We watched Star Trek: Nemesis over the weekend. Squire told Friar that it was about "how we define our humanity under different circumstances" and I thought: well, yeah. And this is, I think, one of the appeals of fantasy. It's not just looking at a different world: it's also that it's interesting to look at what's true about ourselves against a variety of backgrounds.
The Chronicles of Prydain are my favorite fantasy books. They may be my favorite children's books, hands down (although Bridge to Terabithia now looks at me with its lovely painful face and I am not sure, but.... ) Okay, definitely my favorite series. I've re-read them every year since fifth grade, which is a lot of times to read the same books. I learned about writing from those books; I learned about the subtle beauty of "not without regret". And I learned about the difficult choices, and about both sides of trust, and about saying what you're afraid to say because not saying it is worse.
The only thing I didn't like about those books was the ending. It seemed unbearably unfair to my childish hedonist heart that the choice would come down to happy oblivion or emotionally wrenching reality. Later I concluded that the happy oblivion was a metaphor for death (see also: C.S. Lewis; Tolkein), and I was irritated that this was presented as happiness. I mean: really irritated. Because in fact I think the choice is: emotionally wrenching and rewarding reality or... nothing. Do you want to go through life standing in the dank armpit of the tram and watching the light catch the snowflakes as they fall and listening to your child laughing or do you want... nothing?
And I felt like Alexander skipped the real choice, which is interesting, in exchange for a fantasy set up: You get the kingdom of happy ever after or you get the kingdom of right here right now. The first one is unreal, is blissful oblivion, is heaven, is death. And the second one is...hard. According to Alexander, a hero chooses the second; death comes to a hero only incidentally, only later. I'm not crazy about that, but at least I get it. Certainly I prefer it to the choice of deciding whether you believe you can go further up and further in whilst in a room too small to swing a dwarf, because it seems like a fairer choice. Though I don't like the choice as it is presented, at least it is a choice, and the point is clear: If we are heroes, we choose what is right, and what is right is difficult. It's like Fantasy Novels for a Young Poet or something.
Second favorite fantasy series: The Dark Is Rising. It's a child swept into a parallel world; it's time travel; it's Arthurian legend; it's beautiful You Are There writing (first time I saw the Thames, I was like: yeah); it's trust and honor and all the things I want a book to do. It's also Destiny, which I have problems with. You should have seen me try to have a reasonable discussion of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" because it induced the same sputtery anger that hits me any time I see destiny, no matter how pretty the packaging: That's not fair.
I don't mean fair like "she gets more candy than I do" because while that is not fair, it is certainly true. Some animals are more equal than others: some people will get more advantages than they deserve and they will get away with murder and they will be rewarded rather than punished. This is true, and I don't expect fantasy books, no matter how fantastic, to present me with something truer than reality can muster: I do not expect the fairness of equality. But the unfairness that I cannot handle is the unfairness conveyed by Destiny, by Fate.
So I was pretty excited to read Philip Pullman's books, because I thought he would have no truck with Because God Said So, whether we called it God or The Oracle or The Light or Dumbledore. I thought: Yay! A new children's series with free will! Characters doing what they think is right without regard for messages from higher beings. Characters stumbling in their steampunk darkness, so like our own; characters making their own choices. And then on top of that, Pullman can write his way around a sentence and through a book like nobody's business. I even thought in my naivety that perhaps the characters would not get the kingdom of hard work vs. kingdom of happy oblivion choice at the end, and wouldn't that be nice!
HAHAHA. I should have known already in the Golden Compass, when the alethiometer gave me pause, but Lyra seemed so self-determined and Will even more so: "I may be inclined to be this sort of person but it doesn't mean I have to choose it." And so we bopped on through three books of me thinking my lofty thoughts about fairness and free will and real choices. Boy, was I pretty pissed when I finished Amber Spyglass. Philip Pullman so didn't "kill god". He pulled deux ex machina like a rabbit out of a hat. Fate? We pretend it doesn't exist only because it's too depressing to contend with. Destiny is reality, and the only reason the human characters won't be told their destinies is so that they continue existing under the apparently illusory free will they hold so dear (even though they don't have it really have it, since Destiny trumps Free Will). And so to be heroic is to acknowledge the existence and even inevitability of your fate without even asking what it is. This is... not free will. Oh, and yeah, and the final choice (which isn't a choice)? You have to give up what you want most because an angel said so. OH, ferfle.
We're totally going to see the movie still, but I am disappointed. I'm getting my Alexander books encased in gold, I guess. And I will continue living in the Star Trek world with Squire Tuck, unless somebody can recommend some fantasy books where the world is fantasy and the moral approaches something I can live with, something at least as true as reality.
SORRY THAT WAS SO LONG.