I’ve read with some fascination early reviews of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Terry Gilliam admittedly generates everything from adulation to ambivalence, but his insistence on wonder should be–and is–commended. This film may well turn me at least into a moderate fan.
Curiously, Gilliam’s film occurs as the most recent installation in a current trend in fantasy lit. My ramble through Barnes&Noble the other day confirmed what I’d half-suspected. There’s a distinct movement of setting to dualist worlds.
The stories run like this. On one hand you have the normal, physical world. On the other, a paranormal, enchanted world. Think Spiderwick, or even to some extent Harry Potter, among the usual suspects as always.
Annoyingly enough, many of these worlds were Vampireland or Werewolf-World. That left me feeling a bit cheated. Do we honestly need to populate parallel worlds with things the critics assure us we can already meet here, maybe at the prom?
But the phenomenon wasn’t just restricted to the Twilight Zone. Even books marketing themselves as unique, perfect for the jaded, genre-weary reader, project this image. Two worlds, coexisting uneasily until they violently collide. Usually, one wants to take over the other. Or reunite with the other. Or they don’t have girlfriends over there.
This clash of worlds fascinates me, not least because I’ve been working on a story along these lines. The trend seems to indicate a shift from the Tolkienian tradition fantasy, and a return to the older tradition of MacDonald.
Tolkien rooted his fantasy firmly in a single world. (“Smith of Wooten Major” proves the exception rather than the rule for Tolkien’s writings. This is no exception.) Even Valinor is part of Middle-Earth, and the Valar are creatures of Middle-Earth, albeit estranged. Magic comes from the forces at work in Middle-Earth, and not via some otherworld. Thus his famous reference to writing fantasy as sub-creating. Fantasy takes us to a place or time apart, that we can only reach through story, and memory.
MacDonald, on the other hand, inherited two strongly dualistic traditions. Scottish folklore influenced him more than is generally admitted, and the Scots vision of the uncanny—the unco—appears throughout his writings. That vision arguably shaped everything he wrote. The world is a place enchanted. For MacDonald, there’s another place, a somewhere else, just round the corner—there—if only we stop to look. Under the mountain, up the stairs, across the brook—another world, that apes and challenges and humbles our own.
Also, as many scholars have pointed out, the German Romantics were nearly obsessed with dualistic worlds, including this one. Novalis and others explored the parallel realities of conscious and subconscious. MacDonald’s fiction continued this exploration. From Phantastes to Lilith, he shared the German fascination with the correlation between dreams and waking. It’s in his novels, his fairy tales, his gothic writings, his poems.
I’m tempted to be delighted at seeing this exploration come back. If Gilliam’s story is as strong as his imagination is quirky, we’re in for a treat. But I’m hesitant.
What MacDonald and Tolkien both knew was that fantasy happens on the borders, the shadowy marches between the worlds. Their stories tell of chance encounters, two unrelated worlds unexpected and irrationally brushing against each other, cross purposes in moonlight. The stories I saw on the shelves seemed to be full scale invasions.
That worries me. Those stories can degenerate into politics and angst to quickly, losing the numinous they’re trying to attain. It’s harder, I think, to write about a single consistent world than about paranormal worlds invading normality. It’s harder still to venture onto the wavering border between, and write stories from the tension of encounter. The White Knight should confront the Jabberwock in the shades of the Tulgy Wood, not enter into diplomatic negotiations in Jabberwockopolis.
My (hopefully unfounded) fear is that this new fantasy takes an easy road out. What makes these stories distinct from SF about aliens from other planets? Or about different races, cultures, religions entering into conflict? When you have the two worlds in all out battle, you’re going to be exploring significant figures on both sides, motive and behaviours, creating empathetic villains and romantic heroines and expendable subordinates—the whole bit.
In other words, you’re likely to wind up with two well-defined nations instead an uncertain border. The truly numinous quality of fantasy, so rich in both MacDonald and Tolkien, become lost. What you have instead is something else entirely, something that smells suspiciously like SF with swords. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
At best, Gilliam and others may be able to truly recreate and recapture something essential to fantasy literature, and reopen early explorations into the shadowy marches between dreaming and waking, living and dying. At worst, fantasy will devolve into shoddy craftsmanship, with perpetual gaslights on both sides of the woods driving away the shadows in between. If that happens, then something truly beautiful will have been lost.