Lord Dunsany – The King of Elfland’s Daughter

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Dunsany makes it seem so easy. When people think of fantasy, they think of bricks full of descriptions and histories of non-existent worlds. I hear often how people don’t read fantasy because they don’t want a life commitment, because it’s more like studying the history of something rather than actual stories. If Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are anything to go by, they have point.

What’s bizarre is why these type of literature is so popular and so often written. In 1924 Dunsany wrote a simple novel. In terms of difficulty, the only thing difficult about it is that sentences can be long and the language is slightly archaic. Compared to more modern fiction though, the prose flows more smoothly. The story is about a person who seeks out a magical bride and gets astonished by the Huge World Outside. Wikipedia sums up the story in one paragraph and it’s okay. Why didn’t more authors replicate this?

That’s because artists don’t just try to sell a product. They sell importance. Importance in art is important. Rappers keep those crappy Boom Bap beats because it’s important and real, and so people who hate music will keep listening to them. Tolkien’s overlong saga was important, and so every Fantasy author wants to be seen as important and pile on the words. Writing a book like Dunsany’s may be easier, but it doesn’t look as important. Too bad that importance has little to do with musical quality. Manic Street Preachers aren’t as famous as David Bowie, but “Stay Beautiful” is better than anything on Ziggy Stardust.

Writing and storytelling devices serve the themes, not the opposite. Dunsany writes simply because that’s the best way to express his ideas. This novel isn’t fantasy just because the world is invented. ‘Fantasy’ is the theme of this novel. For a generation that explored all physical frontiers, it’s quaint but the sense of wonder Dunsany explores can apply to anything life.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is about seeing something so majestic, so beautiful that we become obsessed. It’s something that we also can never capture. We will continue searching for it and never find it. It’s not just Elfland. Alveric gets party members, each with his own obsession. We’re all mad when the right thing strikes us. No one is exempt from this. Even the people of Elfland, once they see Earth become obsessed with it. Everything is a place of wonder if you look at it from a distance. The constant usage of the phrase “Fields we know” emphasizes this. These fields look ordinary to us only because we know them, and the narrator has our point of view. For Lirazel, Earth is just as wondrous.

The price of such beauty is no satisfaction. You’re either yearning for it, or don’t fit in. Alveric constantly searches. When Lirazel can be in Earth, which is wondrous for her, she can’t find her place and never feels at home. Man is torn by his lust for wonder and his need for a stable home. Notice how Alveric carries a tent on his journey – even while traveling he needs something resembling a home.

Some do try to settle down. Another way to react to these wonders is fear. Alveric’s party have their obsession, but theirs isn’t as concrete as Elfland. When they see what real wonder looks like, they want to back away to their normal lives. Alveric himself despairs a little – that’s another price of seeing wonder. Back in the village we see that settling down doesn’t work. If we don’t go seeking the world, then it’ll just finds its way to us. You can be obsessed with it on your territory or not, but you’ll react to it. Even denying it is a reaction.

All these paragraphs of analysis – and I’m sure others can go something more in-depth – for such a simple book. That’s because Dunsany’s theme come before style and story. There are no digressions, no meaningless paragraphs of exposition. A chapter involving a man with a dark coat may at first seem like a digression, but even without the revelation it’s an exploration of Dunsany’s idea. In that chapter, magical creatures themselves aren’t infallible. They can get obsessed with something and follow it to things unknown.

Dunsany’s world isn’t physical, but is aware of ‘idea space’. His descriptions are always what it feels like, rather than what actually is. Worlds in fiction never exist. Telling me how tall a spire is, doesn’t actually tell me anything. So what? When Dunsany describes palace as “can only be told of in song”, it creates an image more mythic than any other physical description. If Dunsany’s book is difficult, it’s because of how expressive his language is. Nothing is described in direct physical traits, but every description is dripping with expression and poetics. Repetition never dulls the power of these words, because “fields we know” says more about them than anything else could.

He’s one of the few authors who can go off on long descriptions. Sometimes, his descriptions drip with so much wonder and awe that it speaks for itself. He describes flowers, in the same sentence, both as ‘unwithering’ and that time never touches them. Such repetition is redundant, but in the contexts it makes sense. Elfland is so wonderous that you have to traits in it using different ways, and you still wouldn’t capture it.

The result of such expressive and non-physical language is that Elfland and the Fields We Know feel actually feel real. We don’t experience the world in numbers. The Earth may move around the sun quite fast, but we don’t feel this speed. Fiction is never about displaying facts but about the human condition, since it is, after all, products of human thought. By tapping into how things feel like rather than how they actually are, Dunsany writes like how human beings experience the world.

The book’s only flaw, which must be deliberate, is that its characters can be fairly shallow. They’re clear archetypes, symbols that exist to explore ideas rather than complex human beings. It doesn’t detract too much, since the story is simple and demands such simple characters. Still, it would be nice if Dunsany dedicated a few more paragraphs to how his characters experience the world in their unique ways. He shows us their obsessions, but not how they deal with other things in the world. The book may explore its main topic quite well, but its lack of psychology and other subjects makes its vision too narrow. Great works of fiction have their main topics, but they also tend to dispense some unrelated views. Dunsany already shows great skill, so it makes you wonder what else he has to say.

The small flaws prevent this from being an all-time great book, but everything else makes this a cornerstone of the Fantasy genre. This is the book we should namedrop constantly when we discuss Fantastical fiction. Dunsany’s prose isn’t just beautiful, but his method of ‘worldbuilding’ is more engrossing and meaningful than other famous authors. Beyond the symbolic layer, it’s also a cute romance about two lovers who can’t let the kind-of-dimensional distance between their worlds separate them. Both as a love story and an exploration of human obsession, it’s a great book.

4.5 fields we know out of 5

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No Game No Life

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12 episodes of praising Instrumental Reason doesn’t make for good fiction, but it makes it clear why the anime blew up so much. Popularity is never a result of quality, but of fitting in with the zeitgeist, the common biases and worldviews of an age. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular since it shows a masculinity that’s dark, therefore intelligent instead of the happy-go-lucky nonsense of 80’s action films. As for this anime, its popularity comes from how blatant it is in showing Instrumental Reason to be the supreme reason. Imagine those vegans or marijuana advocates who think that their pet issues would solve all the world’s problems.

Before we discuss why this anime is so bad, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘Instrumental Reason’. I capitalize it because it’s a useful term. To use Charles Taylor’s definition, it is reason which is about efficiancy and problem-solving. It asks how fast we can solve a problem, what is the best way to solve a problem.

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Take the case of a busted wheel. When your wheel’s gone bust, you don’t ask what it means, what ramifications it will have on pop culture or on our perception of gender and reality. All that matters is that we change tires as quickly as possible, and that the tire will be good enough to last as long as possible. While there are theories dissecting the meaning behind games, when we play chess we don’t think what the game means. Rather, we asks how we beat the game.

In contrast, there is what I’d call ‘reason of meaning’. By that, you ask what is the nature of things. We don’t just ask how to end racism and poverty, but what exactly is racism and poverty. We’re interested in understanding these issues, defining them, understanding what is bad. Instrumental Reason leads to a lot of money for hi-tech buffons, but it cannot solve all problems since it doesn’t tell you what the problem, or the meaning of things is.

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Sora and Shiro are one pair whose world is in Instrumental Reason. While games have meaning, the meaning is related to the mere act of playing. We don’t question whether or not we should win a game and what is the nature of winning chess – the rules decide that. The world of Disboard is a world where every problem isn’t just solved by games, but by Instrumental Reason.

That means it’s a world that doesn’t have any meaning at all. The nature of any problem doesn’t matter, since there will be an arbitrary equation that must solved. Once we solve this equation, the problem ends. The anime tells the story of a megalomaniacal brother-and-sister who beat people in games, gain power and minions and occasionally pay lip-service to morality.

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Now, if the series was an examination of such Instrumental Reason, it would’ve been fine. If Instrumental Reason was merely a dominant storytelling tool, then it could still have a decent story. By that, I mean that the show works similar to Death Note and Code Geass. The story moves mainly by challenges facing the characters, and the characters need to solve them. The viewer gains pleasure from trying to solve the riddle along with the characters. However, the meaning of these challenges isn’t important.

Instrumental Reason is so dominant in this anime that these challenges don’t even pretend to have meaning. Death Note may have been a series of riddles, but underneath it there was supposed to be a story about the morality of executing criminals. It failed because it didn’t create situations where we examined the issue, but rather only asked ‘who will win?’. In similar fashion, the only question this anime asks is ‘how will Sora and Shiro win?’.

As a storytelling tool, it’s incredibly boring. It’s essentially watching a staged game. The whole thrill of watching sports is that you don’t know who will win and nothing is decided until the last moment. Stories which use Instrumental Reason make you watch a man playing chess against himself, only with more narrative fluff and (in the case of anime) pretty visuals.

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So as a story, this is a complete failure. Really, it’s about nothing. Only near the end it says something about the nature of games, but the whole thing happens in an alternative reality. Once the characters are thrown into it, no mention of the real world. Without admitting there is a real world where not everything is a game, it cannot explore the nature of games. Many throw the word ‘escapist’ around and it’s always debatable how escapist a show is, but can anyone debate this? The characters literally escape the real world so they could play forever.

If the story is an absolute failure, at least it could do well in other aspects. Sadly, it’s all bad except for the art. The art is easily some of anime’s best. It’s such a shame that a highlight in anime art is glued to a horrible story. Look at those vibrant colors, how every scene doesn’t have so much a depth of detail but a depth of color. It creates the feeling of a truly fantastical world. It applies to character design, too. While the series is shameless in fanservice, each character gets its unique touch, unique eye shapes and hairstyles. Shiro isn’t the best design, but her design is a good case in point. Her hair isn’t just long but has a distinct flow to it. Jibril is another excellent case. For a character who floats around half-naked, they sure thought about a lot of unique touches – the asymmetrical gloves, the gardient in the hair.

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Sadly, this is where the positives end. Some of the characters are good, but they need a different setting and a different storytelling method. Stephanie Dola could’ve been a light in the dark, a contrast to the world. Her emotional reaction actually could’ve added some ‘reason of meaning’, show us a character who thinks about other things besides winning. Too bad her role is to be slapped around, sexually humiliated and generally used as a tool. If so far you were convinced my rantings about ‘Instrumental Reason’ was just cranking about, here’s the final nail. The anime takes its one character who has a different view than constantly puts it down.

Sora is tied to this problem, and to the misogyny problem. He’s a 20th century masculine stereotype. Writing about transformation of masculinity in fiction is incomplete without him. We see how once the manly hero packed guns, now he’s shagging women and is being a conniving, selfish asshole. What defines Sora isn’t heroism like those in the 80’s movies, but his pure ‘Instrumental Reason’. All that matters to him is winning, all he can think about is winning.

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Occasionally he displays some moral code about being nice to those he lose. We never see the general ethics that guide him, though. Since he’s comfortable using everyone as pieces, he’s more like a Wolf of Wall Street, doing everything to win and using people as means to an end. It fits with the zeitgeist. Go to school, and they will teach you how the only important thing is making loads of money. Whatever technology you invent, whatever content you produce, it doesn’t matter so long as you get money. No surprise our politicians are so corrupt.

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Using people as means, besides pissing off Kant also gives the whole anime a strong misogynistic bent. You don’t just see women in sexy situations, but often humiliating situations. Stephanie gets the most of it. An episode is dedicated to treating her like an animal only to teach her a lesson. He also takes pictures of her nude without consent and there’s the whole ‘laughing at flat women’ thing. I don’t see anything funny about humiliating a girl, taking nude pictures of her and generally framing her as inferior and dumb. Worst of all, we’re meant to cheer for Sora and the characters eventually come to like him. I don’t see how his rise to power demanded treating Dola so awfully.

Contrary to the creator’s idea, I would rather have a beer with Stephanie Dola and not just because she’s a woman. No Game No Life is pure escapist fantasy for the hi-tech age. In an age where we want to just solve problems instead of thinking about their nature, it’s the ideal anime. I’m reminded of a story where some government officials asked how to lower the amount of poor people. Onc offered to change the definition to the American definitions, and then there will be less poor people on the count. Notice how the numbers change but no one asks what exactly poverty is and what’s the actual problem. It’s a comfortable mindset, but we don’t live in Disboard. Our world isn’t clean and ordered where each problems have clear laws. In this world, you have to ask what is the problem, what it means and the whole shebang. Also, you can’t go around treating women like Sora treats Stephanie. Somebody might come and get all 80’s Action Movie on your ass.

1.5 misogynists out of 5