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


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.


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.


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.

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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


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


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.


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.


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.


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:

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!


Love and comfort in fantasy, or why George R. R. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien

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I totally stole this image. I honestly have no idea where it originated, but I really like it. So many, many props to some unknown but sincerely appreciated artist.

First, I am really enjoying HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I was enjoying the books, immensely, until I realized I was forgetting so much between volumes that it just made more sense to wait until the entire series is finished to dive into them again. My “to be read” stacks are perilously high, and having to re-read an entire series of not exactly concise tomes every time a new volume is released takes a lot of all-too-scarce reading time away from other books, any one of which might become a new and beloved favorite.

Overall, though, I’m a fan. I mention that because what follows might be perceived as throwing shade on Mr. Martin’s books, or on HBO’s adaptations, and I don’t mean it that way. This is, in fact, not a review at all. It’s just a series of thoughts that occurred to me about my own writing, specifically in my Widening Gyre series, as I was watching the most recent episode of A Game of Thrones on HBO.

Sure, Professor Tolkien’s and Mr. Martin’s books have a lot in common … on the surface.


Also, both Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin introduce heroes of smaller stature. I stole this image, too, by the way.

I often hear Mr. Martin called “The American Tolkien.” I can see why people say that. (Was Lev Grossman the first?) Both write (or wrote) extremely complex fantasy novels, both have very passionate fan bases (with a great deal of overlap), both have created British Isles-inspired worlds rich with invented history and languages, and, well, both authors have the initials “R. R.” in their names.

But honestly, I think the resemblance ends there. The similarities are superficial at best.

Mr. Martin’s books are grounded in, well, the rather unpleasant realities of a world at war. Mr. Martin has made no secret of the fact that his books are inspired by true history, most notably the War of the Roses. When his books are brutal, it’s because, well, history was brutal. In fact, Mr. Martin has criticized Professor Tolkien, pointing out that his wars aren’t like the wars of history (they certainly aren’t), and even pointing out that The Lord of the Rings never bothers to address Aragorn’s tax policy. (For more, read this article and this one.)

To be fair, I think Mr. Martin’s complaints have more to do with how Professor Tolkien has become a template for lesser writers than with any real issue with The Lord of the Rings, but I think the point is an interesting one.

You see, Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin are writing books in the same genre only to the extent that it makes it easier for bookstores to know where to shelve them. Mr. Martin writes grounded, historically-based fantasy that appeal largely (I think) because they are so grimly real. The famous shocks and twists come from the harsh brutality of a world at war. Even the famous Red Wedding is based on two different historical events. (For more information, read here and here.) To a large (and often uncomfortable) degree, Mr. Martin is writing history, with a few ice zombies and dragons tossed in.

Professor Tolkien, on the other hand, is writing myth.

In his book The Inklings, biographer Humphrey Carpenter recounts a significant and now famous conversation between Tolkien and a then-atheist C.S. Lewis. The two were walking among the colleges in Oxford on a September evening in 1931. Lewis had never underestimated the power of myth. One of his earliest loves had been the Norse myth of Balder, the dying god. All the same, Lewis did not in any way believe in the myths that so thrilled him. As he told Tolkien, “myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though (they are) breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” 

Tolkien went on to explain that early man, the creators of the great myth cycles, saw the world very differently. To them “the whole of creation was myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Tolkien went on to argue that man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his ideas into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideas. Therefore, Tolkien argued, not only man’s abstract thoughts, but also his imaginative inventions, must in some way originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth.

When creating a myth, a storyteller is engaging in what Tolkien called mythopoeia (myth-oh-pay-uh). Through the act of peopling an imaginary world with bright heroes and terrible monsters, the storyteller is in a way reflecting God’s own act of creation. Human beings are, according to Tolkien, expressing fragments of eternal truth. Tolkien believed that the poet or storyteller is, then, a sub-creator “capturing in myth reflections of what God creates using real men and actual history.” A storyteller, Tolkien believed, is actually fulfilling Divine purpose, because the story always contains something of a deeper truth. Myth is filtered through the artist’s culture, experiences, and talents, but it is drawn from a deeper well.

By Tolkien’s argument, all myth is a response, a reaction to the force of creation occurring all around us. Granted, this calls for a slightly different definition of myth — and ignores the perhaps (probably) different intentions of the storytellers — which, of course, we can never know in any case. But a story can be myth, Tolkien would argue. Indeed, it could scarcely be anything else, because any act of creation is a reaction to the call of the Divine. Tolkien and the Inklings were responding to the same “shout” that the creators of myth have been responding to throughout the ages — the utter magnificence of a beautiful, dangerous, and impossible universe.

I’ve written more on that topic here (in fact, I stole the preceding five paragraphs from myself).

I bring that up because I can’t help thinking that anyone who reads The Lord of the Rings and comes away asking about Aragorn’s tax policy has completely missed the point. (Although again, I think Mr. Martin is actually ranting against the clichés that sprung up from Professor Tolkien’s imitators, rather than the books themselves. The Lord of the Rings was groundbreaking … but I certainly can’t blame Mr. Martin for wanting to break the template. In fact, I applaud him.)

The twin ideas of mythopoeia and eucatastrophe are at the heart of Professor Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the deeply mythic concept of eucatastrophe, a sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the hero does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom, is antithetical to the core of Mr. Martin’s work.

Professor Tolkien formed the word eucatastrophe by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. For Tolkien, the term had a thematic meaning that went beyond its literal etymological meaning. It was at the very core of Christianity and his love of myth and art. It was a part of his very DNA.

Eucatastrophe is the blessed conclusion we all crave; it’s something we long for deeply in the heart — a time when wounds are healed, the broken are mended, and rights are made wrong. That longing, I think, is key.

In that sense, Mr. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are polar opposites, matter and antimatter.

Let me ask you this. Would you really want to visit Westeros?

There’s quite a few variations of this meme floating around on Facebook and Twitter:


There’s something in the mythopoeic works of Tolkien and Lewis that calls to that deep longing within us. There’s a part of us, somehow, that knows that the fantasy landscapes are a metaphor for something beyond, something more than the fields we know. It makes us feel almost homesick for a place we’ve never been.

I image that most of Mr. Martin’s fans can relate to the Hunger Games fans. A visit to the world of A Game of Thrones is … well, less appealing.

(Although I think there’s another blog to be written about the appeal of The Hunger Games. Stay tuned.)

This idea struck me when I was watching the most recent episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones with my wife, Carol. The episode happened to feature two absolutely stunning shots of the castle Riverrun. Carol and I turned to each other with wide eyes and just said, “wow.” The shots were lovely. It was, in fact, the first time I can remember that a location in A Game of Thrones had made us want to visit that place. The fact that there was a siege going on quickly damped our enthusiasm, but still, I was struck with the idea that A Game of Thrones is almost utterly devoid of any kind of wish fulfillment, key elements of fantasies like the Harry Potter series or, say, Star Wars.

It made me wonder if anyone would want to visit the locations in my books, or spend time with my characters. I hope so. I really do. At very least, I hope readers would long to visit the Renaissance festival in Blackthorne Faire, or the Commonwealth pub in The Widening Gyre. I try to ground things, solidly — a lesson I’ve learned from Mr. Martin — but mythopoeia and the longing for eucatastrophe are in my DNA, too.

Another thought struck me soon after.

Both the television and the novel versions of A Game of Thrones are short on love. I don’t (necessarily) mean romantic love, but love. Love of family, love of place, love of friends, love of partner. When love is there, it’s usually broken in some way … think of the late King Robert’s lost love for Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna. Think of Jamie and Ceresi Lannister (but not too much, because ewwww). Think of Tyrion’s love for his prostitute, Shae. Perhaps the purest love in the story is that of Ned Stark’s family, and look how that turned out.

By contrast, The Lord of the Rings is bursting with love, even though it is (almost) completely devoid of romantic love. There are certainly deep and loving friendships — Merry and Pippin for Frodo, Sam and Frodo, Gandalf and Bilbo, Gimli and Legolas. There is also a deep love of place … think of Frodo’s love for the Shire, all the walks he takes. Think how heartbreaking it is when Frodo’s ultimate sacrifice isn’t his life, but rather the life he has known and loved in the Shire. When he returns, his battles won, the Shire is lost to him, but not his love for it.

Indeed, the whole story turns on the role of Providence, the divine love that leads to eucatastrophe, that dearest of all loves.

The Narnia stories, too, are rich with love. So are the Harry Potter stories. They shine with love and grace.

Last — and this is something that the films missed for the most part — The Lord of the Rings, the novel, holds precious moments of comfort, even in the midst of terrible war and danger. There’s Bag End of course (who wouldn’t want to visit Bag End?) — which, to be fair, the films absolutely nailed. But Bree, a port of (at least temporary) safety in the books, is a frightening place in the films. Ditto Lóthlorien, that precious place of unfallen paradise. Gone utterly are Tom Bombadil’s house and Crickhollow.

The dear and comfortable places make Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth come to life. It makes us long to visit, just as (for example) Cair Paravel and Beaver’s Dam make us want to visit Narnia, and Hogwarts makes us long for an owl-delivered letter.

For the most part, the Lord of the Rings films miss these moments of comfort, and the moments of the numinous. I think that’s why they’re less likely endure the test of time, as the books certainly have.

These moments are, at best, rare in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mr. Martin seems to be crafting more of a puzzle box, closer to, say, Lost than to The Lord of the Rings. When was the last time you heard someone talking about Lost? (To be fair, I expect a much stronger resolution to A Song of Ice and Fire.)

I wonder … when the last shock has shocked and the last twist has been revealed in all its gory glory, will we still turn to A Song of Ice and Fire?

Probably. I certainly think so. I think Mr. Martin’s achievement is a remarkable one that will continue to find new readers for generations. I hope writers will learn the right lessons from it … break the templates, don’t just imitate the new ones.

I think A Song of Ice and Fire will gain as many new readers as The Lord of the Rings does. When all the mysteries are unfolded, and there’s no need to go back and scour the text for clues, I wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire will have as many re-readers? I don’t think so.

I wonder, too, if A Song of Ice and Fire will inspire the same enduring love, and longing, that The Lord of the Rings kindles. Time will tell.

In the meantime, both have lessons to teach writers like me. I’ll ground my fantasies. I might even think about the tax policies of my own (metaphorical) Aragorns. But I’ll always season my stories with love, place, and comfort, even in the moments of darkness.

Mr. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien. He’s the American Martin. That’s more than good enough.

Reinventing this blog … just a little. (Or … A New Mission)

Hey, folks!

ProfileJAIf you’ve been following this blog for a while, well, there’s some changes coming. Don’t worry; I’ll still be doing the reviews … of books, movies, beer, root beer, and pretty much anything else that strikes my fancy. In fact, I’ll probably be doing a lot more of them.

That’s not all, though. As many of you already now, I’ve recently signed with a new agent, Mr. Peter Miller of Global Lion Intellectual Property Management. Peter’s a great guy, and to be blunt, he gets things done and deals made. I’m just all kinds of lucky to be working with him.

As as my books and scripts get closer to finding their way to bookstores and screens, I’m going to be sharing a little bit of that journey here.

Right now, Peter is placing Challengers, a novel based on a television pilot I wrote a few years back. The pilot’s not dead, not by a long shot, but the novel version lets me spend a little more time with a cast of characters I have come to love dearly. It’s a modern take on the old pulp heroes, so I’ll be spending a lot of time talking about the old pulp heroes: Professor Challenger (who gave the team its name), Tarzan, The Shadow, Mandrake the Magician, and guys like that. So I’ll be talking about the pulps a lot … the first superheroes, and what it might take to make them work in the modern world.

A while back, I started working on a trilogy of King Arthur novels. I couldn’t quite make it work, but I think I’ve finally cracked it. It’s now a four book series … all of them massive tomes. I’ve finished two and about a half of the third. The series is called The Unbroken Circle, and the books are called The Widening Gyre, Winter Kept Us Warm, What the Thunder Said, and The Last Light Flickers. I honestly think these are the best things I’ll ever do.

I’ve written a screenplay that’s received some fantastic feedback that has both shocked and humbled me. It’s called A Planet Called Eden, and it’s basically astronauts vs. dinosaurs. Well, you could also say it’s about a 22nd century space expedition that finds an artificial planet in a faraway solar system with mysterious connections to the origins of life on Earth. But seriously, it’s astronauts vs. dinosaurs.

I’m really proud of the Eden script, and I can’t wait to have time to dive into the sequels, but to be honest, the book kind of sucks. I’ll be talking about the steps I’m taking to try and improve it here. I’d love your thoughts and feedback. We used Eden for the rough demo we did for my “eBook 2.0” publishing company, Gramarye Media.

There’s another book, too. Blackthorne Faire is a contemporary New Adult fantasy adventure with elements of paranormal romance (with a dash of a war between the courts of faerie and the mob) set at a Renaissance Festival. But that’s getting its own blog. Stay tuned.

Book Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

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Read City of Dark Magic: A Novel

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

If I didn’t travel, I probably wouldn’t have discovered City of Dark Magic, a lovely little gem of a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box, or rather it seems to fit into several of them at once. It’s part historical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part spy novel, and part, jeez, contemporary fantasy or magic realism, I guess, all wrapped up in a candy shell of romanic comedy. Unfortunately, that makes it kind of to browse for in a bookstore. If I hadn’t noticed it in an airport newsstand, I surely would have missed it. That would have been a shame.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I'd love to visit. I'd glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I’d love to visit. I’d glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city steeped in legends of magic, a history of blood, and a legacy of secrets. It has been home to geniuses and eccentrics. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston discovers. Sarah has come to the Prague Castle for the summer with a team of colorful academics to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. There, she finds clues that might finally unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s famous immortal beloved. What follows is a tale of mystery, politics, furtive sex, music, alchemy, murder, a time traveling prince, a centuries-old dwarf, and even a portal to hell or two. Yes, and its a romantic comedy. This isn’t a book that follows genre conventions, it lays them out like toys and plays with them.

Sarah is a delightful character to spend time with, and the Prague created in these pages is one I’d love to visit. Even minor characters are vivid and often fascinating. The mystery is intriguing, the danger feels real and immediate, and the comedy is wicked and delicious. The plot twists in the most delightfully labyrinthine manner.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are flaws; for example: the enigmatic prince’s secret, which drives much of the plot, is revealed in an off-hand way that does more to set up a sequel than to resolve tension. Sarah and the novel’s primary villain, an ambitious politician with a shadowy past, never spend much time together. None of the flaws diminish the absolute fun of City of Dark Magic. It’s smart, exciting, sexy, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you like a little dark mystery, magic, and romantic adventure (spiced liberally with cleverness and loads of charm) in your summer read, this is the book for you.

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