240. On Fantasy: Tone

Menhir, introduced last Thursday, is presented in two novel length chunks – Valley of the Menhir and Scourge of Heaven – but it is one story just as the three parts of Lord of the Rings are one story. The Morning of the Gods is a short prolog featuring characters who set things in motion, but are not before us throughout the work. One, although central to the plot, stays in the background through most of the books, and the other dies early.

The tone of this prolog is intense and serious, but it can afford to be. It only lasts eight ms pages; if it were prolonged, such seriousness would quickly become pretentious. Books, like the characters in them, need to breathe. This is true whatever the genre.

J. R. R Tolkien set the tone for tone in fantasy, and not necessarily for the best. The combination of pretension and childishness that came from mixing hobbits with humans and elves was, for me, an uneasy mix. I liked Lord of the Rings well enough to read it twice, decades apart, but I don’t think I could make it through again. To be fair, the hobbits were the best thing in the books. When I tried to read the Silmarillion, the less the hobbits were there to lighten the mood, the harder I found it to read, until I finally bogged down and quit.

Tone at its best is found in A Wizard of Earthsea, which is, for my taste, and without equivocation, the best fantasy novel of them all. The overriding factor in the tone of Earthsea is humility. Ged is the son of peasants (or Earthsea’s equivalent) and he never loses touch with his humble beginnings. True, his arrogance leads to tragedy, but the bulk of the book is the story of Ged regaining the humility which is his natural state.

The language of the book is simple, matching the tone of the story. The image of a man in a tiny boat, pursuing his nemesis alone across Earthsea, has an almost Ghandiesque simplicity about it – if we remember that Ghandi had the simplicity and arrogance to bring down the British empire.

Tone can take many shades in fantasy, and still work. Fritz Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser stories on one hand and Keith Robert’s Pavane on the other are worlds apart in every way, but each strikes the tone necessary for its story. And yes, I know Pavane is an alternate worlds novel, but it reads as a fantasy.

Roger Zelazny’s tone has one foot in science fiction and the other in fantasy. It doesn’t matter what he writes, his tone remains the same, and it works everywhere. Lord of Light is certainly science fiction and Creatures of Light and Darkness is certainly fantasy. Amber, in all its volumes, transcends categorization, but all these works belong in the genre called everything-Zelazny-wrote. I’ve read all his work repeatedly, and will continue to do so, because I get lost in the sound of his voice. And that is what tone is, after all.

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