The good folks at Pembroke College videoed the whole of Terri Windling’s Tolkien Lecture, so you will be able to enjoy it yourselves soon. However, while you are waiting, here are a few thoughts from me. I should make clear at the start that I’m pulling a couple of key themes out of the lecture and following them up with my own interpretation. Terri may disagree (and hopefully will say so if she does).
Right at the beginning of the lecture Terri made the point that it is in the nature of fantasy to be unknowable. She went on to lament the absence of the numinous from much modern fantasy. I’m right with her there. I think there are two areas where this is so.
In epic fantasy I think we see too much of what I call “Dungeons and Dragons stories”. Back when I did a lot of GMing, there was a big rift among RPG players between those who saw the activity as “just games”, and who required clear and obvious rule systems so you could work out the optimal strategy, and those who saw the activity as more like communal improvised free-form story-telling. I was very much in the story-telling camp.
A lot of modern epic fantasy, however, seems to me to be more in the game playing camp, because writers design their worlds in such detail that it is obvious how everything works, even magic. There’s no room for the numinous in such a world. Indeed, a hard-core gamer would regard such a thing as “cheating”. Everything has to be capable of being explained within the rules.
As far as urban fantasy goes, much of what we see these days with such a tag is more crime or romance fiction with a few super-powered characters than fantasy. Some of it is very good crime and/or romance, but that doesn’t mean that it is good fantasy. Once again, the magic is not magical.
Terri also lamented the absence of sense of place from modern fantasy. Again I agree. There’s something about magic, I think, that is rooted in the land. With modern fantasy fiction we see too much of the generic castles and taverns of FantasyLand, and too much of the generic mean streets of a cookie-cutter modern city where every shopping mall contains the same chain stores.
This isn’t always the case. One of the reasons I love Emma Newman’s Split Worlds books is the way she uses locations such as Bath and Oxford to give a sense of the longevity of the fairy folk. Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police books were rightly mentioned by an audience member as an example of urban fantasy with a strong sense of place. Authors can and do get it right, but they have to put in the effort.
Something else that I think is often missing from modern fantasy, to its detriment, is music. I don’t mean the tendency of fantasy authors to fill their books with bad poetry passed off as song, I mean the sense that music is integral to the world and its magic. Whether it be high elven choral pieces, dwarvish drinking songs, tragic folk ballads, or orcish death metal, music has the ability to draw in that sense of the numinous whose absence Terri laments.
None of this should surprise us, of course. Publishers today are looking for product, not art. Terri mentioned that small presses are doing really good work still. I suspect that’s more the case in the US than in the UK because the bigger market makes it easier to take a punt on something different. However, distribution is much easier these days, especially if you are happy with ebooks, so a lot more of us can benefit. (And a nod of sympathy here to Charles Tan because I know there are parts of the world where buying online isn’t simple.)
Anyway, that’s my 2c worth. Juliet has a few thoughts here. And hopefully the video will be available soon.
My thanks as ever to the good folks at Pembroke for putting on a great show. As is often the case with universities, some of those involved are moving on having completed their studies. However, it looks like a committee is being put in place to ensure that the lecture series continues long into the future. Roll on next year.