Monday, February 8, 2010

Why Do Some Not Like Fantasy? Also, An Excerpt From The Oerken Tree

Why Do Some Not Like Fantasy?

Also, An Excerpt from The Oerken Tree

Thomas Clayton Booher

If you ask the question “Do you like fantasy novels?” you’re going to get a variety of answers. Those who don’t like to read may ask, what is a fantasy novel? They are to be pitied. But for the rest of us who do like to read, there is a wide response. At one end of the spectrum, there are some who can’t get enough of fantasy. But at the other end, there are those who absolutely loathe fantasy.

The fantasy-loathers may not be able to say precisely why, but it probably comes down to viewing fantasy as merely make-believe, and the protestor prefers a story whose setting is in this world. The story doesn’t have to be true, just realistic and believable. Fantasy is neither, he says. I wonder if the same person ever liked the story of The Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood as a child, and if so, what happened to him? When or why did he fall away from this youthful pleasure? True, as one gets older (I’ve had over sixty years experience in that area), one’s taste changes, and literary preferences are no exception. But usually a change in taste does not mean an abandonment but rather a refinement.

I don’t get excited over The Three Little Pigs much anymore (except when reading the story to a little one, which is an interesting phenomenon itself), but I still like fantasy. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was my first introduction (as it should be) to the realm of Middle Earth, and I was absolutely delighted. I was such a fan of Bilbo that when he took a rather insignificant role in The Lord of the Rings, I was very disappointed, if not a bit miffed with Tolkien. It took about the whole first book of The Fellowship of the Ring before I began to warm up to Frodo.

So why does the world of Bilbo and Frodo have such an appeal to me? Is it not just make-believe, after all? Except for allowing one to ‘escape’ and let his imagination go (which perhaps makes the fantasy-loather a little suspect in the imagination department), what use is it? I have to admit that the imagination factor is a big plus for me, but there is still something else that charms me.

I like fantasy because it ingeniously portrays reality.

“Uhmmm,” the fantasy-loather murmurs, “isn’t that contradictory; fantasy portrays reality?”

“Yes,” I say, “fantasy portrays reality. Look at the greedy, schizophrenic Gollum.”

Turns out that in Gollum’s case, the greed and schizophrenia go hand in hand, and though I’m not a psychologist, I’ll bet there is a basis for that in this world. Gollum’s mental, psychological, emotional, and physical decline are blended so well together, that the whole picture tells us something about where such greed leads us. It is a dehumanizing process that blurs and contorts the image of God. Even if Tolkien didn’t have that in mind, the fantasy world itself had an intrinsic force (not to mention Tolkien’s genius) that allowed the truth about greed to strike us powerfully. I really, really get that when I see Gollum.

It is suggestive of what Paul writes: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:10, NKJV).

And of Solomon: “So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain; It takes away the life of its owners” (Proverbs 1:19, NKJV).

I hope to talk about this as it relates to The Oerken Tree. In anticipation of that, here is an excerpt:

Note: Brutus, the bad guy, arrived in a new world a few days previously and was held at Yellow House, the governor’s mansion. He escaped and is on the run, trying to get to a place called Ferguson Farm. After a little visit in a nearby town, he is now walking on a trail that will take him to a neighboring town, Puddle Bottom West, where he can catch the ‘magnerail’ all the way to Kittanning and the farm.

He [Brutus] was making good time. The trail was easily traversed and at the pace he was keeping he would be in Puddle Bottom West in thirty minutes. Plenty of time. And it looked like he was the only one on the trail.
He came to a sharp bend. The trees on the left were tall and as he came around, on the right, there was a pool of water a little way off the path. Brutus suddenly felt thirsty and the black licorice fizz had left a strong aftertaste.
Brutus didn’t like the idea of drinking anything that didn’t come out of spigot or bottle, but his mouth seemed to be getting drier by the second. It wouldn’t hurt to take a look, there were a couple of hours at least. Brutus stepped off taking a grassy path to the pond’s edge.
The water was clear with a sandy white bottom. Brutus tossed in a stone. It fell so quickly the pool must have been only a few feet deep.
Brutus thrust in his walking stick, and it struck the bottom before half the stick was submerged. There was no sand; the bottom felt hard like stone. A rock jutted out of the water near the center. Lily pads floated idly here and there, and grassy banks came down to the edge. Except for these, Brutus might have thought the pool was man-made.
He squatted down and put his hand in the water. It was cool. Brutus took a handful of water and splashed it over his face. It felt very good. He reached in again scooping out enough with both hands giving him a few swallows. He did this a second time, then a third. One more time....
What was that?
There was a disturbance on the far side. Brutus looked that way. Nothing. Just a lot of grass, even some flowers. A warm breeze swept through his hair.
Nothing. One more scoop.
Brutus reached in again.... He felt it that time, like something slid against his hand. Brutus jerked it out of the water. Something caught his eye.... across the pond. It was reddish-brown and had legs and a lithe tail, and was clambering slowly up the side of the bank, through the grass. It looked wet and slippery, like it was covered in toadskin.
Brutus fell backward. He glanced to his left and right to spot anything along the water’s edge that might resemble the creature.
A shadow passed over the pool and Brutus looked up; the sky was sullen, the blue gone.  The expanse above that little body of water harbored a gray, dismal mist. Brutus looked back down. The pond had changed.
A shiver swept over Brutus. The air had chilled, as if the door of a deep freezer the size of the sky opened above. There was no wind, no rustling of leaves or branches. Just stillness, like a cold wintry forest plunged into deep silence where no living animal moved or bird took flight.
Brutus began to shake. The air frosted his breath as it billowed from his nose and mouth. Only the pond escaped the freeze. It sloshed with a muddy liquid. Here and there a bubble rose to the surface and ejected a stinking, vaporous fume.
Brutus sat on the bank surrounded by stench and gloom. There was no place to go, no rock to hide under, no hole to climb into. An eerie feeling, not panic, began to gnaw within. He wanted to jump to his feet and run, but the thought scared him, as though it might attract a hundred other beasts.
Then, without warning, a suggestion formed in Brutus’s mind. He was urged as if by an inner voice to move closer to the lizard. This fancy, so utterly illogical, grew stronger and stronger until it gave way to desire.
Brutus worked himself to his hands and knees and began to crawl slowly along the bank above the murky pool. The lizard continued to fix its gaze on him as its eyes followed his movement. Brutus crawled a dozen feet or so when the reptile unexpectedly began to push itself slowly toward him. The back of his neck seemed to prickle and Brutus halted his movement, but the lizard continued to edge - closer, slowly, smoothly, its eyes fastened on him.
The lizard had moved to within a few yards and stopped. It’s willowy tongue slurped in and out, whipping about with a soft cracking sound. It was the only sound that carried over the frosty tundra of the pond’s bank.
Brutus extended his hand toward the lizard, not knowing why, yet not disagreeably. A soft slap-slap-slap registered faintly in the air. The beast was still for a moment and then stirred, pushing itself once more into a lumbering crawl over the frozen grass above the mud-swamp as the deep gnawing eagerness to meet it grew in Brutus’s thoughts. The reptile plodded inch by inch, its spindly feet buried in the grass and its nose nudging the chilled mist.
The slapping noise was more distinct now, and the creature seemed to climb out of a swirling frost a few feet away. Brutus closed his eyes and stretched his hand outward, toward the nasty little thing, sensing its movement again while the slap-slap-slap grew louder.
Brutus opened his eyes and looked at the thing; it was leathery skinned and yellow-eyed, its tongue whipping the air and tasting the scent of his hand now merely inches away. The tongue retreated and the creature advanced an inch more as its triangular head stretched forward and its black, unblinking eyes seemed to cast a spellbinding wave that taunted Brutus to respond in kind. Brutus stretched again, and the muscles along his flank and abdomen grew taut and uncomfortable.
The hand hung before the reptile, palm down, its back exposed, the slapping tongue now within an inch. Barely breathing, Brutus continued to stretch, closer and closer until he came to feel the disturbance of the air against his skin.
The tongue struck.
A loud cracking noise stung the air. A fiery sting pricked his hand. Brutus wrenched it away and fell on his side. With knees to his chest, Brutus cradled the wounded appendage and wailed. The hand swelled, so engulfed in pain it forced his eyes shut. A waft of the stench-ridden pond burned his nostrils and cleared his head. Thrashing his legs and clawing with his free hand, Brutus dragged himself to the edge and plunged his arm deep into the foul liquid.
There was relief. Slight relief, but certain, nonetheless. Brutus held the wounded limb there a considerable while not daring to remove it in spite of what little nasty things may be lurking about the bottom. Wondrously, the pain eased, and Brutus ventured to withdraw his hand.
It was swollen dripping thick, stinking gray drops of water. On the back was a cherry-colored welt about the size of a dime. A nasty welt. Brutus felt around the edges gingerly testing its soreness. Teeth clenched, he made to daub it with a fingertip but recoiled fearing even a little disturbance might bring back a rush of agony.
In all of the pain and bellowing, the creature had slipped from his mind. Brutus reeled around with the fist of his unwounded hand clenched, but the reptile was gone. He surveyed the area; there was no sign of it. The little beast had stung him and lumbered away. He must have made such a stir he frightened it back to where it came from.
And yet, Brutus wondered. He played the episode back in his mind. Certainly he was a fool to think the thing was friendly. Just the recollection of those eyes and that tongue....
Brutus felt uneasy, a small knot growing in his belly. The eyes were a watery yellow, an orange-yellow, and hypnotic; but it was the thought of the tongue he couldn’t avoid. It was.... Fascinating! Riveting! Yet ghastly. Brutus shivered. That gray-white tongue, for all its splendor and allurement, was a very, very dreadful thing, a scary thing, a thing of pitch black horror. Brutus began to sob - he knew why.
The tongue was repulsive, and yet he gave in to it as though the revulsion itself was a rare jewel to be desired above all jewels. He wanted it. He had to have it because its loathing was its fascination, its beauty. He loved its malignity.
Deep in his heart there was nothing good; somehow, he always knew that. He cared little for anyone but himself. That never bothered him and didn’t bother him at that moment. But this was as if he had an encounter with something blacker, much blacker - pure evil. The epitome of all that was contrary to good resided in that beast with the yellow-orange eyes and the slippery, whipping tongue. He had come face to face with it and was drawn to it.
His stomach wrenched again, harder. He stepped away from the pool, fell to his knees and vomited. He condemned and forgave himself all at once. How could even he have given in to such wicked beauty? It was tantalizing! It was a beauty that evoked the deepest admiration. Wickedness had a beauty of its own, so enticing, so easy to coddle. The unholiness that resided in that foul creature was magnificently profound - deep, scary, wondrous, thrilling. Brutus held up his hand. Prominently embossed on the back was the mark of that little beast.
Brutus’s mind began to thrash around, confused and anxious. What was the meaning of that mark? He brought his hand closer and held it, trembling. He studied it closely. The presence of the horrid blemish was a violation, unwanted and forced upon him, marking him like the branding of a cow. Brutus closed his eyes - he had to think, understand. What had happened?
There was no evident explanation, and the beauty he saw a moment ago gave way to a menacing thought that kept coming back; that this sallow-eyed lizard had done something to him.... something that he couldn’t undo. It wasn’t a change of heart for deep within Brutus felt no different. It hadn’t added anything, it just affected something that was already there, like a seed that only needed a little nurturing nudge to sprout.
Brutus felt the fool. His eyes flashed open; the cursed creature had allured him, deceived him. Vile thing! By the poisonous contact of the tongue it had laid claim to him, marking him exclusively for its own pleasure.
No! No! Absurd! A dumb cold-blooded animal purposely setting him apart? Making him the target of a mysterious evil ambition?
Brutus shook his head in denial, and his eyes fell to the back of his hand once again. It looked bad, really bad. He feared it would give him away, that he would have to conceal it or else he would be known truly for the foolish person he must be to allow such a stupid thing to happen.
Reason. Common sense. He had to be reasonable. Brutus took a deep breath, let it out slowly. This made him feel a little better, his head a little clearer.
The red mark could be explained away. He need not fear it or fear that anyone would be suspicious of it. It would be gone in a few days, a week or two at most. He was a fast healer. Many a mishap had marked him, and they were all gone except for the faintest evidence of an unnoticeable scar or discoloration of the skin.
It made more sense now. The brute reptile was probably one that was commonly avoided and for good reason. This taught Brutus a lesson. Trust no one and no animal; trust no living creature. Oh, how deceptive this world was! Blue skies and potent flowers to dull the senses and hide its dangers. There was much he had yet to learn. Carelessness could be fatal. Other dark things could find him unaware. They could kill, or worse, crawl within and make a dark heart darker.
Brutus shook himself as if from a trance. He took a long, deep breath, eyes closed, and let his other senses assure him. The frozen chill of the air was gone and a warmth cuddled him. The scent of fern and pine was in the air and a bird chirped in the distance somewhere. This was real.... and warm.... and friendly.
Brutus opened his eyes; the winter barrenness of the wood had returned to its summer plentitude, and the stinking pool now sloshed with crisp, clear water. Another deep breath came followed by a slow, relieving exhalation.
He felt much, much better. His hand felt normal, except for the bit of a pinch where the mark remained. It seemed so trivial now. His imagination had run wild and exaggerated the whole encounter.
Brutus bolted. How long had he been there? He looked up into the sky. The blue was beginning to deepen. It was getting late. He might have wasted a good half-hour, maybe an hour. But there was time. Maybe. He didn’t really know how far he had to go.
Just a mile, perhaps. Not too bad, but once there, he still had to find the magnerail station.... and purchase a ticket.... and board. All of these thoughts rushed in, and Brutus almost whimpered.
He hurried back to the trail, and for an intense second was disoriented and didn’t know which way to go, left or right.
Then he sighted a post on the trail only yards away. On top was a flat board with gleaming white letters, PBW One Mile, next to an equally white arrow pointing further down the trail. One mile. Not far. He’d make it.
“Weird,” Brutus muttered, a chill touching the nape of his neck. Then a word from Broadman’s class intruded. . .  “Preternatural, actually,” Brutus said as if speaking to the pond and then stepped off.