No Polyester Ermine Here

Fantasy writers wage a noble battle against the forces of schlock. 

The borders of fantasyland are among the most paradoxical places in that paradoxical place. Sometimes it’s ringed with strong defenses, like a Deadly Desert (Oz), impassible mountains (Shangri-La), or thin air (Cloud Cuckoo Land). Sometimes it hides its portals from all but the clever, lucky, or magically gifted. Yet for every child who has bumped her nose on a mirror or the back of a wardrobe trying to get into Wonderland or Narnia, millions arrive there safely, daily, bruise-free. For all its secrecy, the door to fantasyland is an open book. And that’s for brand-name magical worlds; homegrown ones merely require a brain. And there, of course, is the key to the puzzle. Fantasies are universal, yet private. Just as no child escaping to a magical world wants to find the other children he’s escaping from there when he arrives, no author wants to believe a stranger can reach her heart of hearts without fulfilling a quest, at least, to qualify.

Ever since J.K. Rowling revealed the way to Hogwarts (I wonder how many noses have been squashed on the barrier between Platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross Station?), fantasists great and not so great have been pacing their perimeters more fretfully than usual. Not that they’re addressing Harry Potter explicitly. It’s hard to complain about success as well deserved as Rowling’s without looking as ungenerous as an orc. Rather, the blinding spotlight on Rowling is showing up their genre—and a lurid post-Tolkien genre it is, full of multi-thousand-page tetralogies about plucky dragon-riders, staff-wielding dungeon tamers, and damsels with hair so long and flowing it’s a wonder they can keep it from getting tangled in their gowns. (My favorite recent fantasy-novel cover featured a manly, winged fellow—an angel or elf, perhaps—approaching some of those damsels from overhead. He seemed to be Celtic; at least, he was wearing a kilt. I wondered whether he was wearing underwear, but I’m sure the damsels didn’t. From where they were standing, everything must have been visible.)

Ursula K. Le Guin—whose school of imagery on Roke Island in Earthsea called out to aspiring wizards for decades before Harry Potter got his infant forehead zapped—separates herself from such rabble with this surprisingly peevish comment in the preface to her new book, Tales From Earthsea:

[P]eople turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities. And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry. Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

If anyone has a right to be so snooty, it’s Le Guin. She really does deliver those universal truths she goes on about, beginning in A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged, the novel’s arrogant hero, becomes a great mage only after fleeing, then chasing, and finally naming his own shadow. If Narnia takes its power from Christian allegory and Middle Earth from Norse legend, Earthsea draws its strength from the blend of Zen and Native American mythology that flourishes among the redwoods. Le Guin’s language is high and plain; no polyester ermine, no thees and thous here. While she’s far from humorless, you’ll never catch her indulging in anything as vulgar as slapstick or satire. She’s consistent in her isolationism; hers is one of those fantasylands, like Tolkien’s, where outsiders from our world aren’t permitted, not even an Alice or a Dorothy. She saves her impenetrable border for the very heart of Earthsea’s magic, Roke, which protects its shores with a magewind that blows intruders out to sea. And she has put her money where her mouth is—or rather, refused to. You won’t find any Ged dolls in Toys ‘R’ Us, although I bet she’s had offers. Nevertheless, there’s something distasteful about the snobbishness of her rant. Every genre has its hacks, and people have always had a taste for sentiment; why should Le Guin, who’s clearly the real thing, feel threatened?

Diana Wynne Jones, a novelist who thrives on slapstick and satire, takes a much more appealing approach to the same problem in Dark Lord of Derkholm. At first glance, her unnamed fantasy world seems to have all the elements of a Tolkienesque “commodified fantasy”: Bearded wizards join forces with handsome, ethereal elves to battle the Dark Lord and his orcish minions, but Good can prevail only with the aid of ordinary folks from Earth. Indeed, the novel does turn out to entail a struggle to the death between good and evil—but here, the bad guys are the mortals. For some 40 years, the wizards, elves, dragons, kings, and peasants have been contractually bound to one Mr. Chesney, an earthly businessman who sends “Pilgrim Parties” on expensive trips through magical portals to the fantasyland. The tourists get to save the world; the inhabitants have to stage the battles, supplying the war horses, evil minions, seductive enchantresses, and so forth.

The one with the worst job, of course, is the poor chump stuck playing Dark Lord. He has to provide the lion’s share of livestock and labor, and he gets his castle trashed for his trouble. This year, the job goes to Wizard Derk, an absent-minded scholarly type devoted to veterinary research. Some of his experiments have come out better than others. His winged horses are getting smarter (and more mischievous) with every generation, and his Big Hen lays eggs far beyond jumbo; on the other hand, he neglected to breed the ornery out of his Intelligent Geese, and his sheep turn out to be carnivorous (oops). Derk’s best breeding experiment by far is his children. There are seven of these, a human boy and girl and five griffins, bred from bits of Derk and his wife, combined with samples of eagle and assorted cats and lions.

The novel is a wonder of affectionate literary criticism. Even as she parodies the dungeons-and-dragons formula, Jones cleaves to it. Every dramatic element cynically required by Mr. Chesney—the manifestations of demon and god, the grand battle, the fiery pit, the alliances with dwarf and elf, even the aid of visitors from our world—plays its part in freeing the world from its oppressors. Like Le Guin’s villains in reverse, Jones restores the old stories to their rightful intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their violence to action, their dolls to actors, and their sentimental platitudes to truth-telling.

To purchase Tales From Earthsea from, click here. Click here to buy Dark Lord of Derkholm.