Saturday, December 06, 2014

Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling

A Facebook discussion that mentioned Tolkien, Pullman, and Rowling led me to write the following comment, which I thought I'd save here for posterity.

I read Tolkien passionately at 14 or so. When I reread LOTR when I was about 22, I had just read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" for the second time. The juxtaposition of Garcia Marquez and Tolkien did not make T look good; if anything, it made him look terrible. — And when my son and I read LOTR out loud a few years ago, we eventually stopped, because it was ... boring. For a while, we entertained ourselves by making fun of it (everybody getting stoned in Lothlorien, for example), but that got boring after a while. — The world T imagines (or "bank-robs", to pick up your phrase) is incredibly impressive, though, as is Pullman's.

I first read Pullman because I read an article that called him "Rowling for adults", so I thought I'd check him out. He has much more ambition than Rowling, and for the most part, he pulls off a lot more. Further, his Mrs. Coulter exposes Rowling's characterization of ridiculous characters (Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousins) as well as of evil characters (above all, Voldemort) as two-dimensional at best.

In "The Amber Spyglass," though, Pullman exposes a flaw in his plotting. In the middle of a battle, one character has to explain something to another for a page or so — and it's clear that the explanation is less for the character than for the reader. This flaw made me notice something about Rowling's plotting: she *never* has to explain anything during exciting passages, because she *always* sets things up earlier. As a result, the exciting passages never get interrupted by explanations, but can just be exciting. — Beyond that, though, when she sets things up earlier, it never reads as "foreshadowing": whatever it is that is being explained is clearly part of the plot at the moment when it is explained, and it never comes across as explaining *for the reader*.

In short, for the creation of a fantasy world, Tolkien. For characterization, Pullman. But for effective plotting, Rowling.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Imaginary Icebergs

(To get the mouseover text, go to the original post here.)

The above comic reminded me of the following poem:


Elizabeth Bishop

We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.
We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship;
we'd rather own this breathing plain of snow
though the ship's sails were laid upon the sea
as the snow lies undissolved upon the water.
O solemn, floating field,
are you aware an iceberg takes repose
with you, and when it wakes may pasture on your snows?

This is a scene a sailor'd give his eyes for.
The ship's ignored. The iceberg rises
and sinks again; its glassy pinnacles
correct elliptics in the sky.
This is a scene where he who treads the boards
is artlessly rhetorical. The curtain
is light enough to rise on finest ropes
that airy twists of snow provide.
The wits of these white peaks
spar with the sun. Its weight the iceberg dares
upon a shifting stage and stands and stares.

The iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea.
Good-bye, we say, good-bye, the ship steers off
where waves give in to one another's waves
and clouds run in a warmer sky.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.