Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, by Michael Moorcock

Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain, Inc., 2004, pp. 206.

I first encountered Michael Moorcock's classic study of epic fantasy many years ago, when I had only a faint idea that he is a Big Name in speculative fiction (picked up mainly from my readings in Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree), and not much idea as to why. I'd tried to read some of his Jerry Cornelius stories, which didn't work for me. (I wasn't a fan of the cut-up technique, and still am not.) At the same time, I'd read relatively little fantasy, and had some hope the book would help me get a handle on the bigger picture. I didn't find it very useful to that end, and didn't do much more than skim it before setting it aside.

The fact that I didn't find the book of much interest then doesn't say anything about its worth, but it does say a great deal about its conception, as I realized when rereading it later on. It was never intended as an introduction to the genre, the kind of thing someone in a hurry would read to get a clear image of the field. Moorcock does not offer a history of the genre, or a survey, though there is plenty of history, and quite a bit of breadth in the examination. Nor is the book unified by an overarching argument or concern. Instead Moorcock is sounding off on a selection of themes in a collection of chapter-long essays covering, respectively, the genre's origins (chapter one); the use of landscape in epic fantasy fiction (chapter two); the depiction of heroes and heroines (chapter three); the presence of wit and humor, and the lack thereof (chapter four); the escapist aspect of much of the genre, as well as the political implications of this kind of writing (chapter five, which is essentially a reprint of his essay "Epic Pooh," also the chapter's title); and finally, the evolution of the genre's expressions across the media spectrum (chapter six, "Excursions and Developments").

As might be expected, the breadth and depth of Moorcock's reading and range of reference is staggering. While enriching these discussions, it can also be a bit of an obstacle after the first chapter, since he makes little effort to meet a less prolific reader halfway in the later parts of the discussion. As China Mieville acknowledges in the introduction to the new edition,
Reading Michael Moorcock's history of literary fantasy is like walking an immense, brilliantly stocked library, through which you don't know the way, following a librarian who walks briskly, nodding and pointing at various books as he goes.
"Very interesting that one," he says, and "Ah, some good things in there," and you're desperate to stop and examine the volumes . . . but your custodian walks too quickly, and you can only stare back at them as you run to keep up (11).
The result is that Wizardry & Wild Romance is best approached as a polemic (or a collection of polemics) addressed by one expert to other experts. It is never impenetrable in the way that academic literary criticism so often can be--Moorcock's writing is far too lucid for that--but as Mieville notes, the fleetness with which it moves among a great many items can be frustrating.

Readers should also keep in mind that this study was first drafted in the 1970s, and even the latest edition strongly reflects that. Despite some revisions to the main text, there are no references to any fantasy fiction actually written after 1985. (A reader hoping to see something about Robert Jordan or J.K. Rowling, for instance, will come away disappointed.) At the same time, many of the authors he references are relatively obscure now. (In fact, I had never heard of most of those writers he praises most until I picked up this book.) Additionally, the moment colors his outlook in significant ways. As historian Nick Tiratsoo notes, this was a period of hysteria in Britain about the "respectable classes losing control," with much hyperbole about labor militancy, uppity young people with "common accents," and other sorts of things I first gleaned in reruns of Are You Being Served? and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin a very long time ago--and Moorcock's opposition to that kind of reactionary thinking is strongly present, be it in his suspicion of rural nostalgia and escapism, or other sorts of "comfort food for the comfortable."1 (Indeed, he can be particularly harsh regarding the impulses and attitudes he sees under the surface of the wishes the genre so often speaks to--especially those for a "simpler" world in which a young man armed with gritty determination and cold steel can win himself an empire, or our heroes venture off to kill villains we are not even meant to try and understand in order to restore an "idyllic" status quo.)

Still, even at its most dated and partisan the book succeeds in both entertaining and informing. Wizardry offers plenty of bits of fascinating background. It points the reader to a great many authors, many of whom they would be unlikely to encounter elsewhere, and Moorcock's eye for their strengths and weaknesses, quirks and accomplishments, is uncommonly sharp. The book is also packed with insights well worth reading even three decades on, from his views on the transient appeal of so many particular works of fantastic literature, to the role a well-crafted landscape can play, to the underappreciation and frequent misunderstanding of comedy's place in the genre. (Even the political commentary is still relevant, given that the conservative resurgence of the 1970s pretty much set the world on the political course it has followed these last several decades.)

Even when I didn't agree with the author's argument, or his feeling--after all these years I'm still more sympathetic to escapism and comfort food than he is, rather less enthusiastic about Modernist and Postmodernist approaches to literature, and think what people tend to call "grown-up" fiction is overrated, to name but a few points--I always understood the reasoning behind them. Indeed, it all made me wish Moorcock had penned a proper follow-up. Naturally, anyone with a serious intellectual curiosity about the genre, or simply looking to broaden their sense of what epic fantasy is and can be, should make a place for it in their reading list--though those brand new to the field might put off getting to it until they've acquired more familiarity with the subject.

1. Interestingly, Tiratsoo noted that those dismayed by the decade's trends frequently expressed those feelings in a nostalgia for the eighteenth century; imaginative flight to romanticized, pre-industrial, rural spaces; and less pleasantly, "retribution," violent and otherwise--with obvious implications for the ways in which fantasy fiction was being received. Nick Taratsoo, "'You've Never Had It So Bad': Britain in the 1970s." In Taratsoo, ed., From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain Since 1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), pp. 187-188. Those looking for a bit of quick background about both the genuine difficulties and overblown alarmism of the period can check out this article from the September 30, 1974 issue of Time magazine, melodramatically titled "Will Democracy Survive?"

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