Tag Archives: Heroic fantasy

Classics You’ve Never Read, Part One: Why Pretend?

Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.

-Mark Twain

I hope you enjoy my attempt to create a series of blogs around great works of heroic fiction that most folks haven’t read. Several of these I have mentioned before in one forum or another but now I want to try and do several things: amuse you, get you interested in checking them out, and perhaps find a window into the writer’s craft through these past works that resonate with us so well in other forms.

There’s no shame in seeing the movie, let me hasten to mention that. In nearly every case I can think of, I found the book to be better, but usually that was only after seeing the tale. When a classic is redone, it’s interesting to see whether the basic inner stuff of it has changed. I find, most often not; even Hollywood doesn’t always screw that up!

This Question of Disguises, Now…

For my first theme, I want to look at two great classics that share one such common idea. Their heroes, set in almost the same time period but halfway around the world, do the same thing when faced with evil. They adopt a secret identity. This raises a great question, one that classic heroic and epic fantasy seldom touches on- why pretend?

Most folks know why Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent took on a mild-mannered alter ego- freedom to act and the need to protect loved ones from harm. But Superman and Batman, it turns out, were far from the first.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is widely thought to be the first hero in history to have a secret identity. It’s also one of the first heroic fantasy tales authored by a woman, the Baroness d’Orczy in 1903. There’s definitely something up with that, and if I say much more I’ll be accused (with justice) of chauvinism. But I’m here to tell you, guys aren’t nearly as interested in hiding their powers as women are in believing this dope before them truly has hidden talents. Deep water here, and I don’t swim well…

Tiny flower, BIG action.
Tiny flower, BIG action.

This is a gorgeous tale of death and danger in the blackest days of the French Revolution, when the Reign of Terror was eating people by the hundreds. Faking his disinterested, foppish life as a useless English dandy, Sir Percy Blakeney conceals from everyone- including his beautiful new French wife- that he secretly commands, as one of his followers puts it, “nineteen men who would lay down their lives” for him. Guided by his brilliant mind, the Pimpernel and his gang outwit the horrid, cruel, secular (!) French soldiers and agents to save dozens of innocent French aristocrats from the guillotine’s embrace. Then he returns to English society sporting the latest fashions, on the arm of his wife making witty remarks and annoying everyone- especially her- with his “inane laughter”.

The Best Intentions

We discover as the story moves briskly along that there has been a terrible misunderstanding crossing the main characters, one that probably won’t be happily resolved and which could lead to Blakeney’s death. He had only started his career of rescuing French nobility when he married the gorgeous Parisian actress Marguerite, whom he secretly still worships. For her part, Marguerite defended her beloved brother Armand by speaking down about a leading aristocrat, and her denunciation led to the death of that entire family- staining her with suspicion of sympathy for the Revolution. Blakeney adopts the guise of a flaccid fool, always honoring his wife and giving her every luxury but never letting on that he could be the mysterious hero capable of leading such daring and intelligent escapes. She is stung by the change in her husband and resorts to sarcasm, making fun of him in an effort to rouse the man she thought she knew. All this makes her look even more guilty to Blakeney’s heartbroken view. And when the dastardly French agent Chauvelin gets wind that Marguerite’s brother Armand may be helping the Pimpernel, he blackmails her with the young man’s life in order to enlist her help in exposing the enemy of the Revolution.

"Chicks dig that romantic crap!"
“Chicks dig that romantic crap!”

One remarkable aspect of this secret identity theme is that the hero is so obviously torn; he dare not let Marguerite know the truth because she appears to side with the enemy. Yet Percy is hopelessly in love with his wife still. After a moonlit encounter on their veranda where Marguerite implores him to be more truthful with her, he holds firm as the lazy, disinterested dandy until she turns to go. Then he throws himself to the tiles and kisses the ground whereon she walked. I’m telling you, chicks dig this stuff!

But the other aspect that may be of interest to the writer is that this situation compels us to see almost nothing directly from the hero’s point of view. For at least three-quarters of the story, you search for the Scarlet Pimpernel along with everyone else (you do better than they do). Nothing is told from Percy’s perspective until close to the end; there is a level of remove where you don’t read what he thinks or feels, only what he says and does. This increases the tension and reveals his character beautifully, whereas an omniscient third-person view would struggle hard not to seem maudlin or cute. Much of the heart of the tale is really from Marguerite’s point of view. The moment when the awful truth finally breaks down the doors of her mind- when she realizes that she has already led her husband, the man she always loved, into Chauvelin’s death-trap- is the height of the story.

What Hollywood Made of It

Hugh Grant did well enough in the movie-version I would say, but the earlier flick with Leslie Howard (who played Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind”) sticks in my head. Ironically, it was Howard who immortalized the phrase “Sink me!” coming from the dandy Sir Blakeney; yet in the first book of The Scarlet Pimpernel Blakeney never uses that phrase. Also Merle Oberon perfectly matches my image of Marguerite.

Sink me! Nice cravat, wot?
Sink me! Nice cravat, wot?

In summary, we have a tale in which the hero adopts a secret identity specifically to prevent his plans from being overset and to keep his men from even greater danger. And he takes this foppish guise chiefly to keep the tale away from his beloved- not because he fears harm to her, but because he suspects she is his enemy. This sets up tremendous pathos and conflict in every scene they spend together, and d’Orczy exploits this original idea with fabulous prose that cuts to the heart of the scene each time. Her descriptions, dialogue and turns of phrase are uniformly apt and convey the emotion without slowing the pace too much. I think like any reader, I had moments where I “got it already” and was a bit impatient when she lingered on an image or reinforced an emotion, but there was nothing here to take me out of the tale for a second. I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as classic Heroic Fantasy (using my Fantasy Solar System taxonomy), shading towards Cinematic mood in places, particularly where Percy adopts an ingenious disguise despite his enemies knowing what to watch for.

Final bit of trivia- it was first put up as a stage play and evidently struggled, but the novel was published in the same year and did wonderfully right away. And I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as one of my top three ever Broadway shows- “Into the Fire” still makes me stand up and cheer out loud.

Read it For Free

I downloaded The Scarlet Pimpernel for free to my phone from Amazon Kindle Classics- this is a wonderful value for me because I’m often traveling or without my laptop and can still read quite easily on the phone. I can change the background and font-size to suit my failing eyes, and the only feature I miss from the laptop version is the automatic dictionary. The free versions do suffer from imperfect formatting and there is the occasional mis-spelled word or even repeated phrase, but it’s nothing to pull down your enjoyment of the tale. Here’s another site to get it as an e-book, and you can also listen to it as an audio-book.

So, which tale is set at the same time, but far away and also makes use of a secret identity? Stay tuned for Part Two! And let me know how you reacted to any version of The Scarlet Pimpernel you may have seen or read.

Fantasy, by the Planets- My Faults are in the Stars

A post first issued in 2013, now brought to my own site for the first time.

With a tip of the broad-brimmed hat to Ciara Ballintyne, whose wonderful post on the subject kicked my dusty brain into gear, I fell to thinking how to classify the various works of fantasy that I love so well. I’ve come to realize from posts at various sites, that my views are quite simplistic- also showing their age, frankly- but perhaps for beginners I can offer the following easy taxonomy. If it helps you to write, then it’s good.

  • I’m following a rule of three, split by Stakes and Mood, for a total of nine sub-Genres. Yeah I know- too tidy, old-fashioned, unconvincing. Sue me. I have simple tastes, and believe that many things folks call genres are better described as flavors.
  • Among those things you won’t see reflected here by name are Urban, High/Low, Historical, Dark and most likely others you’ve come to like. My, I’m being grumpy today. It’s just that I prefer a few categories, and then one can speak of works that split-the-distance, or bend the genre. That strikes me as the greater compliment than to give every great work that comes along a category of its own.
  • My model is a solar system- in fact, ours. The planets represent centers of gravity that define something qualitatively different about the writing, and of course the reading experience. But plenty of room between the heavenly bodies, and most of what we read doesn’t nestle down precisely in one atmosphere or another. Most planets have moons, and there are uncounted millions of asteroids: I know what you’re thinking, the literary genius goes on and on.
  • And here’s another point, before I lay the figure on you. It’s a solar system, which means there’s room outside it as well. Maybe you’ll find the stuff you really like is off beyond Pluto somewhere, and that’s cool. I know that some of my works to date have spicing from other genres such as Horror, Mystery, and Romance: if Fantasy writing was a country trading with its neighbors, I would say imports outweighed exports by about 10 to 1. Might be cool to consider that in a future post.

A Question of Stakes and Mood

So I’ll give the graphic representation here, which I hope is pretty self-explanatory (thousand words and all that). I hope you enjoy it, and then if you like scan as many of my notes as you want. I’m a heroic and epic fantasy chronicler, so believe me, this IS the short version! But stop whenever it’s not helping you anymore. I’m very happy as always to hear your thoughts too. You should be able to click on the picture to make it bigger.

One chronicler's suggestion
One chronicler’s view

I’ve suggested three major genres of fantasy- Epic, Heroic and Sword and Sorcery (down the middle)  with variations of Mood (across the top) from Cinematic to Morbid, and a second spectrum of Stakes (along the side) from Casual to Crucial. At each “planet” I installed a title that pretty closely fits the location: most of my selections reveal my age but I think they will still be familiar to many. One word of warning; these planets are not arranged in the same order as you might expect by the presence of the “sun” in the picture. More explanations than you could ever want follow here!

The Stakes of a Tale

EPIC Fantasy is defined by Crucial Stakes; the main character is called upon to Save the World. Combat is rare, humor limited and every act reeks of consequences. Things happen for a reason, it all ties together.

HEROIC Fantasy involves some kind of quest within more limited boundaries, to Save the Kingdom. Heroes fight more often, there can be humorous moments and even mistakes before the (usually happy) ending.

SWORD & SORCERY sometimes identified with “Low” fantasy, has the smallest, most Casual stakes; for the protagonist, the job  is literally Save Your Skin. Fighting and action ranges from frequent to non-stop, and nearly any vice you can imagine is on the table (sometimes taking its clothes off) while mistakes are common (and mean less). By the end, there has often been little or nothing accomplished. Except you’ve enjoyed a great story.

Getting Into the Mood

But these tales are also qualified by a tone or Mood which puts them in definable categories. The CINEMATIC (or Light) mood generally carries more humor, a higher level of action and suspense, and often brings more misadventures whose purpose either distracts or relieves tension derived from the main plot. Not surprisingly, fantasies with a Cinematic Mood make good movies. The Stakes are the same (a Cinematic Epic Fantasy is still a quest to save the world), but you can laugh along the way, there’s more of a campy flavor. There’s also less doubt that the world/kingdom/skin will, in fact, be saved. You don’t spend sleepless nights wondering how it will turn out. On the opposite side of the spectrum, fantasy tales of all three genres can be Morbid (or perhaps Dark), bearing not just on death but on a much grimmer prospect regarding the Stakes. You can certainly doubt whether “it” will be saved, or you might be uncertain if you want the main character to succeed. Many works hailed as deconstructions of fantasy, in another view, are Morbid.

THE BOOK TITLES: In case you were interested, some notes on the choices I made. I spotted my own works with initials in purple (TMM- Three Minutes to Midnight, and so forth). I think I have them in the right orbits, but let me know!

Epic: Lord of the Rings is the obvious call, hard to see how any work could displace it. I also include SRD’s Thomas Covenant series as a later, but still seminal example of the Stakes involved. Ironic point- Middle Earth is lost unless Frodo refuses to use the Ring, and The Land is done for unless Covenant decides to use it!

Cinematic Epic: I chose the 1980 version of Flash Gordon for two reasons. First, even though it’s about as silly and campy as anything ever put on film, the Stakes are unmistakably Crucial: Ming is moments away from destroying Earth and ruling the entire galaxy. It’s technically science-fiction, but the lasers and mind-probes are pretty soft-pedaled especially in this movie: the best moments like the stump-of-death and the tilting-floor duel are pure fantasy. Secondly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who was at Camp Dudley YMCA in 1983, when five hundred boys trooped to the movie-hall after four days of torrential rains, expecting to see another boring baseball series recap film. Instead, the pulsing drums of Queen preceded Max von Sydow sneering “Foolish Earthlings, who can save you now?” The cheering echoes up in the Adirondacks to this day.

Morbid Epic: I think Stephen King’s Dark Tower series stands well here, because of the grim tone, the gruesome moral choices made and the severe prices paid. I’m not sure who I want to win, nor whether anyone will. And the Stakes once again are the entire world (no matter how small). Should I have yelled “Spoiler Alert” a few paragraphs ago?

Heroic: I personally put Ursula LeGuin’s series on a pedestal just as high as Tolkein’s or anyone else’s, and the first book I think is a splendid example of individual heroic activity for big (but not yet universal) Stakes. There are two kinds of readers on earth- those who need to read Earthsea and those who need to read it again.

Cinematic Heroic: The book is better, yet the movie of The Princess Bride brings out the Cinematic mood just as well. But the book is better.

Morbid Heroic: Here’s where I would stash GRRM, personally, and for emphasis I laid him alongside Elric of Melnibone. I think Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch can also be classified here. The struggles going on in Game of Thrones et al will not bring the world down to darkness (most likely)- and with most characters showing a gleam of virtue already dead I’m not sure anyone would notice if they did. Heroes are saps. Even some of the bad guys are suckers, compared to some of the other bad guys. I count down from the top of my list of characters who are a) somewhat good and b) still alive, and here’s my top 3:

  1. The brave bastard (no really) who’s still alive because he lives at the polar ice-cap so none of his enemies can be sure where he is
  2. The girl who’s hoping to become an assassin
  3. the blonde guy who actually said no to boinking his sister for a change, and who might be getting a tad weary of being so evil all the time

Can you tell I don’t like Morbid fantasy much?

My choices for Sword and Sorcery are all nearly as old as I am and I cannot see into the darkness far enough to make out a Morbid choice. Perhaps you have some suggestions to fill in my star-chart?

Planetary Considerations (is this for real?)

Speaking of that, let me wrap up (this IS the short version) with a run-down of the various planets.

The SUN brings “light” of course, so the three planets closest to it are Cinematic and the furthest are Morbid. But that’s not strictly a distance thing.

Arranged to fit my own fantasy
Arranged to fit my own fantasy

Venus is where you should expect to find her, both the lowest and most light-hearted spot suited to the pursuit of, ahm, venality.

Neptune occupies the Cinematic Heroic spot because like many tales in that sub-genre, it’s turned on its side.

Pluto is Cinematic Epic because its very survival (as a planetary body) is at stake. Despite being so far away it is at least solid, and remarkably bright for its small size. So a nice combination of light and far-out.

Mars is the home of Sword and Sorcery and if Conan wasn’t so cool I’d have put Jon Carter there as a title in a heartbeat.

Earth is the home of heroes. Full stop. Keep looking, they’re there- and my Lands of Hope are the proof.

Epic Fantasy is the King (I know, the planet I used has rings, but it’s a great color). And Jupiter has many moons, lots of tremendous titles we all could name in its orbit.

Morbid S&S needs a planet where things are cold as hell but can move quickly and dangerously. Mercury, remember, doesn’t spin- the dark side temps drop to -350 F or lower. In a Morbid S&S your life could be over in fewer seconds than the days of Mercury’s orbit.

Uranus is appropriate for Morbid Heroic because it’s so large and full of gas. Deadly gas. Fortunately for me, it’s also far away. Did I mention Morbid is not my favorite?

And Saturn wishes it could be Jupiter again but will have to settle for second in size, still slow of speed, lots of material in its orbit too.

Sincere thanks for your patience, I’ve enjoyed the rant. Ar Aralte! (Hope Forever)