From Last Homely Hearth #10
used by permission
October 1984: Lloyd Alexander's Westmark Trilogy: Westmark, The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. Reported by Ruth Berman.
[For more on Lloyd Alexander's work, check out this excellent web-site:
Joan began by commenting on Darrell Schweitzer's letter in Mythlore on the inadequacy of Donaldson as a successor to Tolkien in any literary sense-Joan agreed. Debbie commented that Diana Paxson's article in the same issue documents what is meant descriptively by saying that various authors are Tolkienesque, without reference to literary quality.
Polly (Peterson) was partway through BQ. The rest of us had not read it, but had read one or both of the first two Westmark books.
Joan asked why a Westmark discussion, as the books seemed to her pleasant but not outstanding. Ruth said because Alexander's work in general is so interesting, especially the Taran books. Marianne pointed out the Taran books had been discussed at a previous meeting.
David's proxy remarks on the Westmark books as good in portrait
of maturation of an adolescent and good in restraint in use of violence.
Joan said she had liked the plausible changes of characters, that the hero
in the first book after killing once is horrified and determined not to
kill again, and in the second book is a general of the rebel army.
Ruth objected to the preachiness of the books (despite agreeing with the ideas preached) and wondered if it meant anything to point out a likeness in plot between Westmark and the "Star Wars" movies (innocent hero becomes rebel leader, encouraged by courageous princess). The others agreed that those plot elements were too common for the likeness to mean much in itself.
Joan remarked that it was unusual to find a fantasy set in a post-medieval
setting, but wondered if imagining a universe which is different from ours
in geography and history but which has otherwise no fantasy elements satisfies
the expectations of a reader who wanted a fantasy story. Should there be
another word to describe that kind of literature?
Ruth agreed that it would be nice to have another word for the sort of story found in Alexander's Westmark or Le Guin's Orsinian tales, and wondered if people who like fantasy generally also mostly like this sort of non-realism (if warned in advance of what it is, so not disappointed simply by the absence of magic in what is labelled a fantasy story) or if the two types attract different readerships.
Joan commented that she hadn't known in advance, but hadn't consciously noticed the absence of magic. Debbie said she thought the appeal of magical and non-magical world-building was basically similar.
Paula remarked that a medieval setting makes it easier to have magic plot elements, as the characters believe in magic. Debbie said she thought the appeal of magical and non-magical world-building was basically similar.
Marianne asked what people thought of the establishment of a constitutional
monarchy as a resolution of the political plot. Paula was disappointed that
Florian accepted any form of compromise. Marianne liked the awareness of
the need for time to educate the populance before democratic government
is practical, but wondered if it was elitist to think so. Joan liked the
compromise, finding it believable and emotionally satisfying.
Debbie said it was interesting that Alexander chose to leave religious
motives out as a factor in the Westmark plotting (as Tolkien left any portrayal
of an organized religion out of Middle-earth) and wondered what advantages
that omission has artistically and whether it damages the plausibility of
such stories. Joan said removing religion as a factor in Westmark focussed
attention on the political issues, and suggested that including both would
make the story too crowded. Ruth said that having a religion known or believed
to be true in a story limits what other supernatural material can be used,
as it has to be made to fit in a single theological scheme; also, that a
world where magic unquestionably is real is not neccessarily going to have
the need for organized religious rituals that our world does (these two
factors apply more to Tolkien than to Alexander). It was Lin Carter who
originally criticized Tolkien for omitting religion in Middle-earth. There
was general agreement that religion can be a useful element artistically
and its absence not necessarily harmful to the plausibility; and that in
both Westmark and Middle-earth the absence is appropriate.
July, 1980. "My God!" said the Duchess, "Take your hand off my knee!"
Phyllis Eisenstein's Born to Exile. Reported by David Lenander.
Dainis Bisenieks told us about Randall Garrett's book of pastiches, Takeoff! He moved onto Silverlock, by John Myers Myers, which he explained was of a certain type of which Poul Anderson's Dancer from Atlantis is another example. We observed that the Thomas Covenant books partake of the device of a misfit finding an appropriate world to live in, as do such others as Witch World and Two To Conquer. This prompted Dainis to observe that the hero of Two to Conquer is, truly, a royal bastard, in both senses. Cathy Parlin mentioned that The Tolkien Fellowship newsletter, The Westmarch Chronicle reported on the forthcoming Allen & Unwin book, Unfinished Tales, which will have about 400 pages. We wondered when the U.S. edition would appear.
Cathy opened the discussion of Born to Exile by complaining of the "blah" love scenes. She had tried reading these out loud, which Dainis agreed was "always a good test." In Cathy's judgement, Eisenstein shows a good knowledge of medieval detail, especially of material culture, but that the characters are too 20th century for their context. I thought that Eisenstein's anthropology comes through in the last story, where the society was developed more convincingly as something quite different from our 20th century culture. Perhaps the emphasis on material culture in the earlier stories of the book indicate that Eisenstein is more of an archeologist than a social anthropologist, though I have no idea what sort of anthropologist she really is.
Cathy complained that she could appreciate the different sections of Exile as short stories, but that they do not convincingly add up to a novel. At that, I thought, Exile has an awfully truncated air about it in the way the story breaks off, so suddenly without finishing any of the sub-plot lines. Among these unfinished plots we numbered the love relationship with Solinde, the story of the friendly dwarf, the relationship of the hero to his family (revenge?), the importance/meaning of the ancient, ruined castle which is apparently somehow the foundation of the family power (how?), the development of the hero's apparently greater powers than the rest of his family (mutation?). We further discussed the love relationship with Solinde, whom Cathy characterized as "straight out of a gothic novel." We agreed that it was quite unlikely that our hero would have resisted going back to visit Solinde, and that he probably needs to do so-something almost bound to result in disillusionment at this point-before he will be able to enter into and deal with other love relationships.
Ruth Berman arrived late and we turned to her to ask what it was that had impressed her about this book that most of us had judged inferior to Sorcerer's Son. Ruth agreed that the latter was a better book, and explained that what had intrigued her about Born To Exile was the way the young hero turns out to be a long lost prince (as in so many stories) but this doesn't mean anything-everyone in his family is a prince, and there are hundreds. Furthermore, his long lost heritage is of no help to him in his hopes to marry a princess.
I was impressed by the ending of the first story, the way the dwarf saves him was a happy surprise, and worked very well.
Dainis told of a recent advertizement in the New Yorker for pocelain figures of LOTR characters. From the picture he described them as "slick, detailed, not bad." Aragorn is in a tunic with one of thse exaggerated wide leather belts. Dainis continued with an entertaining exposition on this remarkably durable style, which has run through countless historical motion pictures from the silent film to taday, not only in films of the European middle ages and Renaissance, but also in films of Jason and the Argonauts, and other such classical subjects, and Biblical films, as well. We concluded that one of these figurines would make a perfect mathom.
Dainis also referred to the Book of Weird (originally published as The Glass Harmonica) by Barb Nicole Byfield, which is a very funny large format illustrated encyclopedia of clichés of fantasy and Romance. The text under the entry for Wizards is especially priceless.
We concluded by discussing style, and someone (Ruth? Dainis?) quoted the sentence I have headed this report with, which is an example of the sort of sentence articles on writing prescribe to grab the reader's attention immediately-its advantage as a hook is that it combines the subjects of religion, nobility and sex with dialogue-all things people like to read about. [Of course today such a sentence is so passé as to be scarcely effective in parody, though I suppose that there are still plenty of published stories and novels which begin with such tried and true clichés].
C.S. Lewis' The Dark Tower. Reported by David Lenander.
Tammie Formica opened the discussion by observing that despite the conclusion that Dark Tower couldn't begin to amount to much, which one might infer from the narrator's opening comments, that the incident he was about to recount was impossible, she flipped ahead into the book to notice that the unfinished story amounted to 90+ pages.
Margaret Howes thought that DT was "terific." She contradicted Fr. Hooper's criticism of the part played by McPhee-that of skeptic right to the end-by saying that McPhee isn't a skeptic by the end: he accepts the reality of their situation.
Dainis Bisinieks observed that the different characters maintained different perspectives, as we all play diffeernt roles in society. Margaret interjected: "Nelly as the Moral Fool."
[Here the manuscript is fragmentary, and we have only the cryptic notation:
McPhee works out-Ransome" ]
The form of the Dark Tower, that of Cambidge Library, represents our technology. (I wonder, maybe Lewis just didn't like the Cambridge Library for its architecture? If I made Coffman Union the Platonic Ideal of Ugliness in a story would I necessarily be making a statement about student unions at large?)
Margaret was sure that this would have been a story beginning with a standard SF device and then developing in Lewis' usual directions towards classical mythology, and Christian neo-Platonism. There was some discussion of Lewis's story of Medusa on the moon (SF meets classical mythology) and "The Shoddy Lands." Someone (Ruth? Dainis? Margaret?) told us that Lewis' Medusa story was really similar to someone else's story set on an island with a wall down the middle. No one ever spoke of the other side of the wall where the most fantastic sculptures could be glimpsed. Finally, the visiting Englishman persuades a young boy to give him a boatride to the other side. Would you turn around when the boy turned to marble? When the strange, writhing shadow fell in front of you? Margaret thought that she'd be unable to resist, just to see what the Gorgon looked like. I thought I'd rather keep my imaginings intact. Sometimes it can be so disappointing to see what something you've imagined (or remembered from early life) really looks like. On the other hand, if Medusa was as Gorgony as her sisters, I suppose she'd claw one to death if one weren't stone. (It suddenly occurs to me that her fate may have been a little like Midas' if she preferred her meat live and on the hoof.)
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