Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy Paperback – 1 Nov 2004
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The major flaw in Moorcock's writing is a frustrating tendency to quote enormous chunks of his source novels at the expense of digging deeper into his arguments. One could argue that the texts speak for themselves and little extrapolation on Moorcock's part isn't required, but I paid for his interpretation and perspective. It's great that he has so much material to substantiate his claims, but it has the frustrating effect of breaking up his writing in places. Despite this, Moorcock remains an influential figure and his arguments in this book shouldn't be ignored.
When it comes to Fantasy, there are few better than Moorcock. He's read the best, he's written the best, he's been the best.
In this collection of essays, Moorcock casts a critical, no holds barred, eye over the genre. The result is an insightful, and sometimes frustrating look at the evolution of the fantasy genre.
Moorcock is right to have a go at Tolkien. As much as I've enjoyed the LOTR, there are aspects of it that do not stand up to critical scrutiny. Moorcock's championing of Fritz Lieber and Mervyn Peake, as giants of the genre, is long overdue, and introduced me to criminally overlooked novels. For that, I'm grateful.
The role of women in the genre ( criticised for being often two dimensional or the stereotypical maiden in distress) and the use of evocative imagery (landscapes) are discussed, and yield up insights, that no aspiring fantasy author should do without.
On the negative side, the random insertion of obscure authors, and the structure of this book (random essay thrown together) did make me gnash my teeth at times.
As a critique of the genre or as a primer in fantasy writing, I have yet to come across a comparable book. Well worth a look.
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Moorcock divides his book into several chapters - dealing separately with settings, heroes, humor, etc. If nothing else, "Wizardry and Wild Romance" provides an excellent grounding in the obscure classics of fantasy - but Moorcocks's disjointed narrative proves to be both thoughtful and thought-inspiring. He leaves a great deal of room for statements on tone, richness of vision, characters. He also quotes extensively from the books he is talking about. Quite literally he leaves no stone unturned - all sorts of fantasy falls under discussion: children's, Burroughs, Kipling, Lovecraft, and many others. Lastly, there is even a nice introductory list of places to look for further information.
Moorcock viciously shook my preconceptions and tastes in fantasy, constantly leaving me unbalanced and on my toes. This book of bombastic discussions represents a valuable addition to any collection.
Michel Moorcock would be, it seems, the obvious choice to produce a critical work on epic fantasy. After all, he's written more of it than jut about any living author, or he had at the time this book was commissioned, ten years before its release, after the publication of his article "Epic Pooh" in 1977. ("Epic Pooh," revised, appears as chapter five here, and is one of the true gems of this book.) Still an excellent choice, as most of the similarly prolific writers who have emerged in the shadow of Moorcock lack the wit and originality he displays in novel after novel.
Interestingly, this is one of his main criticisms of the fantasy genre overall, not just in the moderns but going back to the earliest days of epic fantasy. The book, which is far more a survey than a critical analysis, strikes a Paul DeMan-esque note in its willingness (perhaps too much willingness) to turn many of fantasy's sacred cows into shish kebab. What is refreshing about Moorcock is that, unlike most critics, he is always willing to suggest a good number of alternatives for each piece of overwrought, mindless fluff the public is willing to take to heart. (Moorcock seems to have a special circle in Hell reserved for the Inklings, the chief fantasists of which were J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, both of whom Moorcock roundly despises; he spends more column inches disparaging Narnia and Middle Earth than all the other writers he castigates combined.)
One wonders, idly, why a survey draws as much money as it does these days. I could probably pay a month's rent auctioning off my copy of this, a first edition/first printing. Odd, since the volume barely gets a few lines into page one hundred fifty before it reaches its conclusion. But mine is not to reason why. It's not worth the incredible sums it fetches from booksellers these days, but as a jumping-off point for readers of fantasy who are looking for ways to branch out into wider genre-specific reading, it's a pretty darned fine piece of work.
Most of Moorcock's jaundiced views on epic fantasy could apply to all types of literature, which is at the same time both the book's main strength and its weakness. One expects, when reading a survey, to see the ways that the subject's lineage relates to what has come before and what has come after (see Eliade's wonderful Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy for perhaps the finest extant example of how to write a survey on a particular subject), but Moorcock seems to have the underlying belief that writing in a particular genre should have the same strengths and weaknesses as writing in any other, or in writing that is genreless or transcends its genre. To some extent this is true; the best fantasy writers, like the best writers of most genres, do transcend what the hacks are doing and make their work into literature. Where Moorcock goes slightly wrong, though, is in not delineating the transcendent from the more satisfying genre tales. He gives equal weight to, for example, Terry Pratchett (whose work, while parodic, is still very much genre fiction) and Ursula K. LeGuin (who is the very definition of an author who transcends any genre in which she chooses to apply herself). Perhaps he is expecting the reader to be able to discern which is which. Not an unreasonable expectation, if you assume your audience is as widely read in the genre as you are. I doubt many fantasy readers, or for that matter many academics, are as widely-read in their chosen fields as Moorcock, who tosses out the names and critical overviews of fantasy works going back to the pre-Romantic period that have been out of print for a few hundred years as if he'd assigned them the week before while teaching a class on fantasy literature, and we are all expected to go down to the University bookstore and pick up copies of them. Would that we could.
Still, as an overview of what's out there, where both the aspiring fantasy reader and the aspiring fantasy writer should be looking to find the stuff that really is worth being influenced by, despite its age Wizardry and Wild Romance is still the definitive survey on epic fantasy. It'd be nice to see a second edition. I, for one, would love to see what Moorcock thinks of, say, Philip Pullman, Terry Goodkind, or Neil Gaiman. But the recommendations in here should be enough to keep me hunting down obscure titles for the next decade, and the approach he takes to epic fantasy is a witty and readable one. ****
Moorcock expresses a particular hatred for most all the works of Tolkien and CS Lewis. He despises the Christian foundations of their moral philosophies and writing styles. I wonder how much of his enmity reflects envy at the commercial success and cult status of these writers--I don't seem to recall anyone making a block-buster movie series out of the Elric saga, like Lord of the Rings or Narnia! Yet, he has courted mainstream appeal by working as a lyricist for several rock bands, Blue Oyster Cult and Hawkwind. Moorcock himself alludes to the origin of this envy when he discusses how a self-selected aristocracy of writers will seek ever more exotic genres as their old sphere of practice gains in popularity. This is the adolescent "obscure=cool" mentality.
A refreshing point of his philosophy is his approval and embrasure of the modern world, correctly diagnosing a widespread flaw of romantics as a yearning for an idealised past. Moorcock also likes the works of ER Eddison, one small circle of common ground I share with him, which is fitting because Eddison is the one author who combines plot and style in a dazzling synthesis.
Wizardry and Wild Romance is a fantastic guide for anyone who loves fantasy and wants to find the best, most classic works of the genre. I think this book serves as an excellent adjunct to Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds(qv), as Moorcock spends considerable time on works published after Imaginary Worlds was written. I was suprised at how different Moorcock's aesthetic is from my own, almost exactly the opposite, because I have really liked Michael Moorcock's own fantasy writing.
His first three chapters, which are by turns the Origins, Landscapes, and Characters of epic fantasy, are excellent, as is his last chapter, a brief survey of some of the better fantasy work current as of the time of writing. (This third edition was completed in 2003 and published by Monkeybrain Books in 2004.) The two chapters in between, one on wit and humor and one on "Epic Pooh," are ... less good. They come down to Moorcock's blindness to the qualities of some strains of modern fantasy, from which blindness he infers that those qualities simply do not exist. Tolkien humorless? Well, yes, mostly; but then humor is not really appropriate to the high seriousness of his work, any more than it would be to Mallory.
If Moorcock takes his iconoclasm too seriously (he also takes a rather large and clumsy mallet to C.S. Lewis, James Branch Cabell, and several others), his praise of writers like Leiber and Wolfe is pointed and spot-on. The worst that can be said for the worst parts of this book is that they are quite readable.