Book Review: Nature and the Numinous in Mythpoeic Literature

Today I am reviewing a very different kind of book. It’s neither a novel nor a writing guide, but actually a scientific book written by Chris Brawley and released last year by McFarland as volume 46 of their series Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy is not popular science, but the real deal. Proper academic literature written by and for scientists. I had not heard of Chris Brawley before and didn’t find any info on him in a quick online search, but this book touches in scociology, anthropology, religious studies, and literary criticism. I’ve studied cultural studies, religion, and intercultural communication for several years and this is just the type of book we’ve been using all the time. You probably won’t find it in regular libraries, but university libraries might either have it or could get it from another university that does. If it’s a topic that really interests you, it’s also not too expensive to just buy it yourself. (The book includes a list of all the other books that have been released in the series. “Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films”, “Ursula Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism”, and “J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy” are all titles I want to hunt down.)

It’s a very interesting book. If you can read it. This is at times pretty heavy stuff. Being an American academic book, the way it is written and the content explained is relatively easy to follow. It’s nothing like German academic books where it often seems like the authors are trying to write in code to prevent the contents falling into the hands of the uninitiated and being released to the general public. (It’s easier for many German students to read American academic books in English than German academic books in German.) But knowing its audience, it does rely on a good amount of preexisting familiarity with the field and jumps straight into the deep end. Someone who is not familiar with many of the technical terms might possibly miss more than half of the information presented in it. But first semester students manage. If you really want to know what this book has to say on its subject, I very much recommend giving it a shot. Even if you don’t understand half of it, the other half might still be quite eye opening.

The main topic of the book is the numinous in the stories of Tolkien, Lewis, and Le Guin. The numinous is a concept that probably very few people outside of this segment of academics have heard of, but it’s not really that difficult to understand. It was introduced about a hundred years ago by Rudolf Otto to help with discussing religious experiences. The central idea is that people occasionally have moments in which they become aware that the world and life are more than just the things they normally pay conscious attention to, which results in a feeling of amazement, wonder, fascination, elation, and possibly fear. Otto argues that such experiences are universal to humans in all places and all times, but people explain these moments and emotions in a wide range of ways based on concepts from their culture and religion. Religious studies is a field that stays neutral and detached from any assumptions about the existance or the nature of the divine and limits itself to the way how cultures and communities deal with such questions, which is a segment of anthroplogy and sociology that can be scientifically studied like any other human behavior. As such, Otto did not attempt to define what could possibly be the source of these experiences, so instead of a noun he refers to it with an adjective that describes it’s most relevant quality. It is numinous. Whether people think of it as God, nirvana, eternity, or a fluke of the human brain, the people who experience such moments become aware of something that to them feels numinous. (From latin “numen”; a divine presence.)

While many writers of fantasy and their readers aproach their works as adventure stories with magic and strange creatures, some see their own works not only as entertaining diversions, but have the aim to create stories that are “eye opening” and get the reader to think about their everyday world in a different way. Not simply to change opinions, but to see more, think more, and feel more, and to experience the world and life as more than just rational facts. Brawly quotes Tolkien that “what fantasy does is to help lift that “veil of familiarity” and allows us to “clean our windows” so that we see the world clearly, and religiously.” Other authors that are examnined in this book are C.S. Lewis,Samuel Coleridge, George MacDonald, Algernon Blackwood, and Ursula Le Guin, which is a quite homogenous group as the author admits himself, with Le Guin specifically included to provide some contrast. But since the topic of the book is quite specific, concentrating on a quite narrow segment of fantasy fiction is not a serious disadvantage. His point probably comes across much clearer than if he would examine a very broad range of highly different writers and works.

I came across this book entirely by accident while looking for any possible pieces of writing advice regarding religious elements in fantasy, since I’ve long been feeling that most fantasy I’m seeing is somewhat stale or even sterile when it comes to being “magical” and “wonderous”. At some point this book title showed up among the search result and with my background in cultural and religious studies recognized it as being exactly about the kind of thing I was trying to get some insight on. Even though none of the authors examined in this book are of the kind I usually read. And though the book is not about writing advice at all, I found it extremely helpful for my own purpose. One of the big points made by the book is that both Christian thought and Western Enightenment are centered around the basic assumption that there is a clear distinction and separation between humans, the divine, and nature. If the divine does exist, humans are not part of it. Humans are also not part of nature. They look at nature from the outside and maipulate it for their own benefit or accidentally causing damage that will become a problem to them in the future. And this position is highly criticized by the examined writers and their stories often tend to tear down these distinctions and seprations. In their stories, humans are part of nature, and both humans and nature are part of the divine. And frequently play very important roles for the fate of the gods and the universe.

The Lord of the Rings is always a good example, not just because it’s so well and widely known. In the world of Middle-Earth you have the ents, who are both like humans and like trees. And there are the eagles, who are animals that can talk and also clearly have some strong connection to heaven. In The Hobbit, you also have a man who is both a human and a bear. And of course there’s also Gandalf who has a human body and lives among humans, but also is divine in nature. Or the elves who are both like people and also at home both in our world and in heaven. Tolkien blurs the lines of what is human, animal, plant, or deity. There are no borders between them, only gradients. And this unification of human, nature, and divine certainly fits the concept of the numinous. An increased awareness of the universe as a single whole. I always wanted to create stories with a strong presence of a Spiritworld and cultures that see their world in an animistic way. Reading this book helped me quite a lot in understanding how that might work in practice.

This books is certainly not for everyone. But if you have some interest in the subject and get an opportunity to flip through it, I very much recommend giving it a look.

Movie Review: The Forbidden Kingdom

The Forbidden Kingdom is a Chinese-American fantasy movie loosely inspired by Journey to the West. And It’s really terrible. Journey to the West is one of the big classics of Chinese literature, written in the 16th century. This movie is a cheesy portal fantasy in which an American kid is transported into a magical version of medieval China after he finds a magic staff in the shop of an old Chinese man. He quickly runs into a kung fu master, a love interest, and a monk who tell him that he’s destined to return the staff to the Monkey King who has been turned to stone, so that he will come to life again, just as it has been prophecised.

This movie reminds me both of Last Action Hero and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Except that Last Action Hero knew that is was a parody of the Action Hero genre. I think this movie actually seems to take itself serious as a wuxia movie. But it’s really more of a travesty. The setup is stupid (I hate Portal Fantasy and Chosen Ones), the plot not really existing, the acting ranges from bland to bad, the villains are forgetable, the jokes are not funny, and the action scenes are pointless. It doesn’t even look good.

I admit that I have not actually seen the whole movie. After about two thirds I could not take it anymore and there really wasn’t any indication that there suddenly would be plot or characterization appearing out of nowhere.

Rating this movie is really very easy. Nay! Don’t watch it. It’s a complete waste of time. It’s even worse than Conan the Barbarian 2011.

Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan

Several months back I had been asking about recommendations for fantasy books. I don’t remember what exactly I’ve been asking for and the reasons why people picked it, but The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin came up a lot. I don’t even remember the other books recommended at my querry back then. Somehow I only got around to reading it now. I really didn’t know anything about it or anything else written by Le Guin but at only about 150 pages it’s a pretty short book and seemed liked a good opportunity to broaden my horizon and knowledge of classic writers. I generally turn pages at a quite leisurely pace and still took only about 4 hours to read it.

The Tombs of Atuan appears to be set in the world of Earthsea, which is a name I heard about before and that appears twice in the book, but otherwise it appears to be entirely a stand alone story. It’s about a young woman who becomes high priestesses at the temple complex at the very same Tombs of Atuan, being believed to be the reincarnation of the same high priestess who held the position since the very creation of the site by the other priestesses. Which brings me to me first problem with the book: The plot. In the first half of the book, nothing happens. In the second half, very little. I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson once saying that generally you want to tell the audience what the story is about very quickly. As a writer you make a promise to the readers what kind of story they can expect to get and what themes it will be about. The Tombs of Atuan doesn’t have anything like that. It simply gives you some characters and some scenes, but no indication at all why you should care about any of this is and how it might become important later on. This drags on almost to the halfway point of the book until finally something actually happens. Some little potential disturbance of the status quo. But even from that point on there is no actual goal anyone is trying to accomplish, and with a short exception of just a few pages towards the end, not even a conflict of any kind.

But not all good books need to be about plot. There are many amazing stories in which the plot really barely matters at all. But these stories have other areas in which they shine. Worldbuilding can be one of these things, but The Tombs of Atuan has almost none. Almost the entire book takes place in the same temple complex at the tombs, with all the scenes happening in only four locations. The temple is build next to an ancient religious site in some kind of desert where the protagonist has been for as long as she can remember. We don’t learn anything about the desert, nor anything that lies beyond the desert. We’re not really being told anything about the geography, the culture, or the history of this world. All we’re ever told is that some of the current rulers are referred to as god kings and that this has not always been the case. It’s just this one temple that also is very much lacking in any actual history and even though all but one character in the story are priests there is never a single word about their religion. The underground tunnels below the temple are somewhat interesting at first, but unfortunately the entire book is very sparse on visual descriptions or mentioning sensations of any kind. And the protagonist is going in and out of the tunnels so frequently that they pretty soon become very mundane and lose the potential mystery and spookiness they might have had. And why is it called the Tombs of Atuan? It doesn’t seem to be any kind of burrial site at all. And I think Atuan is just the name of the land in which it is located. The title sounded curious, but it’s really “The Tunnels under the Desert”, which doesn’t sound not nearly as snappy.

Both plot and setting feel quite lacking, but in these two regards my feelings for the story are mostly indifferent. Where the book starts to have a real problem is with the characters. For the first half of the book the protagonist is slowly somewhat developed as we get several scenes of her being brought to the temple, trained, and eventually taking on more and more responsibilities of being the high priestesses as she grows up. And she did start to somewhat grow on me as she became more strong willed and fierce, especially in her relationship to the other two old senior priestesses. Once the established order gets a teeny tiny bit desturbed in the middle of the book, though there’s still not really any plot starting to become visible, there seems to be some attempts to make the story about a crisis of faith. But it just doesn’t work at all, because at no point is there any mention of what the characters might believe in. There’s occasional rituals, but they seem to serve no purpose and we are never told anything about the ideology or dogma of the priestesses. There’s just a vague feeling of doubt and unease. But doubt of what? Why is the altar a giant empty throne? What are the Namless Ones to whom the site is dedicated? What’s the role of the Twin Gods? Having no name or being twins is not a religion. It’s just empty words.

Even though the protagonist did start to grow on me, once things start to happen, she immediately falls apart, becoming highly insecure and unable to deal with the situation. And all because of the arrival of a man! She doesn’t instantly fall in love with him, but you still have a story in which nothing happens the entire time until a man arrives in a place inhabited only by women and eunuchs. The book is 45 years old and I understand that we now have very different expecations of a fantasy story than back then, and also take objection to things people may not have thought anything about. But once things start to actually get tough, the “heroine” immediately becomes very winy, helpless, and frankly annoying and has to be figuratively dragged along by the male character to not lie down and die in despair. At first it appears that she is under the influence of some dark supernatural force that tries to errode her will and that of the man as they start to become a nuisance. But once they are free of that influence, she still goes on like that.

For some reason the big showdown of the story happens about four fifths into the book. But it doesn’t end and you basically get a terribly overlong epilogue that takes up the entire final fifth. And in a way, the protagonist only gets worse from there on. After having escaped from danger with the man he promises her he will bring her to a safe place but then continue on his way. And then she apparently falls in love with him completely out of the blue. She gets even more moody and dramatic than before and at one point takes a dagger in what seems to be an attempt to kill him but can’t go through with it. And a while later instead decides that he just should drop her off in the wilds so the elements and wild animals can kill her. And the whole time she needs that man to tell her that she’s wrong and that it’s not so bad, and that she’s a wonderful person and did so great, and blah blah blah. Lack of plot and weak worldbuilding I can excuse. But the characters are really quite bad. And there’s only really five of them. None of which are in any way interesting or likeable. But a young woman being super whiny and dramatic and needing a man to help her live is just terrible. And this from one of the few great female fantasy writers of the 20th century.

To make it all somewhat worse, I also thought the writing felt very bland. Nothing evocative, clever, or snappy about it. So the question of “Yay or Nay?” really only becomes a formality.

Nay.