Friday, May 30, 2008

The Best Fantasy Trilogy

I really really really want to declare this a tie. I really do. I almost felt that I had to hold off posting this to let the bloom of newness wear off and consider my feelings from the perspective of time and distance.

But I can't, really. I can't wait and I can't declare a tie because how can two things be The Best of one thing? They can't. And that's why it's my sad and excited responsibility to say that The Lord of the Rings has been supplanted and The Best Fantasy Trilogy is the His Dark Materials set by Philip Pullman.

I just finished the set last night, and I was simply blown away. That's all I can say. This was a phenomenal piece of work, from start to finish.

I only picked up the first book, The Golden Compass, in the first place because of the controversy surrounding the movie made out of the book. The movie looked dumb, but the book sounded interesting, so I checked it out of the library. I didn't expect much, to be honest. My opinion has always been that "The Lord of the Rings" is the standard bearer for fantasy works, so much so that just about every fantasy book you read in some way rips off Tolkien's work.

In some ways, fantasy writers can't be blamed for that. Tolkien wasn't the first fantasy writer, but he might have been the broadest; his books were so grand in scope that they occupied the entire fantasy field. He had elves and dwarves and dragons and giant spiders and wizard battles and orcs and goblins and trolls and mysterious Balrogs and underground empires and malicious mountains... the list goes on and on and on.

So it's tough, then, if you're trying to write fantasy, not to seem like you're ripping off Tolkien. I know that when I first read a book about a young wizard who wears glasses (and who shall remain nameless because I don't want to get sued by any authors who maybe have gotten a little too big for their British britches or other parts of their wardrobe) and that wizard went into a "Forest" that was "Forbidden" and found a bunch of spiders, the first thing I thought was "Mirkwood."

It also was not lost on me that the rather smallish wizard-- let's call him "Larry Lotter" -- faced off against a giant spider at one point. Remember "Shelob?" Tolkien fans do.

It's not like that's the only book that certainly didn't rip off Lord of the Rings but seemed to. If you have an elf or a dwarf or a wizard or a major battle in your fantasy book, it's going to call to mind Lord of the Rings or it's going to suck, the same way that all space movies either seem like "Star Wars" or they're crappy. Throughout my life I've read fantasy books that in one way or the other seemed to be extensions of what Tolkien created. Even the goblins in Xanth and Phaze seeming a lot like the goblins that Gollum used to hunt using the Ring.

Even the concept of The Ring carries over into other works -- the object of power that must be destroyed or must be gained to win or lose the battle, depending.

Tolkien didn't invent all of these things, by any means. But he made them so real, so intricately crafted, so well-done that it became inconceivable to picture them in any other way, and they got so ingrained in our mind that way that it was hard to break away from them. It would be like having a skinny Santa Claus with a handlebar moustache; there's no reason that he couldn't look like that, but it'd just be wrong.

That was the first thing that impressed me about His Dark Materials. Expecting a crummy Tolkien rip-off that wouldn't have hit my radar at all if the religious people of the world hadn't brought it to my attention, I was amazed from the very beginning how different Pullman's world was from my world and from my expectations.

[FROM HERE ON OUT, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS]. I'm not going to categorize everything about the books that's different, but two big examples that stick in my mind are spectres and the daemons.

Take daemons first. Pullman's people all have "daemons," which are not a soul or spirit or companion but a mixture of all of them; they're an animal companion that is linked to and part of but not quite joined with their human. The daemons are extensions of or reflections of their people but act independently of them. They're like a conscience and a friend at the same time; they have their own opinions and can act independently, but they and their human are linked, and they reflect some essential aspect of their human. The concept is a fascinating one and one I've never run across in any book I've ever read before, and Pullman handles it brilliantly, fleshing out the concept carefully across three books.

Then there's spectres, the other new thing out of many that I'm singling out. as a completely new concept that I don't recall seeing before. Spectres are ghostly apparitions, visible only to adults and other ghosts, which prey only on adults and leave children unharmed. [SPOILER ALERT] As it turns out, they do that by eating people's daemons, although that's not explained for some time in the books, but when they attack someone, they don't kill them or eat their blood or drain their mind; they kill the daemon and leave people uninterested in anything. One victim, attacked while wading across a river, remains in the river, standing there, not caring about anything.

In those two concepts, Pullman brings across the essence of what it really new about his books and what captivated me and made these books more than just fantasy novels.

Good fiction, including good fantasy fiction, expands from its storyline into something universal without being pedantic about it. The first rule of writing is to tell a good story. The second rule of writing is to make that good story one that causes the reader to understand himself or his world or something a little better or differently or more clearly. Pullman does all of those, and daemons and spectres are at the heart of it.

I have to digress for a moment to explain: Pullman's books have been attacked as being anti-God or anti-Christian or anti-church, and I suppose you could read them that way if you're narrow-minded or if your beliefs are easily challenged. My beliefs are not so shaky and while I understood where people would get the idea that he's attacking a church or all churches -- he says at one point that the Catholic Church is based on a lie -- I also understood that these were characters in a work of fiction saying that. Specifically, these characters [REALLY REALLY BIG SPOILER ALERT] live in a fictional world where God is not the "Creator" of the universe, but just an angel who took charge early on and began running the universes and now is old and decrepit and largely the pawn of his associates.

That in and of itself is a unique, completely different type of storyline that I haven't heard before. Yes, the idea that "God is dead" or out of touch or otherwise not really running things is around before, but you have to read Pullman's work to understand why this one is so new and different.

It's important to know that, and I had to digress, because attacking Pullman's work by saying it's "anti-church" ignores what his books are saying; Pullman himself says he's an atheist and that may be true, too -- I never believe that people are really atheists, because it's a position that's very difficult to defend and they can't really defend it -- and he certainly writes the part, because one of his characters sets off on a quest to kill God, but Pullman's books are in fact quite spiritual and positive, and they are that way in part because of daemons.

Pullman posits that everyone -- including us; our world is part of his trilogy -- has a daemon, a part of themselves that is both linked to and separate from them, a part that exemplifies something unique about that person while also being a separate entity. He makes clear that it's not a "soul" but something else entirely; you can survive the loss of your daemon but not for long, and having your daemon severed from you or killed will first turn you into little more than a living lump of disinterest and later will probably kill you.

Alongside that daemon, Pullman gives people a body and a spirit, the body that lives in this world and is envied by the angels, and a spirit that travels to the world of the dead -- accompanied by our own Death, which is yet another entity that accompanies us, closely or distantly, throughout our life; our Death, like our Daemon, is a constant companion that is unique to us and has a bodily form.

These are spiritual concepts; the characters in the books travel through a variety of worlds, accompanied by a variety of entities who have different relationships with their daemons and souls and spirits and Deaths, but all of those other entities are not human. Pullman says that if you lack flesh and spirit and Death and your daemon, you are not human, and only humans with all of those things can experience the full range of life -- from our human lives with the senses and treats of the flesh to our deaths to our journey through the Afterlife to, eventually, dissipation.

Those are spiritual concepts; those are religious ideas. Those are the basic teachings that any organized religion tries to get across: that humans have something of the divine and something that is human and that we are unique among creation for that, and that makes our journey through creation unique, and imbues us with a responsibility towards that creation -- something that Pullman explicitly recognizes when he has a character [THIS IS THE BIGGEST SPOILER YOU WILL EVER READ] opt to leave behind happiness because short-term happiness for her would mean that she would not live a full life and her full life is necessary to turn her world into The Republic Of Heaven.

You see why I say that maybe people who say they are atheists aren't really? Pullman's whole trilogy was, in the eyes of some, aimed at tearing down religion, and yet the ultimate message of the book is that human beings becuase of their special nature have an obligation to build the Republic of Heaven. Pullman may not like organized religion, but he has written a trilogy that says that a specific person had a specific quality in her that meant she had to go through a lot of troubles and tests, which, when she survives them and returns to her world alive and intact, will help her lead her people into the Republic of Heaven. That does not sound atheistic to me.

But it does sound new, which is where I began on this huge digression. And everything about His Dark Materials is not just new, but also fantastically well done. I said that the first rule of writing is to tell a good story, and Pullman does that. He creates characters that are real and well-rounded and who grow on you over time and who are complex. He leaves you guessing about motives and keeps the pace of the story moving...

-- which is another place where, unfortunately, he outshines Tolkien, who had a tendency to drone on and on for pages about things that just weren't interesting. Did you ever try to read The Silmarillion? God, it's awful. And there are whole sections of The Fellowship of the Ring that might as well be an instruction manual--

...and follows a bunch of disparate threads of storylines that, in the great tradition of fantasy, realign at the end in ways that you might have imagined or might not have but they feel fresh, anyway.

Characters, in fact, are Pullman's strong suit. His characters, even the bit players, are fascinating, and he doesn't spend a lot of time talking about them; you get to know them through their actions and the story. He introduces them out of nowhere; suddenly, "Lee Scoresby" appears and you're thinking who's this? and a few chapters later you're holding your breath...

-- yes, I was holding my breath as I read --

while you read about Lee holding off a set of Russian soldiers on a rocky path, because you don't want any harm to come to him.

Standing above all of the other characters, too, is Mrs. Coulter, the woman who is so duplicitous, so untrustworthy, that the reader simply never believes anything that he or she reads about her. When Mrs. Coulter stops to make tea at one point, Pullman has built up the distrust to such a level that you think the tea must be part of a trap. How Pullman handles her character, the reason why he builds her up to such a level, is one of the masterstrokes of literature ever. I won't say anything about it to spoil it but I will say that Mrs. Coulter is one of the great characters in the history of writing, and one of the most complex because there is nothing about her that is worth liking or admiring and yet Pullman will make you like and admire her while hating her still.
All of these great characters go on this questing, battling journey through a ton of different worlds, all of which are more or less related to each other in different ways, and the story just gets bigger and bigger in scope. It starts with one little girl in a small college and moves on to a group of people going to rescue another group of people and turns into a couple of groups of people fighting each other over that rescue and eventually graduates into all the beings on all the levels of existence joining up into two giant armies to fight a battle that literally is for everything...

...and at the exact moment when it swells to that crescendo, Pullman takes it back down to the personal level again, and wraps things up somehow on both levels at the same time.

And all of it, like I keep saying, is new and different and fresh. It was something that was completely unlike any story I've ever read before. I just kept turning page after page and being astonished at how new and great the books kept getting. There have been a lot of great fantasy books written, but most of those were interesting stories that were well-written; they didn't break new ground, and it seemed as though they couldn't because Lord of the Rings had broken all the ground.

That's what made Lord of the Rings loom so large. But it lacked one thing; as great as Tolkien's story was, as compelling as his characters were, as broad in scope and well defined as his writing was, his story did not move off the page and into your thoughts. His story was... just a story. There's nothing wrong with that; it's the first rule of writing, after all.

But for true greatness, a story must begin to occupy a spot in your mind; it has to take root in your thoughts and get you not just caring about the characters, but absorbed in the philosophy of the story and ruminating on it, however consciously or unconsciouly you do so. It has to rise up past your eyes and into your mind, making you care about the characters because you understand them and their concerns and their concerns are somehow your concerns, too.

Lord of the Rings, as a trilogy, had a lot going for it, but because it defined so well the boundaries of a fantasy world, its heroes and villains and denizens have stopped being wondrous, the way that New York City stops being wondrous if you live there. And Tolkien's books never had grander scope that made it transcend being "just a story." You remember Tolkien's stories, but you don't think about them.

His Dark Materials presented something new and brilliant and entertaining. In time, Pullman may be seen to have redefined fantasy; in time, his witches and bears and angels may be so familiar to us that they are like the backs of our hands and they will join Tolkien's elves and dwarves in the lineup of the traditional; but for now, they are as unheard of as any characters we've ever seen. Those characters carry with them not just a great story, but a great deal of things to think about and mull over, as well.

Every other time I've read a great book, or set of books, like this, I finish, and I close the book, and I set it on my chest and I just relish it for a moment. Then, I think I wish all books could be like this.

I didn't wish that this time. I don't want any books to be like this. I want these books to stand, alone, at the top of the pantheon for all time as The Best Fantasy Trilogy.

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