Friday, January 19, 2007

Fantasy for Dummies

There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.
-- Thorin, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This week's Sunday Scribblings prompt is "Fantasy" and it seemed ironic, given that I'd just discovered the book shown to the left in a local used bookstore. I found it because I had some time to kill and I love to prowl through used bookstores to see what I can discover. I took the picture because I thought it was funny that someone would try to reduce Tolkien's rich and meticulously designed world into a Dummies book. (If the customer reviews at Amazon are any guide, the final result was less than, um, successful.)

If you're not familiar with the Dummies series, it's considered one of the most successful franchises in technical publishing. Initially, the series focused on computer related topics, such as database programming, Photoshop, web design, and the like. The series did so well that it was expanded to cover topics like bartending, chocolate, and even sex. (One shudders to think of the kind of person who would been seen at the Barnes & Noble checkout with a copy of Sex for Dummies.)

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that there's a Dummies book on Middle Earth or that there's also one on C.S. Lewis and Narnia.

I think it's rather tragic that there are enough people out there who would rather read a book about fantasy novels rather than actually read the novels. To my mind, the best way to understand Tolkien's Middle Earth, Lewis's Narnia, or any other fantasy world is to sit down and experience the source material for yourself, e.g. read the actual books.

The amazing thing about fantasy (or any genre of fiction, frankly) is that, when done right, you don't question the way things work in the world of the story, you simply accept it because it makes sense given the characters and the way they react to their world. Through those characters, those people living through the trials they encounter through the course of the story, you share their experiences, their challenges, and their transformations (if any).

Fiction, regardless of genre, only works when it's believable, consistent, and driven by needs of the characters. It only works when you care about the people you're reading about. And you only care about characters you believe. Sure, there are "thud and blunder" confections meant to distract you for a time, but the really good titles, the ones you remember and reread are those that capture something about the essence of being (if the Elves in the audience will pardon the expression) human.

Fantasy is more than set dressing and good (as in excellent) fantasy novels go beyond swords and sorcery to discover what it means to be human in a world that includes elves, swords, and sorcery.

If you're a writer (or would like to become one), please remember that your goal is to tell a good story well. It takes a lot of work to construct a story. Tolkien invented mythologies and languages for each race Middle Earth. Jumping genres, it's said that Frank Herbert took twenty years to understand and finish the original story of Dune.

If you're a reader, you shouldn't look for shortcuts to understand the intention of the original author. If you would truly understand Middle Earth, don't start with a Dummies book. Start with The Hobbit and then continue with The Lord of the Rings. Draw your own conclusions from those works.

In the end, there is only one way to know what you'll find when you look for something...and that, my friends, is to look for yourself and to not rely on what someone else says is what you should find when you look.


Blogger paris parfait said...

Hear, hear! Well said. Nothing like personal experience.

5:19 AM  
Blogger ian russell said...

the strangest title in the series I've seen has to be Dummies for Dummies - I suppose they had to do it before someone else.

We need allsorts in this world but I'd give the thumbs up to anyone I saw openly buying a guide on sexual matters. I'm not sure I'd do the same for a guide to hobbits. he he. ;o)

yes, I agree - read the book, that's all you need to do!

7:24 AM  
Blogger Speedy Chick said...

I guess they really do have a Dummies book for everything:)

7:39 AM  
Blogger Regina Clare Jane said...

Tolkien to my mind was the master of fantasy- making us believe there really is such a place as Middle Earth and that Frodo really did save it all- a story that becomes reality. Thank you for this very well-written piece!

7:43 AM  
Blogger Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

Wonderful points for readers and writers! Much love, JP

9:07 AM  
Blogger Janie Hickok Siess, Esq. said...

My husband actually brought me a copy of Asthma for Dummies. I couldn't believe it.

Very insightful post.

4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Maybe I've totally missed the point of fantasy. I thought it was about playing "let's pretend," so I read what I guess is called "literary fiction," because it had what my English teacher calls (and she LOVES to use this phrase) "reflections on the human condition." Which, I think, just means it shows that life is hard but you keep going anyway, but the story gives us hope we can do it, too.

I definitely need to give fantasy another chance now. Thanks for the Scribble. :)

5:55 PM  
Blogger Footpad said...

@Ian: I agree with you on the book purchase, but c'mon...wouldn't you wonder about *that* particular title?

@Regina: What an interesting way to express it. Thank you!

@Janie: I'm sorry! As a guy, I can only say that I'm sure he had a good reason, in his mind, for thinking you'd appreciate it. We're not always right, but we do try to be once in awhile. An E for effort...maybe?

@Penelope: Your teachers have experience and knowledge, to be sure...but you shouldn't let another's opinion replace your own ability to think critically. Appreciate and listen to their ideas...and be perfectly willing to dump them if you find other ones that work better for you. (And, yes, this applies to anything I write in my blog.) Remember, we celebrate creativity in our society...creativity flows from our imagination...which, in turn, is inspired by our fantasies. Whether you appreciate the swords and sorcery genre or not, you should never be afraid to take the time to draw your own conclusions. Every genre has life changing titles; don't miss out because someone tries to force any particular genre into the square peg of their own prejudices. There are many ways to illustrate the human experience.

@Everyone: Thank you! I really appreciate the feedback. Please keep posting your comments...if only to keep me honest.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Crafty Green Poet said...

Very interesting post! I don't generally read fantasy but I like the fact that fantasy and SF can address our issues by constructing alternate realities.

12:01 AM  

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