Fantasy islands

Who would not want to sail a ship into the heavens and watch a war between the creatures of the Moon and the Sun, to find and conquer a world hidden within a whale and sail behind a curtain to talk with heroes of old in their rest?  The world is too narrow for all the stories our imaginations want to tell.

Dreams take us into impossible places (although for me, my tutored mind intervenes in the dream and insists on putting it into a logical narrative).

Whenever I see a sign labelling “Part time traffic lights” my fancies wander to where the lights might go on their time off. I always imagined they would sit around somewhere, perhaps in company with occasional tables. Lucian thought the same in the Second Century AD, giving us his City of Lamps, which he visited according to his ‘True Story’ while sailing the cosmos. It is a pretty invention that has charmed may writers since – including Margaret Cavendish, a friend and scholar of Hobbes.

Fantasy works are usually pulp nonsense to embarrass a bookshelf, but not all: the Odyssey is a fantasy book, and it is a foundation work of European culture. Science fiction is a rich branch of fantasy, rooted in Homer’s pen.  If it is to become literature, the author must have the audacity to write without apology and create a world which is for a moment believable and desirable.

Lucian’s humour came from the familiarity of the genre he spoofed, and his own inventiveness. Romans would read books of distant travels and wanted to believe there really were men with heads in their chests or with wings, and lands where centaurs roamed, and if the reality is too dull, why not be released from the need to pretend it is true and have an open fantasy? Homer was too serious, as if he wanted to be believed.

Lucian is to Homer as Spaceballs is to Star Wars; a loving tribute to the work it played upon. The morality of the Ancient Greeks was different from ours, but surely Homer saw a problem with Odysseus’s behaviour with certain nymphs and demi-(clad)-goddesses on those fantasy islands? It took Lucian though to portray Odysseus in his eternal rest in the Isle of the Blessed creeping away from Penelope at night to slip Lucian a love-note to take to Calypso.

The Isle of the Blessed episode is full of crackers, showing the heroes of ancient times as just as flawed and more so than mortal men – they need a law court for when Helen’s husbands argue over whose wife she is for eternity, and when Alexander and Hannibal argue about who was greatest general. The Platonists, we are told, are not on the island, as they are still trying to devise their own state.  Here too Lucian meets Homer and badgers him with all those questions that scholars had been debating about him – which shows that lit crit is as ancient as literature itself, and as tedious then as now.

That city inhabited by lamps, which live in fear of being extinguished if they do not do their duty, comes from the heart of a householder fed up with guttering oil lamps. (In the City of Lamps Lucian encounters his own house lamp and discusses with it matters at home – he says nothing about an occasional table.)

The squabbling worlds on the planets and the zodiac, the lost islands of the sea, the kingdom in a whale’s belly and the giants rowing islands to hunt it, are exercises in audacity just the right side of silliness.

I was musing on that here recently about ancient works that have been called ‘Sci-Fi’ which are not really, but which are fantasy as grown-up literature. Defining ‘science fiction’ is a whole topic on its own, and as a good Hobbesian I must feel the necessity to define it:

For the errours of Definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds; and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoyd, without reckoning anew from the beginning; in which lyes the foundation of their errours.

Not now though. I just wish to appreciate that works of fantasy can be literature, even if the majority of them have given the genre a bad name. How they become literature is another question.  It is not by modelling a tale on the fancies of dreams as they are personal and dependent on the day’s experience or internal distempers as Hobbes explains:

divers distempers must needs cause different Dreams. And hence it is, that lying cold breedeth Dreams of Feare, and raiseth the thought and Image of some fearfull object (the motion from the brain to the inner parts, and from the inner parts to the Brain being reciprocall)

To be any good, a story must speak to a wide audience who are not all in on the internal workings of the writer’s own brain. I would go further: a really good book should work even if you strip the fantasy element out, and leave just the personalities and their deeds. The Romans called Homer’s hero Ulysses, and built more robust stories around him.  Following their lead, if you take the wanderings of Ulysses out of the fantasy islands and the mythical age and place him in, say, Dublin in 1904, it will work very well indeed.

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Oscars round-one-up

Thrills, surprises, and now we know why that carpet is red – the biggest camp-fest in the world hit our screens again. America punches above its weight in showbiz, and the annual shindig always strikes a high note.

Never mind that it is less sophisticated than a provincial Edwardian musical hall, just with a bigger stage and fake diamonds: this year we saw one burst of unaccustomed honesty, which shocked the world.

The heavyweights of the industry all gathered in one room, filled with confidence and with whatever they  managed to smuggle into the cloakrooms, were all there to celebrate themselves, their bank balances, their escape from the Epstein probe and most of all to laugh at everyone else; the little people who gave them every dollar they own.

The stars hit red carpet early – the men dressed to the nines; the women undressed to them, and the lens-men knowing what the newspaper wants to see to sell papers to men pretending to be interested in the art. We have missed all this over the lockdowns – not having the Oscars ceremony left a hole in the social calendar that showed us more than anything how much we did not miss it.

I feel for the academicians, pounded into submission by studio bruisers and frightened by social justice warriors, and each of them with a future career in the balance attacked from both sides.

To the punchline though: the awards themselves.

The most coveted award, Best Picture, pulled off a shock – award-watchers were convinced that any film where the protagonist is a whoopsie would sweep the field, but Power of the Dog lost it at the punch to an outsider – a film about a disabled family, CODA walloped its rival – a brilliant entry to tug the wokestrings that astoundingly was actually well made, and that in itself is a shock for recent Oscar trends. Benedict Cumberbatch struck out, but we have to applaud him for carrying a western film alone without shooting any of the crew dead during filming.

Kenneth Branagh, a big-hitter for half a lifetime, at last won the ‘Being Kenneth Branagh’ Award that has eluded him for all these years – and no one mentioned that one his his past wives has effortlessly won two.

For best actor though – Will Smith beat them all (and on camera too) – he’s not caused a gasp like that since he lamped that genie. But best not give him any publicity, eh?

Viewers may have clocked the real winner of the night: Dune was awarded all the categories that indicate ‘Not woke enough to win but it’s the real best film’.

It was good too to see that actress who used to have bit-parts in Mitchell and Webb tapped with a Best-Actress  nomination, which she never got for the ‘Avocado Bathroom’ sketch.

A new award for the audience favourite curdled the purists of this fake-festival, but a thumping great action film should win recognition. Army of the Dead though? Appropriate I suppose for a ceremony that is becoming zombified.

At least no one talked about Bruno, except Frank Bruno for some reason.

We may be reaching the end of the road of the Oscars.  It was clobbered by COVID and has taken a body-blow from changes in the market.  Audiences are dropping and the world of glitter and painted-on dresses is ever further away from the audience, for most of whom the cinema is a quaint word for a place they have never been. Next year will it even be held? The whisper is that it will be combined with the WBA World Championship.

Books

Blazing trails

Fiction, especially science fiction, requires vision and imagination. Familiar themes of the modern SciFi, of travel to strange new worlds with outlandish peoples, are found in the work of Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, The Blazing World. It has been called the first work of science fiction, but while it has science and fiction, it is not science fiction.

The nature and origin of science fiction is a whole article. Margaret Cavendish deserves her own.

Many an educated lady read well, but Margaret, unusually, wrote also. She wrote a number of volumes on sciences and philosophy. The work by which she has become best known, The Blazing World, was minor in comparison and written as an amusement and a companion to her philosophical work: it is dedicated to other ladies who have read her philosophical work.

A slip of a girl when she married Thomas Cavendish, she knew Thomas Hobbes well – her brother-in-law was his patron and they were all with King Charles’s court in exile in Paris together. She read and became familiar with the ancient and modern philosophers, in particular Hobbes, though his picture of mankind was perhaps too uncomfortable in its reality.

The book is a fantasy, travelling to another world. There are strange creatures there and a strange mode of life, and a place of peace and paradise in comparison to our own war-torn world. The book is a thought-experiment. Most of the book concerns not adventures as one would expect in a science fiction novel, but dialogues and reflections on theories and discoveries in science. Overall, it poses the question “If a world had no previous experience of philosophy or science, and schools were erected to answer scientific questions, how would they answer without drawing on the understanding or the baggage of the ages?”

It is an odd world, certainly; calmer and without the torments as ours. Here the bird-men can fly up and dismantle a star in order that the Empress can light her temple and her headdress with star stones.

One new world is not enough: the Empress sets out to create worlds in her mind, and this is where the rival schools of philosophy play, the ideas of Descartes and Hobbes amongst them:

she endeavoured to make a World according to Des Cartes Opinion; but when she had made the Æthereal Globules, and set them a moving by a strong and lively imagination, her mind became so dizzie with their extraordinary swift turning round, that it almost put her into a swoon; for her thoughts, but their constant tottering, did so stagger, as if they had all been drunk: wherefore she dissolved that World, and began to make another, according to Hobbs’s Opinion; but when all the parts of this Imaginary World came to press and drive each other, they seemed like a company of Wolves that worry sheep, or like so many Dogs that hunt after Hares; and when she found a re-action equal to those pressures, her mind was so squeezed together, that her thoughts could neither move forward nor backward, which caused such an horrible pain in her head, that although she had dissolved that World, yet she could not, without much difficulty, settle her mind, and free it from that pain which those pressures and reactions had caused in it.

The world constructed by the opinions of Hobbes sounds just like our own, if not like the ordered society of Bolsover Castle.

Because of the fantasy and other-world element, the book has been looked at as a as a science fiction book, but it is not. Comparison is made with a satirical fantasy work by Lucian in the 2nd century : not only was Margaret Cavendish familiar with Lucian but refers to him. At the same time she takes a swipe at ideas from the fevered brain of Jan Baptist van Helmont, from which in fact the name of the book ultimately comes.

Lucian’s World of Lights, had been for some time in a snuff, but of late years one Helmont had got it, who since he was Emperour of it, had so strengthened the Immortal parts thereof with mortal out-works, as it was for the present impregnable.

Lucian again may need another article, and I would not want to lessen the lamp of Margaret Cavendish by comparison.

It has science and it has fiction, but The Blazing World is not science fiction. It is a philosophical game and a love-letter to her husband, and that is a fine think indeed.

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Waiting for the Barbarians

This morning, C. P. Cavarty, translated by Edmund Keeley, reproduced here in blatant disregard for the copyright of both, to those who are directionless now we are free from the lockdown at last:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Books

Missing role models?

I was surprised that anyone should complain of losing a few male role models, when we have such a richness of them: models of behaviour, and warnings of what to avoid; bad models as well as good.

The first and greatest male role model is ones own father, and then there are endless books and films and stories. Sitting through Zulu will cure a hundred losses of modern limp literature.

The whole swelling sea of literature and culture has ideals and reproaches in the myriad. A couple of weeks ago when an MP bemoaned the loss to maleness of a main character in a children’s fantasy programme, I had to laugh.

There are good books aplenty, bristling with heroes and villains, with dash and excitement and lessons for life, and films bulging out of every screen. It is only modern works which have had the life scoured out of them.

Lessons in life start in earliest youth. I once spoke to a publisher of children’s books, and she explained that the only books most young children read are those which are in the school library, and schools only buy books which tie in with themes in the curriculum, and so there is no point in their considering interesting  books for publication: there is no market. It was an eye-opening conversation. This may go some way to explain the insipid nature of most children’s literature. It also explains why parents who read with their children, and encourage them to read books that have actual substance, bring up stronger, wiser children.

Teenagers are another matter, but the less said about teenage ‘literature’ the better. Dig up instead the many books of an older age suitable for teenage boys: these books loved by past generations, adventure books, all have worthy heroes.

Looking for old-fashioned adventure stories, there are few authors in recent generations who stick in the mind, but there are some good ones. We have more books than ever, but those with the hero narrative are lessened, to leave a trail of pointless or pretentious books, well written but not suitable for educating the mind. Perhaps it is because the writers of old had lived out their stories: the Biggles books were written by an actual pilot of the Great War; the Richard Hannay stories by one who served in the ‘Wild South’ of diamond-rush South Africa and on the Western Front, and James Bond was the invention of someone not much different in his real life. Few modern writers can draw upon such experience. There is little life or heroism to be learnt in the reflection of dull suburbia.

Of the adventure novel, few will be found in a  school library, and there are active moves to banish them. The vision of modernity which activists promote is a dull, mechanistic one.

Even so, they do not have a monopoly of imagination, and the heroes are still plentiful to find, and there are still books and films being made, both sides of the Atlantic as well as Australia and of course Bollywood, and a voracious market for them. The heroic male role model is not vanishing.

It is just ‘received opinion’ amongst those who affect to despise the heroic model which would see an end to it, who know that in their petty selves they cannot match up to the ideal and would bring everything low to their level – but even they sometimes cannot help themselves when pen is set to  paper.

If I were to write a novel, would it be full of thrill and adventure, with a larger than life definitely male hero defying impossible odds, with gritty fights and grim weapons, unflinching against a relentless foe in exotic locations with women swooning over him?  Of course I would. Any first novel is implicitly autobiographical, after all.

Now, with all that said, I have written only of male role models, and that is only half the population, and the half already oversupplied with all that our culture bestows.  What of female role models? They are just as entitled to see themselves reflected, and to have a good pattern for life placed before them. I cannot take seriously any wail about a story being feminised, if it still works. (Just leave the established characters alone.) My complaint is that when a character is reimagined in feminine guise, it is too often done badly.

To promote good female role models we do not want not male characters put in a dress, but strong women with feminine reactions.  That though is another article and I have to question my fitness to write it.

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