Dragons But Not Unicorns?

So there I was minding my own business, having merrily written 40,0000 words of a Magical Realism (“low fantasy –a sub-genre of fantasy fiction involving “nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.” – Brian Stableford – The A to Z of Fantasy Literature – I had to look it up a while ago).

I was quite happy imagining a Game of Thrones type book (I know, very different from the Wycaan Master series) and then one of my characters has to make an innocent quip: “Dragons don’t exist, do they?”

Before I could press save and turn off the laptop, before I could say – well, burn me to a cinder – there he (or she) was flying around, flapping those great wings, swinging that long spiked tail

“There goes my genre shift,” I thought as the next chapter appeared on my screen.

Now I was baptized in the fires of Smaug (actually I’m Jewish but Smaug as a Mohel performing a circumcision is frankly too disturbing), my sons flew in their imagination on the backs of Saphira and Christopher Paolini’s other dragons.

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But there is something about dragons that has kept them alive in our culture that is fascinating. The Chinese have a historic connection that goes back to, well it makes you wonder. In my homeland, Sir George had to slay one to become the patron saint of the Brits, and the dragon is possibly the most common and, dare I say, respected mythical animal in the fantasy genre.

So what is wrong with unicorns, for example? Why have they not become as popular? They can fight, heal, and even create powerful wands (which J.K. Rowlings wizard am I talking about?), but they have not caught our imagination like dragons.

Laying myself at the mercy of Google, I discovered that the dragon myth grew separately in China, Europe, and even the Americas and Australia. The Aussies have a number of animals including the Goanna that lend themselves to the myth. The Nile crocodiles were apparently much bigger than the one we know today and walked in an elevated gait. Whales and dinosaurs also add to the potential creation of the myth.

Goanna_head2Stegosaurus_Senckenberg-1

But perhaps the most fascinating theory is suggested on the Smithsonian blog. I couldn’t find the author to attribute  – my apologies – but these are his/her words:

In his book An Instinct for Dragons, anthropologist David E. Jones argues that belief in dragons is so widespread among ancient cultures because evolution embedded an innate fear of predators in the human mind. Just as monkeys have been shown to exhibit a fear of snakes and large cats, Jones hypothesizes that the trait of fearing large predators—such as pythons, birds of prey and elephants—has been selected for in hominids. In more recent times, he argues, these universal fears have been frequently combined in folklore and created the myth of the dragon.

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Whatever created it, the myth of the dragon has deepened with the growth in popularity of the genre. Eragon’s relationship with Saphira and the history in the Inheritance Series is far more complex than Tolkien’s Smaug, or those Harry Potter had to deal with. George R.R. Martin skirts around the existence of dragons in his early books. His description of the crypts of Winterfell, and later when Aria is in the bowels of the capital, are almost a reverent tribute to these once majestic beasts.

It is a relationship that has captured the imagination of a generation. My sons, for whom Paolini was so influential, have devoured many books with dragons, without any sign of tiring. For them and others, I found this interesting artistic reflection of the sizes of the various dragons that Paolini creates – Enjoy.

Have a great week.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here.

More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

 

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10 Questions For J.R.R. Tolkien

This blog post was inspired by a Time interview with Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf, the wizard who… if you are following this blog, you already know. It is a fascinating interview given that  J.R.R Tolkien was Catholic and McKellen is gay.

imgresThe interview is:

Timely: the difference between the making of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is that Peter Jackson now wears shoes.

Funny:  “No one ever ablutes in Middle Earth.” and…

Poignant: When he visits a public school in England

One of the questions asked of McKellen is what would he ask Tolkien if he could meet him. This got me thinking: I have already shared that I think a lot of Tolkien and Oxford, and The Inklings Club.

So, if you are up there in Writer’s Heaven, quaffing on an ale or puffing your pipe, there is a student down on earth trying to emulate your literary work with a few questions.

1. Did you ever get embarrassed or try to hide your fantasy writing from your academic peers?

2. Did World War 1 provide you with the imaginary and emotional background for Lord of the Rings?

3. Why Hobbits? Who is your favorite character in either The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings?

4. If you were writing either LOTR or The Hobbit today, would you change anything? Different ending?

5. What do you think of the movies?

6. Is Peter Jackson out-of-line to make such radical changes to The Hobbit as including a character who is not from the book?

7. Who is your favorite fantasy author?

8. I know the story of how the first line of The Hobbit came to you (the blank academic paper you were grading), but how did you really come to write a fantasy series?

9. Mac or PC?

10. My critique group has room for one more. Would you consider…

imgres-7The reality is that if I ever found myself in front of the Professor, I would probably stammer and blush, and make a complete fool of myself. So help me out, just in case one day…

What questions would you ask the greatest epic fantasy writer of all time?

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth,  the sequel The First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3, all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

The Master Tolkien Left Crumbs For The Hungry

The skeptics (those forced to study his work) and the jealous (those of us who figuratively sit at his feet bashing out epic fantasy novels on our laptops) dismiss J.R.R. Tolkien as a once-in-a-lifetime genius. We couldn’t emulate him even if we wanted to (though of course we do want to). We comfort ourselves that in today’s world of instant gratification, you cannot spend several pages describing a forest, however old and steeped in magic it may be.

I have read a number of books about the master and even began a fictionalized account of his life. I have on my iPod a course from the iTunes University – The Tolkien Professor by Corey Olsen, a professor himself from Washington College.

I want to share a few tips that Tolkien had for writers. This is taken from a post by Roger Colby, an author and English teacher. Mr. Colby never met Tolkien, though thanks to photoshop, he looks like he might have! Judging by his research, he deserved to!

Roger Colby ‘meets’ J.R.R. Tolkien

Mr. Colby spent a month carefully dissecting The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, and underlined every instance where the master of Middle Earth wrote about his process. The quotes are attributed. Any comments belong to Mr. Colby, though I strongly recommend reading the entire article.

1.  Vanity Is Useless

Tolkien writes in a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin on 31 July 1947:

“…I certainly hope to leave behind me the whole thing [LOTR] revised and in final form, for the world to throw into the waste-paper basket.  All books come there in the end, in this world, anyway” (121).

2.  Keep a Stiff Upper Lip

In another letter to Sir Stanley Unwin dated July 21, 1946, Tolkien lists a mound of personal struggles he was facing: being ill, being overworked and missing his son Christopher who was away in the Royal Navy. He put many of his struggles aside, though, and went to writing.

He had to balance his day job with his desire to write epic stories set in Middle Earth. He found time. He made time. It took him 7 years to write The Hobbit. (117). The thing that he writes about most in this period is his struggle to get the work finished on his novels and to balance teaching and his many duties at Oxford College. Apparently he found a way.

3.  Listen to Critics

Tolkien writes to his editor about the comments C.S. Lewis made about The Lord of the Rings: “When he would say, ‘You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!’ I would try. I’d sit down and write the section over and over.

That happened with the scene I think is the best in the book, the confrontation between Gandalf and his rival wizard, Saruman, in the ravaged city of Isengard.”

He writes that he “cut out some passages of light-hearted hobbit conversation which he [Lewis] found tiresome, thinking that if he did most other readers (if any) would feel the same…to tell the truth he never really like hobbits very much, least of all Merry and Pippin. But a great number of readers do, and would like more than they have got” (376).

4.  Let Your Interests Drive Your Writing

Tolkien wrote: “I began the construction of languages in early boyhood: I am primarily a scientific philologist. My interests were, and remain, largely scientific. But I was also interested in traditional tales (especially those concerning dragons); and writing (not reading) verse and metrical devices. These things began to flow together when I was an undergraduate to the despair of my tutors and near-wrecking of my career” (345).

5.  Poetry As A Road to Prose

When Tolkien couldn’t express his thoughts in prose he “wrote much of it in verse.”

He writes “The first version of the song of Strider concerning Luthien,… originally appeared in the Leeds University magazine, but the whole tale, as sketched by Aragorn, was written in a poem of great length” (346).

6.  Happy Accidents

Tolkien writes: “The Hobbit saw the light and made my connection with A. & U. by an accident.” Further: “From The Hobbit are also derived the matter of the Dwarves, Durin their prime ancestor, and Moria; and Elrond.

Mr. Colby: “Sometimes accidents happen, and sometimes those accidents will lead a writer to a publisher or create an entire novel.  Tolkien created entire worlds and then used what he knew of myth and legend to tell iconic, archetypal stories based in those magical places.

Even though he planned everything out meticulously, he still had happy accidents occur that he kept in the final manuscript because they just worked. Sometimes accidents can be blessings.”

7.  Dreams Give Us Inspiration

Tolkien writes:  “In sleep I had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming out of the quiet sea, or coming in towering over the green inlands.  It still occurs occasionally, though now exorcised by writing about it.

It always ends by surrender, and I awake gasping out of the deep water. I used to draw it or write bad poems about it. When C.S. Lewis and I tossed up, and he was to write on space-travel and I on time-travel, I began an abortive book of time-travel of which the end was to be the presence of my hero in the drowning of Atlantis” (347).

8.  Real People Make Great Characters

Tolkien: “There was a curious local character, an old man who used to go about sweeping gossip and weather-wisdom and such like.

To amuse my boys I named him Gaffer Gamgee, and the name became part of family lore to fix on old chaps of the kind. At that time I was beginning on The Hobbit. The choice of Gamgee was primarily directed by alliteration; but I did not invent it. It was caught out of childhood memory, as a comic word or name. It was in fact the name when I was small (in Birmingham) for ‘cotton-wool’”(348).

9.  You May Be the Next Best Selling Author

Tolkien relates the following story: “I lived for a while in a rather decayed road (aptly called Duchess) in Edgbaston, B’ham; it ran into a more decayed road called Beaufort. I mention this only because in Beaufort road was a house, occupied in its palmier days, by Mr. Shorthouse, a manufacturer of acids, of (I believe) Quaker connections.

He, a mere amateur (like myself) with no status in the literary world, suddenly produced a long book, which was queer, exciting, and debatable – or seemed so then, few now find it possible to read. It slowly took on, and eventually became a best-seller, and the subject of public discussion from the Prime Minister downwards. This was John Inglesant. Mr. Shorthouse became very queer, and very UnBrummagem not to say UnEnglish. He seemed to fancy himself as a reincarnation of some renaissance Italian, and dressed the part” (348).

10.  Books You Write May Seem Trite

Tolkien writes: “I now find The Lord of the Rings ‘good in parts”(349).

Mr, Colby: “This is to say that upon reading his books years after writing them his writing experience informs him that he is a much better writer than when he published The Hobbit.”

Tribute: Given that I have relied heavily upon the research of Mr. Colby, I would like to promote his own novel as appreciation. The Transgression Box- Roger Colby.

Dornin is known as the village liar…but he will also be their unwitting savior. It all begins when Dornin finds a mysterious object in the forest – a perfect cube of a box – and brings it back to his village. Unsure of its purpose, he hands over the object to the village elders – but during the night he spots a strange fog emanating from the House of Elders, and in the morning, over half of the people of the village have fallen into an unnatural and unending sleep.

Dornin decides he must set off on a quest to destroy the “Transgression Box” in order to save his people. Along the way he will encounter many strange and dangerous places, as he desperately tries to destroy that which must be destroyed for him. The Transgression Box is an allegorical science fiction tale of faith, trust and hope.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic 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).