6 Best Fantasy Novels

by Henry on November 26, 2009

Via Tyler Cowen, Lev Grossman of Time and The Magicians (which I liked quite a bit, up to the end, but didn’t love) provides his personal list of the six best fantasy novels of all time. I’ll observe that any list of ‘best novels’ which includes one series consisting of short stories plus one to three novels, depending on how strictly you define the term (Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series) and one short story collection (Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners ) has some oddities – but since I like both of these series a lot, I shan’t raise a fuss. A thread on best fantasy novels seems like a good Thanksgiving occupation for those so inclined, so here are my 6, in no particular order.

(1) John Crowley, Little, Big
(2) Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (critics may cavil that it is in fact Dying Earth SF, but under Michael Swanwick’s argument that fantasy, unlike science fiction, has mystery at the heart of its universe, I contend that they are wrong).
(3) Paul Park’s Romania quartet.
(4) M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart.
(5) China Mieville, the Bas-Lag books.
(6) Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter

I’ll note that this list is in many ways dull and predictable – none of these choices are likely to surprise anyone tolerably well read in the genre. But canons can have useful social purposes – they point towards books that are central to the conversation the genre is having with itself. Others should feel free to be more adventurous.

{ 296 comments }

1

Gleg 11.26.09 at 9:57 pm

I would include one of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books in any list of the best fantasy books. The best of the extensive series is “The Truth”, tho it is hard to pick his best, from among to many worth efforts. I’d also assume that Pratchett is the best selling fantasy author, apart from J.K Rowling of course.

Of course, you could also add “The Bible” to the list. It’s clearly the most influential fantasy novel ever.

2

jazzbumpa 11.26.09 at 10:03 pm

The Lord of the Rings, fer sure.

The Hobbit. Why not?

Zelazny’s Amber Series.

Way more than 6 total here.

Happy Thanksgiving

Cheers!
JzB

3

todd. 11.26.09 at 10:04 pm

Not being as well read, I would be happy with Little, Big and the Miéville, but want to add Norrell and American Gods. Based on what Wolfe I’ve read, I imagine that if I had read the other 66% of Henry’s list I might feel differently.

4

Maurice Meilleur 11.26.09 at 10:25 pm

My six:

Crowley, the Ægypt tetralogy
Crowley, Little, Big
Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (the reason ‘why not The Hobbit?’ is because it’s nowhere near as good as LOTR)
Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
Kai Meyer’s “Merle-Trilogie” (in their English translations, The Water Mirror, The Stone Light, and The Glass Word)

I’ll give Harry Potter honorable mention.

5

Neil 11.26.09 at 10:46 pm

I spent several days trying to read Gene Wolf, and its your fault, Henry. He combines rambling plots with no sense of direction with a rambling style with no sense of direction.

6

paul haine 11.26.09 at 10:55 pm

Hm, is Riddley Walker SF or fantasy?

7

Wesley Osam 11.26.09 at 11:33 pm

I’m not sure I can decide on six best, but if I could it would probably have a lot of overlap with Henry’s. So these are just more best fantasy books:

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist
Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds
John Collier, Fancies and Goodnights
Ursula Le Guin, the Earthsea books
Jeff VanderMeer, the Ambergris trilogy
Daniel Abraham, the Long Price Quartet

Gene Wolfe has a sense of direction. He’s just not showing you his compass.

8

shah8 11.27.09 at 12:24 am

I would put together Caitlin Kiernan series Threshold, Low Red Moon, and Daughter of Hounds, even though the last is the only one that’s anything like a true urban fantasy–but you have to read all three in order to understand any of them.

Kit Whitfield Bareback (and I only took a short look but In Great Waters look as good or better)

Sean Stewart Galveston

Catherynne Valente–pretty much anything, really but I read In the Night Gardens Orphan’s Tales.

Guy Gavriel Kay Tigana

George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire

New wierd has not made an especially interesting epoch, as far as I’m concerned.

9

ArC 11.27.09 at 12:47 am

What, no Piers Anthony?

(I’m sorry, I simply could not resist my worst impulses here.)

10

JohnM 11.27.09 at 1:10 am

my list (in no particular order)

Ursula K LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea
Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Dante Alighieri – Inferno
Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto

11

Farren Hayden 11.27.09 at 1:12 am

China Mieville definitely deserves a place, as do Zelazny, Le Guin and Barker. Why has no-one mentioned Clive Barker yet? “Imajica” was as startlingly original as “Perdido Street Station”

12

Kieran Healy 11.27.09 at 1:19 am

Like Neil, I blame Henry for several days spent trying to read Little, Big, mostly failing, and for subsequently being left with the feeling that wherever I went there was someone playing a sad little tune on an oboe almost, but not quite, just out of earshot.

13

Moby Hick 11.27.09 at 1:36 am

I spent a good long time trying to make myself read Titus Groan. In the end I was not successful and I don’t feel that bad about it.

14

Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 1:37 am

Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
Soldier of the Mists by Gene Wolfe.
Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.

15

Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 1:40 am

Why has no-one mentioned Clive Barker yet?

Maybe because people tend to mentally assign him to the horror subgenre with which he’s most famously connected. I thought The Great & Secret Show was ripping good stuff, though it doesn’t make my top six list.

16

Dave Maier 11.27.09 at 1:46 am

Thanks to all for your suggestions!

I’m afraid I cannot claim to be even tolerably well-read, let alone intolerably so, but I would like to recommend Patricia McKillip, say The Book of Atrix Wolfe or Alphabet of Thorn, or any of many others.

I’m also reading a terrific graphic novel (comic), Aaron Alexovich’s Serenity Rose, which is just brilliant. It’s a few years old by now, but I see a new volume is out in a few weeks.

17

Eric 11.27.09 at 1:55 am

I spent several successive childhood Thanksgivings absorbed in either Tolkien or Final Fantasy, so the season’s inextricably bound up with fantasy for me. Right now I’m enjoying Ken Scholes’ “Psalms of Isaak” books, and I found Le Guin’s “Annals of the Northern Shore” as good as anything set in Earthsea.

18

nnyhav 11.27.09 at 2:15 am

William Morris.

cf MJH’s list (>6)

19

geo 11.27.09 at 2:31 am

Ralph Nader, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us

20

Nick 11.27.09 at 2:38 am

The persistent presence of Strange & Norrell on these lists puzzles me. I found it bland and average, despite my best intentions, and have yet to see a compelling reason to re-read the thing and (potentially) change my mind.

21

shah8 11.27.09 at 2:52 am

Same here, Nick. I’m not a fan of Daniel Abraham either.
For the rest of you, 6 titles, please.

22

Yarrow 11.27.09 at 3:51 am

Not limiting myself to six, not claiming “best of”, listing only authors not so far mentioned:

Peter Beagle: The Last Unicorn
Emma Bull: The War for the Oaks, Bone Dance
Diane Duane: So You Want to Be a Wizard, Deep Wizardry
Linda Haldeman: Star of the Sea
Diana Wynne Jones: Fire and Hemlock
Madeline L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time
Robin McKinley: Beauty, The Blue Sword, Deerskin, Spindle’s End, Sunshine
Susan Palwick: Flying in Place
Patricia Wrede: Talking to Dragons

I notice that many of these are marketed as Young Adult books.

23

Jonathan Lundell 11.27.09 at 4:12 am

I listened to Jonathan Strange as an audiobook, and liked it fine in that format.

If Zelazny is to be on the list, I’d make it Lord of Light, not Amber.

Gaiman? Neverwhere

I liked New Sun well enough, but when I tried to reread it recently, I couldn’t manage to get past the first couple of chapters. Little, Big was the other way round. Liked it a lot on my second try.

24

Jake 11.27.09 at 4:17 am

I actually like your list better than Grossman’s—maybe because I haven’t read most of the books on yours, to my own surprise (Also, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? Really?). But I am interested in the genre and wrote a longish post on the subject called Science Fiction, Literature, and the Haters that deals with SF/Fantasy and their relationship to the larger literary world. Maybe my own conception of the genre is more limited than it should be: the chief examples of good fantasy I’m aware of include Tolkien, Philip Pullman, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Anyway, I thought Grossman was making some unusual and interesting moves in The Magicians, as described in more detail in this review. His style is strong, he mostly avoids cliches, and there’s much to recommend the moral confusion and fine writing in a genre that too often lacks both.

25

CP sometimes a reader 11.27.09 at 4:17 am

Does A Canticle for Leibowitz share the Riddley Walker curse of being scifi as much as fantasy? Too bad; both good.

26

Substance McGravitas 11.27.09 at 4:20 am

For the rest of you, 6 titles, please.

I don’t really get what “the genre” is. Just from this list I’d draw

Chimera by John Barth
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
The Unholy City by Charles G. Finney
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

And then maybe off the bookshelf
Krazy Kat by Jay Cantor
1001 Nights

27

nalbar 11.27.09 at 4:30 am

Lord of the Rings (head and shoulders over anything else)

Then Robin Hobb rules her world;
The Farseer Trilogy (Robin Hobb)
The Liveships Trilogy (Robin Hobb)
The Tawny Man Trilogy (Robin Hobb)

and

Kushiel’s Avatar (Jacqueline Carey)

and

Song of Ice and Fire series (George Martin will never finish it)

28

nalbar 11.27.09 at 4:37 am

A correction;

Kushiel’s Avatar is the third book in a trilogy, they should be read in order.

Kushiel’s Dart
Kushiel’s Chosen
Kushiel’s Avatar

29

parsimon 11.27.09 at 4:42 am

Six best fantasy novels of all time is problematic. By era, or by generation or decade, seems more productive if we’re to name only six. I know it’s silly to quibble with the terms of the listmaking.

But I’m thinking of, say, Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow (because that’s the latest of his I’ve read). It seem to me that any list of the greatest that hasn’t enough space to include such a provocative progenitor is going to fall on its face in one way or another. Note how many of the titles in the lists thus far are also best-sellers. I’m skeptical that best-sellerdom is a sure sign of greatness. There is, though, a canon, and there’s something to itemizing that as well.

That said. I have yet to read any Mieville. Gah.

30

Patrick 11.27.09 at 5:52 am

This is hard for me to do because I like a lot of fantasy novels, but I don’t really feel like they speak to me most of the time. Usually they’re just fun entertainment.

But Pratchett, Mieville, and Valente. Each uses fantasy to say something meaningful about the world.

31

joel hanes 11.27.09 at 6:00 am

White, The Once And Future King

Zelazny, Lord of Light

32

blah 11.27.09 at 6:06 am

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

G.K. Chesteron, The Man Who Was Thursday

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

33

geo 11.27.09 at 6:13 am

34

weaver 11.27.09 at 8:39 am

Mieville, Swanwick, Bulgakov, Gaiman, Borges. Works as above, or not. Doesn’t really matter.

Hm.

And Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.

35

ajay 11.27.09 at 9:48 am

Tim Powers, Declare

Pratchett deserves a place in there, but I’m not sure for which one

Likewise Ursula Le Guin – probably The Farthest Shore if not all three Earthsea books

Mieville – no, doesn’t really do anything new with the genre, just flings a bit of junior common room socialism and a lot of Monster Manual at the wall and writes about what sticks

Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan and Gormenghast but not the sadly unfinished Titus Alone

Yes to The Once and Future King

And what about Dracula?

36

daelm 11.27.09 at 10:07 am

another vote for Little, Big, over here.

Kieran, you should persevere. It’s extraordinary. I’m prone to broad, pompous statements like “I shouldn’t have to work that hard for an author; he should be working hard for me ” and so on, but for Little, Big and lots and lots of Iain Banks, I will happily admit that I’m an idiot and need to be schooled. The new novel by the latter is Transition, and it’s definitely heavy going initially, but it’s so worth it.

Seriously, though – try Little, Big again. It’s so much more than a genre novel, and he never gets it anywhere near as beautiful as this again. The books curls in on itself so cleverly and so softly and so warmly that you find yourself lost and wandering, away with the faeries, long before you officially notice that the stars are now different overhead.

2. The Last Unicorn

3. The Earthsea Trilogy

4. Any one of Terry Pratchett’s determined efforts to write moral tales. (Thud, The Truth, Nightwatch, etc).

5. The Sandman Series of graphic novels. I think they’re now collected in an anthology.

6. Mythago Wood. Like L,B I think it’s a type of one-off. The follow-ups were never as good.

I loved Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman has more ideas in a morning than many people have in a life – but I never felt it was well-written.

I’m also not seeing any Michael Moorcock on the list, which is a little weird. (He’d have made any list 20 years ago.) I read and liked The Warhound and the World’s Pain a lot as an adolescent. If I remember right, it was the first place I ever saw the character of the Angel-Gone-Mad, that so features in the Sandman and Lucifer graphic novels, and in the Constantine series, and in Neverwhere. Did he invent it, I wonder?

And no votes for Mervyn Peake?

d

37

Kenny Easwaran 11.27.09 at 10:11 am

I’m surprised at the people that are putting Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” above Clarke’s “Strange/Norrell”. I did enjoy both, but I felt that Pullman’s novels weren’t quite what they could have been. (Basically, the world of the Subtle Knife was much less interesting than the worlds with more of a connection to reality, and the boy of that book was a much less interesting character than Lyra, and the third book started feeling a little rushed.) However, Clarke’s world was very interestingly created throughout.

But perhaps I’m just a sucker for footnotes.

38

Maurice Meilleur 11.27.09 at 2:15 pm

@Yarrow #22: You’re right that many good fantasy books are marketed as young adult fiction. It’s an industry rule of thumb to market fiction to an audience that looks like the lead or narrating character. So, for example, to Alice Sebold’s chagrin, The Lovely Bones was marketed (at least initially) as YA fiction. But as I-can’t-remember-which author–maybe it was Roald Dahl–once said, good fiction is good fiction.

Speaking of genre-busters, though: does Dahl belong on the fantasy list? How about authors like Kenneth Graeme or Richard Adams? And how about Lewis Carroll?

39

Doug M. 11.27.09 at 3:31 pm

Some votes /against/:

Mieville suffers from weak endings and the author’s determination to be unpleasnt to his characters, not because they deserve it, nor either because the plot requires it, but simply because nobody deserves a happy ending until the Revolution comes.

Guy Gavriel Kay has a related, though different, problem: his novels run on rails, and once you’ve figured out what sorts of things he likes and doesn’t, you have a very good idea how it’s all going to come out, and who will be rewarded, who punished, and why, and how.

I’m a bit bemused to find anyone over the age of sixteen recommending the Amber books. Zelazny had moments of brilliance, and there are even a few in these books. But the first series is, at the end of the day, a fairly standard adolescent power fantasy (complete with noble sacrifice at the end!) and the second series isn’t even that — he wrote them to pay his bills, period.

Peake’s first two novels are an interesting mess. We will never know if the third novel would have redeemed them, because his health collapsed and the novel he ended up writing was more or less unreadable.

Nobody has commented on the Paul Park nomination, so I will: these are weak tea indeed. The central conceit is deeply silly, and the books never do manage to redeem it. Also, the protagonist is quite remarkably dull.

And Ray Bradbury has not aged well, either in subject matter or style.

Doug M.

40

Doug M. 11.27.09 at 3:38 pm

Peter Beagle has acknowledged on several occasions that The Last Unicorn was his lightning-in-a-bottle book. Which it was. He’s written plenty of other stuff, and some of it is decent. But that one is just so much better that it hardly belongs on the same shelf.

Swanwick’s Iron Dragon’s Daughter — and its companion volume, Dragons of Babel — I would put at the very top of the second rank. Very much worth reading if you have any interest in fantasy at all. Swanwick is a deeply unappreciated writer, because he’s stayed almost exclusively within fantasy and (shudder) science fiction. But he’s a solid stylist, a cunning plotter, and he knows how to make a literary reference get up and dance.

I acknowledge the greatness of The Book of the New Sun, and I don’t even like Gene Wolfe all that much. It’s just massively awesome.

I have learned not to despise people who don’t love Little, Big. Either you inherited the gene that codes for those receptors, or you didn’t; no blame applies. That said, it is a remarkable book: a 20th century family saga. Except with /fairies/.

Doug M.

41

William Burns 11.27.09 at 4:07 pm

Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Colum, The King of Ireland’s Son
Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series
Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga
Calvino, The “Our Ancestors” trilogy

42

William Burns 11.27.09 at 4:10 pm

And I second the puzzlement over why people rate Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel so highly. I could never get past the ridiculous “Northern England gets split off and run as a separate magical kingdom for centuries, but the Napoleonic wars happen pretty much the same way they do in the real world” premise.

43

Farren Hayden 11.27.09 at 5:10 pm

My criteria for good fantasy is: No fairies, hobbits, goblins, orcs, elves, unicorns, wizards or witches – unless you were the first to bring it into mainstream literature (as opposed to folk tales) or wilfully subvert common conceptions of the above. I hit a point somewhere in my teens where I realised that a genre one would expect to be jam-packed with inventive material was as crowded with cliches as the Harlequin romance scene.

The large majority of fantasy novels seem to rely entirely on loveable/hateful characters and soapie-like plots with special effects thrown in for their appeal, with little invention in sight. Worse still is the fact that so many of them use ridiculous naming conventions (y’r’karrr) or names that seem to have been selected by the author closing their eyes and waving a pencil at an Atlas. Feist’s hugely popular Magician suffers from all of the above.

Then there’s the profoundly contrived feeling of some fantasy worlds, the sense that there is no internal consistency or deeper mystery, only the impoverished imagination of someone who wishes there was a world alongside our own into and out of which only special people can slip, but can’t be bothered to give it enough thought to even hint at a reasonable sounding explanation, or even use some device (like a cynical and sympathetic protagonist who’s own disbelief must be overcome) to help the reader suspend their disbelief. It must be wonderful to be the kind of reader who is satisfied with the laziest and most creatively impoverished of transitions or introductions to some arb fantasy world, the kind of reader who a kind of on/off switch in their brain for disbelief suspension. I am not that reader, at least not since I was 14. I have to be wined and dined, seduced into the author’s world. And while I know its irrational and immature to rage at a badly conceived book, I must admit to an involuntary anger when I encounter the kind of writing that doesn’t bother.

Which is why books like Zelazny’s “Lords of Light”, Barker’s “Imajica” and “The Great and Show” and Mievelle’s “Perdido Street Station” are such a pleasure to read. True originals.

44

Farren Hayden 11.27.09 at 5:15 pm

Corrections to above:

“…the kind of reader who has a kind of on/off switch..”

and

“The Great and Secret Show”

45

Bill Gardner 11.27.09 at 5:28 pm

Slightly off topic, but do read Mieville’s newest, The City & the City. His best, a new direction for him and, I think, fantasy generally. I really liked the earlier books, but I liked this one more.

46

Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 5:47 pm

Farren Hayden has it right about the imaginative cul de sac that so much of the fantasy on the shelves still seems to inhabit. I blame Tolkien and Gary Gygax. It’s all so very tiresome.

In re: those who praise the greatness of the Book of the New Sun, I find myself in a position not unlike sitting with someone who’s singing the praises of Steely Dan, and trying as politely as I can to figure out why they can’t see that Steely Dan sucks (for all their cleverness and technical proficiency). On the other hand, then I look at people saying in apparent seriousness “what’s the big deal about Strange & Norrell?” and suddenly, in a flash, I understand all the frustrations that poured from those Steely Dan evangelists of yonder days… and I feel a certain strange kinship with them, a bond of shared adversity bridging the gulf of incomprehension.

47

Mario Diana 11.27.09 at 6:12 pm

Has no one read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, or is the consensus that it is just not worth mentioning?

There are three trilogies, the third coming much much later than the first two. I read the first when I was still a teenager; the second, some years later. (I don’t believe I’ll read the third. I worry it will be like the third Godfather, which I’ve also managed to avoid.)

I’m not a big reader of the genre, but the first these two trilogies are excellent.

48

Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 6:26 pm

I liked the Covenant books fine as a teenager, but wouldn’t have put them on a top six or top ten list even then. I have a feeling I’d like them even less, now; not that I mind dark themes and “grittiness” or what have you, but there’s an air of the fantasy-novelist counterpart of “women in refrigerators” syndrome hanging around Donaldson’s writing that I’ve come to dislike. I really noticed it when reading the Gap books years later.

49

roac 11.27.09 at 6:27 pm

Tolkien (surprise!) and Strange/Norrell at the top; everybody else that I have read some way behind.

I fully understand why a lot of people don’t like Tolkien; they’re still invested in the
War over Modernism, in which Tolkien was one of the last holdouts on the losing side,on more than one front . (The way, for example, the Battle of Kosovo is not over for Serb nationalists.)

How anyone can not like Susannah Clarke, on the other hand, I don’t get at all.

I love LeGuin, but she is ultimately a smaller writer with less to say.

It is a mistake to take Pratchett seriously as a moral thinker. Unfortunately it’s one he has sometimes made himself. (Pratchett’s great strength, IMO, is in social observation and character drawing.)

Crowley writes better than any of them, or all of them put together. It is a great relief to me, however, to find that someone else reacted to Little, Big the same way I did: I got about five-eighths of the way through, put it down for the night, and next day had no inclination to pick it up again. It has been eight months, and I once a week I tell myself I will get back into it tomorrow. (I was just at the point where I got an inkling that The Bad Guys had just made their appearance, in case that helps anyone elucidate the puzzle.)

50

todd. 11.27.09 at 6:41 pm

@35:

Mieville suffers from […] the author’s determination to be unpleasnt to his characters, not because they deserve it, nor either because the plot requires it, but simply because nobody deserves a happy ending until the Revolution comes.

I thought Mieville answered that criticism pretty convincingly on this self-same blog:

Of course, the problem with this strategy is that it’s a fine line to walk. Push it and you’re gratuitous. There is, it’s undoubtedly true, a cheap and spurious kudos to aesthetic sadism. This is the lie behind the tedious transgressions of much ‘brave’, ‘transgressive’ and ‘underground’ literature. Did I step over that line? I hope not. I don’t know how I could have avoided [*****] being eaten by the voracious maw of Meaningful Tragedy had I not taken her through the mill as I did. And I precisely tried to avoid the sadism by having her disappear while the nastiness was going on. Maybe it didn’t work. But that was the idea.

51

tom s. 11.27.09 at 6:52 pm

What makes a novel fantasy?
– it must have magic. So no Riddley Walker even though its the Best Book Evah.
– it must have speaking non-human creatures, so no Gormenghast even though they belong on the list of Best Books Evah just below RW. And no Strange&Norrell.
– it must be on a world that is not ours, otherwise you have to let in werewolf myths and so on and they obviously don’t count.

Successful fantasy is also like successful pulp fiction – the most enjoyable ones are not the same as the ones you feel proudest to have read, and it’s best enjoyed as a teenager.

So, having decreed that,
– Lewis Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe because I read it ten times over as a child.
– Tolkein LOTR ditto as teenager
– Pullman, because the Amber Spyglass was much better than its reputation, and because I used to live right next to one of the holes from Oxford to Lyra’s world.
– Mieville first two Bas-Lag books because they are different but still fantasy even though steampunk is pretty close to the edge
– Guy Gavriel Kay Fionavar tapestry even though the characters are hokey as all hell
– and yes, Donaldson’s Covenant, but thanks to Doctor Slack for introducing me to the term “Women in Refrigerators”

Hmm. All written by white males. Maybe I need some fantasy edjercation.

52

Doug M. 11.27.09 at 6:52 pm

@46, First, I submit that the author is not the best judge here. (Famously, the guy who put the girlfriend in the refrigerator was baffled to find out he’d become a trope.)

And second, the indictment is broader than just “you’re mean to your characters”. Mieville has three books in a row where all sorts of interesting things happen, but at the end the world is pretty much the same as when it started, except that various people have been tormented and died in interesting ways, or have been very disillusioned or disappointed. And this world-being-much-the-sameness is, we are supposed to accept, part of the point.

I say it’s spinach, and to hell with it.

Doug M.

53

tom s. 11.27.09 at 6:55 pm

I see my criteria are the opposite of Farren Hayden’s much more justifiable and respectable set.

54

Farren Hayden 11.27.09 at 8:02 pm

Bill, thanks for the recommend. I didn’t know he had a new one out and will immediately head for the bookstore to get it.

55

Farren Hayden 11.27.09 at 8:21 pm

@Tom : A dear friend and I had an intense but friendly debate that stretched over several drinking sessions about this because she kept trying to press me into reading the kind of fantasy I abhor (WoT, Thomas Covenant, Feist).

One thing I took away from it is that for many readers a good yarn is one where the characters appeal and the story proceeds at a measured pace through a series of moments that sustain dramatic tension. That they could care less for originality, subtext or style, and in fact take comfort in the familiarity of widely-written about creatures and contexts that their imaginations have already fleshed out so much. In a sense, all they ask of the author is that he or she simply further enrich an existing mental universe of fantasy ideas with dramatic detail. And there are many authors who deliver that by the shipping container (usually in series that stretch into 4 or 5 books, reinforcing this impression).

Whereas readers like myself are rarely pleased and often displeased, seeking as we do a constant stream of novelty, whether it takes the form of style, juxtaposition, subtext, theme, uniqueness of the novel’s beastiary or whatever. Its a grim thing being a novelty junky, but when you encounter the rare novel that meets your requirements the pleasure is beyond description. I obssess over truly inventive novels for months, trying to get everyone I know to read them and rabbiting on about them all the time to people who don’t even read much, analyse them in my head long after putting the book down, trying to fully understand the alchemy that successfully coupled extraordinary inventiveness with gripping reading.

Different strokes, I guess. One things for sure, the former kind of fantasy reader gets a far more regular fix.

56

Doug M. 11.27.09 at 8:25 pm

“the characters appeal and the story proceeds at a measured pace through a series of moments that sustain dramatic tension.”

Jim Butcher — author of the fairly successful “Dresden Files” series — posted a series of steps outlining how to do exactly this. Really, it boiled down to a scene-by-scene, almost page-by-page outline: here’s where you foreshadow the BBEG, here’s where you bring in some comic relief, now you crank up the tension, here’s where you show your protagonist petting a kitten. “Formulaic” doesn’t begin to describe it.

[shrug] chaque a son gout.

Doug M.

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Doug M. 11.27.09 at 8:31 pm

roac @45, “the War over Modernism, in which Tolkien was one of the last holdouts on the losing side” — This is a very common reason for not liking Tolkein, sure. On the other hand, it’s possible to love Modernism (and even Post-Modernism) and still like Tolkein.

I like your characterization of LeGuin as “a smaller writer, with less to say”.

There are no bad guys in Little, Big. (Though there is unpleasantness of various sorts.) Again, this really does seem to be a book that people either click with, or not.

Doug M.
Doug M.

58

Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 8:32 pm

Tom: I understand the appearance of magic on your list, but your opposite-ness to Farren isn’t so much of a problem as…. don’t your other criteria sort of rule out a whole bunch of canonical fantasy? One of the oldest fantasy elements is presenting the fantasy’s otherworld as being just around the corner in “our world,” cf. various tales of the Arabian Nights or all those chivalric romances that inspired Tolkien. Why would doing this disqualify something from being fantasy? And why would fantasy need speaking non-human characters — doesn’t losing Gormenghast by this route (a rather eccentric judgment) also lose, say, the bulk of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur?

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Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 8:46 pm

(Also, contra Farren’s last post there, I don’t know that I’m looking for huge narrative innovation out of fantasy novels — a little pulpy melodrama never hurt anyone — but I’m also looking for a little of the old “sense of wonder.” The author who says: ‘Come, follow me into a mysterious world filled with yet more slightly-tweaked versions of Tolkien’s orcs and dwarves and elves’ is not providing “sense of wonder.” It also wouldn’t kill anyone to at least go a bit further afield in terms of the pulpy melodrama plots than most fantasy does.)

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bob mcmanus 11.27.09 at 8:54 pm

51:Whereas readers like myself are rarely pleased and often displeased, seeking as we do a constant stream of novelty, whether it takes the form of style, juxtaposition, subtext, theme, uniqueness of the novel’s beastiary or whatever.

C’mon, the “discerning” quasi-literary reader really demands all those things at once, done extraordinarily well, doesn’t she? It isn’t as if you would forgive an original world builder for her weak and hackneyed prose.

What I have gotten from this thread, besides many great suggestions, is how demanding we seem to be of genre writers who are mostly trying to entertain and make a living in a commercial medium. A unique, original, interesting built world every time, with the full set of literary values.

Have Haruki Murakami or Glen Cook been mentioned yet? Probably not in one sentence together.

61

Mario Diana 11.27.09 at 8:58 pm

Doctor Slack @ 44

I agree wholeheartedly regarding your characterization of Donaldson’s writing. I read the first book the the Gap series, and was pretty appalled. Years ago I tried a couple of his other books, but I can’t even say if I finished them.

Normally, I don’t enjoy “‘grittiness’ or what have you” — but as far as antiheroes and dark themes go, I did enjoy the Thomas Covenant books.

Maybe it doesn’t survive one’s teenage years. I’d have to have a look at it again. But from what I remember of it, I can’t say Farren Hayden’s remarks @ 51 sum it up. There is admittedly a good deal that that is derivative, but it’s no mere knockoff of Lord of the Rings — and it’s certainly no Sword of Shannara schlock.

Perhaps I’ll take another look at it; but maybe I’d be better off picking up another title off of this discussion. It’s always a bit depressing to find that your memory of something you enjoyed as a teenager is better than the original, after a span of years.

I mean, I now cringe at the sight of a hair metal band ;-)

62

Farren Hayden 11.27.09 at 9:00 pm

Bob, I partially agree. Enough in combination to make one forgiving of the weak areas, perhaps. And I’d make a distinction between say, bad prose (awkward sentence construction, [i]et al[/i]) and simply vanilla prose.

63

Substance McGravitas 11.27.09 at 9:04 pm

And I’d make a distinction between say, bad prose (awkward sentence construction, [i]et al[/i]) and simply vanilla prose.

But not for a list of the X best of all time, right?

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jonquil 11.27.09 at 9:20 pm

Where by “of all time”, you mean “after 1980″? That’s a curious definition of “all time”. Furthermore, any list of “best fantasy novels” that doesn’t contain at least one work by Le Guin is actually a list of “best fantasy novels by men.”

65

Substance McGravitas 11.27.09 at 9:23 pm

Where by “of all time”, you mean “after 1980”?

Why no.

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Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 9:27 pm

There some reason Clarke (who appears on multiple lists) doesn’t qualify as a woman? Aside from the various other women mentioned throughout the thread?

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TheSophist 11.27.09 at 9:27 pm

I am one of those who essentially memorized LOTR as a pre-teen (and retain enough to recognize whence commenter “Roac” gets his/her name), but I can’t help being a little fearful that if I were to encounter the text for the first time today I would read a couple of hundred pages, go “Ugh, this is worse than Eddings” and put it aside. Does anybody else have a similar fear? (Today when I read novels that have a worldview as (literally) Black and White as that of JRRT’s I find myself cringing. Heck, it’s so Manichaean that I use it when I teach IR to explain what’s wrong with neo-conservatism!)

On Donaldson – while it’s been many years since I read Covenant, I do think that the conceit of the protagonist who doesn’t think he’s really in the world is very thought-provoking. The prose is pretty damn turgid, but there are ideas in there.

It definitely proves the quality of CT commenters that we’re >50 posts in and nobody’s said “But…Robert Jordan…”. Thank you. I am a wee bit surprised, however, that nobody’s mentioned Erikson. I seem to recall a similar thread about a year ago where everybody was raving about him. (I’m not sure he’s make “Top 6″ status, but perhaps at least he could be part of the discussion…)

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Substance McGravitas 11.27.09 at 9:38 pm

I am one of those who essentially memorized LOTR as a pre-teen, but I can’t help being a little fearful that if I were to encounter the text for the first time today I would read a couple of hundred pages, go “Ugh, this is worse than Eddings” and put it aside.

I’ve never read LOTR after about 60 pages in as a teen.

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Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 9:39 pm

Erikson is pretty awful, IMO. He’s got scope and ambition to spare and the odd quite striking idea, I think, but it’s frenetic to the point of absurdity and the quantity doesn’t equal quality… it’s another one of those series that feels more like an adapted RPG setting the more you read it, at least to me. My brother keeps buying those books and I get increasingly amused at how, with each successive title, there’s almost literally a badass superbeing under every single rock in the Malazan universe.

Tolkien’s writing isn’t that bad. He stand up decades on as a stronger writer than many of his imitators, certainly (like Eddings). On the other hand his writing isn’t that great either.

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monboddo 11.27.09 at 9:43 pm

Hmmm…interesting lists. Making my own, I realized the odd place fantasy novels occupy in my life (fill in your joke here). The list I started making was not of the six “best” fantasy novels, but of the six that have made me happiest over the years and that I re-read when I can. Of the fantasy novels that are really the best, ie have greatest literary merit, I’d have to include Little Big, Lord of the Rings, some of Mieville’s books (though not the excrable agitprop of Iron Council) and Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun — but only the Crowley would also get on my list of favorite novels, which would also include Bellairs’s Face in the Frost, Martha Wells’s Death of the Necromancer, Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind, Powers’s Anubis Gates (why hasn’t anyone mentioned him before?), and something by Pratchett. Mythago Wood wouldn’t quite make the cut, but nice to see so many Holdstock fans.

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X. Trapnel 11.27.09 at 9:49 pm

Another vote for Sean Stewart; Galveston is amazing, but Perfect Circle, Resurrection Man, Mockingbird, and Night Watch are all quite moving.

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Ben Alpers 11.27.09 at 10:06 pm

Count me as another vote for Clarke and Peake (even the third book, which is a mess, has its moments).

I love the Aegypt books, but have never read Little, Big. I’ve been waiting, literally for years, for the 25th Anniversary Edition that I ordered to appear. It now seems that it’s only a month or so away. I’m really looking forward to it!

As a teen I devoured the LOTR books and the first Thomas Covenant trilogy. Another trilogy I liked a lot as late teen was John Varley’s Titan trilogy, which is formally SF but has a lot of fantasy elements. I imagine that I’d find it less enthralling if I reread it today.

I probably wouldn’t count Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt as fantasy, but if it does count it deserves to be mentioned.

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X. Trapnel 11.27.09 at 10:06 pm

If Wolfe’s New Sun counts, Delaney’s Dhalgren should, too. No fans here?
I need to go back and read some Diana Wynne Jones and Diane Duane; I remember the authors fondly but it’s been ages.

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roac 11.27.09 at 10:35 pm

My defense of Tolkien runs to pages and pages, and fitting an adequate version in a blog post is a difficult process. While I’m working on it, let me recommend a book called Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart. It’s a set in the world of Chinese folklore, about which the author was either remarkably knowledgeable or a really talented faker. I doubt if it would be on many people’s Top 6 list, but it shouldn’t be missed, either. It’s a rare example of a book whose excellence is in its plot and not in the writing, which is no better than serviceable. You read along thinking it is picaresque and episodic; then when you get to the last chapter, every tiny detail falls into its place in a structure that is both unexpected and beautiful.

And by the way — Lafferty.

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John McKenzie 11.27.09 at 10:36 pm

re: 45

I can see why one might characterize LeGuin as a “smaller writer with less to say” based upon the Earthsea series, but anyone who has ever even glanced at The Left Hand of Darkness (granted, it’s far more scifi than fantasy) would I hope immediately recognize that that’s not the case.

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Ian Milliss 11.27.09 at 10:44 pm

I would suggest Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada as a fantasy novel. And another vote for Little Big.

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Ben Alpers 11.27.09 at 10:56 pm

I noticed The Wind in the Willows over on M. John Harrison’s list (linked above) and wondered why it hasn’t been mentioned here yet.

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Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 11:02 pm

I can see why one might characterize LeGuin as a “smaller writer with less to say” based upon the Earthsea series

Besides which the apples-to-apples comparison of Earthsea to the Tolkien books is with The Hobbit, not LOTR. Whereupon the force of such a criticism dissipates completely.

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Doug M. 11.27.09 at 11:11 pm

“Bellairs’s Face in the Frost”

Picaresque collection of interesting incidents rather than a novel as such.

“Powers’s Anubis Gates (why hasn’t anyone mentioned him before?),”

Because while several of his books stand strong in the second rank, none of them quite qualify to be in the first. Much the same reason nobody has brought up Jack Vance yet.

Doug M.

80

Wax Banks 11.27.09 at 11:24 pm

Riddley Walker, obviously. It’s as much fantasy as (and a hell of a lot more impressive than) Canticle.

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Doug M. 11.27.09 at 11:31 pm

Doctor Slack @78, I am unconvinced. The Earthsea trilogy covers decades and hundreds of pages, and ends with the world being saved and the True King restored to his throne. How is this more like The Hobbit rather than The Lord of the Rings?

John McKenzie @75, I’ve read pretty much all of LeGuin’s fiction, including the awful stuff from her long period of writing awful stuff. Early LeGuin — before 1975, say — was ambitious. But over time she settled more and more into writing a handful of stories about a handful of themes. (Thought experiment: defend Leguin’s excellence as a writer, using only stuff from the later 2/3 of her career. Lined paper, standard margins. Good luck!)

If I had to guess, I’d say she reached middle age and stopped examining her assumptions.

Doug M.

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roac 11.27.09 at 11:34 pm

78: Except that Earthsea started as a series for teenagers, but ceased to be in its fourth iteration. Although the first book is still the best.

LHoD is for my money the best sci-fi novel ever written. But we’re talking fantasy here. (Speaking of which, I haven’t read Gene Wolfe, but I thought he was sci-fi.)

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Doctor Slack 11.27.09 at 11:54 pm

@Doug: “The Earthsea trilogy covers decades and hundreds of pages, and ends with the world being saved and the True King restored to his throne. How is this more like The Hobbit rather than The Lord of the Rings?”

On account of it’s not written for adults. (At least the original Wizard of Earthsea book wasn’t.) LOTR’s sprawling narrative and ambitious theology is partly a function of the audience it was being written for.

@roac: “(Speaking of which, I haven’t read Gene Wolfe, but I thought he was sci-fi.)”

I think the New Sun stuff inhabits the “science fantasy” grey zone. Soldier of the Mist is definitely fantasy.

84

joel hanes 11.28.09 at 12:04 am

Gardner, Grendel

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 12:18 am

The Hobbit was quite explicitly written for children. The first two Earthsea books are YA, and the third one has at least one foot over the grown-up line.

In any event, the question was whether LeGuin is “a smaller writer with less to say”. I think she is, or that she made herself so.

As noted above, it’s very difficult to defend her as excellent (or even particularly important) if you look at the last 35 years of her career rather than the first 15. Four Ways to Forgiveness? Orsinian Tales? Always Coming Home? Tehanu? How many stories are worth rereading in Fisherman of the Inland Sea or Changing Planes? Who’s in a hurry to pick up The Beginning Place again? Did anyone who didn’t already like cats like Catwings?

This is not to say that later LeGuin actively sucks. There are several solid novellas in there — Buffalo Gals, for all its flaws, comes close to greatness — the Telling is sort of interesting even if nothing actually happens, and the Western Shore books are solid YA. But if you take out those interesting first fifteen years, then yes — she is a smaller writer with much less to say.

Doug M.

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Jonquil 11.28.09 at 12:30 am

Substance@65 : I was referring to Henry’s original list, not to yours or any other in the comments. The comment does correctly describe Henry’s list.

“As noted above, it’s very difficult to defend her as excellent (or even particularly important) if you look at the last 35 years of her career rather than the first 15.”

Tolkien didn’t have a hell of a lot to say after LOTR, either; that doesn’t change the quality of the work he’s known for. See also: Hope Mirrlees, who wrote one fantasy novel, Lud-in-The-Mist, when she was 40, and continued to write other things thereafter. What you’re saying is, “If you take out her pivotal work, she’s less important as a writer”; of what writer is that not true?

In short, “I liked his earlier, funnier stuff” doesn’t diminish the importance of that work.

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 12:39 am

There’s not much difference in reading level betwixt the Hobbit and Wizard of Earthsea; I think it’s a better comparison than WoE vs. LOTR.

I’m now becoming unsure of what “a smaller writer with less to say” is supposed to mean. The really essential LeGuin catalogue is books like Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, and the first two Earthsea books. (And, I would argue, the much more recent Lavinia, which appears on my top six list above.) I don’t see how any of this has “less to say” than LOTR and the Hobbit combined, which are basically all Tolkien has to offer by way of essential catalogue. Again I don’t even know what we’re comparing, exactly. Grandeur of setting? Detail of backdrop? Ambitious moral questions? Tolkien is good for the first two, but then he only ever did anything serious in a single setting which is vastly over-praised, and in the third category LeGuin could run rings around the old Professor in her sleep. (This is true even of less well-known LeGuin, like Four Ways to Forgiveness; what intelligent observation did Tolkien ever manage about slavery that could remotely compare?)

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 12:39 am

(And what Jonquil said.)

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John Huss 11.28.09 at 12:51 am

Glad and gratified to see someone include T H White’s “The Once & Future King.”

That would be on my top six list. Even if you cut the number in half. But I read it as a teen, so not sure how it would feel reading it for the first time as an adult.

But isn’t that always the case?

90

John McKenzie 11.28.09 at 1:15 am

Jonquil and Doctor Slack have pretty much said everything I would say, so instead of commenting further I’ll just go with “I agree with them.”

Okay maybe one thing…
It’s kind of like saying that because Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter wasn’t as good as 1984 or Animal Farm that he had less to say and was a small writer.

91

parsimon 11.28.09 at 1:56 am

Truly, since the initial call was for a list of the 6 greatest works, rather than any body of work by a given writer, carrying on about a writer’s oeuvre violates terms.

Call me a commenter of type whatever. I’m just enjoying the thread, am pleased to see LeGuin defended, and will hereby admit that I’ve read Dhalgren several times.

I do wonder to what extent “would willingly read again” is a measure of greatness for various parties. I’d not read LOTR again, nor Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books. They’re therefore not greats for me, though I acknowledge their importance.

92

Daniel Rosenblatt 11.28.09 at 4:57 am

For me the hard part is determining the border with science fiction. Here I am just going to do it loosely, where not caring about a back story for the things that differentiate a piece from mundane fiction edges something over into the realm of fantasy. My reasoning for this choice is that it seems more interesting: draw the line too tightly and it all Tolkien and kin. So, the list:
1. Chronicles of Tornor by Elizabeth A. Lynn – As Joanna Russ says on the back cover, fantasy for humanists and feminists.
2. The collected short fiction of R.A. Lafferty – Fantasy rooted in American tall tales not Celtic myth? Anyway, I think its the most original stuff anywhere.
3. His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman – well, I’m sympathetic to the message for one thing, and contra the people who think the second & third books are weaker, I like the way the imaginary world expands with each book.
4. The Neveryon Quartet by Samuel R Delany – post-modern fantasy…bring it on!
5. The Quantum Gravity Series by Justina Robson – not your parents elves, demons, and faeries.
6. Meeting the Master by Elissa Wald – wait, wrong kind of fantasy…this is hard: There are a lot of tempting, out of genre fantastic novels, like Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell), Seventh Heaven (Alice Hoffman), The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Salmon Rushdie), and The Dream Swimmer (Witi Ihimaera). It would also be tempting to nominate Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, by way of proposing that something can be great fantasy without being particularly well written, and no doubt the wisest thing to do would be to simply add LOTR to the list by virtue, if nothing else, of being able to refer to it by its initials, but instead, I will offer this suggestion, because its good, and why, after all, is a talking barbie not fantasy:
6. A Real Doll (shorty story) by A.M. Homes. (available for free on the internet here: http://www.barcelonareview.com/eng/eng44.htm )

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John McKenzie 11.28.09 at 5:29 am

can we have a best scifi thread now? for some reason (probably the fault of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Dungeons & Dragons ilk) there is considerably more excellent science fiction literature than there is excellent fantasy literature.

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John McKenzie 11.28.09 at 6:02 am

alright, I got antsy. Here’s my list of the 7 best science fiction novels ever written. I couldn’t narrow it to six; I had to have one more. If we were going to 10 or 15 that’d be best, but oh well.

1) Ursula K LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness
Winner for Best “Androgynous Species.” A book that is as much a philosophy and anthropology of gender as it is science fiction. Of all these books, Left Hand of Darkness is the one with best insight into the human condition.

2) Michael Moorcock – Behold the Man
Winner for Best “Time Travel Story.” A college student in Jungian psycho-analysis and Aramaic meets a professor who has invented a time machine and wants it tested. The student, Karl, feels sexually and religiously estranged in his life, and opts to take the machine back to witness the crucifixion of Christ. Pure genius ensues.

3) Philip K. Dick – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
Winner for Best “Schizophrenic Space Journey.” I read that John Lennon came to Dick and told him he thought the meaning of life was in this story and wanted it made into a movie. This is the only book I’ve ever read that actually made me feel like I was going crazy while I was reading it. Then again, about a week later after reading it I had swine flu, so maybe some of that was just percolating and that’s where the crazy came from.

4) Frank Herbert – Dune
Winner for Best “Empire in Space.” The level of detail in the characters, plot, intrigue, mysticism, and trade of this universe is outstanding, and upon every rereading I find new things to like. Also has a pretty good take on the whole “here’s how you organize a collective resistance in some mountains somewhere” theme. Muad’Dib might as well be hiding in a cave in Afghanistan for a while there.

5) Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Game
Winner for Best “Psychological Adolescent Science Fiction that Adults Should Read Anyway.” I think I’ve heard others talk about Ender’s Game on CrookedTimber before, so I won’t rehash what makes this book so incredible. If I were to make an unfair reduction/comparison, Ender’s Game is Harry Potter for science fiction, but grittier.

6) Walter Miller – A Canticle for Leibowitz
Winner for Best “End of the World” scenario. Everyone’s been nuked and the only bureaucracy left standing is Catholicism. Beautiful story.

7) Yevgeny Zamyatin – We
Winner for Best “Dystopian Nightmare.” The Russian book that got Orwell thinking. And better done than anything written by either Orwell or Huxley.

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Rob Barrett 11.28.09 at 6:36 am

Couldn’t narrow it down to six, so I went with ten:

Lloyd Alexander, Taran Wanderer
Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Steven Erikson, Midnight Tides
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Patricia McKillip, Winter Rose
China Mieville, The Scar
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 6:40 am

@93: Winner for Best “Psychological Adolescent Science Fiction that Adults Should Read Anyway.”

You misspelled “Most Excruciating Wish-Fulfillment For Everyone Who Was Bullied In Sixth Grade”.

Ender Wiggins is a genius; he never loses a single battle, even when every circumstance is stacked against him.

He is always right about everything, and is angelically, obnoxiously, inexplicably good, the moral superior of everyone else in the book. He is explicitly compared to Christ.

He is repeatedly subjected to pointless, sadistic torment. Also to bullying — but all the bullies get theirs; he gets to defeat and, in a couple of cases, brutally beat and kill them.

At the end, he saves the world! By committing genocide. The genocide turns out to be unnecessary but, we are assured, Ender remains good and loving anyway.

Afterwards he goes his lonely way, dispensing compassion for the undeserving who think him evil.

In sum, Ender gets to be perfect and good; be (deservedly!) sorry for himself; get gruesome, bloody revenge on his enemies; nonetheless remain good, noble and pure; and save the world.

It’s easy to see why this book has broad appeal. But this does not strike me as a set of useful psychological insights, unless you’re a bitter junior high school kid.

For a much more detailed and intelligent takedown of this book, see John Kessel’s awesome essay “Creating the Innocent Killer: Enders Game, Intention and Morality” — http://www4.ncsu.edu/~tenshi/Killer_000.htm.

Doug M.

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Keir 11.28.09 at 6:52 am

(There are six great fantasy books: Book I of the Lord of the Rings; Book II of the Lord of the Rings, etc.)

More seriously, I think:
1. The Lord of the Rings. Sure it has issues, sure it’s politically a bit suspect, sure Tolkien is not as good a writer as Eliot or Joyce. It is still one of the fundamental works of art of the twentieth century. (The Tolkien as not-modern is a bit daft, to be honest, and seems like the fault of intentionalism. I’m quite happy to argue for Tolkien as a modern writer. Certainly the ooh ooh Tolkien isn’t a Futurist ergo he’s not modern is dumb. & of course the political concerns, esp. Denethor and so-forth.)
2. Five Children and It.
3. Something from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.
4. A Diana Wyne Jones novel.
5. Lanark, or something by Gray at any rate. (I am contractually obliged to mention Gray’s name here.)
6. Hulme’s The Bone People.

A lot of non-adult stuff there; I suspect because adult in fantasy is often code for teenaged male.

(By the way, Witi Ihimaera just got caught out plagiarising parts of his latest novel.)

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 7:05 am

@Doctor Slack and others: you are right to point out that it doesn’t matter whether LeGuin wrote a lot of mediocre stuff; the quality of her early work stands on its own. That’s fair.

Upon consideration, my knee was jerking; my bad. I have heard LeGuin praised to the skies a few too many times. Yes, The Left Hand of Darkness, yes — but nobody ever brings up that long shelf of later, crappier work, or discusses what it says about her as a writer.

“Tolkein didn’t have much to say after LOTR” — yes and, God love him, he knew it. He considered a sequel a couple of times and then — showing wisdom that few of us could match — rejected it. Let’s pause to consider the alternative: a dozen mediocre novels and disappointing short-story collections. I submit that would be much, much worse than just stopping.

“Good to see someone defending LeGuin” — Dude. LeGuin does not lack for defenders. Google her and you’ll find a dozen major pieces in the last decade, in places like The Guardian and the NYT Review of Books, talking about how influential and wonderful she is. (Again, nary a mention of those long years when everything she wrote was pretty much unreadable.) She’s got honors and accolades literally piled high.

In fact, I’d say the opposite is true — there’s a remarkable shortage of thoughtful criticism of LeGuin. Delany wrote a couple of pieces on her in the ’70s (collected in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw IMS) but they’re from the POV of a loving friend. The late Thomas Disch attacked her pretty aggressively in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, and he makes some good points, but since it’s Disch it’s admixed with a fair amount of bile. A good critical overview of her work, that includes the weaker stuff and puts it in context… well, it may exist, but I’ve kept an eye out and I haven’t seen it.

Doug M.

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 7:15 am

Less to say: the indictment here would be that (1) LeGuin has a limited range of topics (though they get dressed up in various distracting ways), and (2) she does not address those topics with the depth they deserve.

So, for example, Four Ways to Forgiveness is about power, class, and sin. Which is great — but that book doesn’t really have much to tell us about power, class, or sin. Slavery is bad, and old ladies are wonderful — am I the only one who found that one story a flinch-inducing Mary Sue? — and bright, cocky young women need to learn a thing or two. And, um… well, that’s about it.

If you disagree, that’s fine, but then turn it around: what exactly /does/ LeGuin have to say? That is novel or interesting or at least really well put? I submit that when you boil it down, you’re left with a startlingly small handful of platitudes, usually not expressed with much novelty or grace.

Doug M.

100

Douglas Muir 11.28.09 at 8:32 am

To bring this back (very belatedly) to the OP:

“I’ll note that this list is in many ways dull and predictable – none of these choices are likely to surprise anyone tolerably well read in the genre.”

Actually, the Park and the Harrison are pretty surprising. The Course of the Heart is interesting, but top six? Really?

“But canons can have useful social purposes – they point towards books that are central to the conversation the genre is having with itself.”

Let’s say this is true. What are the books that are “central to the conversation [fantasy] is having with itself”? Note that this is very different from what most of the commenters have been posting (which is “books I really like and want to reread”)

I’d throw out two points for starters: it takes a while for something to join canon — ten years? More? — and there’s no avoiding Tolkein. Like him, hate him, you can’t get around his central importance. It’s like drawing up a list of critical 20th century American fiction and ignoring Faulkner because you don’t like him. There are many perfectly legitimate reasons to not like Faulkner, but he was just hugely damn influential and there’s no getting around it.

Influential isn’t the only criterion, of course. (Otherwise we’d probably have to put Gary Gygax and the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide in there. Hey, 20 million WoW players can’t be wrong!) But I don’t think you can compose a canon that just ignores the single most influential fantasy work of the last century.

Doug M.

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 10:42 am

@Doug M.:

My guess is that nobody’s as upset as it appears you think they ought to be about the stretch of work you describe as “mediocre” and “disappointing” because most of it merely happens to be Decent Fiction — or at the worst, Unremarkable Fiction — instead of Great Fiction (“everything she wrote was pretty much unreadable,” pshaw; fact is, LeGuin on a bad day is still better than 90% of what’s on the shelves). Had she ever deteriorated into pure self-caricature (latter-day Herbert, present-day Card) or mercenary hackwork (latter-day Asimov) I could better understand the dudgeon. But even had that happened: relevant as it would be to her personal writerly evolution, it still wouldn’t be relevant, as we appear to be agreed, as a criticism of the work that established her in the canon in the first place.

I completely agree, mind you, that a big-picture and thoroughgoing critique of her body of work as a whole is overdue. I don’t think such a critique could be both honest and as hostile-slash-dismissive as you appear to want it to be. And the implication that she ought to have just stopped long ago is as wildly off the mark as it’s possible to be; had she done that, she wouldn’t have produced The Birthday of the World and Lavinia, easily two of the best books of genre fiction in recent years IMO (I’d rank the story “Old Music and the Slave Women” alongside anything she did in the early years and rate it, in fact, as better writing than The Dispossessed).

Does she have consistent themes? Of course she does, most writers do. In her case: power, class, gender, race, the state, the nature of knowledge, problems of confrontation between alien cultures and worldviews. These would seem to me to be pretty large themes that can and should be revisited often; it’s telling (and an enormous knock against all this “smaller writer” business) that Tolkien thought to address not a one of them. If you sincerely imagine that her treatment of these subjects can be boiled down to a “startlingly small handful of platitudes,” I have no idea what writer you’re reading. She has a reasonably consistent set of moral stances — or at least a consistent thread of more-or-less feminist views, frequent sympathy for and focus on the underdog, a distrust of hubris and martialism and an interest in philosophies based on the indeterminacy (to some extent) of knowledge — but I fail to see how her treatment of these things lacks complexity or depth or interest, certainly not in her best work. I wouldn’t say her work is at the bleeding edge of philosophy or anything… but so what? That can’t be said of the people she’s being compared with either.

Speaking of which, since this was a comparative exercise: does Tolkien not have consistent themes? Is it not really quite easy, by contrast, to boil his moral stances down to a small set of platitudes (about the redemptive power of hope, the healing virtues of the pastoral countryside, the martial virtues of chivalric romance, the moral superiority of the well-to-do English burgher for whom the hobbits are as Marty a set of Stus as it gets), particularly since he spends much of LOTR rather gracelessly lecturing us about them at some length? It seems to me the primary virtues of Tolkien lay in his impressive worldbuilding — matched by few to this day — and his unerring grasp of what made for a good actioner (a virtue given short shrift by those who would now have us cast him as the sort of grandmaster theologian and trail-blazing moral philosopher he absolutely wasn’t). He at least knew better than most of his imitators ever did that his project needed a moral dimension, but as much as that provided a better grounding for his work, it’s hardly the same thing as his having had anything all that earth-shaking To Say in the bigger picture of things.

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Keir 11.28.09 at 11:12 am

In her case: power, class, gender, race, the state, the nature of knowledge, problems of confrontation between alien cultures and worldviews. These would seem to me to be pretty large themes that can and should be revisited often; it’s telling (and an enormous knock against all this “smaller writer” business) that Tolkien thought to address not a one of them

Hrm? Tolkien never addresses confrontations between alien cultures and worldviews? Even aside the glaring glaring example of the free West vs. Mordor, there’s the Elves and humans, and, of course, the hobbits and Bombadil.

Power: half of the Lord of the Rings is about the legitimate exercise of power (Boromir, Aragorn, Denethor, Theoden, Gandalf, the Ring etc.) Class? Samwise Gamgee, who is actually quite a sophisticated character*. Gender? OK, not a lot (tho Eowyn). Race? Yeah, again, a bit of a failure here. The state? Come on, there’s the Shire, there’s the Rohirrim, there’s the Stewardry, etc.

I mean, you probably don’t agree with lots of his conclusions, but that’s not a reason to say he doesn’t look at those issues. He’s actually quite expressive about his Tory anarchism — if I hear not allowed etc.

Further, you’re a bit sharp with the list of moral platitudes: if the hobbits are well to do English burghers, what about Sam, and the Elves? Also they fail to deal with the extent to which despair and desperation are important to Tolkien — Theoden before the Pelennor Field, especially the `feasting in the White Tower’ and the `world’s ending’ speeches, vs. the actions of Denethor.

* I am utterly convinced Gamgee becomes a sharp machine politician following the events of the LOTR; he’s got that Kennedy feel to him.

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 11:22 am

Best SF books, following on from McIntyre:

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem.
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh.
The Left Hand of Darkness by LeGuin.
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick.
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner.
Revelation Space by Alistiar Reynolds.

Much tougher than the fantasy list, and there are big gaps in my reading. (I’ve yet to read Riddley Walker, for instance, or Banks’ much-praised Culture books.)

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x. trapnel 11.28.09 at 11:58 am

Octavia Butler would have to be on any SF list, whether for Kindred or the Xenogenesis books or the Pattern books, no? So good.

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 12:03 pm

@Keir: Hrm? Tolkien never addresses confrontations between alien cultures and worldviews?

In anything approaching the depth that LeGuin does? Absolutely not. Such confrontations do feature in the narrative but they are far from its focus; in many cases they’re closer to being character quirks and plot devices than anything else.

Even aside the glaring glaring example of the free West vs. Mordor

That would be a glaring example of not dealing with such confrontations. Mordor and its various catspaws are collectively a largely motiveless cipher of evil, not a worldview or culture. (Saruman is about as fleshed-out a treatment of evil as it gets, and his is a simple and canonical fairy-tale villain’s motive: envy.)

Power: half of the Lord of the Rings is about the legitimate exercise of power (Boromir, Aragorn, Denethor, Theoden, Gandalf, the Ring etc.)

By “power” I mean the naturalistic or semi-naturalistic treatment of / imagining of political power. Themes of power in LoTR are byproducts of the basic juxtapositions between the forces of hope and despair, virtue and greed, the pastoral and industry. Not at all the same thing.

Class? Samwise Gamgee, who is actually quite a sophisticated character*.

Gamgee’s trajectory consists in evolving from a stereotypical loyal squire into a well-respected-burgher instead of starting out as the latter… and he’s a curious anomaly whose very presence points up the lack of any treatment of class as such in LoTR. Why exactly does he start out as the loyal squire? There’s nothing to suggest he’s less materially well off than the others. He doesn’t move in different social circles or seem to merit different treatment. So is there a class structure in the Shire that suggested that role to him? Do hobbit gardeners just take their duties that seriously? Or is he (as one is rather forced to suspect) an insertion of a Loyal Servant type into the story with all the icky class issues excised?

For that matter, what exactly do the economies of the various Middle Earth countries, the Shire included, rest on? Who knows? Tolkien certainly didn’t seem especially interested in exploring the question.

The state? Come on, there’s the Shire, there’s the Rohirrim, there’s the Stewardry, etc.

None of which are particularly realized as states. To the extent that functioning of states comes up at all, it’s incidental — again — to the basic machinations of Mordor against the forces of hope (Wormtongue vs. Theoden, Sauron vs. Denethor). Beyond that, it’s just not a question that Tolkien touches on.

Also they fail to deal with the extent to which despair and desperation are important to Tolkien

Not at all. All the platitudes about hope — sermonized at length — are explicitly counterpoints to despair and desperation. That’s why hope is such a major theme.

A lot of this, mind you, is just a product of the fact that Tolkien was writing a different sort of book. He doesn’t go into class and the details of politics in no small part because it’s an action romance. As far as it goes, that’s fine, I’m not ragging on him for having written the wrong genre of book. I’d just prefer that people not try to sell me on the supposed depth and profundity of the whole business to the extent of trying to convince me that it shames works of other authors which actually do display such depth.

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 12:39 pm

Dr. Slack, I submit that Malafrena, Orsinian Tales, most of the stories in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (and, geez, just the title there) and Sea Road, Tehanu, a Ride on the Red Mare and The Beginning Place are all mediocre books. By “mediocre” I mean either lacking in ambition, or falling fall short of their ambition, and some combination of stylistically unimpressive, poorly plotted, and afflicted by cliches, overt authorial intervention, and/or deeply uninteresting characters. There’s not a single book on that list I’d willingly read again, unless it were for critical purposes.

You’ll note that these all come from a period of a dozen or so years, roughly from Buffalo Gals to Four Ways to Forgiveness — which has plenty of problems, but at least is trying to wake up and move again.

I’ll freely confess to personal bias here: as a teenager in the 1980s, I spent several happy years devouring the backlists of SF and fantasy. Then I started hanging around bookstores waiting for the new stuff. Imagine being a high school or college kid eagerly anticipating the latest from the author of The Dispossessed, plunking down your hard-earned dollar, and walking home with… Always Coming Home. Or Catwings.

That said, it’s just not true that “bad LeGuin is still better than”. Bad LeGuin is /bad/.

Doug M.

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 1:16 pm

Okay, let’s take a single thread here and tease it out.

Power: LeGuin likes writing about power and its negative effects. (They are always negative effects.) It’s a theme that has popped up early and stayed constant; The Lathe of Heaven is all about trying to use power, The Dispossessed is about trying not to use it, first and third books of Earthsea are about trying to use it responsibly, Four Ways and Birthday of the World are about power interactions in alien societies, yadda yadda.

Here’s the thing: LeGuin thinks that using power is very dangerous, and that seeking power — over others, or over the “natural order of things” — is Bad. Almost all of her villains are power-seekers, and everyone who seeks power is either a villain or very, very misguided. And power-seeking always ends badly; The Lathe of Heaven would be Exhibit A here. (One thing that always bugged me about this book was the way the author was so determined to Monkeys-Paw the poor therapist. What, /all/ the wishes make things worse? Always? Because Lao Tzu said so? It’s a fairly egregious example of authorial deck-stacking.) (Also, she got the damn translation wrong: no lathes.)

And from this, we learn that… well, actually we don’t learn anything. Power is dangerous, seeking power over others is bad, bad men do it, and then bad things happen. That’s pretty much it for LeGuin on power. She recognizes the Nietzschean reality of the primate will to power… and she hates it. And that’s all. Ambiguity there is little. Positive aspects of power there are none. (One suspects that LeGuin never had to have a job where she had a manager — and so never learned to appreciate good management. Which is as real as good cooking, and even more important.) We see power corrupting or destroying, but never accomplishing, protecting, or, well, empowering. Power is dangerous, seeking it is bad, and that’s that. It’s a very weak and limited exploration of a large and interesting topic.

And there are consequences for the writing. Human relationships are often unequal, and so become power relationships. If your starting point is that power relationships are inherently corrupting, you’re sharply limiting your own scope. It becomes very difficult, for instance, to depict a group of people working together — that calls for a manager, captain or boss, and in a LeGuin story that person must necessarily be misguided or wicked.

Two examples from the Hainish stories: there’s the one where the starship captain — who is white and male, and this is particularly pointed out — lands on a planet where he’s worshipped as a god, and where he ends up getting carried away with the role and committing ritual suicide. (Because, see, that’s the sort of thing power makes you do!) Then there’s The Shobies Story, where the starship crew is in danger of going mad from conflicting realities imposed by FTL travel — and they solve the problem by sitting down together democratically in a circle and telling each other stories until they consensually arrive at a common narrative. As a reader already familiar with LeGuin, I saw both problem and solution coming from quite early on — but that didn’t make it any less annoying when it arrived.

So, when an author adopts a simplistic world-view that limits her possibilities for character growth and relationships, and makes many of her stories utterly predictable… well, there are a lot of ways you could describe this, but “smaller” seems like a convenient shorthand.

Doug M.

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Keir 11.28.09 at 1:17 pm

But despair isn’t a counterpoint to hope! Seriously, the Rohirrim ride from Helm’s Deep to the Pelennor Field quite explicitly without hope, without any real desire to do anything but do their duty. They don’t expect to win, and they don’t hope to win. They know that their duty is to die anyway, no matter.

Doesn’t touch on the machinery of State? There’s Bard & the Men of Dale, the various Dwarvish Kings, the interplay between Aragorn, Denethor, Boromir, and Faramir (notice how Aragorn sends the son of the Steward as far away as possible; that’s not a coincidence.) The Battle of Five Armies is possibly the only fantasy passage depicting a realistic conflict over resources. In fact, Tolkien’s pretty good at portraying self-interested actors who aren’t simply good vs evil. Yes, Tolkien doesn’t really conceive of the State as anything but a collection of Great Men, but that’s entirely consistent with the rest of his project, which is an argument for Great Men.

There’s nothing to suggest he’s less materially well off than the others. — Except for the fact he has to work for a living!

Again, the issue of Mordor. To someone living in Europe who fought in the First World War and then lived through the Second, terrible seemingly motiveless evil was quite a common thing. How could you explain the Western Front?

A lot of these arguments boil down to: I disagree with Tolkien’s politics. Which is fair enough, but that doesn’t mean that the Lord of the Rings isn’t brilliant at portraying a fully realised position. (And the English burgher thing (it isn’t burghers either (no burg), it’s the freeborn Englishman with his ancient rights and privileges) is actually quite an interesting part of his argument: the restoration of the Constitution etc, the way Tolkien moves between Gothicism and Toryism (synthesis in some ways of Whiggery/Toryism.)) It mightn’t be a position you like but that’s not the issue.

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 1:25 pm

“pure self-caricature (latter-day Herbert, present-day Card) or mercenary hackwork (latter-day Asimov)”

Card’s work — with which I am, unfortunately, tolerably familiar — is more of a piece than this suggests. He hasn’t changed that much over time. He’s just become more obviously himself.

Asimov’s nonfiction stayed sparkling and tight right up to the last year of his life. And “mercenary” is probably not correct — he was comfortably well off all through his later life. So his crappy later fiction was probably not so much about paying the bills as a combination of fanservice (hey, the kids want one more Robots book… why not?) and being Too Big To Edit (which has destroyed larger talents than his).

If you want to know what it looks like when a talented SF writer needs to pay some bills in a hurry, well, I mentioned the second Amber series upthread. Basically anything from the last 15 years of Zelazny’s life fits the bill. (More’s the pity, poor guy.)

Herbert, nobody knows what the hell. How /do/ you go from Dune to Charterhouse Dune? Medical problems?

SF as a field does seem prone to descents into self-parody and/or long-drawn-out tricklings away of talent. In addition to Zelazny, there’s late Heinlein, Niven after 1976, Ellison after 1980, Bradbury since the Kennedy administration… the list is long. Surprisingly few SF authors age well.

Doug M.

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Phil 11.28.09 at 1:27 pm

these all come from a period of a dozen or so years, roughly from Buffalo Gals to Four Ways to Forgiveness

A bit longer than that, I think.

1976 Orsinian Tales
1979 Malafrena
1980 The Beginning Place
1987 Buffalo Gals
1988 Catwings
1990 Tehanu
1991 Sea Road
1992 A Ride on the Red Mare’s Back
1994 A Fisherman of the Inland Sea
1995 Four Ways to Forgiveness

I’d say something happened between The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975) and The Compass Rose (1982). There are passages of mystery & wisdom & wonder in TCR, but there’s an awful lot of “whoo, look at all this mystery and wisdom and wonder!” (Mind you, on inspection I discover that it was TWTQ and not TCR which included “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, perhaps the most unwarrantedly complacent moral parable ever written.)

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novakant 11.28.09 at 2:21 pm

I have to admit that I’m not into fantasy at all, but I do remember spending every waking hour during five days reading “The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende when I was 10 or 11 – this was one of my earliest and most intense reading experiences.

112

Salient 11.28.09 at 2:39 pm

It definitely proves the quality of CT commenters that we’re >50 posts in and nobody’s said “But…Robert Jordan…”. Thank you.

It… eh… also proves I haven’t been around (though I’d have spoken up for L.E. Modesitt Jr. or William Morris, who both entertained me, instead of Robert Jordan, who irked me).

My experience with fantasy as a genre is principally from childhood but hopefully the following is interesting to folks. (I don’t mean to suggest by it that fantasy is in any way a childish genre, whatever that would mean.)

I grew up on Katherine Kerr and Madeline L’Engle and Katherine Kertz and Morgan Llywelyn and Tamora Pierce and …(slightly ashamed sigh)… yes, Anne McCaffrey. Dragons, okay? Dragons. And oh goodness, in third grade I could have told you all about Deryni, for hours, and Nywyn was like such a close friend to me…

I suppose all of the above authors write formulaic books, as these things go, and surely are undeserving of any ‘top six best’ list, but Pierce in particular did an excellent job alerting my very young self to the fact that women can, and ought, choose lives for themselves, and clarified that the structural social constraints which at times seem overwhelming and at times seem invisible or too personal. You know, the simple things about the life experience that one ‘learns’ in the sense of being attentive to those dimensions and oriented or predisposed to be attentive to them. I learned a lot of basic facts and notions about sexuality and gender from Alanna’s bindings, and her self-conception; and the book makes what Amanda Marcotte calls ‘the patriarchy’ quite visible as a social force, without being didactic. Because of this I understood the spirit behind the statement “well-behaved women rarely make history” as early as the third grade, and also doubled down on voraciousness in reading.

Since there’s no need for me to restrict my comment to the top six works and similarly no need to restrict to works adults will appreciate, I’ll go ahead and nominate Alanna: The First Adventure for the best-of list. It’s something to give your kids to read.

I also think Mindy Klasky is not terrible. And is it so horrible for me to think, privately up to this point, that female fantasy-genre authors > male fantasy-genre authors, hands down? Maybe it’s just that female authors I’ve read are more attuned-sensitive to, and therefore more responsive to, the heavily gendered social norms which inform fantasy cliches. I once argued that the Flintstones and the Jetsons were a conspiratorial plot to convince us that gendered social norms have always been with us and always will be, and insofar as there’s a grain of truth in that it carries over to the fantasy genre. The best fantasy might not be bright social commentary explicitly, but the best fantasy is definitely attentive to the structural reinforcements of identity that constitute the subject matter of bright social commentary. To borrow a line from John Holbo: you can learn from this stuff. (Especially when very young.)

The worst examples of fantasy-lit are such a space for grown-up boys to be boys, and the best examples of fantasy lit (from my very limited, childhood-oriented POV) are a space for girls to be boys, too. (Hence my recommendation of the Alanna books, which are perhaps the most explicit example of this.)

I think it would be quite funny if the narrator of Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norell met Stephen R. Donaldson face-to-face. I imagine she would just burst. out. laughing.

Does anyone else like The Devil Will Drag You Under?

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 3:46 pm

I liked The Devil Will Drag You Under. It’s Jack L. Chalker on a very good day.

Doug M.

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Daniel Rosenblatt 11.28.09 at 3:52 pm

@Kier
Yes, I’ve heard about Ihimaera – sad, though in some sense its always been obvious that the historical exposition mixed in with the fiction wasn’t his research (Keith Sinclair apparently says some of the stuff in the Matriarch was his). It would have been so easy to acknowledge & get permission, though I can see where he might not have wanted to disrupt the illusion that the history was part of the same voice as the narration. A complicated case, since (assuming the latest case was similar to the Matriarch) the novels depend on the quoted material and yet are clearly a separate work of art, a bit like sampling in music.

115

Cranky Observer 11.28.09 at 4:02 pm

> For that matter, what exactly do the economies of the various Middle
> Earth countries, the Shire included, rest on? Who knows? Tolkien certainly
> didn’t seem especially interested in exploring the question.

No need to say “seem”; in Tolkien’s collected letters there are at least two where he responds to 30-page inquiries from Ph.D candidates in Economics by saying “I don’t have a fully worked-out economy of Middle Earth and I have no interest in creating one.” Geologists apparently sent him similar inquiries quite often as well.

Cranky

116

Daniel Rosenblatt 11.28.09 at 4:03 pm

The science fiction is SO much easier than the fantasy (and I expect it would be a lot more varied). My list:
C.J Cherryh – Cyteen
Joan Vinge – Snow Queen
Samuel R. Delany – Nova
William Gibson – Neuromancer
C.S. Friedman – In Conquest Born
Frank Herbert – Dune (though it is tempting to try to make a case for Heretics)

(And as an aside, The WORST science fiction novel ever written? A however-many-way tie between all the Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson Dune prequels, sequels and in-fillings. The Butlarian Juhad books are American Psycho without the literary ambition.)

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Ray 11.28.09 at 5:42 pm

“I do remember spending every waking hour during five days reading “The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende when I was 10 or 11″

That’s interesting, because I just read it last week. I thought it was too long, too portentous, just not much of a read – but also as the kind of book that, if it caught you at the right time, could really suck you in.

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Farren Hayden 11.28.09 at 5:43 pm

Doctor Slack at #98 was dead on.

119

Farren Hayden 11.28.09 at 6:07 pm

Best SF list (in no particular order, and would probably be different if listed tomorrow):

Snowcrash – Neil Stephenson
Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
A Canticle for Liebowitz – Walter Miller Jr
Dune – Frank Herbert
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
A Canticle for Liebowitz – Walter Miller Jr
Something by Philip K Dick but I can’t make up my mind.

Authors who will never appear on my best of list and why (specifically, well known and popular authors)

Azimov – Occasionally good concepts, but childishly naive renditions of future phenomena. The 3 laws of robotics being encoded in future robots’ brains were simplistic and unsophisticated enough to be utterly unconvincing, as was his rendering (if not the idea) of psychohistory. Vanilla prose.

Clarke – fantastic descriptions of alien technology and geniunely convincing detail but plodding pace and wooden characters. Clarke writes like a man who loves science has very little intuitive understanding of people, IMHO a critical failing in any author (who writes about people).

120

Farren Hayden 11.28.09 at 6:08 pm

Oops. Walter Miller got two mentions for the same book. Also, I’m drunk.

121

Farren Hayden 11.28.09 at 6:12 pm

A special mention has to be dropped in for Alfred Bester’s Golum 100 for its innovative use of Rorschach-like ink blotches and musical scores in the midst of prose.

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 7:22 pm

@Doug: “Card’s work—with which I am, unfortunately, tolerably familiar—is more of a piece than this suggests. He hasn’t changed that much over time. He’s just become more obviously himself.”

Well put. I agree with the rest of 106 as well.

On Le Guin:

“LeGuin thinks that using power is very dangerous, and that seeking power—over others, or over the “natural order of things”—is Bad.”

She has some pretty fundamental anarchist inclinations, true. If this constrains her work in some ways — and it does — it’s no more of a constraint than the converse power fantasies that obsess so many fantasy and SF writers. Her grounds for the responsible use of power is, it could fairly consistently be said, that it be in some degree either democratic or self-aware or wary of hubris.

Are there flaws in this? Sure, sometimes, although “positive aspects of power there are none” is just false (characters like Estraven, Ged, Rocannon, the Athsheans from the Word for World is Forest tend to disprove it), and again if you’re not seeing “ambiguity” I just don’t know which writer you’re reading, though she’s less ambiguous in treatment of her villains than of her protagonists (a failing also of Tolkien’s and of about a gajillion bajillion other writers, so I’ll cut her some slack). I don’t agree with her politics either, and there are occasions when her assumptions are groan-inducing; but let’s face it, there’s plenty of fantasy of which this is true in different ways. Tolkien’s writing is no less constrained by his politics, which in many respects aren’t especially well worked through either.

“It becomes very difficult, for instance, to depict a group of people working together—that calls for a manager, captain or boss, and in a LeGuin story that person must necessarily be misguided or wicked.”

To put it another way, management, captains and bosses frequently are misguided or wicked. Le Guin tends to focus on this in much of her work, where other writers (like our good Professor) tend to avoid it. She has different priorities. That is okay.

It’s particularly okay because LeGuin’s politics also opens up possibilities for stories of the kind we rarely get from a genre largely obsessed with military and quest fantasies and general derring-do. I don’t see why this is supposed to be “smaller,” it’s simply different. We gain from it books with much richer treatment of characters, of the subtle perversions of power (territory Tolkien can only approach in the broadest possible strokes), of the thorny process of trying to figure the other guy out, than is native to much of sci fi and certainly to much of fantasy.

I shan’t argue with you about your frustration with her back catalogue. I haunted libraries, not bookstores, so I didn’t plunk down much in the way of my hard-earned to read Four Ways to Forgiveness. Perhaps I’d be angrier with it if I had. There’s also some fundamental incommensurability of aesthetics going on, I think — I’m utterly baffled that anyone could dislike such profitable excursions outside genre fiction as Orsinian Tales and Malafrena. (I would be inclined to dismiss as an impossibility the scenario of a teenager buying Catwings without noticing it was a children’s book… except there’s something in your delivery that hints it’s not an impossibility at all. If not, my sympathies.)

@Keir: “Yes, Tolkien doesn’t really conceive of the State as anything but a collection of Great Men, but that’s entirely consistent with the rest of his project, which is an argument for Great Men.”

That’s… sort of what I meant.

“Except for the fact he has to work for a living!”

Does he? How much? Why? Would he starve if he didn’t? Who knows? The general impression we’re given is that he’s the moral equivalent of a neighbourhood kid who comes round to mow Frodo’s lawn… but whatever the case is, what’s going on here is simply not a treatment of “class.”

“To someone living in Europe who fought in the First World War and then lived through the Second, terrible seemingly motiveless evil was quite a common thing.”

Was it? All the participants in both those conflicts were generally pretty clear about their motives. The evil would only seem motiveless if you weren’t paying attention.

But you’re quite wrong, this does not at all boil down to disagreement with Tolkien’s politics. Not that I agree with his politics tout court either, but Tolkien’s a perfectly okay sort as a Tory of his age goes. That doesn’t change the fact that there are things that LoTR simply does not do, and that his writing really is not aiming to treat in depth. I have an issue with attempts to plumb LoTR to fathoms where it simply doesn’t go. It’s an action romance. It is okay for it to just be an action romance.

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William Burns 11.28.09 at 8:35 pm

You seriously think Tolkein doesn’t deal with wicked or misguided management, captains and bosses? A short list:
Denethor
Sauron
Saruman
The Sackville-Bagginses
Theoden in his listening to Wormtongue phase
Balin son of Fundin, Lord of Moria
And a ton of characters from the Silmarillion.

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Doug M. 11.28.09 at 8:55 pm

Doctor Slack, it’s evening here, and I must to bed. More generally, I suspect we’re approaching the limits of constructive disagreement in this particular forum. I don’t mean by this that anyone is losing their cool, but rather that there’s only so far you can go in a blog comments thread. It seems like a discussion that we could profitably continue over a stack of books and a beer, should you ever be passing through Central Europe.

A few points. My younger self was not surprised or upset that Catwings was a book for kids — that was obvious. He was surprised and upset that it was a dull and badly written book for kids.

Positive aspects of power: note that the complexity and ambiguity you cite is all from earlier works. And Ged actually uses power against man or nature very few times, and they tend to be either against direct and obvious threats (the barbarian invaders, the dragon) or, in the first book, going horribly wrong. The paragon of wizardry, we are shown, is his master — who is almost never shown doing much at all. (He wrestles down the earthquake, but that happens years earlier and off camera.)

Your third paragraph seems to be saying “she’s usually no worse than lots of other people”. Well…

(I’m not sure why you keep bringing up Tolkein as a comparandum? I haven’t said anything about him except that he’s impossible to ignore. Although since you bring it up, there’s an interesting one-chapter-a-week reading of Tolkein going on over at tor.com. They’re up to the second part of the second book, and the reading is very close. I mention it because they’re making a pretty good case that there are indeed depths there beyond ‘just an action-romance’. I don’t really have a dog in that particular fight, but if you’re interested, stroll on over and give a look.)

Captains, bosses and managers are often wicked or misguided: sure. But it’s annoying to grind up against an ingrained assumption that they /always/ are, because they always /must/ be. It’s not really correct to say this opens up different kinds of stories if the author can’t imagine telling the story any other way.

I may be doing LeGuin an injustice here, but I have a lingering suspicion that this is an artifact of her upbringing. She grew up in a comfortable upper-middle-class academic household, went to Radcliffe and Columbia, then settled down to a decade as an academic wife who did a little writing on the side. As far as I can tell, she never had to hold down a job, nor be involved with any project larger than the departmental Christmas party. Under those circumstances, sure — it’s easy to be an anarchist, and view all power relationships as foolish or corrupting. (God, that idiot department head!). But it’s not exactly Emma Goldman, or even Virginia Woolf. And holding a day job, in the broad sense, is part of the human experience. So getting lectured about human power relationships by someone who was allowed to mostly opt out of them… well, for this reader it leaves an unpleasant virgin-telling-me-how-sex-works aftertaste. YMMV.

I’d add in passing that this is probably the biggest weakness in The Dispossessed — she never does quite manage to convince the reader how that society gets anything done. Roads built, dams raised, lights kept on, all by consensual volunteers? She tries hard, so one is willing to grant WSOD, but it’s a fairly big hole.

Anyway: if you’re going to pat Tolkein on the head and say he’s a decent enough old fellow for an Edwardian Tory, then you should note in fairness that LeGuin is equally a product of her background, which was comfortable, very academic, and quite sheltered from various harsh social and economic realities.

Also, she swiped The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain — it’s the scene in the chapter “Snow”, where Hans Castorp dreams of the witches tearing the child to pieces, and so bringing wealth and peace to the town below.

Ahem. I could go on, but this is quite long enough. Let us agree to disagree for now; thank you for your interest and patience.

best regards,

Doug M.

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 9:26 pm

Doug: I agree that we’re kind of at the limits of the blog comments format. A couple of last notes:

note that the complexity and ambiguity you cite is all from earlier works.

So it (mostly) is. I thought we were already generally agreed that the earlier works are the pivotal ones on the whole. (Though again, she’s bucked this trend in later life. There’s a ton of complexity and ambiguity to be had in Lavinia, or in the presentation of various sides in many of the Birthday of the World stories.)

I’m not sure why you keep bringing up Tolkein as a comparandum?

Because the originator of the “smaller writer” remark was (at least it seemed to me) using him as one. I thought you were agreeing with them. If not, then “smaller than whom, exactly” becomes another can of worms.

It’s not really correct to say this opens up different kinds of stories if the author can’t imagine telling the story any other way.

If a specific politics channels a writer’s imagination in a certain direction that’s different from the norm, I don’t see how that isn’t opening up different kinds of stories…

I’d add in passing that this is probably the biggest weakness in The Dispossessed—she never does quite manage to convince the reader how that society gets anything done.

That’s just a basic flaw of anarchist utopias in general, IMO. Her achievement was at least partly that she did take a stab at the problem and consider ways in which the project might go wrong.

if you’re going to pat Tolkein on the head. . .

I might even give him a cookie if he’s been very good. Oh wait, he’s dead. No cookie for you, Professor!

I don’t know enough of Le Guin’s biography to assess your speculations about it, but everyone is rather obviously a product of their background. Did I seem to be portraying her as springing from the brow of a deity? I was simply taking issue with the “smaller writer” characterization, which looks false to me. Having flaws and limitations is a basic trait of the best names in the genre, and I’m just not convinced that her flaws and limitations make her “smaller” than any other writer in that league.

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roac 11.28.09 at 9:44 pm

The single wrongest thing that has been said on this thread is that Tolkien has no moral vision worth talking about. It’s not less wrong because the opinion gets expressed with some frequency — by Pratchett, among others.*

In fact, Tolkien’s particular excellence is that LotR consistently and artfully embodies throughout a remarkable and radical Catholic version of Kantian ethics.

That’s the assertion. The demonstration will follow. It will be as short as I can make it, but still probably too long for blogpost etiquette. Sorry. One or two may wish to read it.

Pratchett’s moral philosophy, as far as I can judge, is Mammyyokumism: “Good is better than evil because it’s nicer!”

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joel hanes 11.28.09 at 9:45 pm

I think these Le Guin books are unjustly neglected,
although I wouldn’t put any of them in a list of
the top six fantasy novels evar:
_Planet_of_Exile_ (lousy title, great anthropology premise, not fantasy)
_Rocannon’s_World_ (the closest to fantasy of the Hainish cycle)
_The_Telling_

I’m surprised _Watership_Down_ didn’t make anyone’s list.

I do enjoy George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice cycle; I hope he finishes it well. Or at all.

And Bujold’s Chalion cycle started well in the first volume, but IMHO then declined.

for top science fiction ever ? tough choices
_The_War_of_the_Worlds_, H.G. Wells
_The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness_, LeGuin
_Dune_, Herbert (“The highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences”)
_Stand_on_Zanzibar_, Brunner
(cheating; anthology. still:) _Dangerous_Visions_, ed. Harlan Ellison
_The_First_Men_In_The_Moon_, H.G. Wells
_The_Sparrow_, Mary Doria Russell
_Earth_Abides_, Stewart

hon. mentions
_Reindeer_Moon_, Thomas
_Gateway_, Fred Pohl
_The_Forever_War_, Joe Haldeman
_Ringworld_, Niven (wooden characters, interesting aliens, great premise)
_Lucifer’s_Hammer_, Niven/Pournell (wooden characters, great story)
_Snowcrash_, Stephenson
_Doomsday_Book_, Willis

sentimental favorites
_More_Than_Human_, Sturgeon
_To_Your_Scattered_Bodies_Go_, Farmer
(horrible writing; the author was the model for Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout.)

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joel hanes 11.28.09 at 9:46 pm

sigh. next time I’ll pay attention to the preview.

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Walt 11.28.09 at 9:51 pm

It’s a trick question. There have only ever been 5 good fantasy novels.

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JanieM 11.28.09 at 9:53 pm

Ah, someone finally mentioned The Sparrow. Seconded.

And, since I’m adding a word — this has been a great thread. Thanks to everyone for all the reading suggestions, as well as for the thoughtful analysis and commentary.

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bob mcmanus 11.28.09 at 9:56 pm

The LOTR close reading a Tor.com is good enough to get a link, and I am someone who was deep in the Tolkien webweeds during the movies.

I don’t feel I have ever, not have I read many that have ever, really plumbed the depths of Tolkien. I think Tolkien ranks perhaps as high as any writer in the 20th century.

Who is the Lord of the Rings? Sauron simply does not control the Three. The One Ring, partly sentient and with a will of its own due to containing part of Sauron Sauron doesn’t control, rules the Ringbearer and the Quest (and I posit, the Three). What does the One Ring want? To return to Mordor and return to Sauron, who cannot leave Mordor. Would the One Ring ever trust itself in the temporary possession of the Nazgul? To the re-possession of Gollum? Of course not. Half-Sauron in Mordor is a bit mad and a lot stupid. The One is his better half.

The One Ring is power itself. Power Itself. It is my contention the The One Ring is controlling the actions and decisions of every other character, especially and most subtly the Three, which are also subtly tho not invisibly influencing the narrative, throughout the books.

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bob mcmanus 11.28.09 at 10:01 pm

One of the articles at Tor explores LOTR ( and Silmarillon as a meta-fiction.

Essentially, Bilbo is translating ancient and partially destroyed texts, and Tolkien doing the same with Bilbo’s work. Frodo is working off memory and hobbit diaries. These sources are explicitly stated to be not entirely trustworthy for any number of reasons.

Who knows what really happened on Mount Doom?

Post-modernist fiction.

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William Burns 11.28.09 at 10:15 pm

British male fantasy writers all seem to have this weird Oedipal thing going on with Tolkien–it’s not just Pratchett–Pullman, Mieville, and Moorcock have all gone after him at one time or another.

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 10:22 pm

“Tolkien’s particular excellence is that LotR consistently and artfully embodies throughout a remarkable and radical Catholic version of Kantian ethics . . . ” “I think Tolkien ranks perhaps as high as any writer in the 20th century.”

… aaaand this is precisely the sort of thing I had in mind WRT over-the-top praise of the Professor. I’ve seen many-and-many an exposition on these and similar themes, and, well, no. Just no*. He was a good action novelist and worldbuilder, in terms of moral vision very much a man of his day, who has been rather ill-served IMO by persistent attempts to build him posthumously into something grander. Though it’s a bit unjust to compare Tolkien to a hack like George Lucas, I can’t help but be reminded in some respects of the one-time, pre-prequels vogue for grandiose readings of the Star Was saga through the lens of Joseph Campbell.

(* I mean, do have it, gentlemen, just understand that I’ve been at the point of agreeing to disagree with this mode of Tolkienology for a rather long time at this point, and with no little cause. We’ve been around this track before.)

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Doctor Slack 11.28.09 at 10:28 pm

British male fantasy writers all seem to have this weird Oedipal thing going on with Tolkien

Probably on account of the bookshelves groaning under the weight of his copycats and the exaggerated reverence professed for him by many fantasy readers. It’s hard not to have to come to grips somehow with Tolkien, I’m sure even for many non-British male fantasy writers.

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Ray 11.28.09 at 10:33 pm

Oh God, someone mentioned The Sparrow. Thanks a lot, you bastard. It took my willing suspension of belief months to get over that, and now it’s gone off to cry in a corner again. You can expect a bill from its therapist.

Oh, and I bow to no-one in my admiration for Tolkien. I was the kid who re-read LotR every year, read the books again before the movies came out and enjoyed them all over again (and thought the movies were empty spectacle that messed up most of the scenes – just like the Watchmen movie but that’s another argument). But still, there is no point looking for class analysis, sociological depth, economics, politics, or examinations of the interface of different cultures in Tolkien. They aren’t there. Not even slightly.
Which is cool. What is there is very good. It’s not that Tolkien tried and failed to put some other stuff in, he wasn’t interested in it and didn’t see the point in faking it. You don’t read Philip Roth for the made-up languages and mythical world-building, you don’t read Tolkien to learn how the environment you grow up means you can’t really avoid growing up as the kind of guy who goes around throwing magical artifacts into volcanoes.

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Moby Hick 11.28.09 at 10:49 pm

128/9 is the weirdest reading of Tolkien I’ve heard.

Sauron simply does not control the Three.

Sauron is the Lord of the Rings. He doesn’t control the Three because he doesn’t physically possess the One Ring. He doesn’t physically possess the One Ring because the elves and men of Númenor were once stronger than Sauron.

It is my contention the The One Ring is controlling the actions and decisions of every other character, especially and most subtly the Three, which are also subtly tho not invisibly influencing the narrative, throughout the books.

The One Ring is influencing the actions of the characters, but hardly controlling them. It is clearly a temptation to seize power for selfish aims, but several characters (Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn, etc.) resist this temptation. Given that the Three are worn by Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel, I don’t see how you can say that the One controls the Three.

Of course the Three are influencing the narrative. Gandalf is wearing one of them and he is, to the extent that he can, trying to steer events. There are other subtle powers at work. The Valar are influencing events by proxy (i.e. sending Gandalf and sending him back) and through subtle background actions. Right at the beginning, Gandalf tells Frodo that he was meant to have the Ring. And Gandalf is very open about the fact that he is following orders.

As for 129, Toklien himself held out the meta-fiction that Bilbo/Frodo’s book was found in historical times and that is how the story is known. But the idea that anything Frodo or Bilbo reported from direct experience is unreliable is unique, by which I mean bizarre.

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JanieM 11.28.09 at 10:57 pm

It is clearly a temptation to seize power for selfish aims, but several characters (Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn, etc.) resist this temptation.

“Etc.” including Sam, memorably, when he crosses over into Mordor bearing the ring.

139

Moby Hick 11.28.09 at 11:00 pm

“Etc.” including Sam, memorably, when he crosses over into Mordor bearing the ring.

I left off Sam (and Bilbo) because they could be tempted by the One, but they clearly could not wield it. They could be used by the One, but they couldn’t use it for anything much.

140

Anderson 11.28.09 at 11:11 pm

Any list of “best fantasy novels” that doesn’t include LOTR is sorely in need of a definition of “best” or “fantasy” or “novel” that explains its counterintuitive result.

I mean, come on. It’s like “Six Best Modernist Novels” without Ulysses. You may not *like* Joyce, but the issue was “best” not “favorite.”

(Some people seem to think that “flawed” = “not best.” Everything is flawed.)

141

JanieM 11.28.09 at 11:11 pm

Moby Hick — That’s true. I mentioned Sam mostly because I’ve always like that scene, but also, even if their capacity to wield the ring is different, there are interesting echoes in the various scenes where we get to follow the thought train of someone tempted to use the ring, or wishing he (Boromir) could have the chance. The similarity between the tempting visions of Galadriel and Sam is what I was mostly thinking of.

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Moby Hick 11.28.09 at 11:27 pm

138: Yes, that was a very good scene. I’d never thought to compare it to Galadriel’s temptation before. It’s a funny image that way.

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Substance McGravitas 11.28.09 at 11:37 pm

Any list of “best fantasy novels” that doesn’t include LOTR is sorely in need of a definition of “best” or “fantasy” or “novel” that explains its counterintuitive result.

It’s not counterintuitive to have a personal list which does not include things you dislike.

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Farren Hayden 11.28.09 at 11:43 pm

Doctor Slack has said everything I have to say about LoTR, only more eloquently than I could (esp. the connection to pre-prequel SW fandom). I have fond memories of reading the trilogy but the depth some claim is simply not in the books, but in the minds of too-worshipful readers, IMHO. JRRT did a lot of things right but among them is not a nuanced moral subtext, and certainly not anything resembling pomo playfulness.

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Anderson 11.28.09 at 11:57 pm

It’s not counterintuitive to have a personal list which does not include things you dislike.

See “best” vs. “favorite” above.

JRRT did a lot of things right but among them is not a nuanced moral subtext, and certainly not anything resembling pomo playfulness

Okay, but these are not essential qualities of “fantasy” writing. “Six Most Morally Nuanced, Pomo-Playful Fantasy Novels” is a different list.

Dr. Slack is correct as far as it goes, but that’s just an argument against putting LOTR on “Six Best [20th-Century] Novels,” which I agree would not be proper.

The ambition, success, and influence of LOTR are tremendous. The fact that it’s spawned so much crappy imitation is not a mark against it.

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bob mcmanus 11.28.09 at 11:59 pm

Given that the Three are worn by Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel, I don’t see how you can say that the One controls the Three.

Of course the Three are influencing the narrative. Gandalf is wearing one of them and he is, to the extent that he can, trying to steer events.

You are underestimating the Rings, who are to some degree independent agents (corrupting the Nazgul, destroying the dwarves). To see what the Three are doing in LOTR, you must ask what the One would need them to do. As is the case with Frodo, the Ringbearers don’t always recognize or acknowledge the One’s influence on their behavior.

“In the Third Age Círdan, recognizing Gandalf’s true nature as one of the Maiar from Valinor, gave him the ring [Narya] to aid him in his labours. It is described as having the power to inspire others to resist tyranny, domination, and despair (in other words, evoking hope in others around the wielder), as well as giving resistance to the weariness of time”

The One needed Narya to inspire and support the Fellowship in Rivendell. The One needed the Fellowship to get past its single greatest danger…Saruman. Once past Saruman, the One no longer needed the Fellowship, at least as companions to Frodo.
But Saruman was still and always a danger to the One, so Saruman needed to be distracted, and Narya was put to another task.

Sauron is the Lord of the Rings.

The inscription says “One Ring to Rule Them All” If you look above to the description of Narya, it describes what Narya does, not how Gandalf uses it. There are plenty of examples of the Rings controlling Ringbearers.

I don’t ever remembering anyone asking how Sauron controls the Nazgul without the One.

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Anderson 11.29.09 at 12:04 am

I don’t ever remembering anyone asking how Sauron controls the Nazgul without the One.

IIRC, Frodo asks whether he couldn’t control them himself, and Gandalf says something about Frodo’s will being insufficiently trained in domination. The One Ring is a bit like a sword — you can’t just carry it, you have to train in its use.

… The “Lorded by the Rings” thesis is interesting, but the One actively wants to return to Sauron, not merely to do bad stuff itself. Sauron put much of himself into it, so its will is presumably his will. And re: the Three, it’s noted that they are the only Rings that Sauron never touched, i.e., played no part in making. Why then the One can control them is the real mystery to me. The implication in the book is that only on Sauron’s finger can it do so, but that doesn’t answer the question.

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Substance McGravitas 11.29.09 at 12:21 am

See “best” vs. “favorite” above.

If you do not like them, you have a pretty good argument for why they can’t be part of your “best” list.

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bob mcmanus 11.29.09 at 12:22 am

And I consider general accessibility very important, which is why I rank Tolstoy above Proust, Joyce, Mann, Pynchon. Certainly bestseller status does not in itself confer greatness upon a book, but I do have difficulty in assigning, without blushing, top rank to books few read and even fewer understand and very few enjoy.

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TheSophist 11.29.09 at 12:51 am

Damn, this is a good thread. I don’t mean to send everybody hurtling off in yet another direction (well…maybe I do…) but I’ve been reading the new Faye book on Heidegger, and I can’t help thinking (there’s nothing in Faye that I’m using to support this – it’s just my amateur gloss on some of the later Heidegger that I’ve read) that LOTR is a novel that Heidegger could have written. If memory serves me, every time “machine” or similar is used anywhere in LOTR it is referring to tools used for evil, and certainly Hobbits and Elves seem connected to their environment (their “dasein”?) in a way in which orcs aren’t. Anybody who understands Heidegger out there willing to tell me how wrong I am? (I know I’m greatly oversimplifying “The Question concerning Technology” but I don’t think i’m misreading it.)

Oh, and apropos of nothing – my father was actually taught by JRRT at Oxford in the early ’50s, and described him as a painfully boring lecturer who would just mumble through his notes, but occasionally look up and smile the most wonderful smile…

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Kaveh 11.29.09 at 1:01 am

I haven’t read most of the books other people have listed here. My list would have to include (in no particular order):

the original Icewind Dale trilogy by R A Salvatore
LOTR
A Wizard of Earthsea
the Song of Ice and Fire series (especially the later books)
The Thousand and One Nights

To make a more complete list, alongside the 1001 Nights, one should probably include a Chinese classic such as Journey to the West/The Monkey King, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or Outlaws of the Marsh. I haven’t read more than a few chapters of any of these last three, so I can’t really say much that is specific.

The original Icewind Dale trilogy by R A Salvatore was one of the books I most enjoyed. It does very little of the deep and ambitious world-building that Tolkien’s work does, so maybe it’s more appropriate to call them action novels in a fantastical setting? But I think Salvatore’s weaving stories out of Drizzt Do’Urden as mainly just an athlete is an interesting accomplishment of a different sort. I haven’t tried to go back and read Icewind Dale since I first read it in junior high, so who knows. It certainly was popular, and maybe it’s better to look to other genres for depth of political or social thinking in the way we usually conceive of those things. I think Salvatore does whatever he does more effectively than Le Guin or Tolkien express any political ideas through fantasy writing.

re Le Guin, I’m surprised that The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be consistently taken more seriously than A Wizard of Earthsea. LHOD had an interesting premise, but didn’t really develop it into anything. I mean, the consequences that she suggests for people not having a fixed gender are mostly somewhat predictable. Her characterizations of people and culture are so minimalistic–something that seems to be a consistent characteristic of her style, and which works better in her other writing–it felt like she was not putting her money where her mouth is. Yes, you can propose a world where people don’t have a fixed gender, but what does that really feel like? What kind of stories do they tell? What songs do they sing? What do they eat? She keeps hinting that the differences between them and ourselves are extremely subtle and hard to characterize, apart from some obvious things that might also be the result of the frigid climate, and in that way, it seems to avoid really telling us anything. I felt a little cheated at the end.

Wizard of Earthsea is just beautiful writing and Le Guin’s penchant for clever wordplay and spare, minimalistic narrative really worked well with that book’s theme of language and names. But I felt like the series had already fallen apart or at least taken on a lot of water by the second book, Temples of Atuan, where instead of providing us with an interesting yin-and-yang-type duality, or even a kind of challenged duality where one side is inferior but still necessary–we get a duality that is heavily stacked in one direction, where the yin side is practically irredeemable, and her world-building degenerates into trite Orientalism, thinly concealing the racism inherent in this by changing around the skin colors.

I’d rank the Ice and Fire series as among the fantasy or scifi writing I’ve most enjoyed, but I think its cleverness lies mainly in how Martin engages with the problems of writing narrative history–making a history out of the ephemera usually left out of narrative history. His world-building is not ambitious at all, really the only interesting thing about it, to me, it is how he comes to terms with the Tolkinien cliches of orcs and magic.

Arabian Nights/1001 Nights adheres to such different generic conventions than any fantasy novels we read now that it provides a very different experience from reading LOTR, but certainly rivals it in terms of cultural impact.

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monboddo 11.29.09 at 1:07 am

Sorry to bring it up, but I don’t want to let Doug’s comment about Le Guin go: “As far as I can tell, she never had to hold down a job, nor be involved with any project larger than the departmental Christmas party. Under those circumstances, sure—it’s easy to be an anarchist, and view all power relationships as foolish or corrupting. (God, that idiot department head!) . . . . And holding a day job, in the broad sense, is part of the human experience.”

I don’t know all the details of Le Guin’s life, but I believe she was married to an academic and was responsible for raising three children while trying to get some writing done in whatever quiet moments she could find. This seems a far cry from the life of leisure Doug paints. Serving as the chief caregiver for three children involves — indeed, is — “a project much larger than the Christmas party,” and can teach one a great deal about power relationships (among other things). And when done right, it’s a lot tougher than “holding a day job.” As to why there is such a knee-jerk denigration of the role of homemaker, or the belief that holding a paying job is what is needed to learn about how the world works, well, that’s a topic for another thread…

(But I have to admit, Catwings wasn’t very good)

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parsimon 11.29.09 at 1:15 am

LOTR is a novel that Heidegger could have written

What?

No, I can’t answer substantially at this time, no. I mean, sure, I suppose he could have, if he had the chops. He might not have been interested enough.

To bob. Your And I consider general accessibility very important is deeply troublesome. I can’t believe you said that. I seriously doubt any of the titles anyone else has suggested for greatness in fantasy fiction are inaccessible.

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David 11.29.09 at 1:27 am

For my money and reading pleasure, Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion Tetralogy is quite superior to LOTR.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangeline_Walton, for anyone who is interested.

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David 11.29.09 at 1:37 am

I can’t let Joel Hane’s comment at 124 go uncorrected. The connection between Philip Jose Farmer, Kurt Vonnegut Jr and Kilgore Trout was not a case of Vonnegut modeling bad writer Trout on Farmer. Quite the contrary. Under the name Kilgore Trout Farmer publishe Venus on the Half Shell , which for quite a few years was widely assumed to actually be by Vonnegut (this was actually taught in college lit classes), who was rather irritated that it achieved best seller status. As far as I’m concerned, the comment does a disservice to both writers.

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roac 11.29.09 at 1:53 am

Start with the question: What do Tolkien’s Wise people have in common?

With few but significant exceptions, the answer is: they never interfere with the free moral choice of any other person. Examples are found throughout; to take just one, note the care with which everyone refrains from putting the slightest pressure on Frodo at the climax of the Council of Elrond.

This refusal is carried to lengths which in the real world would be utterly insane. When the Fellowship comes to Lorien, Galadriel reads each of their minds and learns that Boromir is overwhelmingly tempted to seize the ring by force. His success would mean the End of the World; she has ample power to restrain him when the others leave; and yet she doesn’t. Why?

Tolkien’s Catholicism suggests an answer: Boromir like Frodo, and by extension everyone else, is in a personal and unique relationship with the Creator who is implied but never directly manifested. Each is being set tests. To constrain anyone’s actions, by direct coercion or by persuasion, is to interfere with his or her test. (Frodo, in a nice grace note, is of course Galadriel’s test, as she recognizes.)

I said “few exceptions. The significant exception is Gollum, who is as utterly corrupt as a free rational creature can get, and whose corruption is manifested by the ugliness of his every physical aspect. When Aragorn the destined King captures Gollum, he “ma[de] him walk before me with a halter on his neck, gagged, until he was tamed by lack of food and drink . . .”

When Frodo captures Gollum, he too ties him, but “Gollum began to scream, a thin tearing sound, very horrible to hear.” (On the level of plot, the rope pains Gollum because it is an Elvish rope; which in another system of symbolism means that he is so deeply warped that the action of Grace is unbearable.) Frodo cannot let Gollum go, but he offeres him the option of binding himself with an oath. Gollum chooses to swear on the Ring and sets his final destruction in motion.

The next few chapters contain the most significant movement of the book, as Frodo, increasingly repelled by Gollum’s presence, at the same time comes to recognize their kinship. The climax comes when Frodo instructs Faramir’s men to blindfold him and Sam before doing the same to Gollum, in order to allay Gollum’s fear of imminent torture or death. Again, this echoes Aragorn’s similar action to soothe Gimli in Lothlorien — but that was an exercise of leadership, and Frodo’s is an act of sheer empathy.

The way the story plays out does not need recital. The point, spelled out explicitly enough by Tolkien, is that Frodo is the chosen Ringbearer precisely because of his ability to deal with Gollum as a person and not a thing.

157

bob mcmanus 11.29.09 at 2:07 am

150:To bob. Your And I consider general accessibility very important is deeply troublesome

Shrugs. High/Low culture stuff. For some meanings of “can,” I have trouble deciding whether saying “anyone can read Finnegan’s Wake or saying “few can read FW” is more arrogant. And I consider the time I put into FW questionable, perhaps even a moral failing. That FW demands such dedication is…barbaric.

I can’t believe you said that.

You have never noticed my intellectual anti-intellectualism? My nascent fascism or Stalinism? I fight my barbarism every day.

I am a modernist. Intellectual culture testing its limits in order to interrogate its worth is part of what I see modernism being about. Nietzsche. Soren K. Heidegger. Doktor Faustus. The project was not resolved, but abandoned as being too ambitious and dangerous.

I, and others above in the thread, found Peake, some Wolfe, some Crowley fairly inaccessible.

158

bob mcmanus 11.29.09 at 2:20 am

I don’t know, parsi, what do “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” or “Rite of Spring” say to you?

Little darlin, it’s been a long and lonely winter

Here comes the Somme.

I am repulsed by my age’s optimism. Tolkien was a tragic author.

159

roac 11.29.09 at 2:22 am

.. . . and there’s lots more where 153 came from.

As nearly as I can determine, the “no moral nuance in LotR” trope comes from the correct observation that there is none, or not much, on the Mordor side of the war. But Tolkien isn’t interested in Sauron; Sauron is a given. He’s interested in the reaction to Sauron of those on the other side.

Within the past year, I have been entertaining the idea that the real villain of the book is Denethor. This is probably not correct, but I was influenced by his resemblance to Dick Cheney – here’s Denethor on the duty to waterboard:

“I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. . . . But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.”

So be it,” said Faramir.

“So be it!” cried Denethor. But not with your death only, Lord Faramir, but with the death of your father and all your people, whom it is your duty to protect now that Boromir is gone.”

160

JanieM 11.29.09 at 2:34 am

Within the past year, I have been entertaining the idea that the real villain of the book is Denethor. This is probably not correct

Why does there have to be only one? ;)

161

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 2:36 am

roac comes down from the Lonely Mountain. I have nothing to add except maybe to note that I took Sam finding water in Mordor to be a small manifestation of the Creator. Evil cannot block mercy. Even the Wise took some time to learn this. After all, Frodo is Galadriel’s re-take exam.

162

Keir 11.29.09 at 2:36 am

But still, there is no point looking for class analysis, sociological depth, economics, politics, or examinations of the interface of different cultures in Tolkien.

But this is mad! There’s a fully worked out theory of the right exercise of Power! There’s a discussion of the right society! There’s several depictions of non-yoked anglo-saxon nations, enjoying all their rights and liberties. Seriously: as a contribution to the debate on the gothic and Toryism, the Lord of the Rings is quite brilliant.

Hell, the Battle of the Five Armies!

There’s a reading of Tolkien as basically Narnia-but-better which I quite agree is wrong and over-wrought. But that’s not the only reading, and nor is the issue of moralising the only one. I mean, there’s something about the passage from the arrival of the red arrow to the fall of the witch king that is really sublime, and in a way that very few other authors approach.

163

TheSophist 11.29.09 at 2:40 am

@#153 Last para: Yet: Frodo -“What a pity Bilbo did not slay the vile creature when he had the chance!” Gandalf- “Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand…even the wise do not see all ends.” (Close to verbatim – I’m doing this from memory.) Does this mean then that Frodo acquires the ability to treat Gollum as “…a person and not a thing” through his suffering as ringbearer, and therefore, at the point that he is chosen he does not yet possess this ability? (“Chosen” is doing a lot of work here for both of us, I think. Who/what is doing the choosing? Illuvatar? Some other force that “determines” Middle-Earth? Tom Bombadil? (joke))
Then, of course, we start getting into the issue of “faith” among the Wise. Dead Galadriel let Boromir go out of a sense that “everything would work out”? If not, isn’t she guilty of elevating Boromir’s right to, as it were, make his own mistakes, over the safety of all of Middle-Earth. (I see that this is where the Kantianism that was mentioned somewhere upthread, and maybe my discomfort with this is nothing more than my discomfort with Kant generally.)
Awaiting ravenly wisdom…

164

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 2:41 am

Shorter 153: Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

165

TheSophist 11.29.09 at 2:42 am

Ugh…”Dead Galadriel…” is, of course, “Did Galadriel…”. Homophonous typos…interesting…

166

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 2:49 am

I mean, there’s something about the passage from the arrival of the red arrow to the fall of the witch king that is really sublime, and in a way that very few other authors approach.

That highlights the difference between Denethor and Theoden.

Theoden sees a hopeless situation and figures he’d better do all that he can. Denethor gives into to despair because he cannot imagine anything important beyond himself and his realm. Denethor must have a pretty good guess at who sent Gandalf, but he lacks faith.

167

TheSophist 11.29.09 at 2:53 am

Still thinking about #153…

While I’ll certainly concede that some of the morality in The Hobbit isn’t worked out as deeply as LOTR, wouldn’t it be true that Gandalf essentially manipulates Bilbo to accompany the quest, and that this comes fairly close to “interfer(ing) with the free moral choice” of Bilbo?

And re: Denethor/Cheney. Waaay upthread (#67) I mentioned using LOTR in IR class to explain the neo-con Manichaeanism. In a world in which the “enemy” is implacably evil, it’s easy to see how we end up with Denethor/Cheney. (Who doesn’t know of the possibility of “winning” by destroying the Ring – and I think that’s an important nuance.)

168

Kaveh 11.29.09 at 2:53 am

@153

That is a very insightful reading of LOTR that I think beautifully captures Tolkien’s ideas, as opposed to his world-building. I think there is a certain activity that is what characterizes fantasy, which is not world-building, in the sense that sf builds consistent worlds based on rules/premises different from those of our own world; what fantasy does is to materialize abstract ideas into something very corporeal, like orcs.

169

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 2:58 am

A little more seriously, I’m always amused to see Tolkien fandom come a-roaring into threads like this pointing out “But there’s even conflict between protagonists in LoTR, and people make moral choices along certain patterns!” as though the rest of us just hadn’t noticed this. We’ve noticed it, guys. You can relax. It’s just that it doesn’t constitute Deep Moral Insight. That Tolkien thinks good guys don’t tie people up or force people to do things, or that he introduces tensions and temptations among his protagonists, means he managed what plenty of decent adventure fiction writers before and after him managed, and doesn’t make LoTR an extended dissertation on Catholic Kantian ethics. Ethical inquiry can and does get a hell of a lot more involved than this in fiction, including other fantasy fiction; the widespread belief that LoTR is in shallower end of that pool stems from the fact that it is.

170

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 3:02 am

While I’ll certainly concede that some of the morality in The Hobbit isn’t worked out as deeply as LOTR, wouldn’t it be true that Gandalf essentially manipulates Bilbo to accompany the quest, and that this comes fairly close to “interfer(ing) with the free moral choice” of Bilbo?

I always assumed Gandalf had promised the Old Took not to let his grandsons get too soft.

171

TheSophist 11.29.09 at 3:03 am

But it can be in the shallower end of the pool and still be “Proust for eleven-year-olds” as Louis Menand put it.

172

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 3:05 am

@Keir: Hell, the Battle of the Five Armies!

What is with you and the Battle of Five Armies, anyway? I remember thinking it was a cool battle scene when I read the Hobbit, but it’s apparently a nexus of a whole bunch of political and economic commentary of which I was unaware.

173

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 3:07 am

168: I’m not saying it’s wrong for it to be in the shallow end of the pool. I’m saying it’s wrong to make exaggerated claims about its depth.

174

roac 11.29.09 at 3:08 am

In various of his published Letters (which all should read) Tolkien states his view that (1) Frodo was uniquely fitted from birth to be the Ringbearer, and (2) divine intervention was responsible on some level for the fact that neither Bilbo nor Frodo ever married, and thus they remained free to accept their quest and anti-quest..

Frodo’s name of course means Wise (“Wise by experience” is Tolkien’s formulation. Sam’s name means “Half-Wise.” An author who give his characters names like that shouldn’t expect to have his disclaimers of allegory taken at face value.

One more word about Frodo and Gollum. Frodo maintains throughout his belief that Gollum is capable of repentance. And he turns out to be right; but he never knows it.

175

TheSophist 11.29.09 at 3:09 am

@169: Well, it does involve the first deus ex machina appearance of the Eagles (with the pre-Joe Walsh lineup), and offers the opportunity for me to ask the eternal question “Why didn’t Gandalf and Elrond just ask the Eagles (with Joe Walsh, by this time) to airlift the Fellowship to Orodruin?”

176

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 3:11 am

Ethical inquiry can and does get a hell of a lot more involved than this in fiction, including other fantasy fiction;

Nothing makes for good fiction like somebody agonizing over ethical issues for twenty pages at a time. At a certain point, you may as well read “Atlas Shrugged” or Kant.

177

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 3:18 am

173: Oh, I think there’s lots of fiction that agonizes over ethics very productively. (“Atlas Shrugged” doesn’t qualify, no.) Pretty hard to work into adventure fiction, though.

178

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 3:21 am

(“Atlas Shrugged” doesn’t qualify, no.)

Wouldn’t know. I’ve never read it. Tolkien wrote well enough to get me to read poetry, which is something that no one who couldn’t make me re-take a class has ever managed.

179

TheSophist 11.29.09 at 3:25 am

@ myself at 172. Second appearance…I forgot about the dwarves in the fir trees. Oh well.

180

Keir 11.29.09 at 3:29 am

Ethical inquiry can and does get a hell of a lot more involved than this in fiction, including other fantasy fiction; the widespread belief that LoTR is in shallower end of that pool stems from the fact that it is.

But you are assuming that a certain form of ethical inquiry is rilly rilly important here. You are assuming that ethical inquiry must be complicated, and deep, and difficult, and so-forth. But really, the Lord of the Rings is like David’s Oath of the Horatii or the Brutus, hard pagan assertions of duty and morality.

Dunno, of course there’s not much nuance etc in the Lord of the Rings, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t morally interesting.

I remember thinking it was a cool battle scene when I read the Hobbit, but it’s apparently a nexus of a whole bunch of political and economic commentary of which I was unaware.

Because it involves several groups of people, each convinced and arguably correctly they are acting properly, who are about to start killing each other. They don’t, because luck intervenes, but, along with Beorn, it’s Tolkien writing about people who are neither Good nor Evil, even if when it comes down to it they are good.

181

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 3:33 am

175: Know what got me into poetry as a kid? An epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in a Joel Rosenberg book. No word of a lie.

182

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 3:41 am

You are assuming that ethical inquiry must be complicated, and deep, and difficult, and so-forth. But really, the Lord of the Rings is like David’s Oath of the Horatii or the Brutus, hard pagan assertions of duty and morality.

When Eomer meets Aragorn, you really get this. Eomer is asking how to decide with Aragorn claiming legendary status and asking for things contrary to Theoden’s commands. Aragorn doesn’t present a single argument, just tells him to make a decision as he always would. Eomer decides with Aragorn on a character judgment that he feels qualified to make on the basis of his own character.

You get reasoned arguments from Wormtongue and Saruman.

183

JanieM 11.29.09 at 3:42 am

In a world in which the “enemy” is implacably evil, it’s easy to see how we end up with Denethor/Cheney. (Who doesn’t know of the possibility of “winning” by destroying the Ring – and I think that’s an important nuance.)

Maybe I’m misunderstanding the point here, or maybe you’re saying that Denethor learns of this possibility too late, after Sauron (via the palantir) has already overthrown his mind.

But he does learn of it when Faramir and tells him, Gandalf, and Pippin of his meeting with Frodo.

‘What then is your wisdom?’ said Gandalf.

‘Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, that is madness.’

‘And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?’

‘Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have sent this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost….’

184

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 3:43 am

But you are assuming that a certain form of ethical inquiry is rilly rilly important here. You are assuming that ethical inquiry must be complicated, and deep, and difficult, and so-forth.

No, I’m assuming that if ethical complexity, depth and difficulty is going to be claimed on behalf of a work, it should actually be there, and that people should not try to pass off relatively rudimentary treatments of ethics as grand, radical, sweeping treatments of the subject. I am saying it is okay to recognize that there are things other writers do that Tolkien does not do. What is so difficult about that?

185

Anderson 11.29.09 at 3:44 am

I mean, there’s something about the passage from the arrival of the red arrow to the fall of the witch king that is really sublime, and in a way that very few other authors approach.

Very true. I like to read aloud the hurling of Grond against the gate of Minas Tirith, and the fall of the Nazgul lord, and to Ector’s sighting the fleet.

186

JanieM 11.29.09 at 3:44 am

Bah, messed up the blockquote. Do I have to put a blockquote tag before every paragraph here?

187

Lee A. Arnold 11.29.09 at 3:45 am

I think Sam is the Lord of the Rings, because he is the only one who can give it back.

188

Yarrow 11.29.09 at 3:48 am

Not on the Tolkien or Le Guin subthreads, but — how could I (and everyone else!) have forgotten Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire?

189

Keir 11.29.09 at 3:52 am

But the thing is that Tolkien doesn’t think ethics is complicated; he is presenting a view of ethics which is simple because in his opinion ethics is simple. It’d be false for him to start portraying ethics as difficult, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t portraying ethics.

And that’s where the power of the books comes from; it’s like that line of MacDiarmid’s about the Covenanters.

190

Substance McGravitas 11.29.09 at 3:58 am

Do I have to put a blockquote tag before every paragraph here?

Yes, but then the line breaks will get screwy.

191

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 3:58 am

I admit to deep regret that there are absolutely no ethical issues in my life that can be solved more readily while wearing chain mail.

192

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 4:00 am

Because it involves several groups of people, each convinced and arguably correctly they are acting properly, who are about to start killing each other. They don’t, because luck intervenes, but, along with Beorn, it’s Tolkien writing about people who are neither Good nor Evil, even if when it comes down to it they are good.

It was a neat iteration of a fairly common plot device, but I don’t see what’s especially “morally interesting” about it or what point it’s supposed to be making about the absence of Good and Evil — it’s just a standard cranking up of tensions between various protagonists to raise the dramatic stakes prior to the advent of the bad guys. Similar devices can be found in half to two-thirds of Hollywood action movies.

193

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 4:04 am

he is presenting a view of ethics which is simple because in his opinion ethics is simple.

I can buy that. More importantly, I think he’s presenting a view of ethics which is simple because he’s writing adventure stories and is more focused on the action and the pacing than on writing a dissertation about ethics. So… no need to claim he’s issuing deep insights about ethics, then. Right?

194

roac 11.29.09 at 4:18 am

Someone mentioned Aragorn’s first meeting with Eomer. I am going to seize on that incident as a third instance where Aragorn finds himself in a situation that later recurs with Frodo, but in another key.

Here is how Aragorn deals with Eomer:

“Elendil!” he cried. “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dunadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is made again. Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

* * *

Eomer stepped back and a look of awe was in his face.

When Frodo meets Faramir, the situation is precisely the same — he has to persuade him to disobey orders and avoid disaster. But Faramir is twice his size, so he tries to manipulate him — but Faramir is just as smart as Frodo and heads off every gambit.

The equivalent of Aragorn’s moment of revelation is delayed for two full chapters, and comes about through weakness not strength:

“I was going to find a way into Mordor,” he said faintly. “I was going to Gorgoroth. I must find the Mountain of Fire and cast the thing into the gulf of Doom. Gandalf said so. I do not think I shall ever get there.”

Faramir stared at him for a moment in grave astonishment. Then suddenly he caught him as he swayed . .

195

parsimon 11.29.09 at 4:37 am

Doctor Slack.last: Right?

Right. Throughout.

I’ve at least figured out that the references upthread to 153 actually refer to comment 156, penned by Roac. I see that referring by comment number is problematic here.

196

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 4:43 am

195: Yes. Of course, Aragorn is steadily growing kingly as he marches south and Frodo is marching to what he assumes will be his death.

197

Keir 11.29.09 at 4:44 am

More importantly, I think he’s presenting a view of ethics which is simple because he’s writing adventure stories and is more focused on the action and the pacing than on writing a dissertation about ethics

No no no. This gets it exactly wrong. You’re imposing your views on how ethics should be dealt with on the rest of the world: you think that ethics is complicated, difficult, etc, so things about ethics should also be complicated difficult etc, otherwise they aren’t really about ethics. But Tolkien doesn’t agree. In his view ethics is pretty simple. So he feels he can treat ethics pretty fully in his works, without going into trolley car problems etc etc.

I mean, it’s like saying: oh Mondrian has a simple use of line, so he can’t be focussed on line. Which is just wrong.

I don’t think Tolkien is deeply insightful about ethics, but I don’t think LeGuin is either. I also think that reducing not-ethics to action etc is a bit ludicrous and I really do think that things can be both ethically interesting and stark and blunt and not at all fiddly and nuanced.

198

John McKenzie 11.29.09 at 4:45 am

is it alright to call Doctor Slack a troll yet? He’s either a troll or pompous. “My taste is more distinguished than yours. Everything you think is clever I think is trash. Here are some rudimentary reasons why.”

199

TheSophist 11.29.09 at 4:50 am

Yup, sorry, 3-digit numbers are beyond my ability to parse; my bad, as the kids say. And to JanieM at 183 (I looked to make sure): Thank you for your kind interpretation of what I was trying to say, and not saying well. You are right that I was thinking of Denethor facing down Mordor for years on end, and gradually being driven insane by the Palantir at the same time – not the brief time at the end when he is made aware that another way is possible.

200

parsimon 11.29.09 at 4:52 am

is it alright to call Doctor Slack a troll yet?

No.

201

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 4:54 am

Can I be a troll for deliberately mis-numbering 196?

202

parsimon 11.29.09 at 5:05 am

Goddamnit, no, Moby. Being a troll is harder than that.

203

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 5:07 am

My wireless network doesn’t have the range for me to go under the bridge.

204

TheSophist 11.29.09 at 5:07 am

I am very sympathetic to many of the points that Roac has made, and grateful for the insights, but your last post focussed on a moment that I’ve always found problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the trivial one: Aragorn meets Eomer and essentially says “I’m your King” to which the only response allowed by anybody exposed to Britain of the ’70s is “But I didn’t vote for you.”

Secondly, and seriously: Clearly there is something about Aragorn which causes people (including non-humans) to just instinctively trust him. As Sam says of him way back at the Prancing Pony “a servant of the enemy would appear fairer yet seem fouler” (or something close). In fact a good test of how “good” a character is is how strongly they feel toward him. This strikes me as superficial (if it’s what Tolkien intended.) Isn’t an equally reasonable interpretation that Eomer is looking for a reason to disobey Theoden (because of his distrust for Wormtongue) and that the hobbits follow him because a) he invokes the name of Gandalf, and b) they don’t have any other good options.

205

JanieM 11.29.09 at 5:14 am

I don’t think Tolkien is deeply insightful about ethics, but I don’t think LeGuin is either.

I agree. Not that I’m capable of getting all analytical about it. But I know which author’s works I’ve been loving and rereading since I was 15, and which I can barely remember (except for The Left Hand of Darkness, which, as fascinating as it was to me as a young adult trying to sort out my own ideas about gender and sexuality, was still ultimately unsatisfying).

206

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 5:16 am

Clearly there is something about Aragorn which causes people (including non-humans) to just instinctively trust him.

Yes, very clearly.

Isn’t an equally reasonable interpretation that Eomer is looking for a reason to disobey Theoden (because of his distrust for Wormtongue) and that the hobbits follow him because a) he invokes the name of Gandalf, and b) they don’t have any other good options.

Here I don’t think so. Eomer was disobeying already by being there. As for the Hobbits, they picked Aragorn before they knew that the Prancing Pony offered no protection.

207

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 5:17 am

@McKenzie: He’s either a troll or pompous.

… or certain parties are getting ridiculously insecure and defensive. And over what, exactly? I haven’t called down anyone’s literary taste, nor dismissed anything as “trash;” you have to invent a quote on my behalf because you can’t cite me anywhere on this thread saying any such thing. Why is it this dishonesty and ugliness suddenly necessary?

@Keir: You’re imposing your views on how ethics should be dealt with on the rest of the world: you think that ethics is complicated, difficult, etc, so things about ethics should also be complicated difficult etc, otherwise they aren’t really about ethics.

No, I think ethics isn’t Tolkien’s primary concern because I genuinely don’t think he was writing, in the main, with it as his primary concern. Believe it or not, I actually meant what I said. Isn’t that shocking?

As for ethics being complicated and difficult, well, you’ve got me there. I do in fact think ethics is often complicated and difficult. In this I appear to be of a piece with the representatives of Tolkien fandom on this thread, yourself included, who have rather stridently and unconvincingly attempted to portray Tolkien as wrestling with complicated and difficult ethical issues. It’s to your credit that you’ve recognized that tack isn’t sustainable… except not so much if you’re now seriously going to pretend that Tolkien essentially Solved Ethics and got rid of all that “complication” and “difficulty” that snooty intellectuals like me concern ourselves with.

208

parsimon 11.29.09 at 5:26 am

Keir at 197 or thereabouts: I also think that reducing not-ethics to action etc is a bit ludicrous

I don’t think Slack has done that. Read his comment again:

I think he’s presenting a view of ethics which is simple because he’s writing adventure stories and is more focused on the action and the pacing than on writing a dissertation about ethics. So… no need to claim he’s issuing deep insights about ethics, then.

It doesn’t do anybody any favors to misread Slack’s remarks. He has not said that Tolkien is somehow doing not-ethics, which is therefore merely action. C’mon. The two of you actually sound like you’re more or less in agreement: Tolkien’s ethics are simple. And that’s FINE.

I can’t quite tell what the problem here is, aside from some generalized upset that Tolkien has been identified as not Very Complex. Well, he’s not.

209

parsimon 11.29.09 at 5:27 am

I suppose I might have checked whatever Doctor Slack has said before I posted.

210

bob mcmanus 11.29.09 at 5:32 am

204:Aragorn retains the ever diminishing Numenorean magic in his presence, tho as Strider he as learned to hide it. More than charisma, Elessar was born to rule, baby.

Psychological analysis attempts to replace the spiritual (or magical). But that isn’t Tolkien’s world, and he must be read on his terms.

Decisions and actions are possibly not ethical in LOTR, because LOTR is a book of spirituality. “Nothing Good but comes from God.” In that case Will provides the Courage to accept one’s Duty.

Duty is a word losing favor in our age of felicific calculus.

211

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 5:33 am

Parsimon has summed it up better than I did, for which I thank her.

That’s it for me. It’s been, for the most part, a fun thread. Thanks to all.

212

John McKenzie 11.29.09 at 5:44 am

I wasn’t citing Slack at any point, that was me giving an simplified version of the arguments he’s made thus far. If you were being genuine in your posts, Slack, then I apologize for calling you a troll. But you were getting rather, erm, jackassy, with some of your comments. I don’t even really like LOTR and haven’t spoken in its defense once in this thread (so I don’t really have a dog in this game), but your “what’s so clever about that?” responses were getting irksome.

213

parsimon 11.29.09 at 5:46 am

Hey Slack! I’ve liked reading what you’ve written! Always good for an appreciative nod, hat-tip, all that.

214

Keir 11.29.09 at 5:51 am

except not so much if you’re now seriously going to pretend that Tolkien essentially Solved Ethics and got rid of all that “complication” and “difficulty” that snooty intellectuals like me concern ourselves with.

Oh bugger off and go indulge your resentment somewhere else would you? I have never said anything about Tolkien solving ethics, and I really don’t see where you’re getting it from.

215

parsimon 11.29.09 at 6:02 am

Keir at 214: He’s probably getting it from this remark of yours:

I really do think that things can be both ethically interesting and stark and blunt and not at all fiddly and nuanced.

Reading that as your saying that Tolkien has “solved ethics” is a little bit of a stretch, but you can easily see the short steps it takes to get there, I think.

Those short steps are probably similar to the ones you took to assuming that DS is “imposing [his] views on how ethics should be dealt with on the rest of the world.”

216

Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 6:02 am

Oh bugger off and go indulge your resentment somewhere else would you?

I’d think that the internet is the safest way to indulge resentment. (Random bar patrons are the worst.)

217

Doctor Slack 11.29.09 at 6:13 am

@Keir: Oh bugger off and go indulge your resentment somewhere else would you?

Well, I was about to, Keir, but you’ve such a lovely way about you.

If it’s somehow foolish and misguided for me to “project” the assumption that ethics is difficult and complicated onto evaluating claims on behalf of a piece of writing’s ethical depth and sophistication, and rather what’s really happening is that the writer — free of my illusions — is with all validity treating ethics as “simple,” then what’s being implied there is that writing which treats ethics as difficult and complicated is superfluous as compared with this simpler treatment of ethics. (Either that, or there would have to be certain things missing from the simple treatment of ethics that would render Tolkien less compelling in the arena of grappling-with-ethics than other writers who do so in more complex fashion. But from what you were saying, that’s exactly the opposite of what you were aiming for.) Hence my remark.

@McKenzie: But you were getting rather, erm, jackassy, with some of your comments.

It’s been known to happen. When I get caught up in an argument I’m perhaps not as careful about tone as I should be. Don’t mean nothin’ by it.

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parsimon 11.29.09 at 6:14 am

Plus. Telling DS to bugger off and go elsewhere is just dumb. Guy’s one of the most interesting people on the ‘net. Sorry.

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Keir 11.29.09 at 6:32 am

Reading that as your saying that Tolkien has “solved ethics” is a little bit of a stretch, but you can easily see the short steps it takes to get there, I think.

I really can’t; it seems an utterly bizarre reading to me, unless you’re arguing against a different position which, personally, I haven’t advocated.

(Hint: I’m not, you know, Tolkien fandom.)

And one could say, look — The Oath of the Horatii, isn’t that a powerful painting? And isn’t the ethical nature very strong? And yet one couldn’t say either that the ethics are right or that they are complicated etc. It isn’t as one dimensional as you are trying to make it.

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parsimon 11.29.09 at 6:45 am

It isn’t as one dimensional as you are trying to make it.

I’m not trying to make it that way.

Somewhere along the line in this thread, DS was cast as champion of all that is complicated and deep and nuancy and too-hard and intellectual and &c., over against that other stuff, cast as simple and straightforward, and somehow represented by the ethical treatment Tolkien provides in LoTR.

Nix. Okay? Good. I will say that I believe we all generally understand those terms, those sides, but they are unhelpful, as evidenced by the quickness with which parties here zeroed in on them and became eventually, well, rather irritable.

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parsimon 11.29.09 at 6:51 am

But I think it’s worth paying attention to Slack’s comment beginning:

If it’s somehow foolish and misguided for me to “project” the assumption that ethics is difficult and complicated onto evaluating claims on behalf of a piece of writing’s ethical depth and sophistication

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teraz kurwa my 11.29.09 at 8:20 am

Somewhere along the line in this thread, DS was cast as champion of all that is complicated and deep and nuancy and too-hard and intellectual and &c., over against that other stuff, cast as simple and straightforward

And yet he starts off with including Lynch’s “Lies of Locke Lamora” – a fun, well written moderately dark adventure yarn interwoven with a standard issue generic fantasy growing up tale.

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Doug M. 11.29.09 at 8:30 am

Monboddo @152:

“I believe [LeGuin] was married to an academic and was responsible for raising three children while trying to get some writing done in whatever quiet moments she could find. This seems a far cry from the life of leisure Doug paints.”

I’m not sure where I mentioned leisure. What I said was that she grew up in a very comfortable, sheltered upper-middle-class academic environment, went to Radcliffe and Columbia, got married, then spent the next decade or so as an academic wife who did a little writing on the side.

This may or may not have been an easy life, or a leisurely one; I have no idea. The presence of children suggests not. On the other hand, the Kroeger/LeGuin families were from that socioeconomic class that was still employing ‘help’ well into the 20th century. Did LeGuin spend the 1950s wiping noses, washing diapers, and sitting through endless iterations of Dick and Jane, or did she lie around the pool with a martini while the nanny handled all that? Data insufficient. My point was just that she came from a sheltered academic background where she never had to work for a living, and that this shows up in her work.

” knee-jerk denigration of the role of homemaker, or the belief that holding a paying job is what is needed to learn about how the world works”

I have four kids aged 1-8, and my job as a freelancer keeps me at home with them for long stretches of time. No offense, but I know more about the role of a homemaker than you ever will.

Doug M.

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Doug M. 11.29.09 at 10:48 am

Eh, that last was unnecessarily confrontational. My bad.

Still: it in no way diminishes what LeGuin did with those years to note what she didn’t. I used the virgin-lecturing-us-about-sex analogy, and I think it’s apposite. If a male author who went directly from school to seminary to monastery started writing books about love, family and sex, we’d be entitled to at least notice.

Anyone who tries to talk about, say, Virginia Woolf has to be aware of her odd upbringing and odder marriage. To bring it a bit closer, you can’t really discuss Heinlein without at least being aware of his biography — military career, early forays into political activism, yadda yadda. Yet I’ve never seen any critic discuss LeGuin’s first thirty years much beyond noting that she’s the daughter of that famous anthropologist. (Which, to be fair to LeGuin, has to be kind of annoying after a while. Yes, her father kept poor Ishi as a house guest for ten years. Must every potted biography of her start with that factoid?)

Anyway. LeGuin’s first thirty years seem a lot less dramatic than Woolf’s or Heinlein’s or even Asimov’s. But I’d suggest they’re just as influential on her later writing, and so just as worthy of examination.

Doug M.

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Salient 11.29.09 at 2:35 pm

Who is the Lord of the Rings?

Beowulf!

A little more seriously: Sauron + One Ring + {the other rings} = the anti-trinity, father, son, and holy ghost. (No?) As a kid reading LoTR, I remember being distracted and vaguely perturbed by what I saw as antithetical-Christian imagery: the Nazgul as anti-angels, Saruman as the anti-Paul, the destroying the Ring in the fires from which it came as a kind of anti-crucifixion and return to origins, and the scope and trajectory of the bipartite narrative (in my infinitely poor judgment and equally poor taste in puns I’d probably playfully retitle the three-volume book the Return of the Ring). It’s not a complete or comprehensive mapping, (thank goodness), and probably is quite arbitrarily the product of my mind rather than of the work, but this negative analogy and the inexplicably compelling enigma of Tom Bombadil are what I recall.

…roac & others, any thoughts on Bombadil?

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Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 2:48 pm

224: You mean the “Bombadil is Ilúvatar” theory? Or the “ring a dong dillo” language?

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Salient 11.29.09 at 3:36 pm

You mean the “Bombadil is Ilúvatar” theory?

Not really, it contradicts Tolkien’s own assertions to the contrary in ’37 and ’54, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless Tolkien was a closet Deist, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense period, since Ilúvatar explicitly resurrects Gandalf and it’s impossible to imagine Tom Bombadil resurrecting anybody. And I thought it was uncontroversial that Bombadil is 2/3 half dryadic countryside-fairy-fellow and maybe 1/3 Orpheus. Questions like “Who is Tom, really” and “Who is the real Lord of the Rings” interest me only as much as questions like “who is the Changeling,” which I imagine gets posed to professors who teach Middleton and Rowley every year in essays. Asking the question open-endedly might be a useful decentering technique, but to answer such a question is to misunderstand its purpose.

Maybe I was hoping for something different from those who read & enjoyed, say, Tales from the Perilous Realm and who know more about the English folk tradition than I do. Not sure.

Tolkien said, in ’54: Tom Bombadil “represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely.” I felt that too, on both a first read of the book and a second read, and was/am hoping for some further insight from persons… more prepared than he or I.

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Moby Hick 11.29.09 at 4:12 pm

and was/am hoping for some further insight from persons… more prepared than he or I.

That doesn’t sound like me.

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skidmarx 11.29.09 at 4:27 pm

1. The Iron Dream – Adolf Hitler’s fantasy masterpiece
2 Bored Of the Rings Pity stayed his hand, “It’s a pity I’ve run out of bullets” thought Dildo</I.
3. Animal Farm
4. Weaveworld.

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joel hanes 11.29.09 at 6:34 pm

Dave @ 124 points out that Farmer is not the model for Kilgore Trout. Wikipedia agrees.

Thanks for the correction; I’ve had that wrong for a very long time,
since (I think) well before Venus was published.

I guess it isn’t what you don’t know, but what you know that isn’t so.

Wikipedia says that Ted Sturgeon is the model for Trout, but I can’t see it –
Sturgeon’s writing was too good, and his premises not outlandish enough to
make Vonnegut’s descriptions of Trout’s works a plausible match.

I’ve read a lot of Farmer. Some of it is well written in one sense or another
(what do you think of “Riders of the Purple Wage” ?)
but IMHO lots of it is truly crap writing with outlandish premises.

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tom s. 11.29.09 at 8:50 pm

I had forgotten Bored of the Rings. A gem.

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Macklin 11.29.09 at 10:25 pm

A few comments on the moral complexity of LOTR, or its lack thereof.

While Tolkien displays a definite nostalgia for a time of great men, and while a lot of LOTR is taken up with their exploits, the ethical (and dramatic) core of the trilogy revolves around the complete and utter inadequacy of the great man. Now matter how much we enjoy the triumph of Aragorn and the Rohirrim et al against the witch king, they know that mere martial heroism will never be enough. The book is about the failure of heroes in the face of the temptations of power. The only good guys are those who never try to seize too much power (i.e., Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel refusing to take the Ring).

That’s Gandalf and Aragorn’s real appeal: their critical self-awareness. It seems to me there’s a considerable moral complexity in the way that Tolkien’s appeals to martial notions of heroism, and at the same time makes them largely superfluous to the real conflict. Someone mentioned the sublimity of the passages involving the battle of the pelennor fields. And I think it’s true: those passages are awesome. But even better is the brutal irony that Tolkien employs. We can revel in those passages, we can get caught up in their grandeur, and yet they ultimately don’t mean anything (other than the non-trivial fact that they stave off destruction for a few weeks until Frodo gets his chance to destroy the ring)

But the real complexity lies in the fact that just about everyone fails in the novel. Frodo is a sort of minor great man. He’s a hobbit, and therefore lesser, but he’s got a certain nobility that sets him over the rest of hobbits. And yet he himself fails when he reaches the Crack of Doom. It’s pure luck that sends the ring over the edge (and the compassion that kept Gollum alive in earlier parts of the story). Frodo’s claim to heroism is simply managing to carry it as long as he did – thought that is an impressive feat in of itself. But its the sort of feat that highlights how corrupt the supposed Great Men are. And even Frodo can’t really perform his task! No one actually managed to triumph in the end. Sam’s the nearest we have to a hero, in many ways, and yet he only had the ring for a few brief hours.

It’s the ironic attitude towards heroism that sets Tolkien apart, I think, though that fact is often lost because of the sheer thrill of the battle scenes.

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nalbar 11.30.09 at 2:15 am

@183 (JanieM)

‘What then is your wisdom?’ said Gandalf.
‘Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, that is madness.’

‘And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?’

‘Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have sent this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost….’

Take this scene a little further;

Gandalf says;
“For myself, I pity even his slaves…”

(I hope I got it right, I am going from memory)

And that is the ‘secret’ of Tolkien. Because every so often he nails it, he gets the perfect statement, at the perfect time. Any talk of taking Tolkien deeper is a waste of time, because for one simple thing;

People read fantasy for different reasons.
I don’t read it for some deep insight on leadership power conflicts, or to discover some hidden insight in Frodo’s relationship with fate. I read Tolkien because he manages to do over and over what most good authors can only manage a few times in a book. Get the perfect phrase or scene. ‘Fly, you fools’. Or my favorite in the whole book, when Eowyn goes all formal on the Nazgul and basically tells him to get the f@#k away from her kin. Or she will kill him, right then and there. Or the scene right before the battle, when the Horsemen line up and see the enemy, the ram booms, they scream death, and go to meet it.

It’s why Tolkien is the best. Those scenes are everywhere. Those that do not appreciate him (and they are plentiful) don’t see them, those that see them, appreciate what Tolkien has managed to pull off. It’s not his politics, it’s his ability to pull off a scene, with just the right tone, that touches the heart.

And Jackson is an idiot, for not seeing what was right in front of him. LoTR is NOT an action book.

nalbar

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nalbar 11.30.09 at 2:17 am

Macklin gets it.

nalbar

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anchor 11.30.09 at 2:26 am

No mention of John M. Harrison- Viriconium?

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Doctor Slack 11.30.09 at 3:03 am

@Macklin: The book is about the failure of heroes in the face of the temptations of power.

No, they fail in the face of encounters with cursed artifacts, which isn’t the same thing. The One Ring manages to corrupt all that it touches because it’s the distilled power of the Dark Lord; it’s only the sturdy, rustic goodness and relative lack of imagination of the hobbits that makes them suitable to carry it for any length of time (cf. moral superiority of the English burgher, for whom they’re stand-ins), but no-one can hold out against it permanently simply because it’s as powerfully cursed as, say, King Tut’s sarcophagus. (The palantiri, through which Sauron can directly ensnare minds, serve this same function for Denethor and Saruman.) There’s no particular “irony” about the heroism going on, for the most part — the function of Pelennor Fields is a straightforward diversionary tactic, to heroically risk life and limb to keep Sauron distracted and give the hobbits their chance at success.

It is somewhat ironic, of course, that it’s Gollum who inadvertently completes the quest. That’s a nifty touch, but in essence it’s of a piece with a long tradition in action yarns: in the penultimate act, evil has good on the ropes and all looks lost, when suddenly a past merciful act or cherished friend of the hero comes out of nowhere to bite evil in the butt. Tolkien’s craft is evident in that in the hands of a lesser writer, that scene would have been silly and cliche… whereas he did something original and memorable with it. But it’s not really essayism about the insufficiencies of Heroes… and the event makes way for Aragorn to quite unironically found his own kingdom and reign over an age of peace and prosperity, just as you’d expect at the end of many a fine fairy-tale*.

@nalbar: You’re right about Tolkien’s gift for well-crafted scenes. OTOH I think you’re 100% wrong that LOTR is “NOT an action book.” Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields, the flight through the Mines of Moria, Sam’s battle with Shelob, the pursuit of the orcs with Merry and Pippin, the Ents’ attack on Isengard… it’s on a par, still, as action writing with almost anything you could find in any genre. The setting of great scenes, in a well-realized setting, along with first-rate action sequences was what made LoTR great. Jackson wasn’t wrong to conceive of it as an action book… he was wrong to think he could improve on Tolkien’s action, or his setting.

( * Compare and contrast Dune, which really is engaged in essayism about the insufficiencies of Heroes, and quite explicitly so. In its climactic act, the Great Man stands apparently victorious, untrammelled, the universe stretched out at his feet… but nobody in the room with him knows that it’s a moment of failure, that his prescient superpowered sight is watching the jihad he’s spent half the book trying to avoid raging down the corridors of the future. His “victory” is actually, in an important sense, a defeat, at least from his standpoint.)

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Henry 11.30.09 at 3:40 am

Have been travelling over the Thanksgiving period – much too much to respond to. First – I should have made it clear that this was not a ‘these are the 6 best fantasy novels’ of all time list – rather it was ‘these are people who I think should be read and perhaps responded to by anyone who is writing something towards the literary side of fantasy as a genre.’ The ‘best of all time’ list is a bit of a crock anyway, for all the obvious reasons. Maybe even more honest would be to say – these are six relatively recent novels (or sets of novels) that have changed the ways in which _I_ read F/SF. As a couple of people have perhaps hinted, but none has said overtly, none of the writers I listed were women. I hadn’t thought about that at all – but if I had had another 20 minutes to think about the list I would almost certainly have included Catherynne Valente’s two “Night Garden” books, which are really spectacularly good. Also, Kelly Link, if she wrote novels. I should also have made it clearer (this was perhaps implied) that I was sticking within the self-defined contours of genre. Otherwise, people like Schulz, Kafka etc would have dominated – while I love all of the books I listed, I would choose _Street of Crocodiles_ over any of em if I had to save only one from the burning Library of Single Remaining Editions.

Other stuff – Valente, as noted, should have been in there. I’m highly allergic to Guy Gavriel Kay – his characters always seem to me to be congratulating themselves at the Grand Heroic Tragedies that they have landed in, and the Sad Nobility of the Difficult Choices they have to make. You can’t have a difficult love triangle but it has to be between the most beautiful woman in the world, the most skilled craftsman in the world and the wisest political leader in the world (I may slightly misremember the details), all heaving belaboured sighs about the doomed grandeur of it all at every possible moment. He has a decent prose style, but is a fundamentally weak and silly writer, who is afraid to allow his characters to be motivated by themselves rather than a story that is foisted on them from outside. Daniel Abraham is a much better writer in a vaguely similar vein (though I wish he had left out the coda to his _Long Price_ books; it weakens them). The only character in the books resembling a GGK character bolloxes things up completely, precisely because he is in love with, and trapped by, his own story.

_The Lies of Locke Lamora_ I found weak and contrived – like the novelization of a not-especially-good swashbuckler. But others disagree. I agree that Steven Erikson is not a very good writer, but he is a bad writer occasionally haunted by a good one. From the bits that I have read, there is occasionally a sense of _geological time_ in his novels which has the power to shock. Robert Holdstock has just died, unexpectedly, from an _e. coli_ infection. _Mythago Wood_ was very good indeed, as was _Llavondyss_, if not so immediately engaging. He used Celtic mythology and Jungian archetypes, but as fictional tools – he didn’t seem to be in the slightest bit sentimental about them, and was clearly much more interested in what they told us about human beings and the stories we tell about each other. I hadn’t gotten my hands on his most recent book yet, it not being available on this side of the Atlantic, but liked _Gates of Horn, Gates of Ivory_ quite a bit.

On Ursula Le Guin vs. JRRT, I have nothing to say. I am suspicious of Le Guin’s aesthetics – there is a bit in _The Language of the Night_ as best as I remember where she reproves Fritz Leiber for not taking the High Fantasy mode seriously, interjecting humour and doubtless other sins against the Holy Ghost. This misses the point, rather. My favourite Le Guin is the extended section in _The Left Hand of Darkness_ where the two are pulling the sled through the cold and darkness. She forgets her didacticism in favour of a story of comradeship in adversity, and even love, and the book is much the better for it. All that said, I am the only person I have ever met who really liked _Tehanu_ – it is a bit preachy, granted, but it undercuts the high heroic mode not only by bringing women back in, but by subordinating the high heroics to the mundane.

I like MJH’s Viriconium quite a lot – I think the first book that I ever read that made me think seriously about fantasy was _A Storm of Wings._ I disliked the book _intensely_ on first reading (I was 16 at the time), but something in it made me go back and read it, and figure out that it was discomforting and uncomfortable for all sorts of interesting reasons. I think MJH considers it a failure – but as a kind of gateway drug, it works pretty well, perhaps because of its flaws and ungainliness. That said, I think _The Course of the Heart_ is by far the better book – it is also more general, being as much about the untrustworthiness of language and fiction more generally as it is about fantasy. The glancing beauty of MJH’s prose is a quite deliberate trap – I wouldn’t turn my back on the bastard at any time, but _especially_ not when he is talking about elm branches in the sun like illuminated bone and the like. “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” is a wonderful story, but is even better as “A Young Man’s Journey to London,” which turns a general examination of fantasy into a much more personally specific Circus Animals’ Desertion of a short story.

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Moby Hick 11.30.09 at 3:44 am

(The palantiri, through which Sauron can directly ensnare minds, serve this same function for Denethor and Saruman.)>/i>

Just in case this thread isn’t nerdy enough, I’m going to point out that Fëanor created the palantír and they are not the same as the Ring in that they are not inherently corrupt.

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teraz kurwa my 11.30.09 at 3:58 am

Schulz is a perfect refutation of Nabokov’s despair at the possibilities of translation. The extremely dense and baroque prose of the original works perfectly in setting off his themes. It is also completely missing in the English translation, yet they remain very good books. He’s also not fantasy in any modern sense of the term, but for those who like it I’d strongly recommend his friend Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. The recent English version is a masterpiece of translation, avoid the earlier travesty (Polish to German to French to English) at all costs.

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roac 11.30.09 at 4:07 am

I see I was asked a direct question awhile back (“Any thoughts about Bombadil?”) Not to answer would be rude, but no, I don’t think about Bombadil a lot. In Letters, Tolkien discusses the character extensively, and his view is that the character is extrinsic to the story, but was left in because the author liked him. I’ll buy that. I like him too.

(One nugget I have to contribute is that Bombadil’s last appearance, when he hauls the Barrow-Wight’s hoard into the daylight, appears to be a deliberate echo of Beowulf — like Gandalf & Co.’s arrival at Edoras. I have clean forgotten who gets the credit for noticing that. It wasn’t me.)

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nalbar 11.30.09 at 4:42 am

I concede Doctor. I overstated.

I should have said ‘.. not exclusively an action book’, which I think Jackson turned it into.

I have a bias against him because IMO he ruined it all. It’s not that the movies are bad, it’s just that they are wrong. He took out stuff that was needed, and added stuff that was not.

nalbar

nalbar

242

Phil 11.30.09 at 9:33 am

I am the only person I have ever met who really liked Tehanu – it is a bit preachy, granted, but it undercuts the high heroic mode not only by bringing women back in, but by subordinating the high heroics to the mundane.

Tehanu is an awful, awful, awful book – as well as being preachy, plodding and predictable in its own right, it does sustained and calculated violence to Earthsea as UKL had imagined it. In the annals of creative vandalism it’s up there with Wordsworth’s 1850 Prelude and Auden’s suppression of The Orators. The moment I finished reading Tehanu I wished I could somehow unread it.

And yet, and yet. There are scenes in Tehanu which have stayed with me – there are some quiet, careful descriptions of mundane, unmagical scenes, people doing things like lighting fires, herding goats, talking in bed. The reimagined Ged still strikes me as basically a mistake, but in those scenes he’s a much more believable character than he would have been as an Archmage. (And The Other Wind is much better than _Tehanu_, for anyone who was wondering.)

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Iorwerth Thomas 11.30.09 at 11:17 am

“All that said, I am the only person I have ever met who really liked Tehanu – it is a bit preachy, granted, but it undercuts the high heroic mode not only by bringing women back in, but by subordinating the high heroics to the mundane.”

You aren’t entirely alone, though I’m not sure as to how much of my liking for it is deliberate perversity on my part.

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zic 11.30.09 at 3:11 pm

1. Lord of the Rings/Hobbit Tolkien, the door to the world of fantasy for many;
2. Amber series( ZelaznyQuantum worlds turned into story; brilliant;
3. Anything by Patricia McKillip, the most under-appreciated fantasy writer out there;
4. Almost anything by Thomas deLint.
5. The Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum
6. The Dragonbone Chair series, Tad Williams. I also felt the “River of Time” series was terrific, right up until the he revealed the source of power for the amazing virtual world he’d created.
7. Uplift novels, David Brin

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roac 11.30.09 at 3:26 pm

I enjoyed The Other Wind, mostly for LeGuin’s well-imagined account of how Lebannen goes about the work of kinging. (My favorite moment: when Alder is shown to his guestroom in the palace and finds his cat already there.) But I don’t follow, and frankly can’t make myself care about, the Theory of Dragon/Human Symmetry-Breaking. Also I get the feeling Tenar is functioning as LeGuin’s representative, which is always a mistake, though no particular harm is done here.

What I like a whole lot is the first of the stories in Tales from Earthsea — the School of Roke origin story. (Really a novella.) After several re-readings, I think it is as good as anything she has written.

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bianca steele 11.30.09 at 3:40 pm

Not long ago I considered rereading The Beginning Place to see whether it was as bad as I remember. Not implausibly the book was an effective inoculation against difference feminism–not implausibly, if so, entirely against the author’s intentions. I do actually like parts of Always Coming Home, though of course the book can’t be read. (I have a memory of discovering, on rec.arts.books, back when I was a tender young thing, that it’s bad because it’s what Northrop Frye calls an anatomy IIRC, but I can’t find the post in Google Groups.)

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Doug M. 11.30.09 at 4:24 pm

Phil @242, that’s exactly right. Preachy, check. Plodding, check. And predictable, check, right up until the WOOO draco ex machina ending, which was just annoying.

Sustained and calculated violence to Earthsea, check. She introduces several major new concepts, from the human/dragon thing to wizardly celibacy, none of which had been foreshadowed in the least. I don’t mind an author Having A Better Idea, but these did not seem to be well thought out, at all. It’s like she wanted to tell stories in a place that was sort of like Earthsea, but with major differences, but couldn’t be bothered to start fresh.

I read an interview with LeGuin where she said (paraphrase but I’m trying to be straight here) that she wrote Tehanu from the point of view of powerless men and women, and that “the boys didn’t like that”. Uh huh.

I note in passing that “male can’t find True Love until he has lost everything” is a recurring theme. This is the sort of thing that got Thomas Disch very upset — he thought she was almost pathologically repelled by male power and its connection to male sexuality. I think that overstates. That said, there does seem to be this underlying idea that a male character needs to be taken down a few pegs before he can truly love.

Henry mentions LeGuin’s dislike for humor. Oh my yes. It’s no crime in an author to be unable to do funny. But just because I can’t sing doesn’t mean I get to go around saying that musical theater is an inferior art form.

Doug M.

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Brad Stephens 11.30.09 at 4:56 pm

@Doug M.

Re: Ender’s Game – “It’s easy to see why this book has broad appeal. But this does not strike me as a set of useful psychological insights, unless you’re a bitter junior high school kid.”

I am indeed painting with a broad stroke here, but will work under the idea that anyone and everyone (me included) who feels the need to weigh in on a top fantasy novel post was at one point a bitter junior high school kid.

That being said – any “greatest” conversations that do not include Ender’s Game are questionable at best in my opinion.

Bradley Stephens

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Substance McGravitas 11.30.09 at 5:56 pm

Re: Ender’s Game

Or: Hitler Whitewashed.

250

Dave Maier 11.30.09 at 8:03 pm

Thanks to zic for seconding (if unintentionally, as my comment was 200+ back) my vote for the criminally underrated Patricia McKillip. What I find amazing about her is her ability to stay seemingly well within the genre conventions we all love to hate (dragons, mages, etc.), and still come up with something utterly original, time after time. (Once you get past the cover picture.) Zic, what’s your recommendation? I went with Atrix Wolfe and Alphabet of Thorn.

I also second the Uplift trilogy, if only for the terrific second book, Startide Rising.

BTW this thread has been great, and makes we want to pull out the Earthsea books again (but maybe not Tehanu, of which it seems all I remember are the good bits – lucky me!). Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful comments, and pbbbt! to the suggestion a few posts back that CT commenters all suck.

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Douglas Muir 11.30.09 at 9:18 pm

“everyone (me included) who feels the need to weigh in on a top fantasy novel post was at one point a bitter junior high school kid.”

As various people have pointed out, it’s been a good thread. Don’t mess it up 250 posts in by intentionally misreading stuff.

John McKenzie posted @94 that Ender’s Game was “the best Psychological Adolescent Science Fiction that Adults Should Read Anyway.” At 96 I said I thought that was nonsense on stilts, briefly set forth why, and linked to a tolerably well known article by John Kessel that gives some arguments against the book in more detail.

At no point do I attack or even make claims about people who like the book. You like it? Fine. I think that it’s a fairly nasty piece of juvenile wish-fulfillment. If you disagree, great — tell us all why.

Doug M.

252

John McKenzie 11.30.09 at 10:38 pm

Doug M is a fan of insulting anyone that disagrees with his tastes, then wonders why people call him on it.

“If you disagree, tell us all why.”

Short version:
Because I was a disgruntled junior high kid when I first read it, and now it has nostalgic value.

Long version:
Because it has interesting characters with various interesting psychoses and I find any story compelling that can make you sympathize with a violent and unrelenting little bugger (pun intended) like Ender Wiggin. I think calling him Hitler goes a bit too far (especially considering that the whole point of the thing is that he thinks he’s playing a game, albeit as training for the real deal, and only finds out after the fact that he’s been committing genocide the whole time — did everyone forget that?). Information Age Caesar is probably a better comparison than Hitler – an ostensibly noble leader with great self-reflexivity and a mind for philosophy that, all these things aside, was in fact a conqueror.

You haven’t given any reason why other than “it’s juvenile,” so stop pretending like your preferences and tastes are in the position to pass the burden of proof (about a matter of opinion) onto anyone that disagrees with you.

253

Anderson 11.30.09 at 11:07 pm

Amber series

Y’know, I like Zelazny and used to love him, but the treatment of female characters in Lord of Light and the first five Amber books is a bit painful in places, on rereading.

254

Doug M. 12.01.09 at 7:07 am

You haven’t given any reason why other than “it’s juvenile,”

…I gave half a dozen reasons back at comment #96. Go, read.

“Because it has interesting characters”

Ender Wiggin is a super-genius super-leader who always wins and never loses and is always, always morally correct and good.

Everyone else in the book is a two-dimensional cardboard cutout designed to highlight some aspect of Ender. Peter is Bad Ender, all motiveless malice. Valentine is Kind Ender, the goodness without the violence. (Because she’s a girl, see.)

Bean is Ender Lite — smaller and weaker and not as morally perfect, but good enough to be his sidekick. The adults are all plot contrivances who exist only to set up the various intolerable situations that Ender is subjected to and/or to provide running commentary on how wonderful he is.

I just don’t find any of those to be very interesting characters. YMMV.

“stop pretending like your preferences and tastes are in the position to pass the burden of proof”

I think it’s rubbish, and I’ve said why. If you think it’s great, convince me. I don’t think that’s “passing the burden of proof”. More like, am I missing something? I don’t think I am, but I’ve had my mind changed before. Convince me, if you can.

Doug M.l

255

Doug M. 12.01.09 at 7:19 am

Anderson @253, yes, exactly. Five princesses of Amber: one villain, one love object who must die tragically, three nullities.

Zelazny had trouble with female characters. They tend to be either antagonists, rewards, or plot contrivances. They almost always have importance only in their relevance to the (male) protagonist. Which means they usually don’t get to have motivations or goals of their own, unless they’re antagonists/villains.

There are a couple of exceptions — “Views of Mount Hokusai” has a female protagonist — but they’re fairly minor and from late in his career.

This is not to harsh on Zelazny. He was just more interested in male POVs, I think — the default Zelazny plot is a male coming-of-age story. And if he had trouble giving his female characters agency, at least he wasn’t stuffing them into refrigerators.

Doug M.

256

Greg 12.01.09 at 8:43 am

To think that I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Always Coming Home’ …

Well, my favourite six fantasies (INPO):

M. Moorcock, The Dancers At The End of Time
Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist
M. John Harrison, Viriconium (esp. A Storm of Wings … that decayed Eliotic undertone …)
Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros
Anna Kavan, Ice
Brian Aldiss, The Malacia Tapestry

With special mention of Alan Garner for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Elidor and especially The Moon of Gomrath, nearly scared me to death as a child.

257

Eric Walker 12.01.09 at 11:33 am

Joining the party late, I begin anew, with a list of six fantasy novels.

Manifestly, restricting a list to “six best” is farcical. Still, that’s the challenge, so here is one attempt. I made it easier by passing over short-story collections and novellas, which removes Borges and Calvino . The order is simply alphabetic by author last name.

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
A Fish Dinner in Memison by E. R. Eddison
In Viriconium by M. John Harrison
More Than Melchisedech by R. A. Lafferty (one novel in three volumes)
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Even among these few authors, it was hard to pick this or that work, and on another day I might have set forth different works by each.

I can scarcely say how it pained me to omit not only Borges and Calvino but Cabell, Dunsany, Vance, Blaylock, Davidson–well, I could go on at very, very great length (and have elsewhere done so).

258

vanya 12.01.09 at 4:25 pm

I’ll note that this list is in many ways dull and predictable – none of these choices are likely to surprise anyone tolerably well read in the genre.

Really, Henry? I have never heard of any of these 6 and I read fantasy voraciously from ages 11 to 18. Let’s be serious. Grossman’s list is dull and predictable (Tolkien and Lewis would appear on 90% of such lists I assume. Le Guin and Mervyn Peake on most), your list is a contrarian list carefully designed to show off your superior taste. Not that I mind – your list has given me some new writers to check out, but please don’t condescend to us.

259

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.01.09 at 4:35 pm

“I fully understand why a lot of people don’t like Tolkien; they’re still invested in the
War over Modernism, in which Tolkien was one of the last holdouts on the losing side,on more than one front .”

Except that Tolkein was more modernist than he himself acknowledged, in the structure of LOTR. And, paradoxically, his sons work on documenting the development of his Dad’s world and its multiple revisions make the detailed reading of the corpus of the work oddly postmodernist. As if by accident it ended up being one of Borges’ worlds.

260

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.01.09 at 4:37 pm

“Frodo maintains throughout his belief that Gollum is capable of repentance. “

I’ve being trying to convince my six-year old that real moments of heroism for Frodo, Sam and Bilbo are when they show mercy to Gollum, but he remains convinced they’re heroes because they’ve got cool magic swords.

261

Henry 12.01.09 at 4:37 pm

Vanya – it honestly isn’t condescension. I am quite sure that there are lots of fantasy readers who haven’t come across these writers, but they are pretty bland picks that would be obvious choices to people who write about F/SF professionally or unprofessionally, in journals like, say, _Locus._ They are also, I think it is fair to say, widely read by aspiring fantasy writers. I don’t have, say, my copy of Thomas Disch’s _The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of_ to hand, but I recall him namechecking Wolfe, Crowley and Park as the serious writers who he wasn’t going to go after because he wanted to have some fun. All of these writers (except Mieville, who is too recent) have long entries in John Clute et al.’s _Encyclopedia of Fantasy_ – and are used throughout as examplars of the application of this or that concept. I could have done a commercial fantasy best of, which would have come up with different names – I love Steven Brust’s Dragaera novels for example – but that would have been a different list. Trust me when I say that a lot of the readers of this post were not at all surprised by any of these names, and probably thought I was playing it too safe. Trust me too when I say that the fact that you haven’t heard of them before isn’t a problem – in my genre’s house, there are many fandoms, not all of whom know of each other’s existence.

262

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.01.09 at 4:46 pm

“To make a more complete list, alongside the 1001 Nights, one should probably include a Chinese classic such as Journey to the West/The Monkey King, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or Outlaws of the Marsh. “

The swearing is great in Outlaws in the Marsh aka the Water Margin (still trying to find a Region 1 version of the TV version of “The Water Margin” that showed on BBC2 in the ’80s).

But if Outlaws of the Marsh is fair game, so would be the Mabinogion, the Ulster Cycle (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), the Fenian Cycle (Finn McCool), and the Eddas. And while we’re at it, we’d have to throw in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Homer’s Odyssey, and I guess Virgil’s Aeneid, although I’ve a prejudice against Virgil as a bit of an arselicker to Augustus.

263

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.01.09 at 4:47 pm

“With special mention of Alan Garner for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Elidor and especially The Moon of Gomrath, nearly scared me to death as a child.”

I’ve fond memories of Garner, but Elidor was way more scary than the Moon of Gomrath.

264

Doug M. 12.01.09 at 5:10 pm

Journey to the West gets a wee bit repetitive after the first thirty chapters (Monkey is deceived, then kicks ass with his magic cudgel), but remains quite thoroughly awesome.

Australian and British readers of a certain age may be familiar with the 1970s Japanese TV series adapting the story, which was dubbed (badly) into English and broadcast in select corners of the Anglosphere. It remains, hands down, the best low-budget fantasy TV series anywhere ever.

Doug M.

265

Doug M. 12.01.09 at 5:17 pm

“I recall [Disch] namechecking Wolfe, Crowley and Park as the serious writers who he wasn’t going to go after because he wanted to have some fun.”

Disch, rest his soul, had a weakness for good stylists. Which these guys all are. \Also for authors who were consciously and deliberately in conversation with genre; Ibid.

To use an idiom that’s just past his time, he was a sucker for a well-hung lampshade.

DougM.

266

john theibault 12.01.09 at 5:38 pm

Not really my genre, so I learned a lot from the discussion. I was glad to see a few names that I know checked such as Lem, K.S. Robinson, Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, though a lot of those appeared only in passing. A name I don’t recall seeing is Ray Bradbury. Where does he now stand in fantasy circles if he’s not even name-checked in 275 comments?

267

David 12.01.09 at 5:42 pm

@Henry, 261. Minor but important correction. The Disch book is The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of.

268

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.01.09 at 6:34 pm

“I have a bias against him [Jackson] because IMO he ruined it all. It’s not that the movies are bad, it’s just that they are wrong. He took out stuff that was needed, and added stuff that was not.”

That’s true, and there are (the silly crumbing stairs in Moria, the pointless Warg attack in Two Towers, but not including the Scourging of the Shire) but compared to the mistakes he could have made, he did good. And there were parts that he added that were better than the original (such as Aragorn and Frodo’s parting conversation at the end of the Fellowship). And recruiting Alan Lee to do part of the artistry was a win.

“Y’know, I like Zelazny and used to love him, but the treatment of female characters in Lord of Light and the first five Amber books is a bit painful in places, on rereading.”

I like Jack of Shadows better than Lord of Light, and am less fond of Amber. Jack of Shadows is appealing because the Hero becomes the Tyrant, who finds that having the Awesome All-Powerful Dingus isn’t much use when those you rule go on strike.

269

roac 12.01.09 at 6:40 pm

Sock Puppet at 260: I hope he grasps that it’s the same sword in each case. (Some argue that Sam’s Barrow sword is magic too. I forgo the recital as too geeky for a non-specialist blog. But he does all his serious hero stuff with Sting.)

One or more people upthread took the time to urge me to continue with Little, Big. Thank you, I will. I just hope we get the hell out of NYC soon and head back upstate, I like it better there. But don’t tell me!

Along those lines, I invite someone to sell me on A Princess of Romania. I have read a few chapters — enough to take in the clever variation on the Parallel Worlds setup, but not enough to really grab me hard. Then I googled Park to find out something about his background, and learned that there are four whole volumes of this stuff. Which has put me off; it makes me suspect him of an intention to spin the thing out as long as people keep paying for it (cf. Lost, Twin Peaks, X-Files). I like structure.

270

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.01.09 at 7:33 pm

“Sock Puppet at 260: I hope he grasps that it’s the same sword in each case. “

I think he does, but he’s obsessed with weapons.

Here I am thinking I’m doing the six-year old son a great favour by reading him Rosemary Sutcliffe’s version of the Iliad and Odyssey, and kid’s versions of the Cattle Raid of Cooley & Finn McCool, Beowulf, and the Norse Myths, and all he’s thinking is “Violence with swords and spears and shields, cool”.

He insisted on being read the bit in the Odyssey where Odysseus kills the hundred-odd suitors over and over again. I realized I had to cut back on the classics when he told me he was all annoyed with Zeus because he’d prayed to him for superpowers but Zeus hadn’t given him any.

Wants to learn fencing, archery and the javelin. He’s going to be pissed when I break it to him that King Leonidas isn’t recruiting Spartans anymore.

271

Moby Hick 12.01.09 at 8:00 pm

I’m thinking of getting the Wii Sports Resort just for the fencing game. I tried it at the store and it is more like “smacking with a bat” than fencing, but I’m getting sick of being hit with a foam rubber sword wielded by a pre-schooler.

272

roac 12.01.09 at 9:04 pm

This thread goes ever on and on, down from the post where it began.

273

Moby Hick 12.01.09 at 9:36 pm

Bilbo used to say you had to be careful when you stepped into the internet. Links from Crooked Timber can take you to http://www.thebarnyard.com, if you let them.

274

Doctor Slack 12.01.09 at 10:39 pm

@vanya: “your list is a contrarian list carefully designed to show off your superior taste. “

Ahem. That was my list, thank you very much. (Though I flubbed it by including The Lies of Locke Lamora in a moment of irrational exuberance.)

275

Greg 12.02.09 at 9:47 am

I’m thinking Stéphane Mallarmé’s unrealised opus, ‘The Book’, is quite literally a fantasy classic.

Is there a list of fantasy books written by fictional authors? I’m thinking of the books referenced in ‘Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand’ … Can’t remember the exact titles …

Any George MacDonald fans … ? Don’t vomit all at once …

276

nalbar 12.02.09 at 6:05 pm

roac;
“One or more people upthread took the time to urge me to continue with Little, Big. Thank you, I will. I just hope we get the hell out of NYC soon and head back upstate, I like it better there. But don’t tell me!”

Well certainly get out of NY! Isn’t that about 30 pages?

It’s a good book, and certainly recommended. It did not make my list because I prefer my fantasy not quite as ‘thick’ (I don’t mean long). It’s one of the few books I read that I recommended to my wife. She did not make it out of NY either. But Robin Hobb? She made through those nine books in 5 weeks (they are not small books) and demanded more. Alas, Hobb’s latest trilogy is really not good.

nalbar

277

Doctor Slack 12.02.09 at 6:58 pm

Is there a list of fantasy books written by fictional authors?

Fictional fantasy books is tough. The Blind Assassin in The Blind Assassin is SF. There’s a whole bunch of fictional “fantasy” books in Clarke, but of course in-setting they’re not fantasy.

278

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.02.09 at 6:59 pm

“I’m thinking of getting the Wii Sports Resort just for the fencing game. I tried it at the store and it is more like “smacking with a bat” than fencing, but I’m getting sick of being hit with a foam rubber sword wielded by a pre-schooler.”

Oh for the days of being hit by a foam sword. I made the mistake of getting him a Roman soldier costume for Halloween, and had to get a plastic gladius to finish it off. Getting smacked by that thing *hurts*.

I guess it serves me right for being a snob and wanting my kid to dress up like Scipio Africanus rather than a Power Ranger or Jedi.

279

JohnM 12.02.09 at 7:06 pm

clearly the fictional alternate history in Philip K. Dick’s alternate history The Man in the High CastleThe Grasshopper Lies Heavy should win as best fictional fantasy book.

280

Dan A 12.03.09 at 3:18 am

I’m reading the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson atm, it is pretty good. Also the Gathering Storm by him, which is a wonderful book.

281

Eric Walker 12.03.09 at 6:54 am

Is there a list of fantasy books written by fictional authors?

Close: The Invisible Library. It’s close in that it lists all sorts of fictitious books, not just fantasies; but it seems pitifully incomplete.

It seems to me that there is or was another such list–in fact, come to think on it, I know there was, because I contributed a number of titles from Jack Vance’s works to it–but I cannot readily discover its present whereabouts.

Any such list is roughly equivalent to the contents of John Charteris’s library (see Cabell).

Aha! Here you go: just do a Google search for (in quotation marks) “Rapunzel K. Funk”–most everything that turns up will be one or another such list.

282

Phil 12.03.09 at 8:03 am

Alas, Hobb’s latest trilogy is really not good.

Emph. added. Has there ever been a writer of whom you could say “I strongly recommend X’s latest trilogy”? Tolkien had the right idea if you ask me.

(And I don’t mean Christopher.)

283

Greg 12.03.09 at 10:29 am

Thanks. Amazing the obvious memory holes.

Funny how some titles sound made-up and others are convincing.

Borges’ debt to Lovecraft underscored. Of course the Necronomicon is not fiction …

284

Greg 12.03.09 at 10:30 am

(And kudos to Tolkien — his embedded fictions have the genuine lustre; the ‘reluctant postmodernist’ tag almost has me convinced.)

285

Rob 12.03.09 at 1:58 pm

Elidor, Alan Garner
In Viriconium, M John Harrison
Grendel, John Gardner
Peace, Gene Wolfe
The Street of Crocodiles, Bruno Schulz
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

286

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 12.03.09 at 9:52 pm

“Emph. added. Has there ever been a writer of whom you could say “I strongly recommend X’s latest trilogy”? Tolkien had the right idea if you ask me.”

Tolkien didn’t even want the thing broken up into a trilogy; that was Allen & Unwin’s idea. On reflection, breaking it up into a trilogy has been good for publishers of fantasy, opening the market for Extruded Fantasy Product.

287

LizardBreath 12.03.09 at 10:16 pm

Any George MacDonald fans … ? Don’t vomit all at once …

Yes, although I haven’t reread them as an adult.

288

Moby Hick 12.04.09 at 3:23 am

People say that Tolkien wasn’t good at writing anything but action. However, he could do romance, like the scene in the Silmarillion where Beren tells King Thingol, “I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”

289

Substance McGravitas 12.04.09 at 3:25 am

Applause.

290

Moby Hick 12.04.09 at 3:37 am

Thanks. I’ve been trying to make stupid jokes all day but that one just came to me.

291

David 12.04.09 at 7:40 pm

Doesn’t Frodo sail off to the West?

292

roac 12.04.09 at 8:20 pm

Yes, but Sissy Spacek’s hand pops out of the grave at the end of Carrie.

(Undead Thread – now that would be a good name for a band!)

293

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 8:32 pm

“Doesn’t Frodo sail off to the West?”

Just before his ship gets destroyed by Hurricane West.

294

zic 12.04.09 at 9:43 pm

Dave Maier, I think Thorns is my least favorite of McKillip’s books; I found Kane devoid of anything except power and loyalty to the one person she loved. That the book hinged on Kane’s change of heart didn’t feel trustworthy to me; but it did provide fertile ground for a sequel. (I would have been happier if one of the librarians had found a text documenting Axis’s death in some way.)

“Ombria in Shadow” was wonderful, “Tower at Stoneywoods” and “Atrix Wolfe” great. But my favorite has to be “Bell at Sealy Head,” where McKillip’s simplified her story so well that the deeper meanings are below the surface, never slamming you on the side of the head. it functions beautifully as a fairy tale — leading you to understanding while you’re having a great time reading.

“Ombria” is wonderful.

But an older work, “Forgotten Beasts of Eld,” is a very fine read, too.

And I’d forgotten but must include Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust,” (Not the movie), a book where the magic of love is pitch-perfect. Even made my husband read it. And of course, “American Gods.” LOVED that book.

295

zic 12.04.09 at 9:47 pm

Extruded Fantasy would be a great band name. Credit to Sock Puppet of the Great Satan.

296

Dave Maier 12.05.09 at 3:33 pm

Zic, thanks for your response. I think I see what you’re saying about Kane (but I still liked the book). I’ll check out Sealey Head for sure. (And Forgotten Beasts is indeed fine.)

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