August 28, 2014
(++++) FANTASIST AND FANTASIES
Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien. By Anne E. Neimark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Thrones and Bones #1: Frostborn. By Lou Anders. Crown. $16.99.
The Maze Runner. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $17.99 (hardcover); $10.99 (paperback).
Inside the Maze Runner: The Guide to the Glade. By Veronica Deets. Delacorte Press. $10.99.
The greatest fantasy writer of the 20th century – in a century that also produced C.S. Lewis and L. Frank Baum, scarcely lesser lights – was J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), and he was indeed, as the title of Anne E. Neimark’s book aptly calls him, a Mythmaker. But he was more than that, and the “more” is precisely what made him so great. Baum’s alternative-world stories of Oz presented a fully formed child-oriented universe; Lewis’ stories of Narnia were created explicitly for Christian symbolism and advocacy, for all that they can be read as straightforward adventure tales without losing much of their effect. But Tolkien’s works, notably The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, have resonance beyond other fantasies because of the way in which Tolkien conceived and built the world where they occur, Middle-earth. An expert on ancient languages, Tolkien made the method of communication among people the basis of his stories, developing Elvish and other tongues and, from them, the sorts of characters and creatures who would likely have spoken them. This is an extraordinary and perhaps unique way of building a world, and explains why so many readers of Tolkien – and viewers of the best of the movies based on his books – feel that these works somehow transcend the fantasy/adventure genre, having solidity and meaning that go well beyond escapism. Neimark’s easy-to-read biography, originally published in 1996, is careful not to delve too deeply into philology or creative details that might derail young readers’ interest in Tolkien. But Neimark nevertheless shows quite well how Tolkien worked and lived, and how his approach to fantasy differed in significant ways from that of other authors of his time and, indeed, earlier times. Tolkien’s characters have depth and solidity that the inhabitants of most fantasies lack – the typical fantasy, like the related fairy tale, is plot-driven and action-oriented, not intended to explore personalities, much less linguistic structure. Tolkien’s deep knowledge of the roots of human interaction, coupled with the horrors he saw around him before and during World War II, led him to meditate on the existence and power of evil and the results when good people do nothing about it, or do the wrong thing. Because of his popular literary success and his unashamed devotion to works that, for all their fantastic elements, were designed to transcend fantasy boundaries and appeal to adults as well as children, Tolkien was ostracized in the rarefied academic circles where he lived and worked – and Neimark explains this and other elements of Tolkien’s personal life even as she explains to readers which of his works were written when and under what circumstances. Mythmaker is by no means an in-depth biography of Tolkien – the slim new paperback version runs to only 136 pages – but it is a fine introduction to Tolkien the man and Tolkien the writer, and interesting enough in itself to inspire young readers to move on to lengthier and deeper studies of a highly influential fantasist.
Unfortunately, the Tolkien influence on later, lesser writers, while substantial, has ultimately been almost uniformly uninspiring. Authors “get” the Tolkien settings, the dark woods and well-wrought castles and keeps, the differing types of creatures and characters that interact among themselves and between groups, the choosing of sides between light and darkness, sometimes (albeit less often) even the sense of the importance of language. The bursts of dark humor either disappear or become light, however, and the characters that spring from lengthy histories in Tolkien are simply types in most fantasies since – dragons, giants, and so forth. The Thrones and Bones series, which Lou Anders begins with Frostborn, is a case in point – actually a better novel than many of its type, but firmly a genre book and clearly intended only for a narrow age range (8-12). It is, unsurprisingly and inevitably in a book for preteens, about people and sort-of-people who do not quite fit in, need to find themselves, are more than they appear to be, and so on. Family issues are important – again, inevitably in this genre for this age group – as buddies and partners-in-adventure Karn and Thianna, the usual male-and-female pairing, embark on the usual quest to help their families. The Thrones and Bones title refers to a board game that is obviously reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons but likely without much meaning for today’s preteens, many of whom would probably not know the earlier game. Karn is good at it, and tends to play it to the exclusion of other things, such as the work he is supposed to be doing in preparation for taking over the family farm. Thianna, for her part, is half human and half frost giantess – the frost-giant references are taken from Norse mythology, which is lightly sprinkled throughout the book. Thianna’s not-fitting-in problem is that she is too short for giants to consider her truly one of them, and too tall for humans to be comfortable with her (clearly frost giants and humans can meet and mate, but just how that would work, procedurally, is no matter for a novel for preteens). There is enough humor and lightheartedness in this (+++) debut novel to keep matters moving at a pleasantly fast pace, and there are enough loose ends and complications in the story to sustain the Thrones and Bones series into future volumes. No one, however, is likely to think of Anders’ style as being reminiscent of Tolkien’s.
It is, however, vastly better than the style of James Dashner, whose (++) The Maze Runner – the first book of a trilogy that also includes The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure – has captured some of Hollywood’s limited imagination as a potential boy-oriented version of the girl-oriented The Hunger Games and has therefore been made into a movie. The Maze Runner dates to 2009 and is one of innumerable fantasies that owe a little something to Tolkien, a little something to George Orwell’s 1984, and a little something to all the other dystopian fantasies aimed at preteens and young teenagers and written as cinematically as possible (just in case, you know, Hollywood might come calling with a bunch of money). Dashner’s problem (about which he can surely laugh all the way to the bank) is that the similarities between The Maze Runner and the innumerable similar books for the same age group are so blindingly obvious. There is an extremely uninteresting heroic central character (Thomas) with no personality whatsoever, who shows up in a “Box” in a mysterious place one day with his entire memory wiped except, conveniently, for his name. The place he shows up has only teenage boys in it – until, inevitably, a teenage girl later arrives, for reasons unexplained in the book but absolutely necessary so the author is not accused of leaving girls out. Anyway, the boys are uniformly unfriendly and unhelpful, refusing to tell Thomas anything about their home, which they call the Glade. The Glade is surrounded by high walls, outside of which is the Maze, which has evil (but not really especially scary) creatures called Grievers in it, and they are bad news for anyone who gets trapped in the Maze at night. The Grievers can climb to get their victims, but for some reason never climb the walls into the Glade – oh wait, the reason is that then there wouldn’t be a book. Anyhow, the Grievers can kill, dismember, or merely sting people, but the sting may be the worst option, since it results in the boys needing Grief Serum that then triggers the Change, and you will notice that there are lots of Capital Letters in describing What Happens and Where and How, because that is the Style of Books Like This One, for No Apparent Reason. There is also Silly Slang, also for No Apparent Reason. Anyway, the plot moves ahead quickly at first, through a series of Unbelievable Coincidences in which there is plenty of Violence. Then Thomas, inevitably, ends up in the Maze at night, and then the girl who showed up the day after Thomas did starts telling him things – not before, only during his night in the Maze, through an exceptionally creaky plot device – and bit by bit, secrets that there was no reason to keep secret start being revealed, until eventually the boys learn how the walls of the Maze move and what happens when they do, and Thomas inevitably goes through the Change, and things progress from frantic to silly and back again as the book lurches toward a cliffhanger ending that is supposed to lead readers breathlessly to the next entry in the series. Unfortunately, the breathlessness is as likely to come from laughing so hard at the plot holes and absurdities as from excitement – but Hollywood has certainly done a number on the book, which is now available in both hardcover and softcover movie-focused versions and has a companion volume called Inside the Maze Runner: The Guide to the Glade, for those who see the film and just cannot get enough of whatever it does with Dashner’s concept. It would be unfair to say that The Maze Runner shows how far fantasy has fallen since Tolkien’s death, since some recent fantasy is well-done and The Maze Runner itself is not especially Tolkien-like except, to some extent, in the appearance of the Grievers. Still, Dashner’s book, whatever its success in Hollywood, goes to show that fantasy need not be deep, resonant, meaningful or even particularly well-written in order to capture some audience. This fact alone guarantees that post-Tolkien fantasy will continue to be written ad infinitum, or at least ad nauseam.