Reindragoned – American Legends

Eragon was falsely advertised — okay, criticized — as a slavish hybrid of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, with dragon riders.  Obviously, this is the world’s greatest fantasy novel, despite what the critics say (originality is overrated, on account of there’s no such thing.)

But it was not to be.  Eragon was far more original than folk thought — it stole the forms of Tolkien, but none of the spirit.

So I resolved to fix this.  And that is my project for this month (and several future months, but July is devoted to it in particular).  I am going to rip off LotR and Star Wars.

So, I can’t make LotR and get the spirit of the thing exactly, and I will miss the spirit entirely if I just plop elves and dwarves into a renaissance festival.  (Ripping of Star Wars just means awesome special effects and lots of action.  Ripping off the good movies means listening to editorial advice).

LotR blossomed out of one of Tolkien’s largely unrealized dreams:  creating a mythos for the English.  A culture that coalesced as Christianity grew dominant, born of germanic tribes, tempered by celts, showered with roman ideas of structure, no existing mythos suited the English exactly.  The Norse and the Celtic came closest, but the Celts were scattered and the Norse too Sturm and Drang.

American culture — that is, my subculture.  White America, a culture forged out of many others, but primarily by English philosophers and Celtic malcontents, the America that revolted against George and spawned the Cowboys — has no pre-Christian myth suited to it either.  LotR won’t do for us.

I am incapable of succeeding where Tolkien failed, or even where he succeeded.  But if I am to slavishly copy LotR and succeed in capturing some of the spirit, I must pursue a similar course.

So, let’s take LotR.  It remixes some particularly English elements:

  • Norse concepts of noble sacrifice, of wild and potent nature and of wizened old wizards manipulating events.
  • Celtic concepts of the dangerous, secret, beautiful world of faerie.
  • The inherent dignity and worth of plain, humble country men minding their own business in the fields.
  • Arthurian ideas:  heroic knights adventuring in a world of monsters.

Mind you, setting ripoffs like D&D played up the Arthurian angle more than Tolkien ever did.  Still, the Rohirim and the Gondorians have a bit of the medieval court to them.

The legendary elements of American culture come largely from the colonization of America (and the revolution), the settler story, and the cowboy story.

My elements then:

  • A tough, resilient folk, slow to show their full fury, but dangerous when roused.
  • They came from a distant, highly refined civilization, which they fled because they love freedom, and it has gotten tyrannical.
  • They are further divided into two main subcultures — a unifying, more collectivist culture, and a more fiercely individualist culture.
  • A largely unexplored world.  They live on the edges and fringes of it.  They are largely cut off from the old empire and they don’t mind.  But representatives of the old empire still occasionally make the journey here.  (England for the colonials, New England for the Cowboys).
  • Native peoples who live in the unexplored wild, divided into roughly three categories:
    • The noble/wise savage, who understands the way of the wild, is sad by the ignorance of our civilization, and is willing to teach him.
    • The brutal/barbaric savage, who collects scalps, raids, wars, and wipes out whole towns if he can.
    • The civilization-minded savage who encountered our immigrant civilization and decided to take their culture and civilize it of their own accord.

We are dealing in legends and black-and-whites here, not realities.  Our faux-indians must be completely romanticized or demonized (and our faux-british completely demonized as well).  I intend to go in and add redemptive qualities even to my barbarians, as redemption of the lost is a big deal for me, but if I am to approach the quality of a tale with trolls and orcs, I must create beings that distill the best and worst of these elements.  Moreover, I must seek not the elements that historically existed, but the elements of the romances.

This adds some constraints under which my world-building must take place — for instance, the idea that the chief distinctive of humanity as a fantasy race is not that they are generalists rather than specialists (ala D&D) or else the mortal children of God (ala LotR), but rather that they are alien invaders; the cream of heroism from a falling and increasingly dark civilization.  In a sense, we are at once the elves and the orcs; only our orcs are more like the galactic empire’s storm-troopers.

Already, we’re off to a good start.  Humans can be divided into three categories:

  • Cowboy/Settlers
  • Townfolk
  • British Galactic Imperial Stormtroopers

And the native peoples into three:

  • Wise Mystics (D&D Elves)
  • Builders (Dwarves, except perhaps above ground).
  • Savage Barbarians (Warcraft Orcs)

(I chose Warcraft because there is already an inbuilt redemptive element).

Each of these should have its own race or kingdom or something along those lines.  Once again:  not trying to be subtle or realistic.  Subtlety and realism are completely counter to what I am doing.

The other constraint I’m using is that I’m merging my various fantasy worlds, to save work.  One of them is constrained thus:  No traditional fantasy races (elves, dwarves, etc).  I make an exception and include humans because one must have a race that is human enough for the reader to sympathize with.  My original idea was a race that was simply more humanlike than the others, but too far away and it doesn’t work, and too close and you might as well use humans.

An Aspect of World Building

Amusingly, Bruce’s main blog has an element of correspondence to my side blog, and his side blog to my main blog. Here’s a good thumb of rules for generating settings and characters.

Lagrandil

Hello Gentle Readers!

I have finally gotten around to writing my second essay for lagrandil.com, a piece about using aspects for world-building and characterization.  I started this as a quick response to a question on LinkedIn, and it has grown into something long enough, and perhaps useful enough, that it is worth sharing.

Aspect-driven world building depends on a combination of characteristic phrases and Jungian archetypical criticism to develop a resonant and consistent ensemble of concepts, locations, and characters to support a dynamic story.

I do not know if other authors put the stories together in the same way that I do, but none of the concepts are entirely my own.  The concept of Aspects comes from the Fate role-playing system designed by Rob Donaghue and Fred Hicks.  When I apply it to stories I use Jungian archetypes that I learned in college under Dr. Carol Ann Russell of Bemidji…

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Things to reread:

John Wright has posted some thoughts on Tolkien’s essay on Faerie Stories.  In Tolkien, in Wright, and in the comments, there are little bits I should read whenever I sit down to write.

Two bits in particular, I wish to preserve.  From a comment by tz:

A few more thoughts. Magic in most forms is a technique. a recipe. It is the antithesis of Faerie.

We were commanded to subdue nature, not to make it an object, chop it apart, and reassemble it as we desire. There is an element of necromancy in our technology because we must kill nature – remove the spirt and subject and make it an object.

Horses can be turned to glue, but a wild horse needs to be broken, then it can be ridden, and taken care of. In LoTR, Shadofax could not be broken, but would willingly bear Gandalf.

Aragorn subdues the Palantir and the ghosts. Dangerous and powerful, they become his to command.

Lewis in Abolition noted before the modern era, it was about conforming man to nature, not nature to man. Faerie is the former.

In a scene that Jackson got wrong, when Gandalf goes to Saruman, he notices he is not wearing white, but something iridescent. Prismatic. Gandalf comments that when someone breaks things to understand them, they have lost the way. We see this continuing, but I think the point is Gandalf is a lover to Saruman who turns rapist. Tom Bombadil is so conformed to nature, he is part of it. The orcs, trolls, and uruk hai are perversions. Technology is necrophilia.

Greens make the mistake of worshiping nature – the wild, chaotic nature, not stewarding and subduing it. Kosher and Halal meat at least force the recognition blood is being shed so you can eat – Christians may object, but they have lost more when they don’t feel a chill for what is lost at a factory farm.

When you read the bible, specifically the miracles, there is little sense of a magical procedure. Occasionally there is a task – dip 7 times in the Jordan, or making mud from spittle to restore sight. But it has no feeling of a spell or a procedure.

Maybe we really are in the land of Faerie, but elves and dwarves are the cartoon version, a child’s misunderstanding of reality. But misunderstanding can lead to understanding. Rejection and denial means you can never find it.

And the succinct statement of the master himself:

Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso : if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.

And herein lies the deepest fault of my own writing.  As a confirmed logic-monkey (among my friends, so admittedly a big fish for my small pool), I tend to write fantasy that is really a sort of science fiction.  It operates by mechanism.  There are sigils made from auras that grow in a biological fashion.  It is the vulgar device of a laborious, scientific magician.  There is an element of necromancy in the necromancy, yes.  But also an element of necromancy in the spells and charms of heroes.  This, I think, needs to be ruthlessly exterminated.  I should go back through my fantasies and conform them to a spirit rather than trying to evoke a thing from the clockwork.

My present project, to do what Eragon attempted and failed, to graft Star Wars into Middle Earth, is, in my vastly inflated opinion, already better than its precursor.  But while I’ve always known it would never live up to Middle Earth, I have discovered that it does not even live up to Star Wars.  Even Star Wars, in conforming to its watered-down Buddhism, is more true than my own work.

Edit:  And some more, from Mr. Wright:

The primary purpose of nonfiction books is either to give us facts, give us insights based on facts, or to persuade or urge us into some course of action based on that insight. But the primary purpose of fiction is to slake the thirst we have for the magical waters which flow from worlds beyond the dry and bitter world of facts, to drink, to bathe, to be cleansed, to be refreshed, and to emerge shining from the baptism of the imagination to return to the dry wasteland of the factual world washed and prepared for battle. Science fiction and Fantasy form the deeper waters which carry us farther from the shore of this wasteland, and therefore provide deeper springs from which, through the imagination, to irrigate it…

…Fantasy is refreshing [because the] wasteland at such times seems too full of machinery and modernism and the endless rush of little men pursuing little fortunes in little ventures, and the soul aches for a touch of magic, the sense that there are golden cities far beyond the horizon, and fields in some distant and forgotten mountain glen where fauns leap and dance and fairies hold revels, or darkest ocean depth which no sunlight touches, where the monsters waiting Ragnarök stir in uneasy sleep. We want to see true love, and the sick healed by the touch of a king, and the dead raised, and all the things we do not see in the evening news.

Edit:  Also, I must keep this in mind: