Fantasy – A Pagan Conspiracy?

First a big Thank You to the 30+ people who filled out my survey – Who Are My Target Audience – I am going to keep tweeting it and hopefully reach my goal of 50 responses (it makes it easy for my mathematically-challenged brain to do percentages).  If you have not had the time, please consider three minutes to answer ten questions by clicking here.

The first time I read that someone was uncomfortable with her children reading YA fantasy because of the Pagan themes running through it, I dismissed the reader as a maverick who is worried she won’t succeed in passing on her religious lifestyle to her children. But I have now seen this a couple of times.

I am sensitive to this. My first published novel, A Gardener’s Tale, follows the yearly cycle of the Pagan religion as it was (and still it) celebrated in rural Britain, and shines light on the struggle of Christianity to crush it.  While the novel was received enthusiastically in the Pagan community (their leader Vivienne Crowley called it “A beautiful and elegiac evocation of a timeless Britain and of a man of the ancient ways of the earth who brings peace and healing where the flames of persecution once burned.”), I incurred the wrath of many religious Jews and Christians.

The Pagan religion is based upon the agrarian cycle and the farmer’s connections to the earth. Being mysterious, the emergence of an earth-based religion, where there was power and magic in the earth and those who stewarded her (yes – her, another topic) were worshiped and studied.

A common theme in many books, mine included, is the source of magic comes from the earth, from nature, through animals and the elements. The Druids, so often mentioned, were a genuine religious order. The witches, millions of whom were burned at the stake as Christianity raised a frenzy of anti-women, anti-anything, were often healers who used herbs and minerals that were gifts from the earth. Even the Jedi Order harnessed an energy, the Force, from everything living around them.

Other common elements include the quest, the holy (magical) props, the connection with and reverence of nature. Most of all, however, is the power of story. All religions and spiritual practices maintain a powerful element of stories, legends, parables, a narrative history (the best selling book of all time, anyone?).

I am skeptical that there is an international conspiracy to revive the Pagan religion through instilling scintillating epic fantasy novels insidiously into the minds of our unsuspecting youth (now you are convinced that I am the High Priest – isn’t this how conspiracy theory works?).

However, it is not a huge leap of faith to think that those who put quill to parchment (there is probably an app for this) and write such stories do have aspirations of teaching certain noble morals and principles. I recently wrote in an interview:

“Working on the novel with my (now 12-year-old) son and seeing the potential to share my values and political beliefs while imbibing a profound love for storytelling and reading. I have seen the impact of the Harry Potter series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series on my son and his friends. I want to help shape the landscape of the next generation’s imagination and maybe even the society they strive to create.”

Now if that is not a declaration to take over the world

Finally, one more plug – if you have a few minutes please fill out my survey – Who Are My Target Audience – and Thank You again to those who already have.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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When is an Elf not an Elf? And why do we care?

Yes, my novel is compelling, special, well-written etc. just like the 499 other epic fantasy manuscripts sitting in the slush piles of every publishing house that offers YA epic fantasy.

I am working with an agent who is asking the challenging and insightful questions that will help my manuscript stand out from the rest. It is tough and I am feeling very possessive. Last week I shared his prompting to seek a Higher Concept.

One of the aspects that he wants me to consider is changing my elves, who make up many of the main characters and cultural references. He suggests that I consider changing the elves for a new, mythical race that will set me apart from the rest.

Let me state from the outset that I have no doubt this man knows far more than I about the publishing world, has considerable experience and understands the current state of the publishing world.

But my elves? Our elves? Those of us who grew up on Tolkein, Paolini, Brooks and others, have standards, images, friends. Legolas and Anwen, Arya and Blodgarm, and many others have created a rich and familiar texture. We welcome them surfacing as we settle into a thick novel. We embrace them because there are common threads that pass between authors. We call it a culture, those who don’t read fantasy roll their eyes.

                               Nobel Haldir – we owe him for Helm’s Deep, no?

Terry Brooks’ children know that he is not all there, he tells us as much when he opens his book Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life. More on this book in a later blog.

But Brooks in not dissimilar to the rest of us, just considerably more talented! We pass through a gate in our imagination and reacquaint in a world that exists in a shared consciousness.

Here the elves are tall, thin, light-footed and beautiful. They are fast and posses stealth and discipline. They are in touch with the energy of the earth, the forest, the animal kingdom. They excel in archery, crafts and healing. Perhaps they are aloof, elitist, and closed to the other races, but this comes from their ancient and rich heritage. We know and love them.

We rejoiced to learn that Peter Jackson is bringing Legalos into a prominent role in the hobbit. Well, a few raised eyebrows, since Legalos was not even referred to by name in The Hobbit when he appeared flanking his father, the King of Mirkwood.

We accept, even with a bit of jealousy that he can fight at Helms Deep for five days, or run non stop for three and still not need to brush his immaculate hair. Nor do we care that his quiver seems to replenish itself, an occupational hazard of any archer who fights battles every other day.

We don’t mind because elves epitomize something that we identify with. We all want to be beautiful, brilliant, in excellent physical condition and, of course, environmentalists. When R.A. Salvatore created Drizzt Do’Urden and the dark elves of Menzoberranzan, a giant underground drow city-state he broke new ground.

Many of us were repelled and had it not been created in the hands of a master of fantasy, we would have rebelled. It was daring, it worked and by Book Three, we were rewarded with the typical elf one finds above ground.

It is tough to turn away from the basic tenets of epic fantasy: the teacher and student, the quest, the fight against a powerful evil, dwarves, elves, dragons, a rich natural world. There is something that has entered our collective consciousness and taken root.

It is why we read and reread the masters…and it is why we will return to read those who take over the role of entertaining us in a way that only epic fantasy does.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#elfwriter).