New Discoveries in Self-Published Books
G.K. Chesterton observed in the chapter of Orthodoxy called “The Ethics of Elfland,” “In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.”
In The Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn talks about the different types of fantasy. In the chapter on the immersive fantasy—that which is set in another world—she opens up with a discussion of mimesis, the art of persuading the reader to forget the mediation of language. She says, “If we imagine different levels of ‘reality’ as concentric shells around the world, then the reader of the immersive fantasy must be able to sit between the shell that surrounds the narrative and the shell that protects the world as it is built from an suggestion that it is not real . . .”
Mendlesohn goes on to reiterate John Clute’s insistence that immersive fantasy is a “fantasy of thinning,” as he explains in his Encyclopedia. Thinning fantasy is concerned with the entropy of the world. He says, “Because in immersive fantasy, what is storyable is not the discovery of the world (in which we are immersed) but its loss. From within the river flows away.”
I think entropy can describe many modern fantasies, and yep, I draw a line from them back to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, even if the authors reject Tolkien and all his works and ways root and branch. There was very definitely an elegiac feel to LOTR, the immense awareness of the passing of a world that can never return, resonant with World War One syntonics. But for Tolkien, the reason for writing was the eucatastrophe, or, to cut short this ramble by hooking back up to Chesterton, what we might call an ending of “incomprehensible happiness.”
Many immersive, or “high” or epic fantasies today have plenty of catastrophe without any hint of the ‘eu’, and so they fit Clute’s description. But not all go in that direction, and, though only the first volume is out, I don’t think Tom Simon’s The Eye of the Maker (the title of the overall work) will, either. As he makes plain on his website, Simon hankers after the sense-of-wonder epic fantasy, its river not flowing away, but toward something beyond the vastness of sky and sea.
Tom Simon’s The End of Earth and Sky is a frame tale set in an alternate universe, opening with an introduction by the narrator, Calin Lowford, in response to a comprehensive indictment that claims he is the most heinous of mega-super-extra-evil villains. Each chapter begins with a quote from this indictment, which, Calin explains, is written by someone whose world indeed ended.
But within a few chapters we begin to see the discrepancies between the indictment and Calin’s narrative. And so we are poised between those concentric circles around the world, suspended between ours and Calin’s as we’re sucked into the truth of his experience. By about chapter six I was convinced that far from being a villain Cal is on his way from ordinary guy to hero–though how one defines ‘hero’ can vary. I’m looking forward to how hero is defined in this storyverse.
Calin is an ordinary young man, given to plumpness. He’s termed lazy by many of his elders, and he’s certainly tried several apprenticeships unsuccessfully before being made into the scrivener’s assistant, where he actually does most of the work, a particularly thankness task. But before we get to that, we go off with him and his two best buddies. Several times a year the three escape up into the forbidden areas of the mountains for hunting, fishing, tracking, or as Cal prefers, lying back to watch the changing sky.
The Lowfords of Hillwarden are “infamously peculiar themselves.” Cal’s dad, the Hillwarden, is a hard-working, somewhat irascible but scrupulously honest man, as well as stubbornly independent. He wants his son to get a good job, which doesn’t include filling his head with family lore that he deems a lot of hot air.
So Cal is woefully unprepared when the distant horns of elfland wind. The first encounter is a shocking jolt for the three boys, warning them, and us, that the stakes are high. We don’t have any idea just how high.
Cal returns to report, his father will spread the news, but Cal is not expected to participate in great events–for him, it’s right back to work at the scrivener’s . . . until, once again, Cal is out of a job.
Among the epic fantasies that do not end with gloom, doom, and entropy are the hero’s tales, many times an ordinary (or seemingly ordinary) youngster on the upward path to a crown or mage’s wand. In the most blatantly wish-fulfilling epic fantasies, the hero earns power and glory mostly by being the victim of emotional suffering, then finding an elite group to belong to, perhaps with the aid of an Animal Companion whose wisdom, experience, and magic are solely dedicated to the lucky protagonist.
But then there are the ones where the protagonist has to earn and to learn. Cal is one of these.
Simon’s narrative voice is wry, full of humor and vivid description, the characters equally vivid. A new reader to fantasy will find it easy to navigate plot, characters, and point; as an old hand, I appreciated the deft intertextuality that acknowledges the forerunners of fantastic literature.
I would wish for more females, but the cast of this particular book is very small–once Cal finds his apprenticeship and goes on his journey, it is even smaller, until the end. The horns of elfland–the hints of the numinous–are rare, but there, promising a payoff. Toward the end we get our first glimpse of that payoff, and right along with it the exponential rising of the stakes. Because Simon took his time to establish the world, connecting the reader to its similarities with ours, the irruption of the fantastic echoes the impact we might feel if we woke up to magic being real. And all our comfortably limited perceptions blasted to bits.
If you read epic fantasy, why? “I’m just looking for a good story” is fine, except why in fantasy?
Discussion of epic fantasy, trends in it, and recommendations most welcome.