Category Archives: Words

Modes of Fantasy

What are the most influential works of adventure fantasy? If you consider, somewhat arbitrarily, the last 10 years, I suspect the list would be something like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones—all due to Hollywood and television. Recently, I was thinking about Game of Thrones, and how it seems in many ways to lie apart from other influential works of fantasy, despite sharing tropes both in terms of content—dragons, sorcery, undead—and narrative—sword fights, heroism, prophecy. So what distinguishes Game of Thrones? The Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy, but also updates the medieval form of tapestry romance1. The Harry Potter stories have many epic fantasy elements, drawing as well from coming-of-age Bildungsroman and mystery traditions. Acknowledging the futility of thinking about genre in terms of essences, Game of Thrones still seems to wander alone; I think this is because it draws more from a different major narrative tradition.

Game of Thrones is cynical regarding human nature, grim in aspect, and employs a soap opera chronicle, but none of these elements seem to account for the difference in feeling. Most works of fantasy live primarily within the narrative traditions of epic and romance. Game of Thrones, however, works more like a tragedy; the fantastic elements occasionally take center stage, such as with the dragons or the fight against the Night King, but then fade, with less influence on the broader story. Examining the patterns, the core conflict in the story is basically Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses cycle (the eight play sequence of Richard II through Richard III), with the ending and ultimate theme of Julius Caesar—sic semper tyrannis. If the ending is unsatisfying, I think that is due to the joining of these disparate elements. People expecting the satisfying reveals and perpetual curiosity of a well-crafted soap opera were betrayed by the political moralism of the Caesar ending; adventure and heroism are taken up and discarded with little sense of cosmic resolution or advancement.

The epic tradition generally celebrates the deeds of a hero, possibly as prototype for a nation, such as the Aeneid (for classical Rome) and the Kalevala (for Finland), or a culture, such as, arguably, The Lord of the Rings (the Shire as preindustrial England). The traditions of epic, romance, and myth fit together more comfortably, compared to soap opera and tragedy. In terms of popular culture, Game of Thrones was one of the biggest shows in the US of 2018, number three after Big Bang Theory and Roseanne2. The rest of the top 10 are all sit coms, procedural dramas, and talent shows. This ranking is America-specific, but the popularity looks similar cross-culturally. For example, Game of Thrones is popular in China3, South America, and Europe4. Game of Thrones will probably shape for a long time how people everywhere think about fantasy.

I used to enjoy The Wheel of Time, another extended fantasy epic, though I never got past book seven, as at some point I made a personal rule to avoid unfinished multi-volume works of fantasy. After thinking about this, I was curious what my reaction now would be to Jordan, so I read the first part of The Eye of the World, book one in The Wheel of Time. One thing that strikes me now is the generic feeling of many aspects of the setting, common fantasy tropes through a lens of Americanisms, though presented with consistency using invented vernacular and mythic resonance, mostly with Christian apocalyptic eschatology. I also wonder how I could have seen Jordan’s story as so distinct. The first third of The Eye of the World shows a sorceress who comes to protect a farm boy of cosmic significance, pursued by riders in black sent by the Dark One. Apart from some minor variations, this basically recapitulates the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, and even back then I had already read The Lord of the Rings. I mean this more as description than negative evaluation—there are many worse things than echoing an effective narrative structure.

Part of Tolkien’s triumph was to make as few concessions to the modern taste for realism in narrative as was necessary to entice contemporary readers. Game of Thrones goes exactly the opposite direction; the aspects that hang together best make up the chronicle of who sleeps together and who gets betrayed or defeated. Sex and gangsters. So the realist mode of political struggle replaces the mythic cycle. Martin manages to avoid the bore of speculative fiction using magic as technology substitute; the magic and mythic backdrop of his setting is wondrous and compelling—winter is coming, the queen of dragons, and so forth. But none of that really seems to matter much in the end, which is more concerned with the Machiavellian heart of darkness. Realpolitik maneuverings could provide the basis for a game, but it seems like such a game would be far from the picaresque pleasures of discovering Vance’s Dying Earth or delving into Moria on the way to fulfill a mythic quest.


1. Thomson, G. (1967). “The Lord of the Rings”: The Novel as Traditional Romance. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 8(1), 43-59.

2. https://www.businessinsider.com/game-of-thrones-compared-to-most-popular-tv-shows-of-2018-ratings-2019-4#8-americas-got-talent-tuesdays-nbc-2

3. https://daxueconsulting.com/game-of-thrones-china/

4. https://variety.com/2017/film/global/game-of-thrones-overseas-plaudits-ratings-1202541767/

52 stories

Like many, I make resolutions for the New Year. Unlike many, I avoid resolutions that entail deprivation or significant self-regulation. Instead, I choose some enjoyable activity that I want to be a greater part of my life. Previous resolutions include trying a new cocktail every week, making omelettes on weekends, and working toward a handstand walk (link is the original inspiration; I am still working on this myself). I look for an activity with relatively low bar to entry that I can pursue as a habit, where it is easy to mark progress by doing rather than by level of performance1. I required a resolution with modest level of time commitment due to a number of professional irons in the fire, so for 2018, this past year, I decided to read 52 short stories, on average one per week.

While short stories often lack the ambition and potential of longer fiction, I personally find the form aesthetically superior due to the necessity of tighter constructions and the limited scope for setup and digression. The short story respects the reader’s time rather than simply being a diversion, or, even worse, stringing a reader along extensively while ultimately failing to deliver.

I had an informal bias toward reading hard copies, partly because I have accumulated a number of short story collections. One of my materialist indulgences is the well-bound physical book, and for me reading a nice book facilitates attention and lends a ritualistic aspect to the activity. For fiction in general, my taste leans toward the fantastic and supernatural, as you can probably tell from the list of authors. A few of the 52 were rereads (several of the Leiber stories and Call of Cthulhu), but most were new to me. Ghost stories are heavily represented for whatever reason.

I let the authors themselves define what counts as short, based on the presentation of the story; length ranged from a handful of pages to several hundred pages. Stephen King’s The Mist, which was the longest, could easily have been published as a short novel.

As a further experiment, just after finishing each story I rated my satisfaction with the story, from 1 to 5, where the numbers have the following meanings:

  • 5 Memorable, would surely read again
  • 4 Enjoyable, something made it stand out
  • 3 Decent, but one reading is probably enough
  • 2 Not a total loss, but missing something or caused annoyance somehow
  • 1 Probably would have been better off doing something else

From Green Magic by Jack Vance

Take no strong judgments of quality, originality, or influence from these idiosyncratic ratings. Looking back, there were a few surprises. The few Robert Aickman stories I read fared poorly, despite being one of my favorite short story writers, and Hodgson, whose House on the Borderland might be in my top 10 written works of prose fiction period, also fell short. On the upside, I think every single story I read by Le Guin was a 5. I knew I liked her work before, but that still seems notable. I think my standard for enjoyable stories in the adventure fantasy mode is lower than for, say, ghost stories, where my standard is relatively high.

If I had to pick a single work to spotlight positively, it might be Blackwood’s The Willows. Though Delany’s Nevèrÿon stories ended up mostly 4s, they are remarkable, being, if I had to oversimplify, something like Conan by way of Foucault, flawed only by occasional awkward didacticism. It seems fashionable to hate on Stephen King for his popularity, productivity, and tendency to retell The Lord of the Flies, but when he is good he is on fire2The Mist is one of my favorite stories in the cosmic horror tradition, up there with Lovecraft’s best.

Here are the stories I read, sorted descending by rating. (Order within rating means nothing; consider, for example, Dragonfly and Number Fourteen, both 5s, to be rated equivalently.)

  1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (rating 5)
  2. The Mist by Stephen King (rating 5)
  3. Bones of the Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  4. Darkrose and Diamond by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  5. The Circle Curse by Fritz Leiber (rating 5)
  6. On the High Marsh by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  7. Number Fourteen by Sarban (rating 5)
  8. The Finder by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  9. Dragonfly by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  10. Green Magic by Jack Vance (rating 5)
  11. Celephaïs by H. P. Lovecraft (rating 5)
  12. The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft (rating 5)
  13. The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany (rating 5)
  14. The Tale of Small Sarg by Samuel R. Delany (rating 5)
  15. The Border Line by D. H. Lawrence (rating 5)
  16. The Door to Saturn by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 4)
  17. The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti (rating 4)
  18. Death Nymph by Arthur J. Burks (rating 4)
  19. Odour of Chrysanthemums by D. H. Lawrence (rating 4)
  20. Claws From the Night by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  21. A Tropical Horror by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  22. Jewels in the Forest by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  23. The Kith of the Elf-Folk by Lord Dunsany (rating 4)
  24. Capra by Sarban (rating 4)
  25. The Sunken City by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  26. Ringstones by Sarban (rating 4)
  27. A Rendezvous in Averoigne by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 4)
  28. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen (rating 4)
  29. The Miracle Workers by Jack Vance (rating 4)
  30. The Tale of Gorgik by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  31. The Tale of Old Venn by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  32. The Seven Black Priests by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  33. The Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  34. The Gateway of the Monster by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  35. The Tale of Potters and Dragons by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  36. The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  37. Hand in Glove by Robert Aickman (rating 3)
  38. The Goddess of Death by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  39. The Red World of Polaris by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 3)
  40. The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 3)
  41. The Rocking Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence (rating 3)
  42. The Haunted Pampero by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  43. The Inmost Light by Arthur Machen (rating 3)
  44. The Dust by Brian Evenson (rating 3)
  45. The Mitr by Jack Vance (rating 3)
  46. The Men Return by Jack Vance (rating 3)
  47. Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany (rating 3)
  48. Out of the Storm by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  49. The Rose Garden by M. R. James (rating 2)
  50. No Time is Passing by Robert Aickman (rating 2)
  51. Conversations in a Dead Language by Thomas Ligotti (rating 2)
  52. Helping the Fairies by Lord Dunsany (rating 2)

For 2019, I have decided to play more video games, though I am unsure yet about the details.

…men of power do not swear, it is not safe… —Le Guin, The Bones of the Earth


1. There is some relation here to Carol Dweck’s idea of learning goals and performance goals. See: Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(1), 5-12.

2. For novels, especially check out The Eyes of the Dragon and The Gunslinger, though I would say avoid all the other Dark Tower books with great prejudice.