2015 Tolkien Memorial Lecture from @leverus

That’s a recording of Lev Grossman’s lecture as presented in Oxford earlier this month. It is a little over half an hour long, so if you don’t have time to watch it all you can read my thoughts on it below. It is worth the time, though. It watched it on my big HD TV and it looks great. Thanks to the folks at Pembroke College for making it available. However, it doesn’t include the Q&A session, and some of what I have to say below refers to points raised during that, so you may want to read this anyway.

Grossman’s topic was how fantasy has changed since the time of Tolkien and Lewis. He noted that the Inklings saw their work as discovery rather than creation. The Fantastic was out there, waiting to for someone to grasp it and present it to a modern audience. He characterized them as palaeontologists patiently wiping the dirt off newly discovered story fragments and trying to guess what great legend they were part of.

In addition the work of the Inklings was forged in the fierce furnace of the early 20th Century, a time of rapid and very obvious social and technological change.

In contrast, Grossman grew up in a world in which fantasy was everywhere. Kids played Dungeons & Dragons, and bookstores were full of many-volume “trilogies”. Fantasy had become fat, and had apparently sworn an oath that neither it nor its devotees would ever be hungry again.

Grossman characterized Inkling fantasy as a longing for longing. It worked because what was longed for was perpetually just out of reach. With time, our world has discovered that this is the perfect Capitalist product. No matter how much you buy, you can never get enough. Modern fantasy, however, has moved far beyond longing. Once you have gorged yourself on something to the point of nausea, what can you long for? Fantasy has become a requiem for longing.

I do wish that M. John Harrison had been in the audience. I would give a lot to sit and listen while he and Grossman discussed Viriconium, and more particularly The Course of the Heart, which is the perfect book about longing for longing (and therefore my favorite fantasy novel).

Grossman went on to talk about his vision for modern fantasy. He bemoaned the fact that it is no longer wild. Thanks to D&D, it now has rules, based on physics. You can teach it in schools. In his view, the duty of modern fantasy is to bring about Ragnarok. The camera, he said, is no longer following Lucy, it is following Susan, and she’s angry.

In response to a question he said that he wanted to do for fantasy what Watchmen had done for superheroes. He was writing second order fantasy; fantasy about fantasy.

So now I understand The Magicians so much better.

But do I agree with him? Do I think that the magic has really gone away?

Actually, no.

Let’s come back to those palaeontologists. When I was a kid, dinosaurs were still a bit magical. They were still cold-blooded for a start, so people didn’t really understand them very well. Nowadays they are in every museum. David Attenborough recreates them in CGI. We don’t actually have Jurassic Park, but we pretend that we do, and the dinos in it look real enough.

Fiction, too, can fossilize. Gary K. Wolfe talks very intelligently about the process in his book, Evaporating Genres. Fat fantasy is absolutely a fossilized version of what Tolkien discovered. It is a dead skeleton of real fantasy, put on display with scientific explanations of how it works. It is not magical.

But that doesn’t mean that fantasy itself has been destroyed, any more than dinosaurs have been destroyed by being fossilized. Until such time as Jurassic Park becomes real, true dinosaurs will always have existed, and will forever be just beyond our reach. They will still be magical.

There are still writers out there who want to give us a glimpse of real magic. They are few and far between, because it is so much easier just to stick up a few fossilized fantasy skeletons and claim that they are alive. But, if you seek out these writers, you can still be enchanted by their words.

One writer I think does it rather well is Liz Hand. Now I happened to sit next to her at dinner after the lecture, and she said to me that she understands where Grossman is coming from. Given that she’s working down the fantasy mines, and finding them running dry, I need to respect that. But at the same time if you listen to her on Coode Street talking about Wylding Hall you’ll hear her talking about techniques inherited from Arthur Machen that fantasy writers use to produce the sort of effect I’m talking about.

The question is not whether you can still do that, it is whether what you write in that way has any meaning in the 21st Century.

Does fat fantasy need to be destroyed? Quite possibly it does. At one point Grossman described our world as a broken world that looks whole. He was contrasting it with the world post-WWI, which was very obviously broken. We live in a world that is run on story. Politics, the media, marketing, are all about narrative; about pulling the wool over our eyes. We live to be told stories, almost all of which are lies. The question is, what should we do about it?

Grossman, I think, wants to break the stories and throw the pieces in our faces. Harrison, in contrast, wants to teach us that living for stories is pointless, and we should turn away from them. I think Mike has the better argument, but I’d love to see the point debated.

I have one final and unconnected point. Juliet McKenna asked Grossman what he thought of Grimdark. He made the very reasonable point that there should be room in fantasy for all sorts of writing, but he found Grimdark a rather nihilistic art form. It was, he said, an exercise in finding out how much meaning you can leach from the world and still have a story. He once tried to write a Grimdark novel, and had to give up because he couldn’t make it work. I think that means that somewhere, far off, and out of the corner of his eye, he can still see Elfland.

4 thoughts on “2015 Tolkien Memorial Lecture from @leverus

  1. he found Grimdark a rather nihilistic art form

    Interesting he should say so, as while I enjoyed The Magicians, I find his kind of metafantasy rather reductive too. Rather like music which is based on samples, it feeds voraciously on previous work and only debatably introduces anything new itself.

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