Month: July 2015

Loving Fantasy Literature

Sometimes it starts with the cover of a book. The colors, the creatures, the young hero swinging a sword. There’s a promise of adventure, of something strange, of hidden worlds that await just behind a tree trunk or a closet door or a looking-glass. There’s a promise that our mundane, everyday world is not the only one out there, that there are worlds upon worlds waiting to be discovered. These places might not be anything more than an illustrated cover or words on a page — but they are as real as any world we inhabit.

Sometimes it starts with a title. The lyrical, whimsical, powerful, magical. Things both earthy and ancient. Things that are imagined and things that are dreamed. Cauldrons and dragons and kings and gardens and cities and seas. Sometimes the titles are enough; we don’t even need to read the book to experience the fantasy. Example: The Last Unicorn. This is a world and a story and a feeling already contained in a title. It is its own fantasy, one that I imagined even before I read the one inside the covers. The Black Cauldron — there is an entire myth contained in that one phrase. A darkness and an oldness. The story which goes with it is partly of my own imagination; I wrote the story in my head long before I read the story on the page.

Sometimes it’s the experience of searching the shelves — the bookstore, the library, my own bookshelves — and seeing the spines glimmer like jewels in a dwarf hoard, and knowing that each is a key that will unlock another door to distant worlds. It’s also the warmness, the giddiness which comes with knowing that I’m not alone. That others have wanted the same adventures and the same escapes from ordinary reality. That there are people out there who also love to imagine and create and tell stories about monsters and heroes and faeries and gods.

I can’t quite explain the effect a fantasy story has on me. The mediocre ones satisfy my need for swords and magic. They scratch the itch I have for high adventure and monsters. But the great ones make the world — our own world — something brighter, something more alive than it was before. And they make me want to live more fully. They infuse the real world with some of the magic of their imagined worlds. I think Tolkien wrote about this in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” That the talking trees of Faerie somehow make our real trees more beautiful. And the really great stories — the ones that I think about for days after, the ones that transform my imagination — they feel like they’ve come straight from the Realm of Story itself, the origin of all great tales, so that when I read them, I am connected in some way to that larger place. And it is this connection that makes me want to write my own fantasy stories. I want to tie my own tales into this Realm of Story, to join my fantasies with these eternal ones.

I guess this all sounds ridiculous to those who don’t love fantasy literature. Maybe it is. But to those of us who love the realm of fantastical fiction, to those of us who yearn for an escape to Faerie, I bet this doesn’t sound strange at all. It starts with a sword or a monster or a piece of magic. A book cover. A title. It starts when we open that jewel-covered book for the first time. And if we’re open to it, if we’re lucky, if we’re ready for the adventure, the journey through the fantastical changes us. Like magic.

The Things That Shaped Me: The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander

lloydalexanderIf you asked ten-year-old me to rank her favorite fantasy series, I would definitely have put the Chronicles of Narnia at the top. But a very close second would have been the Prydain Chronicles. Not as well-known or iconic as the Narnia series, the Prydain series nevertheless felt as exciting, magical, and original as Narnia, especially for me, a kid who obsessed over knights, dragons, magic, and all things fantasy. The names, the mythology, the magic, the creatures — the Welsh-ness of Prydain made it feel different, a little bit stranger and therefore more wondrous than the typical English-y fantasy. I would later discover just how much Arthurian legend originated in the Welsh tradition, but as a kid, the weird names and Welsh flavor of the Prydain Chronicles made them seem exotic compared to the fantasy and medieval legends I normally read.

Of course, the real beauty of the Prydain Chronicles is in the story and characters. I LOVED Eilonwy and Taran. I LOVED Fluedder Flam. I LOVED the relationship between Taran and Coll, and wonderful Dalben, and yes, even (sometimes annoying) Gurgi. Each of the five books had a unique story that introduced unique and amazing characters. And the villains were creepy and truly dangerous. This was a world in which bad things can and do happen, in which characters can and do die. It was a fantasy world filled with menace and evil in a way the Narnia stories (and even The Hobbit) never were. I must have read and re-read the series at least half a dozen times when I was younger. And I’ve reread them since, as an adult, and still find them to be charming. This, to me, is the mark of a great storyteller.

Looking back on the series now, I’m most fascinated by book 4, Taran Wanderer. As a kid, it wasn’t my favorite. It didn’t have a strong, scary villain. Its quest wasn’t magical enough. It was just Taran going around learning crafts and meeting with ordinary people, trying to find his heritage. Where were the battles? Where was the epic struggle between good and evil? And yet, as an adult, I realize now how bold it was to make the fourth book in this action-adventure fantasy series into a somber, quiet quest for identity and maturity. Now, when I reread the books, I get so much out of Taran Wanderer. It’s a story that continues to resonate.

Is it any wonder that the book I’m writing now is based on Welsh mythology? Is it any wonder that my imagination is steeped in the world of Gwydion and the Black Cauldron and the kingdom of Llyr? It’s funny to me that the Prydain Chronicles don’t seem very well-known, and yet when I mention them to fellow readers, I find so many people who also grew up reading about Taran and Fluedder and Eilonwy and Doli and Henwen and all the rest. Why the series is not more well-known is a mystery. It’s kind of unbelievable that we haven’t gotten a live-action movie franchise out of them (the less said about the animated Disney movie the better). But then, would we be able to trust a movie studio to do justice to the darker elements, to the themes of humility and sacrifice, to the subtleties of Taran’s journey from pig-keeper to high king? I’m not sure what a studio would do with a book like Taran Wanderer. Probably add a lot of unnecessary action sequences.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to as a parent, is the day I get to introduce my children to The Book of Three. Hopefully, it will stir their imagination as much as it did mine. Two decades after I first read the series, it still stirs my imagination.

© 2018 Jennifer M. Baldwin

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