Five or six years ago, I read The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison and, like so many others, I was blown away by it. Eddison, for the unenlightened, was among the first great fantasy authors. He wrote a generation before Tolkien first produced The Hobbit, at a time when little epic fantasy existed and there were no rules for the genre. And he wrote well. The Worm Ouroboros is a triumph of action and adventure, larger-than-life personalities in equally large landscapes, magic, mystery, romance, and pure writing skill. For his style and subject, Eddison looked back towards ancient epics and fairy tales, but blended them with a plot and characters worthy of a 500-page novel.
Given its greatness, you’d expect me to start immediately on Eddison’s other fantasy work: The Zimiamvia Trilogy, wouldn’t you? I’d expect me to do so too. Strange things happen in my reading career, however. Since I first became a voracious science fiction and fantasy geek, I’ve discovered scores of excellent authors. I don’t have time to finish the oeuvre of one before I discover the next. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single author out there for whom I’ve read the complete published works. I will, of course, pick up Eddison’s trilogy someday. Just don’t ask me which day.
I already used up Gone with the Wind for my favorite female character, and I’m determined not to include any book twice. The Princess Bride became one of my favorite movies, but I don’t like the book. I guess I’ll go with this:Some folks like The Lord of the Rings, some don’t. I’m among those who do. I find the book to be majestic, very well written, and highly creative. I can easily see the reason why it became the basis for almost all adventure fantasy of the past fifty years, as well as inspiring who knows how many pieces of art, TV shows, movies, games, and more. On the other hand, I can also see why some folks find the book obtuse, wordy, and boring. The Lord of the Rings is surely an acquired taste. However, it’s one that a whole lot of persons have acquired.
J. R. R. Tolkien, we must understand, was not an ordinary man. He was a professor at Oxford in the early part of the twentieth century. His topic was ancient languages and literature. Thus, his academic career involved immersing himself in archaic texts and works that most of us have never heard of, sometimes written in languages that most of us have never heard of. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he was mildly eccentric. However, if he didn’t fit with the modern world, that may tell us more about the modern world than about Tolkien. He tried to be a model of the type of English gentleman that was disappearing in his own time and has totally disappeared now.
That such a man should produce was is possibly the most famous entertainment of the twentieth century is surprising to say the least, almost as unlikely as a carpenter becoming the most influential person in history. However, if one reads Tolkien’s books it becomes a little bit less surprising. If nothing else, he did immerse his readers fully in a fictional world. No other fantasy author can provide such amazing wealth of detail, can allow us to fall so completely into the landscapes, the social scenes, and the battles of a world that never existed
For James Stoddard’s The High House, I have included a picture of the entire book jacket rather than just the front cover. One of the things about this book that makes me happy is the cover art. The notion of a boy and a dinosaur crouching on the eves of a Victorian mansion, the mysterious eyeball peering out from amid the bricks, the old-timey feel, the very askew clock tower, the clashing yellows and blues in the sky: all of it adds up to the best cover illustration that I have ever seen.
But if the outside of the book is perfect, the inside of the book is even better. I remember reading this novel for the first time during my sophomore year of college. I had just finished the first four Harry Potter novels and I wanted something more. I was willing to start exploring the adult fantasy, and I did it by grabbing anything at the library that looked interesting. The first couple that I tried, however, were uninspiring to say the least. Then I happened upon The High House, and my world has never been quite the same.
What is The High House about? It is about a boy who lives in a magic mansion with dinosaurs in the attic and tigers in the basement. It is about nasty, man-eating furniture with tentacles. It is about a library that turns into a jungle, about a magic set of keys that controls the universe, about clocks that run the planets and lamps that are the stars. It is about characters whose daily motions control the fate of the world. It is about words that give power and oceans that take up indoor rooms. And all of that is just in the first fifty pages.
On another level, The High House is the story of a boy who comes of age. It is about his accepting his past mistakes and overcoming them. It is about courage and responsibility and character. It is a story that is at once as old as story-telling and yet ever new.
The High House is also about great writing. Luxurious writing, brilliant writing, beautiful writing, writing that fills your soul and swells within you. It is about writing so grand and majestic that it can make even the most bizarre things seem entirely real.
The High House is about all of these things and more. Nominally it is classified as “high fantasy” and “young adult lit”, and I supposed in the strictest terms it is those things. Some people have childhood favorites. This book is one of my adulthood favorites. It has everything that great writing should have.
My last two posts dealt with the Atlas Shrugged movie. Now that that’s gone down to box office defeat, I can deal with another motion picture project that I’m not watching based on a book that I cared deeply about in college but haven’t thought about in years. That would be A Game of Thrones. The book is the first in a lengthy fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. The series began airing on HBO last Sunday.
What is A Game of Thrones about? I used to know. If you had only asked me six or seven years ago, I could have lectured you about the origins of House Fossoway, the motivations of Varys the Spider, the meaning of the prophecies in Bran Stark’s dreams, and many other such things. Yes, I was a fanboy in my day. Now I no longer am. I can vaguely recollect the outline of the plot but that’s it.
So let me recollect. I recall that during my teenage years I ceased leisure reading almost entirely. Then, during my sophomore year of college I began reading science fiction and fantasy once more. The book that brought me back into the fold–I’m not ashamed to admit this–was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. After that I started visiting the local public library and picking out novels at random. Some were good, such as James Stoddard’s The High House. Some were bad. Eventually I decided to seek out advice on what the really good stuff was. The two most popular authors were Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. I read the first; his stuff was dreck. Then I read the second and it was just … so … awesome.
Martin’s books were packed with great lines. For example, a character in the middle of battle sees some enemies soldiers approaching and says, “Those are brave men. Let’s kill them.” This is a great line. Don’t ask me to explain why, but teenage boys can identify great lines when we read them. Characters died in Martin’s books. This was important. I thought, for some reason, that major characters never died in other fantasy novels. Now I know this to be obviously untrue. And the series was huge. There were hundreds of characters, dozens of warring parties, and whole continents on which the story could unfold. Having more of everything obviously made the series better than its competitors. I couldn’t quite say why, but I knew it to be true.
As you might guess, I eventually grew out of Martin and his novels. I began to think that great prose should be intelligent and meaningful, rather than just being witty insults and death threats. I started to suspect that far from being original and ground-breaking, Martin’s series was actually rather dull and cliched. I began to wonder whether quality of characters and events mattered more than quantity. It seems that I bailed out at just the right time. According to internet scuttlebutt, it seems that Martin has all but stopped working on the series halfway through, so thousands of dedicated fanboys may never get the ending they were promised.