25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
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Michael Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance (Gollancz, 1987)
Michel Moorcock would be, it seems, the obvious choice to produce a critical work on epic fantasy. After all, he's written more of it than jut about any living author, or he had at the time this book was commissioned, ten years before its release, after the publication of his article "Epic Pooh" in 1977. ("Epic Pooh," revised, appears as chapter five here, and is one of the true gems of this book.) Still an excellent choice, as most of the similarly prolific writers who have emerged in the shadow of Moorcock lack the wit and originality he displays in novel after novel.
Interestingly, this is one of his main criticisms of the fantasy genre overall, not just in the moderns but going back to the earliest days of epic fantasy. The book, which is far more a survey than a critical analysis, strikes a Paul DeMan-esque note in its willingness (perhaps too much willingness) to turn many of fantasy's sacred cows into shish kebab. What is refreshing about Moorcock is that, unlike most critics, he is always willing to suggest a good number of alternatives for each piece of overwrought, mindless fluff the public is willing to take to heart. (Moorcock seems to have a special circle in Hell reserved for the Inklings, the chief fantasists of which were J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, both of whom Moorcock roundly despises; he spends more column inches disparaging Narnia and Middle Earth than all the other writers he castigates combined.)
One wonders, idly, why a survey draws as much money as it does these days. I could probably pay a month's rent auctioning off my copy of this, a first edition/first printing. Odd, since the volume barely gets a few lines into page one hundred fifty before it reaches its conclusion. But mine is not to reason why. It's not worth the incredible sums it fetches from booksellers these days, but as a jumping-off point for readers of fantasy who are looking for ways to branch out into wider genre-specific reading, it's a pretty darned fine piece of work.
Most of Moorcock's jaundiced views on epic fantasy could apply to all types of literature, which is at the same time both the book's main strength and its weakness. One expects, when reading a survey, to see the ways that the subject's lineage relates to what has come before and what has come after (see Eliade's wonderful Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy for perhaps the finest extant example of how to write a survey on a particular subject), but Moorcock seems to have the underlying belief that writing in a particular genre should have the same strengths and weaknesses as writing in any other, or in writing that is genreless or transcends its genre. To some extent this is true; the best fantasy writers, like the best writers of most genres, do transcend what the hacks are doing and make their work into literature. Where Moorcock goes slightly wrong, though, is in not delineating the transcendent from the more satisfying genre tales. He gives equal weight to, for example, Terry Pratchett (whose work, while parodic, is still very much genre fiction) and Ursula K. LeGuin (who is the very definition of an author who transcends any genre in which she chooses to apply herself). Perhaps he is expecting the reader to be able to discern which is which. Not an unreasonable expectation, if you assume your audience is as widely read in the genre as you are. I doubt many fantasy readers, or for that matter many academics, are as widely-read in their chosen fields as Moorcock, who tosses out the names and critical overviews of fantasy works going back to the pre-Romantic period that have been out of print for a few hundred years as if he'd assigned them the week before while teaching a class on fantasy literature, and we are all expected to go down to the University bookstore and pick up copies of them. Would that we could.
Still, as an overview of what's out there, where both the aspiring fantasy reader and the aspiring fantasy writer should be looking to find the stuff that really is worth being influenced by, despite its age Wizardry and Wild Romance is still the definitive survey on epic fantasy. It'd be nice to see a second edition. I, for one, would love to see what Moorcock thinks of, say, Philip Pullman, Terry Goodkind, or Neil Gaiman. But the recommendations in here should be enough to keep me hunting down obscure titles for the next decade, and the approach he takes to epic fantasy is a witty and readable one. ****
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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Before getting into why this book is a must-read for anyone who likes epic fantasy, let me say something about the book's faults, which it wears on its sleeves.
First, the book has been unevenly revised over time, starting out as it did in the 1970s. This makes the book feel self-anachronizing. For example, there will be a sentence to the effect of "The finest of the most recent spate of epic fantasy novels is Somebody's trilogy: Wow (1977), Wowwer (1979) and Wowwest (1981)." Then shortly thereafter will be a reference to Harry Potter. Is this a problem? Well, if you interpret praise for an author as encouragement to read them and are wondering whether Somebody's novels have stood the test of time and are worth reading, it is.
Second, Moorcock pathologizes the popularity of books he does not like. I think it's fair to ask why a particular author has struck a chord or found a certain audience. Moorcock, however, goes well beyond that. For instance:
>I sometimes think that as Britain declines, dreaming of a sweeter past, entertaining few hopes for a finer future, her middle-classes turn increasingly to the fantasy of a rural life and talking animals, the safety of the woods that are the pattern of the paper on the nursery room wall. Hippies, housewives, civil servants, share in this wistful trance; eating nothing as dangerous or exotic as the lotus, but chewing instead on a form of mildly anaesthetic British cabbage. If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits.
Or to focus this venom on this favorite target: "The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class." In the introduction, Moorcock concedes that he doesn't always back up his arguments with enough evidence, so he is aware that he is sometimes overblown. But that doesn't stop him.
Third, Moorcock uses long passages for samples of what he does and does not like. As brief excerpts, these don't necessarily convey what he intends and some of the effects of these authors isn't well captured in bursts. (To paraphrase a comment by Gary Wolfe, a reviewer for Locus magazine: H.P. Lovecraft in small doses seems maudlin but if you read a lot of him in one sitting, he starts getting to you.) Some of these excerpts are laughably bad and one in particular is so astonishingly good that I want to read the book it came from. But quite frankly, some of what he praises doesn't seem substantially different from what he condemns.
None of these foibles, however, keep this from being a work of the upmost importance for those who care about epic fantasy. As readers of the genre transition from being indiscriminate teenagers to more sensitive adults, they often abandon the genre, not (only) because it focuses on coming-of-age themes but because they, as maturing readers, grow disgusted by how cynically inbred drivel is presented to the public for consumption under the name of `epic fantasy'. Many authors don't even have the decency to rip off Tolkien. They just rip off each other, leaving you feel like you've been had by counterfeits of imitations.
Moorcock passionately loves the genre and is profoundly impatient with the dreck produced in its name. He cares more about it than some people care for their kids. He appreciates the long history of the field --- it's hard not to agree with China Mieville's question in the introduction about when this guy had time to read of all this stuff --- and he emphatically believes that the genre at its finest can say something about the human condition. He doesn't put it quite so pretentiously as that, but he does insist that there be something deeply humanistic about fantasy literature and as such, this manifesto is inspiring and urgently needed. (That I don't see as much depth as he wants in the three novels of his I've read is of no more consequence than his disliking some authors I like.)
It's probably no surprise, given who the author is, that this book is well-written: even if you disagree with the rabbits quote above, you have to admit that it's said with a certain flair. There is a chapter arguing for the importance of humor, and the book has its own share. In the middle of what Moorcock promises to be the only plot summary in the book, he drily notes, "Perion and Elisena have a third son, Florestan, who serves no narrative purpose save to make the story more confusing. . ." (The introduction by Mieville in is also a lovely piece of short prose, a reminder that I want to check out his writings.)
The one warning I should give with this is that while it is short, this book is a major time-drain. Not only are you going to feel tempted to reread it, it's going to make you want to read so many other works --- and that's even before you get to the chapter entitled `Sources'. When I reread, I'm going to have a notebook or stack of Post Its handy. I'm sure I'll end up with a daunting list.
Incidentally, the book ends with a series of reviews as a kind of update. Personally I didn't find them as interesting as the manifesto itself. They largely summarize plots, which rarely convey a work of fantasy's power. These reviews seem like they were written in an almost distracted state and contain some spoilers.
But that doesn't matter. The big picture: if you like epic fantasy, then you should read this book.