I am currently reading a series of novels in which the importance of an old, lost book cannot be understated. I have often been intrigued by the importance of books in fantasy, and this often goes in hand with the importance of history in the genre. Most conflicts in fantasy are the results of ancient conflicts come again; it seems to be a genre trope. Things old and forgotten, especially books that contain hidden and/or lost knowledge, are often vital to the heroes overcoming in the end.
So, as a motif, how does this work? What is symbolic or thematic about old books? Notice, I am focusing here on old books, not new ones, for no one ever goes seeking after a newly-written tome of hidden knowledge. This is, in many ways, an interesting inversion of the facts of the modern world in which we live, for we tend to prize new knowledge over old. Old things–books in particular–don’t have the same cultural relevancy and importance as they used to. The men and women of the Renaissance, for example, saw themselves as direct heirs of the Roman Empire, and held themselves as one and the same people. That is a bit simplistic, but it is a far cry from the modern world in which we worship change and the New, rather than honor tradition and history and roots. We see ourselves as very different people than those who fought in WWII, let alone those who lived over a thousand years ago.
Posted by Brondt on July 22, 2011
One of the most ubiquitous motifs of older fantasy, the quest has fallen a little out of favour in recent years due to NY Publishing’s pushing of dark, gritty, realistic fantasy from about the mid-90s on. But the quest is an old, old motif, one that the earliest fantasy writers got from Classical and Medieval literature, and one that is full of possibility for exploring the human soul and condition.
Writers like E.R. Eddison, Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and even the “un-Tolkien” Stephen R. Donaldson have all used the quest as a framework to hang a story on. Going back to the earliest examples of Western literature, we have Homer’s The Odyssey, which is nothing if not a quest narrative. In the English world, our earliest great tale, Beowulf, is likewise a quest story. I talked about the uses to which motifs can be put in this post, and the quest is certainly the most obvious and striking example of a structural motif. The motif acts like a coat hanger and the story and characters rely on it for support. Remove the quest, and you remove the story completely.
The Example of The Lord of the Rings
Which makes this motif closely allied with plot, although it is also still highly symbolic. Let us take the example of perhaps the most famous fantasy quest narrative and see how this motif operates in the real world: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This is a massive work that includes several layers of quest, but if we focus on Frodo and Sam for a moment, we can see the development of them as individuals as well as friends in a parallel to the progression of their quest.
Posted by Brondt on July 20, 2011
*For a recap of what a motif is, read the first part of last week’s post.*
Weaponry in fantasy novels is one of the most classic types of motifs in the genre, and yet the meanings and associations given to those weapons can change rather drastically from author to author and work to work. In many ways, weaponry acts like a leitmotif in a film’s music score. You know, every time you hear the horns blowing in the Lord of the Rings film, the Rohirrim are nearby; or the pipes when the Hobbits are the center of attention, etc. When it comes to weaponry, authors often use swords and axes and bows and daggers to distinguish cultures and characters in the same way that composers use those leitmotifs.
But I want to talk about swords in particular today because this is the most common weapon to show up in fantasy novels, and it is the weapon that is most commonly given symbolic and thematic meaning as a motif–Nobody ever heard of the Axe of Shannara or the Warhammer of Truth!
So, what is it about swords that makes them so appealing as motifs? Well, I can think of a few good reasons, which I’ll go over here, but if you have anything else to add, please leave a comment, as I’m only brushing the tip of the iceberg in this essay.
Posted by Brondt on July 13, 2011
*One of the most common searches that leads to this site is “fantasy motifs.” This leads people to the Motifs of Fantasy episode of the podcast, and some have even listened to it. I Googled the above search terms and found that there is almost nobody else out there who talks about how motifs relate to the genre. Therefore, I have decided to elaborate on that podcast episode with a series on short essays on various fantasy motifs, what they are, how the work, etc.*
A motif is a significant recurrent thematic or symbolic element in a literary work. I throw that definition out there because a lot of people are uncertain of exactly how a motif differs from theme or symbol. A motif can be symbolic (such as a quest representing the maturation of the main character) or thematic (forces of light and forces of darkness vying for supremacy=good vs. evil theme). But it is different as well: it is more recurrent than a typical symbol, and it is physical where theme is metaphysical.
So, to magic. Magic in a fantasy novel is always a motif. Yes, always. How’s that for a sweeping generalization?
The reason I say this is that while magic is nonexistent in our own world, it raises concerns in fantasy works that parallel concerns in our own world. This happens whether or not the author is actually trying to say something. Even the simplest hack-n-slash sword and sorcery novella raises questions of power abuse relating to magic, again whether or not the writer is explicitly broaching the subject.
But how does magic operate as a motif? Well, there are a couple of kinds of motifs, and magic can serve any of those functions depending on the type of book and magic system employed.
Posted by Brondt on July 6, 2011