On Ray Bradbury, Pat Conroy, Renaissance Fairs, and setting as a character in a story (Combining Blogs, Part 3)

Dear folks,

A while back, I started a second blog, one just for my renaissance fair novel, Blackthorne Faire. I’m combining them, because, well, it’s a lot easier to maintain one blog than two, and a lot of the topics I want to write about, like music in fiction (just to name one), fit equally well in both.

So I’m moving the Blackthorne Faire posts here. I hope you’ll stick around.

Here, if you missed it, was the third of the posts from that blog….

 

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Fair

A setting, especially one like a Renaissance fair, can be more than just a stage where stuff happens. A setting can be, almost, a character in the story instory. I think it should be.

If you’re going to set a novel at a Renaissance fair, the fair itself needs to be … something special. It needs to be something that speaks to all those people who love Renaissance fairs enough to go to them year after year after year. It must invoke laughter, music, and memories. It must invoke story.

As I mentioned before, I think a large part of the magic of a Renaissance fair has to do with with the communities that seem to spring up there. There’s more, though. After all, those communities form and thrive at Ren fairs, not at, say, office buildings, coffee shops, or shopping malls.

Something about that setting, that specific place, calls us, or about five million of us, anyway. A story set at a Renaissance fair probably couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be set anywhere else — not even a similar event like, say, a science fiction/fantasy convention or an SCA event.

Can you imagine Charles de Lint’s Moonheart or his Newford stories set anywhere else? What about Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? How much do the fog-shrouded streets of London add to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, or to the novels of Charles Dickens? What is Heathcliff without his moors? I don’t think the stories that take Tarzan away from his jungle ever really work.

Place is important.

A story’s setting can be more than just a stage, it can be more than just a place where stuff happens. It can be a deep part of the story’s fabric. More, I’ll argue it can be almost a character in the story. That’s a lesson I learned from two of my very favorite writers: Ray Bradbury and Pat Conroy.

Mr. Bradbury, who was a dear friend, and Mr. Conroy share a lot in common — both were absolute masters of elegant, lovely prose, both were heavily influenced by events in their childhood, and both wove stories that are absolutely drenched in a sense of place. I am thinking of Mr. Bradbury’s Greentown, his Mars, and his carnivals, and of Mr. Conroy’s coastal Carolina.

Place is so important to Mr. Conroy that he includes these lines near the beginning of The Prince of Tides:

“To describe our growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”

Those lines are gorgeous enough to be heartbreaking, but Mr. Conroy doesn’t write them just to fill his pages with pretty prose. No. They’re important. They bring to life a primal landscape that shaped the narrator as a character, as a person, as surely as any parent (another important factor in Mr. Conroy’s work). The Lowcountry is a character.

Ray Bradbury, too, will always be one of the great masters of place and season. Here, for example, are the opening lines of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes:

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.”

I talked to Mr. Bradbury about his experiences working on Disney’s film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes. He said he was always telling the director, “‘It’s autumn. We need more leaves.

“The director would scowl at me and say, ‘I’m getting tired of hearing about your damn leaves!’

“I’d tell him, ‘I have to talk about them. They’re important. Now go down to central casting and hire me ten thousand leaves!'”

Mr. Bradbury understood the truth: autumn in a small town, and the coming of a carnival … those elements are as crucial to the story as any character, hero or villain. Place and time give the story mood and texture, sure, but they also, in some subtle way that defies analysis, shape and push the characters in ways that, usually, in the hands of lesser writers, only other characters can.

PirateShip2

Where else but a Renaissance Festival might one plausibly find a landlocked pirate ship selling swords? Well?

I’m trying to take those lessons to heart in my own writing, especially Blackthorne Faire, my novel that’s set at a Renaissance Festival, a place that’s so rich with scents of beer and frying meats, with sound — music, laughter, shouts — and colors, oh, so many, many colors. That’s easier said than done, especially when one is attempting to learn from masters like Mr. Conroy and Mr. Bradbury.

First, both men are very concrete with the details they provide … think of how Mr. Bradbury talks about season, something core to the very heart of his story. Think about how Mr. Conroy moves far, far beyond visual description to invoke scents, sensations, even tastes? All of those details combine to create a sense of place and time that does more than simply flavor a story. They are ingredients, not mere seasoning. Meat, not salt.

I started in a prologue set decades in the past by attempting to describe the place where the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival will someday be built:

All Hallows Eve, 1936

In later years, the vast suburban sprawl of Atlanta will bleed outward like kudzu to cover the hills and hollows that surround the O’Brien farm with subdivisions and mini-malls. But not yet. Now the city is too much in the future to be a part of life here. It is distant, a dream, like New York or Paris, or the Pyramids in Egypt. The southern hills burn with rich color, fire and rust—a thousand million shades of orange, yellow, and apple red set against a deep and enduring background of evergreen beneath the brilliant, sapphire blue sky of an autumn long past. The old year has dressed in its finery for one last hurrah before the winter frosts come to soothe it away to memory. Breathe! Taste air crisp and heavy with the scents of pumpkin, sweet applewood smoke, dying leaves, and the last wild Georgia blackberries. Breathe, and autumn fills you like spiced wine.

Season is important in my novel, too.

Next, I introduce the fair from the point of view of the two main characters, Erin and Brian. Starting with Erin:

Cloaked in pre-dawn fog, the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival waited quietly, an empty stage, curtain drawn and lights dim, a story waiting to be told. Empty pathways wound hither and yon around the plaster-stone façade of a castle and through faux half-timbered Tudor shop fronts with their sloping roofs of slate or thatch, hiding secrets and surprises the way a carnival does before the barker lets loose his first shout. Erin Winter loved it.

The hush would vanish soon; in a few hours it would melt away with morning’s gray mist. The cast, sleeping off the remnants of the past night’s revels in the employee campground behind the back gate, would whisper, giggling and moaning and sharing hangover cures as they washed the cottony thickness of bourbon’s sweet rot from yawning mouths and slipped into costume and character. And then, when the first guests passed the gates like tourists through a magic wardrobe, the air would ring with music, laughter, and carefully practiced (and more or less convincing) English accents. The guests would breathe deeply, tasting the wind of another time, heavy with the scents of beer and sun and roasting meat. The performance spaces would welcome jugglers, jesters, and musicians, and every stage would boast a marvel. Since this was the last weekend of the fair’s spring run, the crowds would be large and boisterous.

Soon, soon. But not yet.

Walking alone, Erin could almost taste a hint of magic in the chilly mist, some witchery that carried her away from the field north of Atlanta and deposited her in the bright watercolor pages of a favorite book. To Erin’s eye, shadows ringing knotted oak trees hid mysteries, and rings of toadstools marked the places where fae creatures danced in wild circles washed in the light of the full moon. The morning brought a breeze, enough to stir dust from the dirt pathway had seasons after seasons of foot traffic not packed it nearly as hard as the cobblestones that paved the main paths. She found a penny, but it was face down so she didn’t pick it up. Instead, she turned it over to let someone else find it and have the luck. She found herself wishing, suddenly, that she had more time to twirl and wander through the still morning looking for hidden luck. But she didn’t. Her friend Caitlin McGregor waited in the makeshift fair-site apartment above the shop she shared with her husband, Carter.

A sorceress with cloth and bric-a-brac, Caitlin stitched colorful frocks and doublets that delighted fair patrons and cast members alike. When Erin had spilled red wine down the front of her usual garb while making a little too merry at the cast revels, Caitlin had promised a new dress. “Oh, I’ve got something that’ll do, dear. It’ll just want a little touch or two here and there.” Erin hummed a bit of an old Celtic morning tune mingled with a snatch of classic REM and hurried along.

The shop was tucked neatly into the village square just before the paths rose toward the rocky bluffs behind the festival’s back gate, and just inside the rushing stream that bordered the western edge of the site. Caitlin and Carter were already up and about; Erin heard their laughter and light morning conversation, and her belly rumbled as she drank the scents of fresh coffee and sizzling bacon.

Brian’s first impression is different. To him, the fair seems loud, crowded, and tawdry. His opinion changes, though, as he himself grows as a character:

Brian didn’t answer; he simply listened, and in the notes and chords he heard more than melody. He heard the sounds of the fair, not as it was, but as Erin knew it. He listened, and suddenly the costumes around him seemed no longer puerile or gaudy, but bright and merry, spun from rainbows. Erin played, and Brian heard the music of earth and wood and hidden cities forgotten by time and the march of years, of wild toadstools growing in rings beneath the shadows of the deepest heart of a forest. Shop façades and stage flats vanished like canvas hidden by an artist’s brush, replaced by tall castles and welcoming village squares, alive with people and stories. Brian gasped and turned, taking it all in with eyes and mouth wide open. The music shook him, gently, tenderly, like a caress, a touch as soft and full of promise as a first kiss. The tune changed, and Brian heard the sounds of May and the birth of spring, of robins and blue jays, of butterflies and newborns and damp earth. He heard wind and whispers and the buzzing of bumblebees so fat with nectar they could barely flit from flower to blazing flower. He heard the song of streams swelled by melting ice flowing down, down, ever down to join silver rivers leaping over smooth stones.

What makes people change? What makes characters in stories grow? Experiences, certainly. But I think interactions with others, friends, family, lovers, even enemies, change us even more.

Place, though, place defines us. It shapes us from birth. Pat Conroy showed us that. We are never so lonely again after when find a place to truly call home, because we always have, somewhere, a place to belong. I think place can change us, too. It’s no coincidence that quests and pilgrimages involve a journey.

One of my characters in The Widening Gyre, another of my stories, learns that very lesson:

Seeing a new region changes you, I think, because it makes the world you know that much bigger. And it adds to the store of beauty you keep secreted away in your heart and your attics of memory.

In that sense, settings, at least in the hands of masters like Mr. Bradbury and Mr. Conroy, are characters. That’s a lesson I’m still struggling to learn. Blackthorne Faire needs to be a character as fully realized, in its way, as Erin and Brian.

I’d love to know what y’all think.

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ON RENAISSANCE FAIRS AND THE FEELING OF BEING LOST IN A STORY (Combining Blogs, Part 2)

Dear folks,

A while back, I started a second blog, one just for my renaissance fair novel, Blackthorne Faire. I’m combining them, because, well, it’s a lot easier to maintain one blog than two, and a lot of the topics I want to write about, like music in fiction (just to name one), fit equally well in both.

So I’m moving the Blackthorne Faire posts here. I hope you’ll stick around.

Here, if you missed it, was the second of the posts from that blog….

On Renaissance Fairs and the Feeling of Being Lost in a Story

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Why do I love Renaissance fairs so much? Why do I love them enough to have written a book about one? One answer, I think, is because when I step through the gates, I feel like I’ve fallen into the pages of a story.

FairEntrance3

It’s not exactly a magic wardrobe, true, but I can’t help feeling like it’s a gateway into a story. By the way, the woman in the hat and the white shirt (walking away from the camera) is my lovely wife, Carol.

I was the kid who grew up spending way, way too much time reading under the covers with a flashlight, and standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back on opening night. My love for story  has been a part of the very core of my being since … well, as long as I can remember.

I don’t think I’m alone in that.

There is something intrinsic in our collective identity as human beings that makes us strive to find narrative in anything and everything, including, perhaps most of all, the chaotic happenstance of our daily lives. There is something in us that recognizes (or creates … toe-MAY -toe/toe-MAH-toe) patterns, and weaves them into meaning.

We recognize, somehow, that our lives are more than just episodes and coincidences. We respond to stories because we recognize in them the way we’re meant to live, something that we’re supposed to be. We are, all of us, the makers of stories. I am fond of something Alan Kay of the Walt Disney Company said:

“Why was Solomon recognized as the wisest man in the world? Because he knew more stories than anyone else. Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.”

For me, for that kid reading under the covers way past bedtime, it wasn’t enough just to read a story. For reasons I couldn’t begin to articulate at the time, I longed to be in a story. I wanted to visit Narnia, to climb the hills of Prydain, to brave the forests of the Commonwealth, or sip a pint at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

When I visit a Renaissance festival … something I try to do single year, even if I seldom succeed … I’m that kid again. I’m turning a tattered cover and finding myself lost in another place, another time. I’be broken through the page and found myself, just for that fleeting moment, in a story.

KidsPlaying

I don’t know what their story is … but there’s a part of me that envies them for it. By the way, the little girl on the left was laughing, not crying. My picture was not well timed.

I’ve noticed something else about Renaissance fairs and stories. There is something in both of them that inspires communities.

Recently, my business partners and I incubated our own publishing company, Gramarye Media (the world’s first cross-media story incubator) through Georgia Tech’s Flashpoint program.

As a part of our research, we spent a lot of time talking to readers. One of the things we learned (it didn’t really come as a surprise, I confess) was that many readers long for community … to be with people like them. Many equate their best and dearest friends with people who love the same stories. When you find those rare someones (it’s a lot easier now in the days of Internet communities), there’s an instant connection.

C.S. Lewis put it like this in The Four Loves:

“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

There is, in my experience at least, an instant assumption of kinship when you meet someone who loves the stories you do … a feeling that this person is like me in a way that other people aren’t. The other person has to do something dastardly indeed to break that assumption of immediate friendship.

In doing our research for Flashpoint, we saw that some people had communities that they counted among their very dearest friends … even though they’d never met in person.

I found those same communities, or ones very much like them, at Renaissance fairs … among people who attend them and among people who perform there. These people have stories, all of them. The casts at Ren fairs always seemed especially close, and, deep in the heart, I always wanted to be a part of those fellowships. I never was — I had neither the time nor (alas) the talent. That’s one of the sadnesses of my life.

IK

His Majesty, Ik, King of the Trolls

When I first started researching my own Renaissance Fair novel, Blackthorne Faire, I asked Mr. Bryan Thompson (AKA Ik, King of the Trolls)* for help. He very kindly invited me to a gathering of the cast of the Georgia Renaissance Festival after the fair had ended on a Sunday night. We met at a long table at a nearby Mexican restaurant, and we ate and drank and laughed late into the night. I listened, and they told stories.

There was a community there, dear and close, made more so by the fact that (as with so many of the best theatre companies) they knew their fellowship was a temporary one, bright and gone like the flash of a falling star.

I found that I envied them.

I was a welcome guest, but I wasn’t a part of their community, of their story, and I never really could be. But I loved it all the same. Like a reader glimpsing Narnia or Middle-earth distantly, through the dark glass of the page, I was only a visitor, and my time among them was short.

Funny though … all those years later, I still think about that night. I am probably the only one who does; it was one of many for them, and I doubt anyone was wise enough to recognize how precious it was, how soon they would scatter without ever recognizing that one night that was their last together. But in me, though, that night is preserved, in all its giddy glory. I will always be the outsider in that family, the traveler passing, but I remember. Maybe an outsider is the only one who can.

And maybe that’s my role in this story. I remember, and I tell. I can’t be a part of that story. But I can remember it, I reshape it into new patterns, and I can tell it. Hence, Blackthorne Faire.

*By the way, his Highness King Ik has a cameo or two in Blackthorne Faire.

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Combining blogs!

Dear folks,

A while back, I started a second blog, one just for my renaissance fair novel, Blackthorne Faire. I’m combining them, because, well, it’s a lot easier to maintain one blog than two, and a lot of the topics I want to write about, like music in fiction (just to name one), fit equally well in both.

So I’m moving the Blackthorne Faire posts here. I hope you’ll stick around.

Here, if you missed it, was the first of the posts from that blog….

Welcome to Blackthorne Faire!

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Cloaked in pre-dawn fog, the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival waited quietly, an empty stage, curtain drawn and lights dim, a story waiting to be told. Empty pathways wound hither and yon around the plaster-stone façade of a castle and through faux half-timbered Tudor shop fronts with their sloping roofs of slate or thatch, hiding secrets and surprises the way a carnival does before the barker lets loose his first shout. Erin Winter loved it.

The hush would vanish soon; in a few hours it would melt away with morning’s gray mist. The cast, sleeping off the remnants of the past night’s revels in the employee campground behind the back gate, would whisper, giggling and moaning and sharing hangover cures as they washed the cottony thickness of bourbon’s sweet rot from yawning mouths and slipped into costume and character. And then, when the first guests passed the gates like tourists through a magic wardrobe, the air would ring with music, laughter, and carefully practiced (and more or less convincing) English accents. The guests would breathe deeply, tasting the wind of another time, heavy with the scents of beer and sun and roasting meat. The performance spaces would welcome jugglers, jesters, and musicians, and every stage would boast a marvel. Since this was the last weekend of the fair’s spring run, the crowds would be large and boisterous.

Soon, soon. But not yet.

Those paragraphs are from Blackthorne Faire, a novel I’ve completed recently. My literary manager, Mr. Peter Miller, the Literary Lion (believe me, he’s earned that title) of Global Lion Intellectual Property Management, is presently helping me shepherd it from manuscript to bookstores. It’s a new adult fantasy adventure with elements of paranormal romance, and it’s all set at a contemporary Renaissance festival.

IMG_0054

I didn’t dress up when I went to the fair to take these pictures, but so help me … I would have.

I have a confession to make. I love Renaissance festivals. I attend the Georgia Renaissance festival just about every year. And do you know what? I’d probably go more often if I could. Turns out, I’m not alone. Here are some fun facts about Renaissance festivals that you might not know:

  • More than five million people attended a Renaissance Festival in 2008 … twice.
  • There are at least 57 Renaissance Fairs in the United States.
  • There are many more Celtic, Old English, Medieval, and other closely related events.
  • Approximately 13,680,000 people attended a Renaissance Fair in the United States in 2013.
  • More than 65% of those people had previously attended a fair within 5 years and more than 37% plan to attend every year.
  • Celia Pearce, a professor at Northeastern (formerly at Georgia Tech) likes to say that Renaissance fairs are the biggest business in America that’s not on anybody’s radar.

So it turns out … I’m not alone. My wife Carol and I attended the last weekend of the Georgia Renaissance Festival. As we were leaving, she smiled and asked if I was having a good time. I could only grin and say … “these are my people.”

More importantly, I think the community of people who love Renaissance festivals — English and history majors, fantasy fans, music and drama lovers, costume aficionados, and all the rest — have stories to tell. 

In this blog, I’m going to tell some of those stories, and talk about the book, Blackthorne Faire, and its journey. To be honest, this is new to me. I’ve never blogged about a specific book before. I hope you’ll join me, and let me know what you think.

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Food for thought … can the old pulp heroes of yesterday work in a contemporary setting?

tarzan_ely

Ron Ely was the Tarzan of my youth. I didn’t  learn about Elmo Lincoln, Johnny Weissmuller, and, best of all, Edgar Rice Burroughs, until much later.

My love for the old pulp heroes — characters like Tarzan, Doc Savage, Professor Challenger, and the Shadow — came early, and when it took hold, it never let go. First loves are like that.

It started, like so many of my early loves, on Saturday morning.

I was watching TV with my dad — the Tarzan adventures with Ron Ely. Back in those days, there used to be shows, like, say, The Six Million Dollar Man, that Dad and I could could watch together, and both enjoy.

Dad explained that Ron Ely wasn’t the real Tarzan; that was Johnny Weissmuller. (And Clayton Moore was the real Lone Ranger.) I didn’t know if Dad was right or wrong, but I didn’t care. Ron Ely’s Tarzan delighted me.

After that, Dad led me to The Phantom in the newspaper comics, and told me about The Shadow and Doc Savage, characters I would discover for myself in later years. When I was a bit older, he introduced me to James Bond.

These characters were the first superheroes … they came before Superman and Batman and their legions of followers. They fought without costumes or superpowers (well, arguably a few like the Shadow and Mandrake the Magician might have had what you could call powers, but even they weren’t exactly leaping tall buildings with a single bound)  … just extraordinary skill. They were the peak, the very best ordinary men and women could become.

As you’ve probably heard, Superman owes much of his mythos to Doc Savage — the Man of Bronze and the Man of Steel, Clark Savage and Clark Kent, the Fortress of Solitude and the, uh, Fortress of Solitude … you get the idea.

The superpowered crowd, with their bright capes and primary-colored, skin-tight costumes, might have driven their predecessors, with their fedoras, loincloths, and ripped shirts into relative obscurity, but they’ve never quite gone away. Superman, after all, had been flying for years when I watched Ron Ely’s Tarzan with Dad. There’s a new Tarzan film out now. I haven’t seen it yet, but despite some decidedly mixed reviews, I intend to. Like I said, those early loves go deep.

Shane Black, one of the most interesting filmmakers working, is bringing Doc Savage back to the screens, and Sam Raimi was working on a new version of The Shadow, although (alas!) that seems to have vanished into development hell. Sherlock Holmes is everywhere these days — and yes, I consider Sherlock Holmes a pulp character. To me, the golden age of the pulps begins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Holmes and Challenger characters, and ends with Ian Fleming and his famous creation, James Bond.

Most pulp adaptations, successful or otherwise, share one thing in common — they are period pieces. This year’s The Legend of Tarzan film, for example, is set after the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885. The 1994 film version of The Shadow was set shortly after the first World War.

tarzan-in-manhattan

Attempts to modernize the pulps usually come across as, well, ludicrous. Tarzan in Manhattan, I’m looking at you.

Frankly, I think that’s a key part of the charm of the old pulp hero stories. They are relics of a time past. Something about that very inaccessibility makes suspension of disbelief easier somehow. You can kind of believe, almost, that Tarzan was raised my jungle apes, or that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger could find dinosaurs in a mysterious lost world in South America … when those stories are set in decades long past.

In the days of Google Earth, we know, all too well, that there are no more hidden plateaus or lost cities of gold in the deepest jungles. We live in a world where mysteries are vanishing.

Indeed, attempts to modernize the pulps never really seem to work. Moving Tarzan from the jungles of the late 1800s to, say, modern Manhattan, usually comes across as downright silly.

Sure, there are exceptions. There are two modern takes on Sherlock Holmes that are working beautifully … although I have a hard time imagining that Professor Challenger would have the same luck.

doc-wilde-and-the-mad-skull

Tim Byrd has written a very modern take on the pulps.

My pal Tim Byrd has written a series of wonderful middle grade/young adult novels called Doc Wilde, a not-even-thinly-disguised homage to Doc Savage. Tim’s stories are set in modern times, but his Doc Wilde isn’t the Doc Savage we know and love … it’s his son, and the main characters include the first Doc’s grandchildren. So while Tim’s stories are decidedly modern, they have deep roots in the past.

 

But these seem to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule. By and large, pulp adventures seem to work best as period pieces.

Even the venerable James Bond series, at least until the “reboot” that came with Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, seemed a little … out of place when divorced from the cold war era. In fact, I remember reading that the producers actually considered, at least briefly, making Craig’s adventures period pieces and returning them to their cold war roots.

So my question is this … can a modern pulp series work in a contemporary setting? Could Indiana Jones have gone after the Ark of the Covenant in the 1980s, or was the World War II setting necessary?

Are the pulps doomed to be just quaint relics of a vanished age?

I ran into this problem a few years ago, when my pal Bob Robinson and I were thinking about developing a pulp pastiche for television. I wanted to make a period piece, but Bob wisely pointed out that budget and audience demand made that idea impractical at best. So my task was to come up with a modern take on the pulps, without losing the charm and adventure. After all, we still have a need for wonder … we need modern myths for the information age.

Bob and I never worked together on that project, but I never let it go.

C_sketch_rev copy

Early concept art for Challengers by my pal, John Bridges

The idea became Challengers, a TV pilot and bible I wrote. It’s spent years in Hollywood development hell (that’s frustrating, but despite what you hear, the process made the story at least a thousand times better). The TV version is still kicking.

 

Just this year, though, I turned the first episodes into a series of novels. My literary manager, super agent Peter Miller, has meetings in New York literally even as I type this to shop the first book, The Secret of the Serpent’s Eye.

So how did I solve the period problem? Glad you asked. Challengers tells the story of the great grandchildren of the pulp heroes. Their great grandparents could have those amazing adventures because … the world really was different then.

Something has changed.

The nature of that change is the secret history of the world.

The lead character is a 25-year old billionaire and adventurer named Tom Reilly. Twenty years ago, Tom’s parents learned a secret no one alive should ever know. They were found murdered. Only one thing was missing — a leather bound journal belonging to Tom’s great-grandfather, the founder of the Challengers, Professor Phineas J. Reilly himself.

In this first adventure, Tom recovers the journal. Desperate to learn the secret it contains, Tom gathers his diverse team, a magician, a shaman, a daredevil pilot, an inventor, a spy, and an assassin (also the great-grandchildren of pulp-era adventurers), and begins a journey that will take them to a lost temple, where they find a key that seems to alter the nature of reality itself.

One of the producers who worked with me on the television version of this story, called Challengers Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Joss Whedon as introduced by Grant Morrison, which thrilled me to no end.

As I say on my Web site, in the era of Google-earth, when we know all too well that there are no more undiscovered dinosaur plateaus in South America and no last enchanted forests waiting, still, to be found, we live in a world bereft of wonder. And perhaps more than ever, we’re hungry for the sacred stories that, like Ariadne’s thread, show us the way out of life’s dark labyrinths.

So like Tim Byrd, my stories have deep roots in a mythic past to create new archetypes in a world starved for wonders.

So what do y’all think? Can the pulps, or pulp-inspired characters, work in a modern setting? Would you want to see an Indiana Jones or Doc Savage remake set in 2016?

 

 

In which I am interviewed on writing and marketing, I write about Renaissance fairs and setting as a “character” in a story, and prepare to write about the old pulp heroes of yesteryear

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Setting can be more than just a stage where stuff happens. Place can shape and change us just as much as other people can. It can be, almost, a character in a story.

This isn’t really a blog article as much as it is a brief update.

First, there’s a new article up on my other blog, the one about Renaissance Fairs and my book Blackthorne Faire. In that article, I talk about Ray Bradbury, Pat Conroy, Renaissance Fairs, and setting as a character in a story. Please take a look and let me know what you think.

In other news, I was recently interviewed! If you have a minute, please check out my answers to 5 Questions with Fantasy Author John Adcox.

I’ll have a new blog up next week about the old pulp heroes … characters like Doc Savage, Tarzan, and The Shadow who were popular until Superman and his costumed followers replaced them in the public zeitgeist. I’m wondering … do those stories ever work as anything other than period pieces?

It’s an important question to me, because I’m working on a series of novels, Challengers, that are heavily influenced by the pulps, but are decidedly contemporary. My literary manager, Peter Miller, is shopping them as we speak.

I’d love to know what y’all think.

Stay tuned, folks. There’s more to come.

The Sword and the Grail: Restoring the Forgotten Archetype in Arthurian Myth

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GyreCover2 1Just recently, the Library of Jungian Articles republished an essay I wrote a few years ago on the meanings of the two key archetypal images in the Matter of Britain, the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. At the time I write this, a selection from the article is right there on the front page.

I’ve been thinking about the ideas in that article a lot lately, mostly because I am working on a series of Arthurian novels called The Unbroken Circle. The individual books are called The Widening Gyre, Winter Kept Us Warm, What The Thunder Said, and The Last Light Flickers.

I’ve been working on these books for something like ten to twelve years,  and I’ve been thinking about these since, well … at least since high school. They’re longish (the first is around 350,000 words … although in my defence, some of them are very short words, and I’ve used some of them more than once.) and, frankly, they’re hard. I think I finally cracked the first one last year. Since, I have finished the second, and around half of the third. They’re coming much faster now.

I imagine that I can guess what a lot of you are thinking about now. Really, John? Do we really need another King Arthur book? Obviously enough, I think the answer is a resounding yes. It is, after all, a topic that’s endlessly fascinating. And besides, there hasn’t (yet) been one set in modern Atlanta! There is another reason.

I’ve always felt that the Arthurian legends are, well, incomplete. While King Arthur is sending his knights out to find the Holy Grail, this amazing feminine symbol of healing and power, Morgan le Fay, his shadow self or opposite number, is trying to steal the sword Excalibur, the great symbol of masculine energy.

It seems to me that they’re both looking for something that’s missing in themselves. The whole thing falls apart in the end, because no one is able to bring these two archetypal artifacts together.

According to the traditional story, Arthur is destined to return some day because the world needs him. But also, I think, because he still has things of his own to resolve and learn—his relationship with his wife, for example, and with his best friend and his sister. Not to mention his son. And why should Arthur himself be the only one permitted (or doomed) to return? What about the others? What if they all came back, in the hour of our greatest need?

Those are the questions I was asking myself when I started writing these books. I think I’ve come up with some pretty surprising answers.

In any case, writing the article that the Jung Article Library has kindly republished has helped me work through some of these ideas.

An updated version of the complete article follows just below. I’d love to know what you think. Please let me know in the comments section down below?


The Sword and the Grail: Restoring the Forgotten Archetype in Arthurian Myth

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This is about a third of my own collection of King Arthur books. Seriously. About a third.

If it were even possible to assemble them in one place, the volumes written on psychological and mythic approaches to the Grail quest in Arthurian myth would bend even the sturdiest, stout oak bookshelves. From Emma Jung and Maria Von Franz’s definitive work, The Grail Legend, to the work of later luminaries ranging from Joseph Campbell to Robert Johnson, the Grail quest has evolved from Celtic lore to become a metaphor of astonishing power that continues to guide generations of seekers on their own journeys to individuation, to use the Jungian term.

The Arthur stories are no longer purely Celtic—they have become universal. It’s not too great a stretch to call the Matter of Britain, the cycles of legends surrounding King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the definitive myth of Western civilization. Here we find our modern concepts of equality (the Round Table had no “head” and no corners), romantic love, strength protecting the weak, and spiritual growth and enlightenment based on the achievements of the individual expressed in a single source—and arguably expressed with more power and greater resonance than in any other myth cycle.

How else can one explain the enduring popularity of the Arthur story? There have certainly been other romantic stories, probably even greater ones. Adventure? Our heritage of myth is full of it. Magic? We’re lousy with it. Fellowship and super human accomplishment? Look no further than the adventure tales of Fionn McCumhail, Jason and the Argonauts, or Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

All of these cycles, and thousands of others, have been enormously popular through the ages. Robin Hood and the men of Sherwood, especially, have inspired countless novels, songs, poems, films, and television productions. But none of them have approached the Arthur stories for enduring and significant popularity. It’s more than a subgenre—it’s an industry.

Dreams of lost, golden ages are called “Camelot.” Remember the Kennedy administration? A Google search on the Internet reveals more than 100 different companies and products with Excalibur in the name. Truly special treasures are “Holy Grails.” Remember the “Holy Grail of Christmas presents,” the coveted Red Ryder BB gun, in A Christmas Story? Metro Atlanta boasts at least five different neighborhoods with streets named after Lancelot, Galahad, Guinevere, and King Arthur himself.

When I began thinking about the original version of this article a few years ago, I stopped by a tiny mall bookstore (those were still around back then), and quickly located no less than 16 different contemporary novels, not counting children’s books, books that use the theme but aren’t specifically or overtly Arthurian (Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Stephen King’s Dark Tower, or C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, for example), or classics, on the Arthurian legends—in three different categories.

At present, two big-budget King Arthur films and one new television series are in various stages of development (the funny thing is … that was true when I wrote the original version, and it’s true again, now). Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, offers a new take on the Grail quest, but the core elements are the same: a man’s quest through terrible danger for a healing symbol of the Divine feminine. For some reason, the Arthurian legends have struck a chord that is arguably unmatched in Western culture, surpassing even the myths of classical Greece.

The question, again, is why? Why the Arthur stories, over so many other romances, adventures, wonder tales, and myth cycles? Why have they grown from forgotten history and half-forgotten Celtic myth to be so much a part of modern culture?

One possible answer, of course, lies in the image of the Grail itself. Something about that image endures, even as the shape of the image evolves (is the Grail a stone, a Celtic cauldron, a chalice, or the womb of Mary Magdalene?), and strikes a chord somewhere deep in the psyche. This answer is compelling, if only because it points to something missing in the other tales. The gold stolen by Robin Hood certainly doesn’t resonate as deeply as the Grail (not that I’d turn it down, mind) and even Jason’s Golden Fleece doesn’t promise spiritual healing.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the quest itself, rather than merely in its object—the journey rather than the destination. In this sense, the Grail story serves as a roadmap rather than a simple travelogue describing the destination. The Grail tells us what, the quest tells us how. What differentiates the Arthurian Grail quest from mythic spiritual journeys in other cultures, what makes it uniquely and definitively Western, is the emphasis on the individual.

In the East (if you’ll forgive the broad, sweeping generalization) the emphasis in spiritual seeking is apart from the individual. Seekers often wear pictures of a guru to remind them to keep their focus on the path and away from the individual, the ego, or the self. The way is important; the self is not (or at least much less so). But the knights seeking the Grail all enter the forest alone, apart from their fellows, in a place where the wood is thickest and where there is no path. When there is no path, only the self remains.

I won’t bother to summarize the Grail myth or its significance. Emma Jung, Maria Von Franz, John and Caitlin Matthews, and Robert Johnson have already done so very well. If you’re unfamiliar with the stories or the symbolism that empowers them, I highly recommend any of their books on the topic. In short, the Fisher King is wounded as a youth. The nature of the wound varies from source to source, but to be delicate, the wound is above the thighs as below the belt. Ouch! As a result of the wound, the land is waste. The inner state is reflected in the outer world.

A knight must achieve the quest for the Grail before the wounded king, and the land, can be healed. If you’ll pardon a gross oversimplification (to go along with the sweeping generalization above), most Jungians view the archetype of the Grail quest as Animus’ quest for Anima—a joining of opposites resulting in the healing of the inner Wasteland of the soul, or individuation. The knight achieves the symbol of femininity, uniting the opposites and healing the wound. Ironically, the symbol of feminine healing comes from a male source, the Fisher King in later romances, and even the king of Annwn (Ah-noon), the land of the dead, in the legendary Welsh bard Taliesin’s mysterious poem The Spoils of Annwn, which may be an early source of the Grail romances.

The point is a pretty simple one. Like all good myths, the Grail quest is a roadmap, a trail of breadcrumbs that leads us through the dark forests of life. It shows us how we heal our own inner wounds and become the whole and functional (or individuated) people we were meant to be.

I think, however, that focusing solely on the Grail is a mistake, because we’re missing half the story when we do. We de-emphasize the other primary archetypal treasure in the Arthur story—the Sword Excalibur.

Like the Grail, the sword of power is an artifact of supernatural (even Divine) power, surrounded with golden light. In many ways the polar opposite of the Grail, Excalibur is a symbol of power in the world—of victory in battle and ruling a kingdom. The feminine Grail comes from a masculine source, the Fisher King in his Grail castle, but the sword comes from a woman—a goddess figure, no less—the Lady of the Lake.

While Animus quests for Anima, Anima is busy, too. While Arthur sends his knights off to find the Grail, his shadow, his sister Morgan le Fey (herself a goddess figure), is attempting to steal Excalibur. She has no interest in the Grail—in fact, when the Grail part of the sword, the scabbard that heals wounds, is briefly in her possession, she throws it away. She has no interest in it at all, because she doesn’t need it. Anima has no need for the feminine—she is the feminine. Arthur needs the Grail; Morgan needs the sword. They’re both looking for something missing in themselves. There’s a clue here.

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In this image, the stone holding the sacred sword of the king looks rather like a chalice, doesn’t it? There’s a clue there.

I think it’s fair to say that the Arthurian story is a longing for the missing half, an attempt to unify the missing elements into a whole—sword and Grail, anima and animus, man and woman. Throughout the stories, you find clumsy attempts to unite the two, to find that missing… something. Some few are successful (Gawain’s union with the goddess in the Marriage of Sir Gawain), but most fail. Think of Uther’s conquest of Igraine (the “rape” that leads to Arthur’s conception), Arthur’s unfortunate coupling with his sister (the tryst that leads to the birth of Mordred), Lancelot’s affair with Elaine, and of course, the doomed love of Lancelot and Guinevere. These characters are forgetting that they’re supposed to be looking inside, not outside. A man can’t expect a woman to be his Grail—it’s tremendously unfair to the woman. He has to find the Grail himself, inside, before he can have a healthy relationship. The reverse is also true. The Arthur myth gives us this clue, too.

Which leads me (at last!)  to the point of this article. No one succeeds in the Arthur stories. Galahad finds the Grail, but it does no good. Why? He goes off to Heaven. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey ends with the refusal of the return (the longing to stay in the place of bliss), which must be overcome so that the hero can bring the object of the quest back to his people, the ones who need it. Galahad doesn’t do this. He is lost in bliss. He has achieved the Grail, but the quest has failed all the same. He didn’t bring it back.

Don’t be too hard on poor Galahad, though. He’s not alone. Morgan never successfully steals the sword—at least not for long—and the lovers, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult, all seem to find only disaster, not wholeness and unity. No one is ever able to combine the two opposites into a successful whole. No one is able to combine the powers and use them together. In achieving the Grail, Galahad leaves the sword behind. In the end, everything falls apart.

Our only brief glimpse of what should have been happens in the moment of Arthur’s death (or, if you prefer, when he is taken to the Isle of Avalon to heal). At Arthur’s command, the last knight, Sir Bedievere, casts the sword back into the Lake. It is caught by a feminine hand, the hand of the Divine female herself, the goddess, and brandished three times before it disappears beneath the waves. The masculine symbol is reunited with the feminine. Only then can Arthur rest in peace.

Everyone fails and Camelot falls. But all is not lost. The legend ends with a promise. Arthur is the once and future king, after all. He is destined to return someday. This, too, is a clue. The Arthurian legends are incomplete. Arthur must come back to us in our hour of need, because something is left undone. What? That’s the real question and, of course, we are not given the answer.

When Robert Johnson wrote his book on the Grail, He, he worked with an incomplete version of the quest myth. In the last chapters, he could only speculate on how the myth might have ended, or what might have happened when the knight achieved the Grail. Using his example, I think it is fair to look at the clues we have in the Arthurian canon, and guess what might come next. I’ve tried to briefly sketch those clues above, a few of them anyway. We have the main characters seeking their opposites, the “something” that’s missing in themselves. The Grail quest fails because the knight, Galahad, leaves the sword behind, getting lost in the inner world so that the outer world (the one that needs its hero!) is left forgotten. In the end, Excalibur is reunited with the goddess, masculine with feminine, before Arthur can rest. Now, what do those clues suggest?

When Arthur returns, the sword must be reunited with the Grail. (I say reunited, even though the two are never actually together. Nonetheless, the Grail is accompanied by a Spear, a similar archetype, and Arthur draws a sword from a stone, a feminine symbol. Remember, in some of the early romances, the Grail is a stone that fell from Heaven.) The two powers must be used together. How? For now, that’s a question yet to be answered. I don’t know the answer, but I’m challenging you to solve the riddle. At least until Arthur returns, the quest is yours.

I think artists will answer it with new Arthurian tales—something new and different, as opposed to the countless retellings that currently fill even the tiny mall bookstores. After all, as Joseph Campbell reminded us, “the people who can keep (myth) alive are the artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” That’s how I personally intend to explore the question.

I’m trying to do that with my own four-volume cycle of modern-day Arthurian tales, The Unbroken Circle, which begins with The Widening Gyre.

But the artists aren’t the only ones who should explore the idea. After all, if therapists and analysts use the Grail myth, shouldn’t they use the entire myth? If the fragment is powerful, shouldn’t the complete archetype be even more so? Shouldn’t those who work with the myths, especially Jungians, use both the Grail and the sword?

Again, I’m not sure what the answer is. I only mean to raise the question in the hope that others will explore it. But if the Grail is a symbol of internal healing, perhaps the sword is the tool for taking that healing beyond the individual and out into the world.

The Grail focuses our attention internally. It’s the symbol of our ultimate spiritual destiny, our individuation after trials. Excalibur is something different, and it is something that, perhaps, is missing in Jungian psychology. Excalibur is the tool of power in the world. Coupled with the Grail, however, it becomes something new, a sword that both cuts and heals. Perhaps the time has come to combine the two into a new archetype.

James Hillman is fond of talking about psychological activism, complaining that, generally speaking, therapists are trained to listen and focus on the individual, not to speak out and challenge the things in the outer world, the things that wound us in the first place. Hillman claims that so much emphasis is focused on treating the disease in the individual that it is easy to forget to eliminate the metaphorical “germs” in the environment—he horrors of war, poverty, ugliness, marginalization of the arts, environmental disaster, child prostitution, and greed, just to name a few—in the Wasteland around us, that make us sick.

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I own a signed print of this painting by Robin Wood. The artist was very aware, I imagine, that these two powerful archetypes are meant to be used together, as a unified whole.

In the Arthur stories, Excalibur is at least as important as the Grail. The two are equals. We’ve forgotten that. When you use only half a myth, you only harness half the potential power. Arthur promises to return in our time of need, when the world needs him most. When he returns, he will at last unify the chalice and the blade. At least, that’s what the hints in the myth seem to tell us. But do we really need to wait for Arthur? Can we afford to? Or is it time to forge a new myth for the information age?

In the meantime, we can restore the missing archetype, the shining sword of power, to the Grail myth. We can heal inside using the power of the Grail, and use the power of Excalibur to make a difference outside, in the world around us. That is Arthur’s challenge to all of us, especially those of us living in dangerous times and wounded societies (don’t we all?): to drink from the Grail, and use the power of the sword to make a difference, to turn the Wasteland into a Camelot, with white towers standing tall in a golden age.

It’s our turn to complete the myth. How? That’s for us to determine. After all, it’s not enough merely to live and breathe the myth cycles that are our inheritance—it is our duty to add to the treasure trove for future generations. Our dreams nourish tomorrow. This isn’t a call to merely keep myth alive. This is a call to mythopoeia, to myth making.

It’s not enough to simply tell and retell. We have a responsibility to add to our birthright. It is our job to bring myth into our modern world, to see how the heroes and monsters might respond to our modern world, with all its shining glories and nightmarish horrors. This is a call to knights and queens, wizards and accountants, psychologists and artists, teachers and leaders. It is a call to pull the sword from the stone and bring back the Grail. Used together, united, the opposite forces, anima and animus, masculine and feminine, chalice and blade, can build Camelot.

Afterward:

I know it’s not fair to raise questions without attempting to answer them. I can only plead that I am an enthusiast, rather than a scholar or a psychologist. The best I can do is what’s in The Widening Gyre and the other books in the series. All the same, I’d love to know what you think. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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Did y’all know I have another blog, too?

Hey, did y’all know I have another blog, too? It’s about stories, writing, fantasy, mythology, and Renaissance festivals.

You can find it here: http://blackthornefaire.net

The most recent post is about Renaissance fairs, and the feeling of falling into a story. There’s a lot there about communities, too. I hope those of you who follow this blog will take a look at that one, too. I’d be grateful.

Thanks and huzzah!

IK