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Friday, 22 March 2013

Farm Boy Fantasy

So I'm reading this great book at the moment, Tower of Bones by Connie Jasperson. The premise is that a young lad is the next in the line for a family of mages who uniquely combine abilities of battle-magic and healing-magic. He's been tucked away in one of the worlds in the book living on a farm until his Dad sends him out on a quest.

It's a great book that tugs the forelock to classic epic fantasy, such as The Belgeriad and the like. What got me pondering as i read it was the premise of the 'farm boy' setting out on an epic journey to save the day. I used a similar device in my own fantasy series, with Emelia being a servant rather than a farm-girl.
And trawling through my secret fantasy cupboard (cunningly disguised as a book-case) it is a popular theme. The aforementioned David Eddings in the Belgeriad tells the story of Garion, raised on Faldor's Farm, who discovers that he is an immortal sorcerer and wielder of the Orb of Aldur. The five Belgeriad books are his journey of discovery as he learns of his heritage, his family, falls in love (kind of) with a princess, and takes on the dark god, Torak. Better than mucking out pigs certainly.

Although Eddings was often criticised for writing very linear fantasy, he is astonishingly popular and I must say his books are very readable.

Around the same time Eddings wrote Belgeriad, Terry Brooks wrote the first Shannara trilogy. Repeatedly hammered for being a LOTR rip-off, it was none-the-less crazy popular. I recall loving these three books (in fact I found them in my garage the other day, original cover and yellowed pages an' all). In the book, Shea Ohmsford is taken on a quest to get ahold of the Sword which, as a half-elf descendant of Jerle Shannara, he's the only one who can wield it. Shea was tucked away in a nice spot called Shady Vale, adopted by the innkeeper, and fulfils my own personal fantasy of living in a pub, with his adopted brother, Flick. So not a farmboy, but a pot-boy.

Even the acclaimed and very very long fantasy Wheel of Time enjoys the humble beginnings characters--Perry the blacksmith's apprentice, and Mat the naughty farm boy. You dig deeper, and they're everywhere--Simon in Tad William's The Dragonbone Chair; Richard the wood-guide in Goodkind's Sword of Truth; Pug the kitchen-hand in Fiest's Magician; Ged/Sparrowhawk the goatherd in Le Guin's Earthsea. In fact we could go crazy and think of Luke Skywalker fiddling with droids in a sandy farm on Tattooine, or Harry Potter's humble beginnings as a resident of the Dursely's cupboard.
Given that it is such a popular plot device, there is clearly something in the idea of a humble beginnings character who goes onto save the day/ fulfil a prophecy/ become generally awesome.

First off is the 'everyman' idea. Here is the concept that authors write these characters because they allow the reader to empathise with the protagonist, that they permit the reader to become more personally involved with an often fantastical plot. The 'everyman' character allows us to transpose much of our own 'normal' identity onto the character and their progress.

Secondly, every decent fantasy character makes a personal and metaphysical journey as well as a physical one. Whether that's learning more about their hidden pasts, or more about life and love and so forth, a story has to involved change otherwise it generally has no purpose. And that holds true for non-fantasy as well as fantasy works.

Finally the character rising from humble farm-boy beginnings to greatness allows us to cast a similar analogous fantasy on our own lives. Who hasn't secretly harboured a desire to achieve greatness, or to find some hidden magic about our lives. And that is never truer than in fantasy works, where the farm-boy is often a covert saviour, a kind of 'messiah.'

So the farm-boy as a fantasy trope is likely to stay, after all... Sam Gamgee was a gardener, and even King Arthur was called Wart and hung around farms turning into animals.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

There and back again, and again, and...

First of all, an apology. It’s been over two months since my last confession, sorry, blog post. You know how it is—xmas, work (the one that pays the bills), some writing/editing/proof reading. And I’ve been a little unfaithful to this blog, seeing another blog or two on the side....

Anyhow, happy new year. And to kick off this year’s posts where better to start than The Hobbit. I saw it with the kids in the Xmas holidays at our brand new cinema in Halifax, in glorious 2D (as watching films in 3D when you already wear glasses is little better than watching a dodgy bit-torrent version with Arabic subtitles and little silhouettes walking across the bottom of the screen). Now I should declare that there was no way I was not going to like this film. Seriously it could have been just a 180 minute still of Bilbo with Sting and Gollum and a caption saying ‘Eggsies’ and I would have soiled my seat. I’d been awaiting this film since before LOTR, since I was 11 and read the book for the first time (not least because LOTR pre-Jackson had a great film version already in the shape of Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon).

Yet just before I went to see it, the powers of the Necromancer (Sauron for kiddies) had already worked their wicked way on the public. Little mutters of desecration, alteration, new material, ‘untrue to the book’ expanded into ‘milking the fantasy cash cow’ (and what a gargantuan cow it could be in a fantasy world... a 15HD AC2 monstrosity with udders that imitated a Beholder’s twiddly eye stalks). So I was a tiny bit nervous when I watched it—I felt almost protective of the film, like they were insulting my mother in some strange Scorsese type-way (‘Waddya say about my mudder? Huh? Huh?’). After all, Peter Jackson is the Creator in my eyes—he who has brought forth majestic films for all to see (and I include ‘Bad Taste’, ‘Meet the Feebles’ , ‘Heavenly Creatures’ and ‘Brain Dead’ in that statement too).

And I was content. Because he didn’t screw it up. And I know there’ll be dissenters who were probably the same ones who lamented the loss of Tom Bombadil, the barrow wights, and were irritated by that whole Osgiliath diversion in Two Towers, but I loved all the modifications. Well, I could have skipped Sylvester McCoy as Radagast with his Bunnies of Protection +2, but the rest was perfectly pitched. I thought back to the book, which is after all a kids’ book, and wondered how it could have been done differently. Part of the problem is that there are some great scenes in the book that would be a bit naff if directly translated to film—the Trolls, the scene with Golem, even the Spiders. They would be rather twee if left as they were, and I considered Jackson did a good job of making the first two feel far more dramatic and not so silly. The sub-plot with Thorin and Bilbo was perfect—the characters had to make a journey within a journey or the film has no drive: after all, what is a story if nothing evolves, nothing changes?

The extra material with the White Orc gave a great finale, which came just right after the escape from the Goblin caves. The alternate would have been bringing the goblins out onto the mountains, which wouldn’t have seemed as dramatic to me—less personal for Thorin, less opportunity for Bilbo’s bravery.

Similarly the meeting in Rivendell was well done, if a tiny bit slow. The Hobbit is a prequel to LOTR whichever way you look at it. The dialogue was engaging enough, and I also liked the more sympathetic treatment of Saruman before he becomes swayed by Sauron and the Palantir. You do kind of want to slap them and shout, “Duh! How can you not know who’d hiding in Mirkwood?”

So like many I’m eager for the next film, not least to try and predict where they’ll cut it. Will it culminate in Smaug’s death, or will they put that in film 3? Will they focus on the battle of the Five Armies in film 3 or what? Or more linking material?

And it’s that extra material that is really irking folk, as it did to a lesser extent with LOTR. But why? What is so sacred about Tolkien and his work beyond the devotion of fantasy fans? I adore the books, but I’m happy to see the alterations in the same way I was happy with the ‘modernisation’ of the CS Lewis books for film. They’re good films, after all. I see adaptations that are dire, especially of comics—the League of Extraordinary Gentleman is shocking, despite the brilliance of the comic; Wanted is an OK film, but bears a minuscule resemblance to the comic version. There’s a school of thought that considers all art to be adaptable, changeable. When we see the twentieth interpretation of Great Expectations, or Pride and Prejudice, we don’t kick back over the alterations, the omissions, when the key plot points and most memorable dialogue remain. And that’s all that has happened with The Hobbit at the moment—the plot is still the same, the idea of Bilbo Baggins making a journey both physically and meta-physically, with the great quotes and the great songs, a bunch of dwarves (undoubtedly cooler than any Elf softies) and a dude in a grey hat.

For me the thrill of seeing such works on film is second to none, and the same applies to the adaptation of comics such as Thor, Spiderman, Iron Man, X-men and Avengers. I adored the originals, but they could not be replicated panel by panel on the big screen. And the kids these days don’t know how lucky they are to be seeing such awesome stuff at the cinema!

So happy new year, and I promise it won’t be as long until I post again. And I’ll kill the time to Hobbit 2 by playing the fab Lego Lord of the Rings, which has Radagast and Tom Bombadil in it!!!