of characters both solid (the local blacksmith) and mysterious (the mysterious storyteller of mysteriousness who somehow seems to know Garion’s aunt mysteriously somehow), naturally enough an International Assassin shows up to murder poor Garion. It’s easy to notice that this is basically a toned-down, shortened, normalised retelling of the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, and it’s also easy to notice that this is a story that has been retold time and again since Eddings. And yet, while Eddings has many weaknesses as a writer, his version compares surprisingly well – largely because of how seriously he takes it. It’s common for the “farmboy encounters unexpected threat and is forced to leave home” act to be dealt with peremptorily in a chapter or two, because it seems as though it doesn’t matter to the plot. Faldor and Zubrette and Rundorig and the rest of these people, and this place, will basically never feature in the story ever again (indeed, Garion’s failure to remember these people frequently enough is itself something that seriously undermines the emotive arc of the work) – so it might seem like Eddings is wasting pages here. But what he’s doing is locking up one end of his narrative, giving us a compass of what normalcy is for this story, these characters, telling us who they are, where they want to get back to. Eddings may mess up a lot of the rest of his story, but, within his limitations, he gets the beginning pretty much right – which is exactly why it’s his version that has been most closely imitated so many times.
Except, of course, that’s not the beginning. Because There’s A Prologue. Here’s the real beginning:
When the world was new, the seven Gods dwelt in harmony, and the races of man were as one people. Belar, youngest of the Gods, was beloved by the Alorns. He abode with them and cherished them, and they prospered in his care. The other Gods also gathered peoples about them, and each God cherished his own people.
Because why start like The Lord of the Rings, when you can also start like The Silmarillion? [Or, as this prologue is basically a retelling of the original war against Sauron, when you can prophetically start like the film of The Lord of the Rings?]
And honestly, this isn’t bad either. Although it’s a mythology with the serial numbers filed off, in some ways Eddings is at his strongest when dealing with the mythological and legendary, because it means he doesn’t have to deal with the details of people, with their alleged witty banter and their disturbingly weird marriages. The decision to tell the story of the war between the Alorns and the Angaraks (fun fact: I always struggled not to call them ‘Annoraks’…) in a prologue is perhaps not ideal for the books as a whole – more menace and intrigue could perhaps have been created had the backstory been laced into the novels more organically. But on the other hand, it may be good for the beginning of the story. Because sixty pages of childhood antics on and about Faldor’s Farm are suddenly a lot more dramatic when you kick it off with six pages of seemingly-unrelated epic war between the gods. It leaves you reading the farm stuff suspiciously, thinking “OK, what the hell did that have to do with this? What’s going on here?” – and that’s not a bad way to start a book, worried that things may not be what they seem. [in a way, Eddings is doing here what Kipling did, almost a century before: starting with the power and the myth, and then cutting cutely to the happy domesticity. Kipling did it rather more concisely… but then, I think it’s fair to say Kipling was a rather better writer than David Eddings.]
I’ll also admit another reason why this is an important beginning for me: this was an important beginning for me. When I was a young child, Pawn of Prophecy (and to a lesser extent The Colour of Magic) was what formed the bridge for me from The Lord of the Rings to the rest of the fantasy genre. In a similar vein I might have mentioned TCOM… or I might have mentioned (and lets be honest nobody else ever will!) Jean Rabe’s Dawning of a New Age, my (less than ideal) introduction to the sprawling world of D&D novels, which would become the backbone of my reading for much of my childhood… [but I can’t, because for some weird reason I seem not to be able to find it anymore. Books 2 and 3 of that trilogy, sure! But not book 1…]
- Ash: A Secret History. Mary Gentle.
So many fantasy novels begin in childhood. That warm, nostalgic glow; that safe place, that place the hero needs to protect, and to which they long to return.
In that vein, here’s the beginning of Ash:
It was her scars that made her beautiful.
No one bothered to give her a name until she was two years old. Up until then, as she toddled between the mercenaries’ campfires scrounging food, suckling bitch-hounds’ teats, and sitting in the dirt, she had been called Mucky-pup, Grubby-face, and Ashy-arse. When her hair fined up from a nondescript light brown to a white blonde it was Ashy that stuck. As soon as she could talk, she called herself Ash.
When Ash was eight years old, two of the mercenaries raped her.
Oh, we’re not in Sendaria anymore. Ash, we’re told, was certainly not a virgin by this point (she’s eight, after all), but she cried anyway, and as a result one of the men cut two scars into her cheek. She, naturally enough, immediately murders the two men, getting a third scar in the process. The mercenary’s commander puts her on trial, and she sees her reflection in his breastplate:
Her face, with her big eyes and ragged long silver hair, and three unhealed scars; two up her cheek under her left eye and one under her right eye. Like the tribal marks of the horse-barbarians of the East.
She smelled grass-fires and horse dung, and the sweat of the armed man. The cool wind raised the hairs on her arms. She saw herself suddenly as if she were outside of it all – the big kneeling man in armour, and in front of him this small child with spilling white curls, in patched hose and bundled into a ragged doublet far too big for her. Barefoot, wide-eyed, scarred; carrying a broken hunting knife re-ground as a dagger.
It was the first time she saw that she was beautiful.
Already, we have a clear idea of the book, and of the character. This is not the fantasy of an Eddings, this is a grittier, bloodier sort of story… but it’s also not going to be one of those cynicism-and-intestines grimdark romps. There’s appalling violence here, but it’s not handled gratuitously, or glamorised. “Two of the mercenaries raped her” is about as much as we see of the rape, and the killings that follow are given only as much detail as credibility requires. People standing around deciding Ash’s fate, and Ash’s thoughts during the process, get much more attention. And Ash, we see, is a character somewhere between the bestial and the holy: an eight year old with multiple lovers who kills two rapists (as a general principle, when the words “eight years old” and “femoral artery” occur in close proximity, something has gone terribly wrong somewhere), but who also has an almost spiritual experience on seeing her own reflection, and whose imagination summons up reports of Mongols. More prosaically, she starts, right from the start, as a woman dealing with her own femininity in a trying situation – who sees herself as beautiful, but who from the beginning associates her own beauty with violence and pain (both hers and that of others), someone whose route to her own femininity is through a masculinised persona. [her beauty is, refreshingly, not a matter of consensus; she’s also described as “mannish”] And if we were worried that this glimpse of her own scarred beauty might soften little Ash, we’re immediately disabused of the notion when she explains events to her captain:
‘They hurt me and I killed them. If anyone else hurts me, I’ll kill them too. I’ll kill you.’
Oh, and in between the headlines, we also get a sense of Gentle’s tone and style: look how sensuous that description is. Gentle – a historical re-enactor, swordswoman, graduate in History and in War Studies, and apparently a part-time erotica writer at one point – is constructing an astonishingly realistic (while wildly, bizarrely, unpredictably fantastical) mediaeval world, and she’s doing it in the palette of horse dung, sweat and cold breezes. Look back at all the bits I’ve quoted so far from other fantasy novel: until now, only Tolkien mentioned any smell, and that was a smell that wasn’t there, and a vague (‘oozy’) one at that. Gentle’s world is much more physical, and that’s established right from the beginning of the story.
Except… maybe that’s not the beginning of the story. Because this is only a Prologue!
The story itself starts:
“Gentlemen,” said Ash, “shut your faces!”
The clatter of helmet visors shutting sounded all along the line of horsemen.
Beside her, Robert Anselm paused with his hand to his throat, about to thrust the laminated plate of his steel bevor up into its locking position over his mouth and chin. “Boss, our lord hasn’t told us we can attack them…”
Ash pointed. “Who gives a fuck? That’s a chance down there and we’re taking it!”
Yes, we’ve been teleported forward in time some years and Ash has now somehow risen to be a mercenary commander – a condottiere – in her own right. We join her on the battle line as she’s about to send her troops over the top at the Siege of Neuss. We soon find out that though she has a talent for violence she retains ambiguity about her soldiers (“an ill-disciplined rabble who beat up the local peasantry… they don’t follow me. They allow me to lead them. It’s not the same thing at all”); but she’s also a girl with ambitions:
“That’s what this is all about – you get land by fighting, or inheritance, or gift, but you get land and you establish yourself. Like the Sforza in Milan […] I want in.”
But wait – this isn’t the beginning either!
The actual beginning runs:
Dr. Pierce Ratcliff, ASH: THE LOST HISTORY OF BURGUNDY, ____ University Press, 2001. Extremely rare. Realistic offer considered.
The original 2001 edition of Dr Pierce Ratcliff’s ASH: THE LOST HISTORY OF BURGUNDY was withdrawn from the publisher’s warehouses immediately before publication. All known copies were destroyed. Copies sent out for review were recalled, and pulped.
A percentage of the same material was eventually reissued in October 2005, as MEDIEVAL TACTICS, LOGISTICS AND COMMAND, Volume 3: Burgundy, after the removal of all the editorial notes and the Afterword.
A copy of the original edition is believed to be available in the British Library, together with facsimiles of the editorial correspondence, but is not available for public consultation.
Then there’s a fake frontispiece for this book, “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy”. Yeah… this one is… complicated.
- The Shadow of the Torturer. Gene Wolfe.
Speaking of complicated, and speaking of disturbing childhoods, how about the beginning of the tale of Severian the Torturer?
It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of out swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.
“The guard has gone.” Thus my friend Roche spoke to Drotte, who had already seen it for himself.
Yes, we’re firmly in thus-ing territory again. And right from the beginning Wolfe begins to create the defining atmosphere of these novels: the feeling of not really knowing what’s going on. Fortunately, Severian is on hand to make things clear:
It is my nature, my joy and my curse, to forget nothing. Every rattling chain and whistling wind, every sight, smell and taste, remains changeless in my mind, and though I know it is not so with everyone, I cannot imagine what it can mean to be otherwise, as if one has slept when in fact an experience is merely remote.
Hmm. Come again, Severian?
We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges[…] The would-be sorceror alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.
…This isn’t going to be a quick read, is it?
- One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel García Márquez
Let’s finish with one of the great first lines, from one of the great novels, by one of the great authors:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet.
It’s nearly twenty pages before we get to the ice… and a long, long time until we reach the firing squad.
And Actually meeting the job description…
OK, so this hasn’t really been addressing the trope in question per se. So I thought I ought to at least throw in a list of five at the end. Remember, here’s what we’re looking for: born in poor circumstances in an unimportant place, possibly a kitchen menial or a blacksmith’s apprentice… encounters a guide, who is probably an elderly magic user, and sets out about the quest, which will probably result in the protagonist being revealed to be a hidden heir. Here’s a stab at five:
1. The Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien, 1954-1956). In a pre-emptive subversion, Frodo isn’t actually a hidden heir – his travelling companion is. And he’s also born to surprising comfort – the menial-to-hero role is again taken by a companion. He is, however, born in a provincial backwater of no importance.
2. The Sword of Shannara. (Brooks, 1977). Given that this is a flagrant rip-off of Tolkien, it’s almost cheating to mention it; but it may actually have been more historically influential.
3. Pawn of Prophecy. (Eddings, 1982). Probably the classic example of the trope: a farm boy (specifically a kitchen menial, who is a friend to the blacksmith but not actually apprenticed to him) encounters an elderly magic-user who guides him in a quest, in which it is discovered that he is secretly a hidden heir and prophesied saviour of all mankind.
4. Magician. (Feist, 1982). Pug doesn’t actually have a guide, at least at this point, which might be why his questing goes wrong and he ends up enslaved. Fortunately, while he’s not a hidden heir, he is a magician of immense power, it turns out, and he’s adopted into the royal family so that sort of counts.
5. The Eye of the World. (Jordan, 1990). Rand isn’t actually a hidden prince, but he comes with the paraphenalia of it (smuggled in mysteriously and adopted by normal people for his own protection), and he is a prophesied saviour of all mankind, and a reincarnation of… ‘prince’ was surely one of his titles at some point? He does, of course, immediately hook up with an unaging magical guide, although in a stroke of creativity it’s actually a woman.
While we’re at it, I’ll also mention Assassin’s Apprentice (Hobb, 1995), which enthusiastically embraces and subverts the concept. Here, Our Hero is indeed the firstborn son of the firstborn son of the King, and is indeed adopted into humble circumstances as apprentice to a stablemaster. However, the stables are in the royal palace, everybody knows from the beginning who he is but just doesn’t care (bastard son of a dead prince? Doesn’t rate much when there are two living legitimate heirs), and his mysterious elderly guide is a paranoid assassin who lives in the walls and his magic is killing people… (and occasionally making things explode)