re: John M. recently quoting something that Paul wrote at his blog, and re: Roxane’s recent post and the resulting epic thread regarding writing and its worth, I’d like to pick a bit more at the bones of genre fiction.
I love genre, because genres are basically conventions. They’re expectations that both authors and readers (and editors, and sales people) bring to a text—suggestions as to what should be inside, and how it should be arranged. And I dearly love conventions, because they’re the very stuff of communication, and of artistic structure—whether we’re obeying them, or departing from them.
I’ve never really understood what some people mean when they talk about “exploding genres” and “writing between genres,” and so forth, because I myself can think of very little writing that is pure genre. Most literature that I read—even the more conventional things—already exist between multiple genres.
Consider The Lord of the Rings.
On the one hand, it’s a “pure” example of contemporary fantasy fiction. Right? Hell, it’s the cornerstone of contemporary fantasy fiction. And it definitely is fantasy fiction:
Sorrowfully, they cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water.The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars. (The Two Towers, Book V, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)
But when we look even more closely, we find that Tolkien’s writing contains traces of other genres. It’s contemporary fantasy, to be sure, but it’s also heavily inspired by Norse mythology, Old English and Middle English literature, German Romanticism, and Victorian children’s literature. Tolkien synthesized these various interests to craft a new kind of fantasy literature that differs from, say, fairy tales.
“Throughout the history of literature, writers have plundered modes, approaches, styles, forms, genres […] practically every work of fiction you can name has borrowed liberally from history, biography, science, travel, philosophy, other fictions, and so on (and conversely, every work of history, biography, philosophy and such has borrowed liberally from other fictions and the rest). In other words, if interstitial fiction exists, then it is indistinguishable from fiction as a whole.”
And if we look closer, we can find places in The Lord of the Rings where Tolkien didn’t completely blend those disparate genres into a homogeneous fantasy paste. There’s more than one spot where one genre sticks out more than the others, like an undissolved lump of brown sugar waiting inside a cookie. As we read, we find the different genres receding and dominating, their conventions stepping forward at different times to control different aspects of the fiction.
For example, a friend of mine delights in pointing out the following section in Chapter 3 of Book I of the first book, The Fellowship of the Rings:
Just over the top of the hill they [the hobbits] came on the patch of fir-wood. Leaving the road they went into the deep resin-scented darkness of the trees. Soon they had a merry crackle of flame at the foot of a large fir-tree and they sat round it for a while, until they began to nod. Then, each in an angle of the great tree’s roots, they curled up in their cloaks and blankets, and were soon fast asleep. They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
“Hobbits!” he thought. “Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.” He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.
This is the only place in the entire Lord of the Rings epic where the POV switches to a passing, talking fox. My friend argued that this was a trace of an earlier draft of the book, when The Fellowship of the Ring was still The Hobbit Part 2.
(As is widely known, when Tolkien found that he had no interest in writing The Hobbit sequel that his publisher wanted, and was instead writing The Lord of the Rings, he went back and revised even The Hobbit. The later, darker tale that he found himself really wanting to tell altered its more childlike forebear, which became a prequel—just as The Lord of the Rings later became a prequel to The Silmarillion.) (Or so I’ve heard. I’m afraid I haven’t quite finished The Silmarillion.)
Bakhtin tells us that all novels are shaggy monsters—some more than others, to be sure. But all bear traces of their construction, and obey influences from competing literary conventions that may prove difficult to reconcile. All writing inhabits a history, usually multiple histories, and it finds its place(s) within those histories as best as it is able.
Tolkien had other influences as well, some of which came later. Today, we read certain sections of LOTR biographically, looking at it through the lens J.R.R.’s experiences in WWII. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations (and thereby the conventions of 2000s Hollywood cinema) have influenced how many people read (or don’t read) the books. Before that, various sections were appropriated by the hippies; it’s hard to read the Tom Bombadil sections, and some of the Gandalf parts, and a tremendous amount of the hobbit/Shire/pipe-weed stuff, as anything other than 60s psychedelia.
Now, if you’re still with me, a few words about “high” and “low” art in regards to genre. As I mentioned in my first post at this site, T.S. Eliot stole lines from Sherlock Holmes stories while writing the inspiration for the musical Cats—deal with it, lit snobs. As Jeremy M. Davies then pointed out, more Holmes snuck into Murder in the Cathedral. Wittgenstein, around the same time, was sneaking out of Cambridge to watch bad Western flicks. It’s not just postmodernists like Pynchon and Acker who find joy—and inspiration—in popular art.
Or vice versa. Allow me to point out one of my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings. It was originally pointed out to me in grad school by my above-mentioned friend (hi, friend!) and by my Milton professor.
You’ll recall that in Book VI of Paradise Lost, Raphael relates to Adam what happened when Satan led his followers against God. Both sides, being immortal, found their wounds closing up as soon as they were formed (just like Wolverine’s healing factor!). Yet all of the combatants felt pain, and the thought of endless painful battle put everyone into a funk.
That night, the opposing sides made their camps, and Satan knew he needed to devise some edge:
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fierie spume, till toucht
With Heav’ns ray, and temperd they shoot forth [ 480 ] So beauteous, op’ning to the ambient light.
These in thir dark Nativitie the Deep
Shall yield us pregnant with infernal flame,
Which into hallow Engins long and round
Thick-rammd, at th’ other bore with touch of fire [ 485 ] Dilated and infuriate shall send forth
From far with thundring noise among our foes
Such implements of mischief as shall dash
To pieces, and orewhelm whatever stands
Adverse, that they shall fear we have disarmd [ 490 ] The Thunderer of his only dreaded bolt.
And so, foreshadowing their imminent fall:
Forthwith from Councel to the work they flew,
None arguing stood, innumerable hands
Were ready, in a moment up they turnd
Wide the Celestial soile, and saw beneath [ 510 ] Th’ originals of Nature in thir crude
Conception; Sulphurous and Nitrous Foame
They found, they mingl’d, and with suttle Art,
Concocted and adusted they reduc’d
To blackest grain, and into store convey’d: [ 515 ] Part hidd’n veins diggd up (nor hath this Earth
Entrails unlike) of Mineral and Stone,
Whereof to found thir Engins and thir Balls
Of missive ruin; part incentive reed
Provide, pernicious with one touch to fire. [ 520 ]
And the next day, when the battle resumed:
From those deep throated Engins belcht, whose roar
Emboweld with outragious noise the Air,
And all her entrails tore, disgorging foule
Thir devilish glut, chaind Thunderbolts and Hail
Of Iron Globes, which on the Victor Host [ 590 ] Level’d, with such impetuous furie smote,
That whom they hit, none on thir feet might stand,
Though standing else as Rocks, but down they fell
The battle turns truly desparate then; both sides even begin throwing mountains at one another. (It’s like The Thing battling The Hulk!)
Tolkien, a tremendous Milton fan, pays homage to this in Book V, Chapter 7 of The Two Towers, “Helm’s Deep.” The plot, briefly: the good guys are holed up in a fortress that’s under seige, but that has never fallen:
‘Nevertheless day will bring hope to me,’ said Aragorn. ‘Is it not said that no foe has ever taken the Hornburg, if men defended it?’
‘So the minstrels say,’ said Éomer.
‘Then let us defend it, and hope!’ said Aragorn.
And at first they successfully hold off the bad guys (Saruman’s forces). But then:
Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash of flame and smoke. The waters of the Deeping Stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall. A host of dark shapes poured in.
‘Devilry of Saruman!’ cried Aragorn. ‘They have crept in the calvert again, while we talked, and they have lit the fire of Orthanc beneath our feet. Elendil, Elendil!’ he shouted, as he leapt down into the breach; but even as he did so a hundred ladders were raised against the battlements. Over the wall and under the wall the last assault came sweeping like a dark wave upon a hill of sand. The defense was swept away.
Two pages later, Aragorn reports:
‘[T]he Orcs have brought a devilry from Orthanc […] They have a blasting fire, and with it they took the Wall.’
Devilry indeed. Saruman has copied Satan’s solution: to dig into the earth, and to devise gunpowder.
…Ultimately, it does him no good, because just as God sent forth the Messiah in his Chariot to defeat Satan, the chief good guys ride forth in their own Glorie, their “count’nance too severe to be beheld”:
And with that shout the king came. His horse was white as snow, golden was his shield, and his spear was long. At his right hand was Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, behind him rode the lords of the Houise of Eorl the Young. Light sprang in the sky. Night departed.
‘Forth Eorlingas!’ With a great cry and a great noise they charged. Down from the gates they roared, over the causeway they swept, and they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass.
The orcs, we’re told, “cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws.” No doubt, like Satan’s followers,
they astonisht all resistance lost,
All courage; down thir idle weapons drop’d;
O’re Shields and Helmes, and helmed heads he rode [ 840 ] Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim prostrate,
That wisht the Mountains now might be again
Thrown on them as a shelter from his ire.