Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: The Fuzzies

Here is one of my posts from my Tough Guide to Clichés series!  Because we can never have enough fuzzies…

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I’ve really been enjoying my month in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland and all of the marvelous clichés that she has brought to my attention.  What I think I have learned while writing these (and perhaps, you have, by reading them) is that while there are always cliché ways to present your world and characters, there also just as many ways to avoid or even to utilize those clichés to make our fantasylands better.  An awareness of the stereotypes gives us greater power over our worlds.

And what megalomaniacal, world-building author does not want greater power?

So we’ve covered names, colour-coding, and villains thus far.  I want to touch on something a little smaller, a detail that might not even come into consideration when we are writing.  But when you think about it, it is a little strange.

pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban is a magic cat and Bella is a soulless, power-hungry, would-be villain. I think they both merit a story or two.

The question that Jones presents in one of her entries is this: Where are all the fuzzies?

Specifically, how do animals figure into your storytelling?

First, let’s see what Diana Wynne Jones has to say:

Animals. See Enemy Spies, Food, and Transport.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purpose, there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animals you meet will be the result either of Wizard’s Breeding Programme or of Shapeshifting.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Domestic Animals are as rare as wild Animals.  In most cases their existence can be proved only by deduction.  Thus, sheep must exist, because people wear wool, and so must cattle, as there is usually cheese to eat.  Cats are seen in company with Witches and Crones, often in large numbers, but seldom elsewhere, and there have been sightings also of solitary pigs; possibly in Fantasyland cats are herd animals whereas pigs are not.  Goats are seen oftener (and may even provide the cheese) and dogs are frequent but often rather feral – the arrival of a Tour party at a Village is usually greeted by barking dogs.  Dogs are also kept in numbers by Kings and nobles, where their job is to be scavengers: you throw bones on the floor and the dogs fight for them.  These hounds cannot be kept for hunting (except perhaps for hunting men and Mutant Nasties), as there are no Animals to hunt.

The thoughtful Tourist might like to pause here and consider, since Animals are so rare, what exactly the meat is that the Management puts in its Stew.

Another use for animals: as desks.
My brother demonstrates another use for animals: as desks.

Now, then, let’s talk about the animals.  When I read this, I remember feeling a very twingy sense of concern because my fantasy serial The Holder Wars has fallen prey to exactly this description of animals.  There are horses for “Transportation” and then there are plenty of shapeshifters.  But my land has been peculiarly lacking in pretty much anything else.

Oops.

But here’s the conundrum: We want to create a world that is realistic and immersive and natural.  On the other hand, we want to tell a story and relate action and dialogue and characterization.  This means we do have to make some choices about what is important to describe and what isn’t.  If I were to write a chase scene through the woods, I wouldn’t stop the narrative for a moment to point out some bluebirds nesting in one of the trees my characters is frantically riding past.  I don’t need to tell the reader everything on Old MacDonald’s farm when my character passes by or stops in, do I?  We do need to have boundaries, and in many ways, it does make sense to only bring up things like animals when they are actually integral in some way to the plot.  Otherwise, the book becomes a ponderous tome of details.

chicken food
Dogs are desks… and chickens are cuddly snacks. This child lives in an interesting world.

And fuzzies just aren’t worth it.

So what do we do with animals?  Of course, we continue to use them in our stories in various ways, whether it is the usual horse transportation or as game to be shot or as magical changelings.  Otherwise, I think we would do well to be aware of any significant gap in our description, such as of a forest or farmland, and where we might add some animals.

It might do us some good to read what Jones has to say about horses as well:

Horses are a breed unique to Fantasyland.  They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest.  Sometimes they do not require food or water.  They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  They never otherwise stumble … But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them.  If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a Valley while you talk.  Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.  Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no Stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings.  It therefore seems probably that they breed by pollination.  This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals.

The same issues apply with horses,  I think, when it comes to description in stories.  If we were to be completely and utterly realistic, we would also be completely and utterly boring.  However, I do like Jones’ point about horses needing rest and the issue of stallions, mares, and geldings.  These are small practicalities that might be worth bringing into consideration.

Unless, of course, your horses do in fact breed by means of pollination, which is another matter entirely.  And I would like to read that story.

belted gallowy
Cow is sad because she is not in a story.

So, what are your thoughts on fuzzies in fantasyland?  Do you think that novels tend to dismiss them too easily or do you think that it is generally a matter of space and practicality?  Do fuzzies matter to you?

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: The Fuzzies

I’ve really been enjoying my month in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland and all of the marvelous clichés that she has brought to my attention.  What I think I have learned while writing these (and perhaps, you have, by reading them) is that while there are always cliché ways to present your world and characters, there also just as many ways to avoid or even to utilize those clichés to make our fantasylands better.  An awareness of the stereotypes gives us greater power over our worlds.

And what megalomaniacal, world-building author does not want greater power?

So we’ve covered names, colour-coding, and villains thus far.  I want to touch on something a little smaller, a detail that might not even come into consideration when we are writing.  But when you think about it, it is a little strange.

pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban is a magic cat and Bella is a soulless, power-hungry, would-be villain. I think they both merit a story or two.

The question that Jones presents in one of her entries is this: Where are all the fuzzies?

Specifically, how do animals figure into your storytelling?

First, let’s see what Diana Wynne Jones has to say:

Animals. See Enemy Spies, Food, and Transport.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purpose, there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animals you meet will be the result either of Wizard’s Breeding Programme or of Shapeshifting.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Domestic Animals are as rare as wild Animals.  In most cases their existence can be proved only by deduction.  Thus, sheep must exist, because people wear wool, and so must cattle, as there is usually cheese to eat.  Cats are seen in company with Witches and Crones, often in large numbers, but seldom elsewhere, and there have been sightings also of solitary pigs; possibly in Fantasyland cats are herd animals whereas pigs are not.  Goats are seen oftener (and may even provide the cheese) and dogs are frequent but often rather feral – the arrival of a Tour party at a Village is usually greeted by barking dogs.  Dogs are also kept in numbers by Kings and nobles, where their job is to be scavengers: you throw bones on the floor and the dogs fight for them.  These hounds cannot be kept for hunting (except perhaps for hunting men and Mutant Nasties), as there are no Animals to hunt.

The thoughtful Tourist might like to pause here and consider, since Animals are so rare, what exactly the meat is that the Management puts in its Stew.

Another use for animals: as desks.
My brother demonstrates another use for animals: as desks.

Now, then, let’s talk about the animals.  When I read this, I remember feeling a very twingy sense of concern because my fantasy serial The Holder Wars has fallen prey to exactly this description of animals.  There are horses for “Transportation” and then there are plenty of shapeshifters.  But my land has been peculiarly lacking in pretty much anything else.

Oops.

But here’s the conundrum: We want to create a world that is realistic and immersive and natural.  On the other hand, we want to tell a story and relate action and dialogue and characterization.  This means we do have to make some choices about what is important to describe and what isn’t.  If I were to write a chase scene through the woods, I wouldn’t stop the narrative for a moment to point out some bluebirds nesting in one of the trees my characters is frantically riding past.  I don’t need to tell the reader everything on Old MacDonald’s farm when my character passes by or stops in, do I?  We do need to have boundaries, and in many ways, it does make sense to only bring up things like animals when they are actually integral in some way to the plot.  Otherwise, the book becomes a ponderous tome of details.

chicken food
Dogs are desks… and chickens are cuddly snacks. This child lives in an interesting world.

And fuzzies just aren’t worth it.

So what do we do with animals?  Of course, we continue to use them in our stories in various ways, whether it is the usual horse transportation or as game to be shot or as magical changelings.  Otherwise, I think we would do well to be aware of any significant gap in our description, such as of a forest or farmland, and where we might add some animals.

It might do us some good to read what Jones has to say about horses as well:

Horses are a breed unique to Fantasyland.  They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest.  Sometimes they do not require food or water.  They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  They never otherwise stumble … But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them.  If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a Valley while you talk.  Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.  Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no Stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings.  It therefore seems probably that they breed by pollination.  This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals.

The same issues apply with horses,  I think, when it comes to description in stories.  If we were to be completely and utterly realistic, we would also be completely and utterly boring.  However, I do like Jones’ point about horses needing rest and the issue of stallions, mares, and geldings.  These are small practicalities that might be worth bringing into consideration.

Unless, of course, your horses do in fact breed by means of pollination, which is another matter entirely.  And I would like to read that story.

belted gallowy
Cow is sad because she is not in a story.

So, what are your thoughts on fuzzies in fantasyland?  Do you think that novels tend to dismiss them too easily or do you think that it is generally a matter of space and practicality?  Do fuzzies matter to you?

Sprintummer: How Much We Rely on The Shake of His Mane

Springtime in Virginia!
Springtime in Virginia!

Virginia has endured some incredible, bizarre, and unpredictable weather over the last couple of months.  I have dubbed it The Year of the Sprintummer.  Just as the last of the cold, wet stuff had seeped into the cool earth and the trees had begun to unfurl the first timid buds, the clouds discovered that they had previously unnoticed reservoirs of ice and snow yet to dump on us; the winds, which were becoming almost zephyrous devolved once again into arctic blasts; and the wretched flora (as well as a few unfortunate Virginians like myself) became crystallized in the onslaught.

Long-suffering, we walk shivering in snow or sleet or freezing winds and think that we cannot even remember what this magical thing called warm feels like.  And then, somewhere between a chilly sunset and a gentle sunrise, the weather has changed.  Suddenly, it is warm.  No, it is hot and we are buying ice creams and frolicking in meadows wearing sandals and listening to birds singing and frogs chirring and flowers blossoming.  Yes, you can practically hear the flowers shaking off the cold and spreading their petals once more.

And then you hear them start to wilt as the blazing heat threatens to finish what last week’s chill began.  Flowers can never catch a break.

Sprintummer: when summer and winter engage in a war for supremacy in the middle of spring.

And all we wanted was to be able to go outside without mittens.

flowers in the woodsI think the most frustrating thing about this confusing season is that we are missing the magic of spring.  There is something supremely and subtly dramatic in the casting off of winter and the coming of the new season.  It isn’t supposed to happen all at once and skip straight to summer.  Winter is not supposed to regain its hold all of a sudden.  The perfect spring is a slow progression of cold to cool to mild to warm.  It is a beautiful shift from whites and grays to greens and violets and yellows and pinks.flowering tree old building

What we really want is to see the world resurrect in slow motion, a little bit more every time we wake up, until it has become truly alive again.  The profound change from death to life has been translated into many myths.  Unfortunate Persephone’s forced marriage with Hades sends her down into “death” and back into “life” in an eternal cycle that manifests in the changing of the seasons.

But the more appropriate story, of course, is the coming of Aslan:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan shows his might,

At the sounds of his roar, sorrows will be no more

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death

And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again. (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe)

springtime in paris
Springtime in Paris

I suppose in Narnia, after that hundred year winter, they deserved the speedily delivered spring.  But it was spring, not summer, not Sprintummer.  It was spring.  We look at the world being renewed and we see life after death: the bare bones of “dead” trees become verdant and green and the hard, brown earth erupts with colors.  If you live somewhere with four seasons, perhaps you share this sense that spring is special.  It promises relief, beauty, and pleasure.

It also represents the end of a very great and dreadful Winter two thousand years ago;  and it promises us a final, glorious spring when the Lion will move with infinite power and shake His mane once more on the winter of this world.

So, in conclusion, there is something seriously wrong with this whole Sprintummer thing.  Aslan would not approve.

Vienna in the spring
Vienna in the spring

A Month of Ireland: Long Ago, But Still Speaking

In this last post about lovely Irish things, I’d like to look at things from the past that still matter so much to those who see them now.

The exciting thing about Irish literature and history is that we are not only still discovering things today, but we are also rediscovering some of the gems of Irish history.  What has been discovered?  Not many weeks ago, there was an article posted about the restoration of a beautiful Celtic cross from the island of Iona.

st oran's crossIona is part of Scotland, but was the home of many Irish monks seeking holy refuge from the world.  St. Oran’s cross is a massive, stunning piece of stonework engraved all over with beautiful Celtic designs reminiscent of the glorious book that was also supposedly created on that island not long after: The Book of Kells.

The cross is over fourteen feet high and weighs a literal ton, a massive project to begin with and just as massive to restore.  The restoration was timed to be completed for the 1,450 year anniversary of Saint Colomba’s arrival on Iona.  Go ahead and just ponder that number for a moment.  Yes, that many years.  And yet, that cross is still here and there are still people willing to spend exhaustive hours lovingly restoring it to its former glory.

The magic of such artefacts is in their ability to travel across centuries and profoundly impact people a millenium and a half later.  They are part of history and part of the present, stories without words.

On the other hand, some of these pieces of old magic are filled with words.  Not long after St Oran’s cross was constructed, a book was composed.  Containing the four Gospels, The Book of Kells has been honored for centuries, treasured and preserved.  And now to the intense delight of many who are unable to turn the actual pages, the entire book has been scanned and uploaded.

The Book of Kells, like the cross of St Oran, has abided centuries of change and development.  Because of the willingness of generations of scholars, archaeologists, historians, and enthusiasts to put the time and effort into guarding it, and then into updating its availability for a new generation, The Book of Kells belongs to anyone who cares to read it, as the Gospels were always meant to.

I am not a historian, but I am a lover of stories, and the stories tucked away into the corners of history are the ones I find most interesting.  It is all the better when those stories are tangible, visible, and knowable, revealed in a beautiful medium that allows them to speak for themselves.

A Month of Ireland: What Happened to St. Patrick?

Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone.  What did you do?  Was there much festivity, music, drinking, dancing?  Did you wear green?  Did you see a leprechaun, or at least a rainbow?

I wore green and I certainly appreciated this Irish-themed holiday.  However, it sometimes boggles my mind how a holiday (holy day?) dedicated to a man of true worth, a hero whose valor and sacrifice helped instigate a wave of conversion across an entire nation, can be pared down to things as mundane as wearing green or drinking too much.

Don’t get me wrong.  While drinking is not a pastime of mine, I am not opposed to celebrating a holiday by having fun with friends and enjoying a concept as hilarious as little men in green chasing rainbows.  Although it does seem like holidays have a habit of becoming increasingly fluffy.  I mean, look at what we did to poor St Valentine’s holiday.

Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.

It’s not so much that I think that we shouldn’t celebrate these things with new, entertaining traditions.  Celebrations are meant to be fun, after all. However, I do think that Saint Patrick does deserve at least a little consideration sometime during the festivities.  He isn’t Ireland’s patron saint because of faeries or alcohol. He was a warrior for Ireland’s heart and soul.

saint patrick's cathedral hall
Inside the cathedral.

Many people know the basic story of Saint Patrick: How a young boy raised in Rome-civilized England was kidnapped to be a slave by Irish marauders.  How he escaped and returned home.  How he became a Christian, and then discovered that his calling was to return to the land where he was a slave and free them from their own, darker enslavement.


saint patrick's well dublin ireland

The stories of Saint Patrick range from his driving all the snakes from Ireland to how he challenged the druidic order by cutting down their sacred oak.  Whatever he actually did, Saint Patrick’s legacy is ongoing.  Far, far more than a color, an overindulgence in alcohol, or a fae creature with a predisposition for ginger hair and rainbows, Saint Patrick’s heritage is one of faith and literature.saint patrick's cathedral dublin

My post last week was about a magic cat and the man who wrote about it.  That man’s earnest desire to convey stories, both true and fanciful, to a lost world owes its existence to  the courage and dedication of the heroic Saint Patrick.

So, I hope you wore green.  I hope your day was festive (in moderation!).  But I also hope that those of you who believe as I do, who were able to go to your church for a day of worship, also took a moment to consider that men and women like Saint Patrick, as instruments of their Maker, brought the light into our ancestors’ dark world. We owe them much.

stone bible Saint Patrick's cathedral dublin ireland
A passage from Psalms set in stone in St Patrick’s Cathedral