Lewis, Lovecraft, and Reading Fantasy

 

            I recently stumbled across what is actually a very old article in The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis & Alien Worlds.” It’s the sort of article that was designed for me.

            When I was a pre-teen/early teen, my family switched not only churches, but theological traditions. Combined with other difficult events in my life, all the questioning and re-thinking I had to do about my faith was disconcerting. That was when I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’s apologetics material, which became my lifeline to sanity. Afterwards I explored his fiction, and even some of his academic material, and I have long thought I owed Lewis a sort of debt as my father in the faith.

            I stumbled onto Lovecraft, fittingly, at an equally insane time in my life. Lovecraft was not my father in much of anything, though he framed certain questions about the world in interesting ways. I also tend to think he’s refreshingly honest and self-aware for a materialist, but I’ve always been skeptical of materialists who take anything like an optimistic outlook on life.

            I would not call myself an expert on either of these men, though I have lived with someone that I think could claim that title on Lewis. I would say that I’m more than casually familiar with both, though, and each has done quite a lot to influence my writing in various ways. This is why I was delighted when the piece in The Imaginative Conservative highlighted a common thread between them, and in doing so, helped me to understand the world of fantasy literature a little better.

The Tools of Fantasy

 

            The article focuses on how Lewis and Lovecraft both told stories about alien life.

            For Lovecraft, alien life was fundamentally strange, disgusting, disturbing, and indifferent to the existence of mankind. There is no basis for friendship between our species and one of theirs, and often not even for communication. Our goals are different, our minds are different, the ways we see the world are different, and we are not even made of the same kind of matter. Any encounter between us drives one or the other to insanity or death.

            For Lewis, life outside our sphere may be strange, but it is not disturbing. Though we might not understand the aliens at first, soon we can grow to appreciate them, to admire their beauty and their skills, and the ways they interact with their environment. Each kind of creature is built for its own place, and though it may not thrive outside of the place, there is no fundamental opposition between one place and another, one species and another. There is a harmony at the back of all creation, and simply because one voice in the chorus may seem strange to another does not mean it does not have a place in whole.

            This is exactly the sort of thing fantasy literature is adept at highlighting. Both these men want to examine the nature of sentient life. To do this, they both created sentient life-forms in situations far different from our own, some of them taking forms that were utterly inhuman. They were then free to exercise their imagination and come to a deeper understanding of what it meant to be sentient. They also wanted to examine what it would be like to take a creature built for one place and let encounter a creature built for another. In fantasy literature, which I am using a shorthand for all speculative fiction, you are allowed to do that.

            Fantasy is a genre with the potential to examine the world in ways almost no other genre can. It can examine the structure of the cosmos, or expose its lack of structure, simply by sending you on a journey. It can explore the meaning of humanity by setting the human next to the inhuman, or by turning one into another. It can ponder the possibilities of predestination and free will by inventing prophecies or engaging in time-travel. The limitations nature imposes on the scientist and philosopher in the real world are overcome through the power of imagination in fantasy literature.

 

The Readers of Fantasy

 

            This aspect of the fantasy genre has always attracted me to it, the fact that it lies so close to the surface in both Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis is probably a major part of what attracts me to their writings. But this is not all that fantasy is, and that must be taken into account when examining the genre.

            J.R.R. Tolkien, who has the authority to speak on such topics, says that “fairy stories” are good for a number of things, and one of them is escape. We do not live in a perfect world, and at times it is good to rest from our labor, to enjoy a vacation of the mind to strange and distant place, from which we can return refreshed. If real suffering is a prison, fantasy allows us to fly the coop.

            This is a good and healthy use of fantasy, and the fact that Tolkien acknowledges it is quite honest. Some people criticize this use of fantasy, but he does not. There is a difference, he says, between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. And there is also a word for people who are constantly worried about escape—he calls them prison guards.

            But an unhealthy kind of escapism, the kind Tolkien calls “the flight of the deserter,” does exist. I missed quite a lot of my teenage years while squirreled away in my room reading Harry Potter, or off in a corner trying to make my way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think a lot of fantasy readers can say the same. After all, it does take quite a lot of time to tear through five hundred page paperbacks, especially when there are a dozen to a series. The world is not built out of free time, and time spent there is not going to be time spent with family and friends.

            But it’s not just the amount of time spent that worries me. A large portion of the fantasy world, as has often been pointed out, is just repackaged Tolkien. It is not a genre known for innovation, though there are notable exceptions. The industry that nerd culture has become also expands this beyond unoriginal books and fills tabletop games, MMORPGs, card games, TV shows, and movies with the same old tropes. The worlds are familiar, the fantasy races are familiar, the MacGuffin swords and rings are familiar, and the characters and plots are old as dirt.

            There is something to be said for that. One of my favorite things about medieval literature is that authors didn’t feel the pressure to invent something new every time they set pen to paper—a reworking of old material was perfectly acceptable. Old and familiar is good for binding a community together, and allows you explore those same themes with a level of depth constant novelty just doesn’t allow. If you use it that way.

            But if fantasy is a genre with unique tools that allow it to explore the cosmos, and the nature of humanity, and other philosophical and scientific worlds in new and exciting ways, if all that is true, then this kind of thing is disappointing.

            Lewis taught me to think about hierarchy and place, the nature of being human, the nature of being male and female, and who God is in new and exciting ways.

            Lovecraft taught me to understand just what it means for man not to have a privileged place in the universe, and what the truly Other would be like if there was no harmony behind it all, and to contemplate the difference between science and magic, between religion and cosmic politics.

            Tolkien taught me to consider that great power that appears to be a gift may come at an unthinkable cost, and to realize that in a fallen world, death in its time might be a gift.

            I don’t want merely to escape. I don’t want to waste time in a world not my own simply because my own can get rough. I want to be equipped to handle that real world better. I need relaxation and refreshment, to be sure, but also need wisdom, need news eyes for the world. Fantasy has the ability to grant that, but when the genre becomes an exercise in revisiting the same old elves and dwarves, and the same old magic swords, it loses something important. It loses the magic that makes it unique.

            That’s not the fantasy I want to read.

            That’s not the kind of reader I want to be.

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Explorations in Modern Mythology

Reality inspires fantasy. Love poetry exists because lovers exist. Adventures are recounted because people encounter and overcome peril. Real horror exists in the world, twisted men and monsters. So we tell stories about them.

But when we delve into deeper beliefs, into ideas more profound and more fundamental to how we see the world, our stories take on themes more powerful and more resonant than those of the average daydream. When we speak of life and death, of the purpose of existence, of the laws of nature and of human nature, the stories we tell become something else. They become mythology.

Belief inspires this kind of story, whether that belief is true or false, rational or irrational. Every community wants to pass on its deepest wisdom, wants to contemplate the grandest mysteries of its creed. Christians have the canon of Scripture, but we also reach out and spin other stories. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the best of medieval romance, Shakespeare, Spenser, even the ribaldry of Chaucer, and countless others all tell stories inspired by their authors’ convictions as members of a Christian society.

Since the invention of the printing press, and of the silver screen, man’s love of telling stories has been given free rein. We have become a culture that is telling stories constantly, film after film, book after book. Never have we seen such a vast number of stories being told and retold at such a fast pace.

The technological advances that led to this boom in storytelling came of age at the same time as another cultural phenomenon. Charles Darwin gave voice to a movement of skepticism that had been growing since the Enlightenment. He provided an explanation for the diversity of life and the astounding suitedness of most species to their environment which involved no divine intervention. Early evolutionary theory swept away the need for what many considered primitive superstitions and replaced them with rational science.

This view of the world which rejected miracles and the divine—a position referred to as philosophical naturalism—and which embraced the principles of natural selection and common descent soon took hold of the scientific community. As it spread among the learned, it emerged into the popular consciousness as a striking picture of the universe, a world of vast distances in time and space, of unimaginable transformations across eons, and a bloody struggle for survival and progress up out of the slime. It struck artists, it inspired storytellers, and a mythology began to grow.

The story of evolutionary naturalism’s place in the popular consciousness is a fascinating one. The ideas of that worldview have captured the minds of such men as H. G. Wells, Joss Whedon, H. P. Lovecraft, Bryan Singer, and Robert E. Howard. It permeates the worlds of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The X-Files, much of the comic universes of Marvel and DC, and the first season of True Detective. 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing if not a meditation on such a universe. Everywhere we look in popular culture, we see philosophical naturalism, accompanied by the fundamental insights of Darwin’s theory (the details have long since evolved in other directions).

Over the past year or so, I have studied these works and others. This has often yielded profound insights into our cultural consciousness, and into human nature in general. It has also revealed many great artists worth revisiting, and stories worth telling. The knee-jerk reaction of many Christians might be to avoid such investigations, but God is the creator of all mankind, and of the world we live in, not just of the church. There is much to be learned in every corner of creation.

At some point after beginning this journey, I decided to post my thoughts publicly, offering something of a guide to evolutionary naturalism in pop culture. It is my goal to draw attention to the ways in which that worldview has inspired stories, the ways in which people have responded to their own beliefs. Human nature has certain laws, certain desires and antipathies, that carry across time and space, that transcend both cultural and national boundaries, and lend their character in striking ways to the most insignificant of objects. In pursuing this line of inquiry, we can learn much, not only about evolutionary naturalism, but about mankind in general.

The first glimmer of this project can already be seen in my posts on Conan and the Marvel Universe in general. In the coming weeks and months, I want to delve into Wells, Lovecraft, The Planet of the Apes, and the works of Joss Whedon. I also hope to revisit Conan in more detail, and other narrative universes as opportunities arise. I hope your interest is peaked enough to join me on this voyage of discovery. It’s been an exciting one so far, and I expect it will lead to many more strange and wonderful places.

The Subtle Knife

From now on my reviews will be divided into two sections. The first will be short and spoiler-free for those deciding whether to read the book, and the second will be a longer exploration of the book geared towards those who don’t mind spoilers.

Should You Read It?

This series is thoroughly atheistic, designed to be an answer to Lewis’s Narnia. It attempts to be a compelling apologetic, and it certainly is an incredibly entertaining work. If you have a sharp mind and a firm faith, this is an excellent place to learn about telling good stories with a worldview. However, this is not something to raise your kids on. By itself it’s not persuasive, but this is the sort of stuff that can be poisonous over the long haul. Tread carefully.

If You Have Read It

This book is fascinating. Pullman crams it with meaning and commentary on life. But before we get to that, can I just point out that he has some serious problems with point of view? In the first book that was fine, because Lyra was really the only one who did things. Here, however, we’ve got a ton more heads running around and Pullman is intent on jumping through them all. There are ways of pulling it off, but he barely takes a breath while switching POV’s. It’s downright disorienting. I mean, you can easily read past it, but it is annoying. Anyhow, on to the fun stuff.

Lyra and Will

Right off the bat we have a new protagonist. Will Parry is far more competent than Lyra, and Lyra figures this out quick. She falls for him, and she falls hard. It’s actually rather frightening.

Don’t get me wrong, Lyra needed to be humble and look up to somebody. When she realized that Will’s Oxford was so unlike her own, that was something I’d waited a long time for. She had to rely on someone else to be smarter than her, to take care of her, and she had to admit that she simply couldn’t handle things. Sure, she’d had doubts before, but she was nauseatingly arrogant with all the other characters.

But from that point on, the contrast becomes enormous. At every available opportunity Lyra becomes more childish and Will is shown to be more competent. A crisis comes and she rages, distraught, while he calmly considers the situation. Another crisis occurs, and a moment later Lyra chatters happily while Will’s wound continues bleeding and he struggles to keep moving.  She stops using the alethiometer on her own, letting Will call the shots. She apologizes repeatedly for the slightest thing, and repeatedly he accepts. She is mystified by the world, and he explains it to her. I am hard-pressed to think of a single incident in the book where this trend is not followed.

It’s not the degree of devotion and submission from Lyra towards Will which is jarring. Plenty more patriarchal fundamentalists would paint a relationship this way. But an atheist preaching equality and the evils of submission? That’s startling, especially after Lyra is made so much of in the first book. By the end of The Subtle Knife, it’s hard to take her seriously as a sidekick, much less as an independent protagonist.

Kids Are Evil

One of the things Will explains to Lyra is the nature of human cruelty. There is a thread spanning most of the middle of the book involving unwatched children who run about tormenting cats, each other, and eventually Will and Lyra. Lyra is shocked by this, unable to understand how children could be so mean. Like many people today, she had imagined children as a sort of noble savage, incapable of real evil.

Surprisingly, Pullman through Will insists that this is not the case. Children are violently hateful towards anything they find strange or frightening, or anything that harms them. The only thing that keeps them from murder is sheer inability. While I agree with the idea, lover of Augustine that I am, it is surprising coming from the guy who associates enlightenment and original sin, via Dust, with puberty. But Pullman is complex, and sometimes contradictory.

Magical Science

The way Pullman fuses magic and science is fantastic. Somehow he removes the spiritual realm and invests infinitesimally small particles with intelligence. Because these particles are everywhere, permeating the universe like the Force, they can be provoked into acting by apparently magical rites or by complex scientific procedures.

It’s not just the explanation, either. This whole series, but especially this book, evokes the same sense of wonder and mystery with particle physics that we ordinarily associate with enchantment. Then he turns around and treats spells with the same empirical and matter-of-fact manner with which he might treat a scientific experiment. People should do this more often.

The Conceit

As Film Crit Hulk is fond of pointing out, the ending is the conceit. With this book, no kidding. Pullman lays out his whole agenda in no uncertain terms. In fact, it was so starkly revealed the first time I read it that I was sure there was still a twist to come, that he couldn’t be serious. I was wrong, so very wrong. But that is a story for later. For now, we plow onward through the last bits of The Subtle Knife.

Doctor Malone and the Rebel Angels

When Lyra finds someone in Will’s Oxford to help her, it is an apostate nun-turned-physicist named Dr. Mary Malone. She is a rather flustered individual, in a bit of an airheaded and devoutly scientific sort of way. Honestly, I thought her portrayal was goofy, but she goes interesting places.

One of the places she goes is into a direct conversation with Dust. It turns out these intelligent particles have organized themselves into vast structures we know as angels. These angels, who guide Lyra via the golden compass and now Dr. Malone through this machine (and later through I Ching), are rebel angels. They interfered in evolution, turning humanity into a conduit for Dust as an act of revenge against God. And Doctor Malone is going to “play the serpent” for them.

The Setup

In the last part of the book we are tugged along in the asking of two questions: who is Lyra, and what is Aesahaettr?

Aesaheattr, it turns out, is the titular knife. Not only can it cut open portals between worlds, it can kill angelic beings. Which, apparently, includes God. In fact, it seems the only reason the Rebels lost the last war was that they did not possess such a weapon. Now they have that chance.

As time goes on, we also discover that Lyra is the next Eve. There are now two stories running on parallel tracks: the assassination of God and the reenactment of the Fall.

It’s at this point that continuing the series seems ghoulish and downright diabolical. Quite frankly, this book is satanic. It makes God into the enemy and devils into heroes. At least, that is Pullman’s intention.

But this is not something that ought to be too shocking or inherently unfamiliar. In reality there are only two ways of telling a story– on God’s side or Satan’s. In most books, this is veiled and obscured. Paganism hides at the heart of the parable and goes unnoticed. Here it is shockingly and openly blasphemous, but its very explicitness robs it of its teeth. Pullman is honest about the story he is telling, so we can honestly evaluate it. Therefore, onward.

John Parry’s Speech

Will’s missing father–John Parry/Jopari/Dr. Grumman– sums things up as he gives his son his mission in the very last chapter. All of history has been a war between the Authority and the Rebels. Because the Rebels lost the first engagement, there has been “nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history.” It is a battle between “human freedom,” knowing more, being wiser, being stronger on the one side, and obedience, humility, and submission on the other. And this time the Rebels must win.

But John Parry’s speech falls flat. It is itself a glorious piece of propaganda, and not one page later he betrays a man who gave his life for Parry, Lyra, and whatever cause they were defending. Every adult on the Rebel side is at least as cruel as the Church they fight. Until now we have not seen the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Church has been little more than shadows. But these men, those who fight them, are despicable. John Parry stands witness against his own cause.

All Parents Fail

In Pullman’s world, it is dangerous to be a parent.The moment Will recognizes this shaman as his estranged father, the man is struck down by a scorned lover. Our beloved Lee Scoresby, in trying to replace the awful Asriel, dies for Lyra. Nor is it only the fathers. Lyra’s mother is a horrible person, and Will’s is crippled and dependent, unable to be there for him even if she would like to do so. This is a world of orphans, a world where reality is harsh and growing up means being alone. And, in the end, like every other father, God must be proved senile, cruel, or dead.

But this is only Pullman’s negative case. The pain and angst is later replaced with an effort to love in a world without God. I pushed on, hoping to learn how he could present a positive worldview, something that goes beyond the hopeless denial of atheism. As an artist, or an apologist, such an effort is valuable. If you’ve come this far, I urge you to soldier on and see where it goes.

The Golden Compass

A long time ago a Christian friend recommended a book to me. That is not unusual, as virtually all my friends are Christians and bookworms. The unusual part is that this book was The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, known as Northern Lights to European audiences.

Pullman is an outspoken atheist, and the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which this was the first part, is his anti-Narnia. And I loved it. I absolutely devoured it, right up until the last chapters of the last book, where I did a double-take, and decided to set aside the series once I had finished it. Despite its growing popularity and a feature film, I did not touch it again for years. Until this winter.

Now, I should explain that I have a very strong sense of loyalty and something of a contrarian streak. Though I got a little excited when the trailers came out, I pretty much boycotted the movie, and never recommended the book to anyone. If the author was going to oppose everything I believed in, I was not going to support him in any way.

Meanwhile, I was reading books by ancient Greeks, pagan Romans, and heathen Norsemen. I have always been of the opinion that Christians can learn from even the most virulently anti-Christian writers, if one has thick skin and a keen eye. “Gold from Egyptians,” and all that.

Now, I could pretend it was that philosophy that caught up with me, but it was mostly just an excuse. The truth is I loved those books. The world they painted captured my imagination and the moment I had finished the first part, I started spinning off all sorts of stories inspired by it. And after all these years, I am curious as to what it was that so enthralled me, when the agenda (I have come to realize) was so incredibly blatant.

So, I started reading them again. And here is my take on book one.

Daemons, Denmark, and Deadly Bears

Philip Pullman is absolutely brilliant at crafting worlds. His alternate earth is huge, filled with all sorts of cultures and countries, men and organizations with competing agendas, and some people so strange as to baffle all the rest of the crazy carnival. He can paint pictures of scholarly universities, high society cocktail parties, villages on the edge of the world, the icy wilderness, gypsy boat-houses, and the splendor of a bear’s kingdom. Details are plentiful, but never tedious, and can leave a childish heart captivated.

For one thing, there’s daemons. Daemons are not evil spirits, but a human soul on the outside of the human being. They come in the form of animals, lifelong companions to their human counterparts that visibly embody many of their feelings and charactr traits. Each pair is separate enough from one another to hold a conversation, but so tightly bound that too much distance between them can cause physical pain.

Can you imagine that? I mean, that’s cool. Like the world’s awesomest pet mixed with a furry little sibling. Who wouldn’t want one? And in Pullman’s world, you’re not human unless you have a daemon.

Then there’s all this slightly off terminology. It took me forever to figure out that “anbaric” meant “electrical” and “tokay” was a type of wine. “Aeronauts” could fly balloons or zeppelins. “Philosophical” things have to do with physics and “experimental theologians” are physicists. “Atomcraft” is pretty much what it sounds like. This may sound confusing out of context, but in the book it all makes perfect sense and is accepted as a matter of course.

Another cool thing: his geography, and the politics that spins off it. The Tartars (of Golden Horde fame) are still a very big deal, threatening the peace of all Europe and Asia–particularly Muscovy and Cathay. And Russia, which is not Muscovy. America is New Denmark, and the native Americans are Skraelings, a name taken right out of old Vinland folklore. Gyptians are gypsies that live in boats, and Lapland is still very much a thing. The Vatican has moved to Geneva, and the Svalbard archipelago belongs to a kingdom of sentient polar bears.

Speaking of sentient polar bears, there are sentient polar bears. They are massive beings that can bend metal with their bear paws or engage you in polite, though intimidating, conversation. They have no daemons. Instead, their armor (yeah, armor) is their soul. And this is thick stuff made from “sky iron” and forged in geothermal “fire-mines.” They have a king and an honor code and a giant island where human exiles are sent to have the living daylights scared out of them. Awesome.

The Church

But, there is an agenda. Pullman’s portrait of the Church is very interesting. John Calvin, the last pope, moved the Vatican to Geneva, where a dizzying series of committees and councils known as “the Magisterium” has taken over running pretty much everything. A Presbyterian nightmare. The Magisterium is pretty much all-powerful, running science, the Inquisition, and great deal of politics.

Honestly, though, the Church is not as horribly painted as you might expect. For one thing, it’s just a giant series of commitees. Easily mocked, perhaps, but hard to put a face on as the embodiment of evil. Mostly Pullman just paints the Magisterium as complicated, paranoid, slightly reactionary, and easily confused. And very, very distant. It has its hands in everything, but a clear representative is hard to find. Kind of like the US governmant.

Coming of Age

While this is a major theme, I don’t think much ought to be said until the sequels are taken into account. Suffice it to say that puberty is a big deal to Philip Pullman, and not just because it involves hormones ‘n stuff. It connects to reason, curiosity, original sin, self-reliance, and why the Church is evil. Also, to major plot points. So we’ll come back to that.

Lyra Lier

Ordinarily it’s not worth dwelling on a character’s petty sins, but this really stands out. Lyra lies very often, and often with little provocation. So does everyone else, and it’s just accepted without the least bit of justification. I mean, sure, any individual instance may not be a big deal, but the frequency just seems pathological. Nobody trusts anyone in this world. That, I think, fits very well with some overarching ideas in the trilogy, and we’ll come back to it in later posts.

A Fascination with Power

Pullman seems to have a heightened awareness of power, and a fascination with it. Several characters are admired for their commanding presence, the sense of danger that emanates from them, and their sheer superiority over other human beings. Power is not just ability to get things done, it’s a positive virtue. And an immensely attractive one at that. Again, this connects with an overarching sort of worldview Pullman has–and this is a very worldviewy trilogy. It will, I think, be important when all is said and done.

Conclusion

Book one, fun as heck. Awesome world, interesting plot. Characters are fun, if a bit flat. Good enough I checked out the second book.

PS– In a battle at the end of the book, Pullman decides to use epic similies. Seriously.

My Beef With Coming of Age Fantasy

In my experience, starting anything with a qualification softens the blow of a potentially offensive point far too much. But my fantasy-nerd street cred is probably lower than it ought to be right now, and I am attacking what seems to be one of the biggest selling genres of the day. So, let me just say that I love fantasy, I love coming-of-age stories, and I love coming-of-age fantasy stories–when they are done well.

The problem is that our artistic culture is stupid. It is filled with artsy artists, who tend to be insecure, introspective brats who like to dream up a world with themselves at the center. On top of that, people who are coming of age are some of the most self-centered people on the planet. Combine the two, and you have a recipe for annoying.

How many stories of this type have you read, or even watched? Now tell me if the following seems to accurately describe your experience: 1) protagonist is incredibly gifted, 2) protagonist is horribly misunderstood, 3) protagonist finds himself in situations demanding far too much of him, but through his aforementioned giftedness and some cheesy variant on finding himself manages to come out okay, and 4) all those people who horribly misunderstood him are either publicly proven wrong or else our victorious hero has for his own ends chosen to allow his natural inferiors to continue in their pitiful ignorance. Sound familiar? I swear I’ve read it a million times.

This is annoying on so many levels. For one, coming of age stories can actually be awesome. I mean, this is where kids discover things like the opposite sex, their vocation, what it means to take risks and be responsible, real good guys and real bad guys, the passage of time, and how cool the world actually is. Not to mention the magical ability to suddenly understand some of the most important people in their lives–their parents. That is an era of life and a process that is rich with themes and characters and potential plotlines. Wasting it on “poor me, I’m misunderstood” is just stupid.

Then there’s the fact that it essentially ruins the fantasy genre. What is awesome about fantasy, what draws most people to it (or draws me to it, anyways), is the fact that it deals with the world on this grand, sweeping, epic scale full of wonder, excitement, and discovery. You can be taken on an Odyssey that introduces you to so much that is new, so much that has never been seen before, and then do cool things with all that new stuff. It is just plain fun. And a misunderstood teenager story limits the vast potential of fantasy into the most cramped of possible spaces–the distance between the two ears of a  kid who won’t grow up.

That is, of course, the central irony with this trend. I don’t have a problem so much with protagonists who think they are misunderstood–I’m not sure any teenager doesn’t think that–no, I have a problem with a story that says they are right. That kind of story, where junior proves his superior wisdom over society or the authority figure, that’s a coming of age story where absolutely no one comes of age. There is no growth, only the increasing rot of an already bad egg.

But like I said, I don’t mind if the character starts out that way. In fact, I would love to see a coming of age story where that fantasy setting is used beat the living angst out of the kid, pitch him out of his own skull, and let him discover the awesomeness of the world around him. As in, the world and its inhabitants which are awesome, not him or his skills or his gifts or specialness. A coming of age fantasy that is humbling. That I would love.

Now, I’m sure they are out there, somewhere in books that aren’t fifty year old products of awesome British Christian academics. Somewhere, someone alive and kicking has written a non-winy-misunderstood-teenager style coming of age fantasy, and possibly even written a good one. But where? Honestly, have you heard of one?