Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My Fictional Autobiography (part 2): Mostly Fantasy

My later teens are nothing to be proud about. I refused to read the required novels for my English classes in High School (but passed my final exams anyway). And I read many books of questionable taste such as Stanley Morgan’s “Russ Tobin” series, commencing with The Sewing Machine Man (gratuitous sex), and Richard Allen’s “Skinhead” series (gratuitous violence).
Those books are best forgotten.

I also had my first real taste of horror fiction with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. It was the first time that a book genuinely scared me – something that the film failed to do, even though the book’s literary qualities are questionable and the film is considered a classic of the genre.

Some of the brighter spots in my reading diet came through my interest in fantasy and I rediscovered books by CS Lewis and Alan Garner. I had some memories of reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe years before, but I’d never moved on to the sequels. I’m not sure when I first came across Garner but his fiction seemed more grounded in “reality”. Lewis and Garner both portrayed a crossing over between real and magical worlds. Lewis took his child protagonists from their familiar circumstances and placed them in a world very different from their own, but Garner turned this around and showed the world of magic and myth crossing over to our world, bringing conflict here instead of isolating it in the relative safety of somewhere else. Garner also had less “jolly good show” about him than Lewis, portraying characters more familiar to me than those created by Lewis.

Obviously any serious follower of fantasy fiction can not avoid Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, but I have clearly not followed seriously enough because I've been unable to complete this revered trilogy. I’ve made multiple attempts, but have never made it to the end. It may seem irrelevant to others, but one hindrance to my progress has been chapter length. In my earlier attempts I found the chapters far too long to be tempted to read “just one more chapter” before I put the book down for the night. It’s amazing how much reading progress can be made through the “one more chapter” approach. When I read The Wizard of Oz as a child, I read the whole book in one sitting because I wanted to keep reading “one more chapter” before I was ready to put it down.

I recall very little fantasy fiction available for adults in the 1970s. That may be difficult to believe for anyone used to today’s abundance of fantasy titles. Almost everything I remember was written for children or ‘Young Adults”. The exceptions were Lord of the Rings and a couple of books inspired by it, like Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Some see Brooks as being the one who inspired the rise of Fantasy fiction as a viable adult genre, being the first to break through the fear of competing with Tolkien. (see

For some reason those first attempts to aim fantasy at the adult reader didn’t appeal to me and my own reading of fantasy remained with the books written for children and teens. To Lewis and Garner I would add Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising) and Lloyd Alexander (The Prydain Chronicles) as my favoured authors of that time. I even named my Collie, Bran, after a dog in one of Cooper’s books.
I know there were other books and other authors, but they haven’t stuck in my mind to the extent of those already named; and I’m sure that those I DO recall (Penelope Lively, George MacDonald, E Nesbit,) belong to a later part of my life in books.

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