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Old 03-10-2021, 08:31 AM   #21 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
@ Batty: I kind of thought after I had wrote that, that this isegai thing might be specifically Japanese. I'll read up on it.
Lol if TH ends up having to watch Sword Art Online for this journal I will be most pleased.
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Old 03-10-2021, 09:23 AM   #22 (permalink)
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Timeline: 1200 - 1500

During the age of chivalry, wherein knights served kings and the idea of fair play, rules and respect for one’s opponent in battle, as well as a sense of (among the knights at least) a duty of care for the common folk prevailed, romance and chivalric literature became very popular. Tales of knights-errant - probably sparked by the tales of the search for the Holy Grail - abounded, and also gave birth to the idea of a quest, which would and has become such a central theme in the larger part of fantasy literature. Quests would often be set to test a knight or other adventurer’s mettle, to allow him to prove something, to himself or others, or to help a patron recover or regain something that was important to them, perhaps to the kingdom. Quests were of course never easy, fraught with danger, sometimes confusing directions given, and always enemies waiting to thwart the efforts of he who quested.

Drawing on both mythology and fairy tales as well as real history, and since many, indeed most of the earliest ones were written in verse, this provided minstrels and balladeers with material for their songs, and also allowed the stories to be disseminated (through the minstrel’s art and via his wandering nature) to more than would have been able to read them, given that there was a large percentage of the common folk who could not read at all. These stories inevitably contained a moral, often to do with religion or love, or both, and reinforced the ideas of loyalty, bravery, steadfastness and dedication to one’s duty, particularly his quest. Invariably, the hero’s quest was successful, or if not, its failure served as a sort of epiphany to show him that what was more important than the object he sought was his own development and personal improvement. The quest might reveal some answer about life, or the quester, or his world, or God.

Romance tales were generally at this time broken up into three distinct forms or cycles, these being the Matter of Rome (Italian stories centring on Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), the Matter of France (regarding Charlemagne) and the Matter of Britain (which mostly featured, as already mentioned, King Arthur and his knights). There were of course stories which fell outside of this format, as there are in almost every form of literature, but most of these chivalric romances seem to have served mostly as a sort of ongoing propaganda tool for the various kings about whom they were written, or in whose reign at any rate they were set. They would reinforce the king’s bravery, wisdom and cunning through the quests handed out, who they were given to and how they were rewarded when accomplished.

They also, of course, encouraged young boys reading them (or to whom they were read) to emulate the great knights and squires in the tales, thereby providing a free advertisement for the notions and practice of chivalry, and giving young boys a grounding in how they were expected to behave when grown. Almost a kind of fantasy training manual, in one way, I suppose you could say. At the same time, they showed the girls how to behave, what was expected of them and what they could look forward to when they grew up. Even if hardly any of them ever got carried away by a prince on a white charger, or rescued from a deep sleep by a handsome knight, the tales carried codes of conduct and instructions as to how the young were supposed to perceive the world, and how they should behave in it once they had attained what was accepted as adulthood. Naturally, none of this included any explicit knowledge of sex or even explored romance any deeper than the surface, but then, these were stories, after all, and their principle aim was to entertain.

Nevertheless, lessons were taught, and many of a moral nature, through these romances. One of the most important was the idea of monogamy, chastity until marrying age and respect for one’s elders, all pretty much enshrined in the ideas of chivalry anyway. Every knight, every princess, human or otherwise (as fairies and elves and goblins and other creatures began to slowly creep into the romances, blending in folklore to the story to make it more attractive and fantastical), every king and queen was expected to conduct themselves according to these tenets, which is probably why Lancelot’s pursuit of Guinevere is so shocking, or was, at the time. Not only did the bravest knight in Arthur’s court go after the King’s wife, but he, Lancelot, was also Arthur’s friend. So there’s a quadruple betrayal here: knight to king (no I’m not describing a chess move!) and friend to friend, and then from Guinevere’s side queen to king and wife to husband. Betrayed every way, that kind of treachery can bring down a kingdom.

And so it did, almost. Arthur’s being mystically and inextricably linked with the land meant that when things went badly for him, his realm reflected this, suffering as he did; crops would not grow, weather turned bad, the entire mood of Britain soured. Only through the recovery of Christ’s cup from the Last Supper could the king, and the land, be healed. And thus began the Quest for the Holy Grail, which kickstarted the imagination of many a fantasy writer, and while it wasn’t the very first quest, it did form the template for almost all of what came afterwards. In the chivalric romances, love was pure, unsullied and from God. It was not seen as a base, bestial thing but as an idealised, well, romantic sort of power that attracted men and women together, but nothing was mentioned of what happened after the knight won the lady, save perhaps a footnote about their offspring, the younger reader or listener left to work out for themselves how that came about!

Timeline: 1500 - 1600

As a time of rebirth and enlightenment across Europe, the Renaissance was an era in which fantasy literature began to flower. The first proper recorded work of fantasy to collect and transcribe fairy and folk tales was created, perhaps not surprisingly since the revolution in learning, art and literature began there, by an Italian, one Giambattista Basile, in his Pentamorone, whose Italian title translates to Tale of Tales and is rendered as, wait for it, lo ****o de li ****i! Titter, titter, chortle, chortle, dirty laughter. All right, got that out of our systems now, have we? Let’s move on.
]img]https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4c/Giambattista_Basile_by_Nicolaus_Perrey.jpg/440px-Giambattista_Basile_by_Nicolaus_Perrey.jpg[/img]
This work would in fact form the basis of later translations and retellings of fairy tales, notably by two brothers who were both called Grimm, who heaped praise upon Basile for his work. The Pentamorone sort of reflects in style the far earlier 1001 Nights (or Arabian Nights, as it has become more popularly known) in that the basis is that someone has to tell stories to someone else in the narrative, and these become the fairy tales, of which many are known today.

Although a lot of his material were historical epics such as Richard III and Henry V, Julius Caesar and King Lear, Shakespeare brought a lot of fantasy into his own writings, especially the comic ones such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also more serious fare such as Hamlet and MacBeth, with ghosts in the former and witches in the latter, and audiences loved to see - and some more literate ones read about - such fantastic creatures and beings, leading to an interest in things that were not rooted in the real world, and a resurgence in the popularity of fairy tales and legends.

Timeline: 1600 - 1800


With the dawn of the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, when logic and hard-nosed reality ruled, such ideas were frowned upon as suitable only for children, and the Romantic Era blossomed as a direct reaction to the cold, scientific ideas of the seventeenth century. Having its beginnings in the final decades of the eighteenth century and carrying on, and gaining support in the nineteenth, the Romantic Era produced such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, James McPherson, Goethe and Walter Scott, and while the Brothers Grimm, as already mentioned, began collating and writing their fairy stories around this time, others such as Elias Lönnrot set about compiling the folk tales of their own country, in his case Finland and Karelia, an epic cycle entitled Kalevala, much of the incentive for such being his desire to preserve the mythology of his homeland. These, then, provided much fodder for later fantasy works.


Two important authors in this time were Charles Perrault (1628-1703) and Madame D’Aulnoy (1650-1705), the latter of whom actually coined the term “fairy tales” for her work. Perhaps there’s a case for considering these two, along with the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, as the progenitors or grandparents of the fairy tale in fantasy literature. Perrault rewrote and published such standards we know today as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Puss-in-Boots, and in the process created a whole new fantasy literature genre, fairy tales. Madame D’Aulnoy, who among other things wrote court memoirs and histories, seems to have concentrated on the more anthropomorphic aspect of fairy tales, perhaps inadvertently presaging the advent of cartoon animals over three hundred years later. Her tales were a lot more adult in nature, and definitely not for children. I’m not one hundred percent sure whether these were tales she transcribed, like Basile and later the Brothers Grimm, or if she made them up herself (I think it might be the latter) but at any rate, she worked on her material almost a century and a half before the Grimms were born.

Although many “serious” writers frowned on the whole idea of fairy tales and fantasy works, considering them only for children, and even then vulgar and common, figures like Voltaire himself embarked on writing fantasy stories, such as The Princess of Babylon and The White Bull. Nevertheless, in general as you would probably expect, the Age of Enlightenment was not good for the fantasy/fairy story genre, to say nothing of various Catholic Inquisitions who would have frowned on such material, calling it pagan, ungodly, blasphemous and heretical. So it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that fantasy began to fight back, in what has become known to history as the Age of Romance, or Romanticism. This in turn gave rise to a format of literature not only important to fantasy, but to horror too: the gothic novel or story.

Gothic literature can really be described in one word: dark. Everything about gothic writing hinges on the more macabre, scary and supernatural elements of storytelling, with mores that we are now very familiar with and can identify as belonging to this genre, such as haunted castles, ghosts, mysterious recluses, people living in attics and garrets, curses, bequests, funerals, wild weather, family secrets and romance, often doomed or cursed. The first novel accepted as being written in the Gothic style, the one that kicked the whole thing off, is Horatio Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in 1764. Some of the more well-known ones of course are Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, along with the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Gothic literature really took hold in the Victorian era, giving rise to the “penny dreadful” stories that thrilled the lower classes, who could identify with much of what was written in them, and shocked the upper classes (though in truth, many a rich, well-bred lady probably hid a penny dreadful under her satin coverlet) who despised their vulgarity.

Timeline: 1800 - 1900

And with the dawn of Victoria’s long reign fantasy was back in vogue again, chiefly through the move away from the too-rigid reasoning of the last century and on the back of the rise of the penny dreadful and Gothic literature in general. This period would see the publication of some of what are now accepted as the world’s greatest authors, such as Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Dickens and William Morris. Perhaps it had to do with the “common” people becoming more literate and aware of their world than they might have been in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but more people were reading, and most of them didn’t want stuffy tracts about politics or history or battles or philosophy: they wanted to be entertained.

And fantasy was the great entertainer. You really didn’t have to “know” anything - that is, be educated about the subject, unlike in other types of literature, where you might be lost if you didn’t have at least a working knowledge and grasp of the subject - because everything was either explained or didn’t need to be. If a fairy flew, a fairy flew and there was no cause for explanation. If a castle floated in the clouds or resided at the bottom of the ocean, that was all accepted. Fantasy - and, to another extent, horror - all required and require a willing suspension of disbelief. We know these things can’t happen, but we don’t care. It’s a story, so it doesn’t have to be true.

Fantasy really gathered steam in the nineteenth century, classic works such as Alice in Wonderland, The Fall of the House of Usher and Frankenstein ensuring that it would never again have to retreat to the shadows (some of what was written was, technically, at home in the shadows, but you know what I mean) and was here to stay. People like H. Rider Haggard, George MacDonald and even Oscar Wilde did a lot to advance the art, while later writers such as H.P Lovecraft and Hans Christian Anderson would pull the genre in two diametrically opposed directions. Some authors, such as CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll, would concentrate on writing for, and about, children, while Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Shelley definitely had a more adult audience in mind.
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Old 03-18-2021, 03:20 PM   #23 (permalink)
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Timeline of Science-Fiction Literature

Timeline: 1100 BC - 1200 AD (approx)

Where fantasy gives birth, as it were, or diverges or splits into science-fiction is hard to definitively ascertain. I tend to be on the side of those who say that to look to The Epic of Gilgamesh (as noted above in the timeline of Fantasy Literature) is an error, as this is purely fantasy storytelling and does not use any recognisable type of science for its basis. The Indians and the Greeks, both early progenitors of fantasy, seem a safer bet. In the epic story Ramayana, half of the Hinsu Itihasa, written between the fourth and fifth centuries BC, there are accounts of craft that can fly into space or under water, and weapons that can destroy whole cities, while mechanical flying birds, as well as space craft, figure in the Rigveda, written around 1100 BC. Time travel as well as space travel is referenced in the Mahabharata, from the eighth to ninth century BC, where a king travels to meet the Creator deity, in Heaven. When he returns to Earth much time has passed. This could, then, be taken as the very first time travel story.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigveda
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabharata

The Greeks contributing to early science-fiction also is no surprise: they were, generally, men of learning and knowledge, who prized education and the advancement of civilisation above all things, and many were scientists, if ancient ones with little real grasp of proper physics, chemistry or biology. Aristophanes’s play “The Birds” (414 BC) has a huge city constructed in the clouds, something that would be echoed in later works of science-fiction, including Cloud City in Star Wars and the city in the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birds_(play)

Then there’s Lucian of Samasota, whose play “A True Story” has everything from encounters with aliens to planetary warfare, including some very inventive depictions of space spiders who spin a web between the moon and the Morning Star.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_True_Story

The Japanese Nihongi (720) contains the story of a fisherman called Urashima Taro, who travels to the future, while a work of two hundred years later, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (10th century) has a Princess of the Moon fleeing an intergalactic war and taking refuge on Earth. Very interestingly, one of the illustrations seems to look very like the flying saucers of fifties and sixties pulp sf, and which were said to have been spotted over the USA during that time.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihon_Shoki
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ta..._Bamboo_Cutter

One Thousand and One Nights

As related in the timeline of Fantasy Literature, this text is responsible for some of our most enduring and loved heroes, including Sinbad and Aladdin, but there are apparently a lot of elements of science-fiction in it, too. Given that there are, in some texts, actually one thousand and one stories, perhaps that’s not too surprising. Robots, brass horsemen, underwater cities, ancient technologies, stellar journeys and flying mechanical horses all figure in some of the stories, making this, if taken as one work, surely then the first true example of science-fantasy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Th...ction_elements

There is also the “Theologicus Autodidactus”, whose final chapters deal with such concepts as futurology, resurrection and the afterlife, and the apocalypse. Most of these are explained by the author in scientific terms, using theories (at the time) relating to metabolism and pulmonary circulation.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theologus_Autodidactus

News to me, I must admit, but early Chivalric literature of the Middle Ages tended to, if not be stuffed with, then certainly to contain an abundance of robots and automata, often guarding tombs and important places. Even Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales has a robotic horse given to one of the pilgrims as a gift. This horse can travel anywhere in the world at great speed and is made of brass. He also mentions a scrying device and a sword which can heal and deal extreme wounds, neither of which are purported to be magical but rather explained by science.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Canterbury_Tales

In John Gower’s fictional stories concerning Alexander the Great, the legendary general constructs both a flying machine powered by griffins and an underwater sphere, perhaps a distant ancestor of the diving bell or bathosphere. In the Historica Destrucionis Troiae the body of the Trojan prince Hector is preserved in a state of basic suspended animation via tubes in his body filled with a substance called balsam.
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Old 03-18-2021, 03:37 PM   #24 (permalink)
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Worlds Apart: New Planets to Explore

While there’s plenty of SF I haven’t read or seen, one thing that recurs as a major theme in the genre is other worlds. Even the earliest versions of SF men travelling to other planets, and when the genre really gets going in the nineteenth century or so, there’s really only one planet that’s in the frame. It’s our nearest neighbour (no, the Moon is not a planet, dummy!) and has probably seen the most settings of stories upon its surface than just about any other planet, real or imaginary.

It’s hardly surprising that, back in the late 1800s, when emerging science-fiction writers wanted a different planet than Earth for their work they looked to Mars. Not only has it a cool name, it’s also known as the red planet - due to its surface being, well, red dust - and is, in the main, quite similar to Earth, at least for narrative purposes. It’s around the same size, is nearest and really, men from Mars rolls off the tongue so much better than men from Venus. Saturn looks great, of course, with all its rings, but since this was, at that time, pretty much out of the range of the telescopes available - nothing much would be known about the largest planet in our solar system until we developed the technology to send probes there - any SF writer worth his or her salt would shy from setting a story there, since this is Science-Fiction, after all, not Fantasy, and there needed to be some at least partway believable science involved.

Even the dumbest of readers would understand that, say, Mercury was too close to the sun and therefore too hot to be able to sustain any kind of life, while Pluto (at the time the furthest planet discovered, before it was heartlessly demoted in the twentieth century) was of course way too cold. Venus we didn’t know a lot about, but Mars! Lowell had already observed what he took to be canals on the red planet (which turned out of course to be nothing of the sort) and so the germ of the idea was planted in the fertile minds of SF writers: if there were, or had been, canals on Mars then surely there was, now or at some time, water? And if there was water there could be life.

So Mars became the popular destination for the science-fiction writer’s imagination to travel to, and the harbinger of all that was scary and threatening from space. Although his story post-dates Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon by thirty-odd years, and although there are a handful of stories set on or about Mars, it’s Herbert George Wells’s famous The War of the Worlds which we remember and which is regarded as the first true alien invasion story, and the first to be set on Mars. Technically, of course, it’s not. Set on Mars, that is. The aliens come from Mars, and apart from seeing through a powerful telescope the cylinders which carry the Martians to Earth, we don’t see the red planet, and have only Wells’s - through his narrator - thoughts and theories as to what it is like there.

But with the arrival of the Martians, the idea that Mars is or could be a staging post for invasion is set up, and others would later set their books and stories there. Notably the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, set an entire series of novels there, as intrepid Civil war captain John Carter is inexplicably - and with the most stupid transition I have ever read in my life, and I’ve watched Family Guy! - transported to Mars, which he learns is called Barsoom by the inhabitants. He finds a whole civilisation there, and inevitably a war going on for control of the planet. Burroughs also set some of his stories on Venus, but more of that later. One of the very earliest SF books I read was his A Princess of Mars, and from the first I was hooked, reading all the others I could. I saw the movie John Carter of Mars recently, and have to admit I was not that impressed, nor do I remember much from the novels that was in the movie. That could of course be my poor memory, the fact that I was probably 12 or 13 when I read them, or the makers of the movie changing the story to fit their narrative. Nevertheless, I was disappointed.

Ray Bradbury used the planet for his own sagas The Martian Chronicles, while Kim Stanley Robinson took a more strictly scientific approach in his trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, which follows the terraforming of the planet for human colonisation. Mars features in many movies, including of course fifties B-movies where it may just be mentioned as, or theorised as the origin of the alien attack that is plaguing mankind, but also in recent fare such as Red Planet, Total Recall, Mission to Mars and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. It’s the opening, dramatic and somewhat threatening theme that heralds Gustav Holst’s seminal suite The Planets, and “Mars, the Bringer of War” has gone on to be used in everything from War movies to ads for suppositories. Possibly. Suffice to say, it’s extremely unlikely, no matter your age or interest in classical music, that you’ve failed to hear that piece of music, even if you don’t know what it’s called.

Spoof films used Mars too. Mars Attacks! is a perhaps-not-that-funny take on pulp style movies of the fifties, Lobster Man from Mars is just, well, silly, while Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is touted, rightly, as “one of the worst films ever made.” As a colony of Earth fighting for its independence, Mars is used as the base for the feared and dreaded Psi Corps in the series Babylon 5. It’s referenced in music hits from Bowie to . By the 1940s Mars was the go-to place to set your alien invasion story, and among others, Robert A. Heinlein used it repeatedly, notably in The Green Hills of Earth (1947), Red Planet (1949) and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), while Arthur C. Clarke set his 1951 novel The Sands of Mars there, as did Isaac Asimov a year later with The Martian Way (1952). Much of Philip K. Dick’s output centres on Mars, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) which was of course made into the classic cult SF movie Blade Runner.

In fact, just about any SF author you can name has dipped his or her toe into the Martian landscape, or referenced it. Everyone from Larry Niven to Frederik Pohl and from Harry Turtledove to Michael Moorock and Lin Carter have paid homage to the red planet. Interest, which has never really flagged, was heightened in 2016 when underground ice was discovered on Mars, its volume capable of filling Lake Superior, and restarting the debate as to whether life could have existed on the planet. As preparations near completion for the Mission to Mars this coming year, it’s clear that, no matter what is discovered there, no matter what revelations Mars may have or not have to show us, the human fascination with our nearest planetary neighbour is unlikely to ever cease, nor is it expected that the imaginations of writers will ever tire of turning to its bleak, forbidding yet somehow irresistible presence for inspiration.
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Old 04-04-2021, 10:09 AM   #25 (permalink)
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Self-explanatory I hope. This will be a regular section in which I will look at the work and career of great (and perhaps not so great) authors in the field both of science fiction and fantasy. Maybe even horror.

John Wyndham (1903-1969)

Some of the first science-fiction I read - and some of the best - came from the pen and the mind of one John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, or John Wyndham, the name under which he usually (though not always) wrote. You’ll be familiar with two of his most famous works, 1951’s The Day of the Triffids, and 1957’s The Midwich Cuckoos, probably best known to the world as Village of the Damned. Born in Warwickshire in England’s West Midlands (the same county where another, little-known writer called Shakespeare first mewled his cries to the world) Wyndham was subjected to not only the traumatic and stigmatic separation of his parents in 1911, a time when such things just “did not happen” in strait-laced England, but also to his father’s then ultimately unsuccessful attempts to sue for the custody of his wife and family. Not quite sure what old Mr. Harris was thinking there, but he lost the case amid much embarrassment, necessitating his ex-wife’s move away from Birmingham with her children.

Having tried several paths to a career John settled on writing in 1927, and, presumably because it was the popular genre of the time, began writing detective stories, but he switched to science-fiction in 1931, his first story “Worlds to Barter” seeing publication under the name John B. Harris, soon changed to John Beynon Harris and then John Beynon (the Parkes part of his name was quickly jettisoned, possibly due to his animosity towards his father). At the end of the 1930s he met his future wife Grace, though as she worked as a teacher and the Marriage bar then in force would have meant that she would have had to give up her job, they did not marry until 1963.

When World War II began, Wyndham worked both as a cipher operator and in the Home Guard, and later took part in the Normandy Landings on D-Day. Much of what he saw during the war informed his later writing, which betrays a dark, bleak, despairing view of man and his future. His first novel after the war, published under the name he would use to the end of his life, John Wyndham, was his most successful and set him on a career path that led to him being later described as a “true English visionary”. The Day of the Triffids, published in 1951, concerns the arrival on Earth of alien plants, after almost all of the population has been blinded by weaponised dust dropped the night before their arrival. Like the Red Weed in Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the Triffids become the dominant plant form, and threaten to challenge even man’s place at the top of the tree. The novel was later filmed as a Hollywood movie and given a terrible pasted-on ending that completely ruins the dark, apocalyptic non-ending of the novel, while as mentioned earlier, The Midwich Cuckoos, published in 1953, was also turned into a movie and renamed Village of the Damned.

Wyndham somewhat set the bar for English science fiction writers, and is fondly remembered. Though In his life he wrote only seven novels, with two others published posthumously, he also wrote a lot of short stories, some of which were collected together in anthologies after his death. With Wyndham, however, it was definitely a case of quality over quantity. He died at the age of 65, having been married to the same woman all his life.

Novels
(Note: Although Wyndham did write crime fiction, I’m not interested in that and have therefore only included here his science fiction works. Anything published after his passing is indicated in bold).
As John Beynon:
The Secret People (1935)
Planet Plane/Stowaway to Mars (1936)


As John Wyndham
The Day of the Triffids (1951)
The Kraken Wakes (1953)
The Chrysalids (1955)
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
The Outward Urge (1959)
Trouble with Lichen (1960)
Chocky (1968)

Web (1979)
Plan for Chaos (2009)


Short Story Collections
Jizzle (1954) (Is it hilarious that I had to get round the expletive block for that one?)
The Seeds of Time (1956)
Tales of Gooseflesh and Laughter (1956)
Consider Her Ways and Others (1961)
The Infinite Moment (1961)
Sleepers of Mars (1973)
The Best of John Wyndham (1973)
Wanderers of Time (1973)
Exiles on Asperus (1979)
No Place Like Earth (2003)
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Old 04-04-2021, 10:21 AM   #26 (permalink)
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Far Beyond These Castle Walls: The Role of the Castle in Fantasy

Look at any fantasy-inspired poster or drawing, or the cover of any fantasy book - especially those in the sword-and-sorcery sub-genre - and the chances are you’ll see a castle, either in the background or right up front. It might be a knight rushing across a bridge on his horse to rescue a princess, or a unicorn prancing on the battlements, or something darker perhaps: a dark, dismal edifice high on a mountain, wreathed in black thunderclouds and eldritch fingers of lightning dancing around its turrets, while a shadowy figure with sharp, bright eyes peers out of the topmost window, watching the world below with malevolent intent.

From the earliest days of fantasy, from fairy tales on, castles, strongholds, fortresses and palaces have been the setting for drama, intrigue, power and magic. This isn’t at all surprising when you consider that many of the heroes of fantasy were, and still are to some degree, noblemen and women, knights or others of high breeding, and that kings, queens, princes and princesses figure highly in fairy tales and stories of fantastic adventure. Castles were always the symbol of a king’s power, or a knight’s status, and usually dominated the landscape, towering over the town or village or even city in or near which they were built, whether protectively or menacingly. A castle - especially a royal one - would be the focus of any settlement, and a concrete statement of where the power lay.

The great and the good lived in castles - or in some cases, the evil, but always the powerful. Ordinary folk were generally not invited, unless summoned there or allowed deliver goods or if they worked perhaps as pages or handmaidens. The castle was its own self-supporting ecosystem, drawing from the village or town only when supplies ran low, and rarely if ever interacting with the inhabitants of that town or village. It was where the balls were, where the jousts were held, where the celebrations and weddings and funerals and parties took place, and where, in times of war, strategy was plotted and troops billeted. It was, in short, the centre of the region.

Castles could be marvellous places. In fairy tales like Cinderella they were the height of society and the ambition to which everyone aspired, from the local lads working as pages or kitchen boys hoping to be chosen as some knight’s squire to the kitchen girls and scullery maids waiting to catch the eye of the handsome prince, and so change their lives forever. When foreign dignitaries visited the area, it was at the castle or palace that they were hosted, and in times of plague and famine it was often the safest place to be. But castles could also be nasty, dark, evil places; crumbling ruins, haunted by spectres or home to a solitary wizard who was known to be very unwelcoming to visitors! They could be the last place you wanted to go, or be taken, from where often nobody ever returned, and they could also be the stronghold of a tyrant who held sway over his people by fear and brutality.

Whichever way you look at it, whichever role the castle fulfilled in the story, they were almost always important, often the centrepiece of a story; the starting or ending point for a quest, the site of fabulous riches or powerful spells to be plundered, or the staging post for a war with the realm’s neighbours. They could be the sites of great joy, such as in The Princess and the Pea, where a woman’s royal heritage is established - and great despair, as in Sleeping Beauty, when the wicked queen, snubbed at the birth feast of the princess, curses her to sleep for a hundred years. Feckin’ women, huh?

If not the centrepiece they would certainly figure somewhere in the background, like the posters spoken of in the intro, if only as a mention of “the king’s great palace” or “the castle where we will find the wizard.” Often, the dark, unplumbed depths of the castle - its cells, dungeons and cellars - would be the setting for adventure, and this in its turn would give way to a huge interest in these things through classic role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, where players take on the persona of fantasy or medieval people and creatures, and travel through a castle, haunted wood, blasted plain or other dangerous location in search of treasures, battling monsters along the way. These pencil-and-paper games of course developed into computer games, the genesis of the MMORPG, Massively Multiple Online Role Playing Game, which became so popular with titles like Warcraft, Everquest and of course the networked version of Dungeons and Dragons itself.

Castles could be whole worlds unto themselves, so large and cavernous that one could enter one at the beginning of a story, or novel even, and not find a way out, if at all, till the end. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is set entirely within the walls of the eponymous castle, a sprawling, decrepit edifice that has seen better days, while for Jonathan Harker at least, most of the first part of Dracula takes place within the walls of the count’s lair. Other authors set their stories in or around castles - John Morressey’s Castle Perilous series revolves around, again, the title building, much fighting takes place in and around various castles in The Lord of the Rings, particularly The Two Towers, and of course there are castle aplenty in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Game of Thrones to you.

Why are castles so important to fantasy? I think because they are, or can be, as I noted earlier, all but self-contained worlds, often even cut off from the outside land, functioning as a separate entity and needing no reference to the realm beyond. They can host whole adventures, novels, films or even series, and the scope for what can happen in a castle is virtually limitless. Castles play a large part in Gothic fiction too, and on into horror; mostly ruined, crumbling or ill-maintained ones, which give off an air of despair and slow death, often reflecting the mind and soul of the one or ones who live there. A castle can be, and has been, a shining beacon in the distance or the epitome of fear and horror, a crouching spider waiting at the end of the road to take your life, and maybe more.

They’re a symbol of power, prestige and status. A region with a castle - at least, a well-maintained and occupied one - lets you know that there is law in this land, that there is someone who is watching, protecting (or in some cases, oppressing) the subjects of the realm, and from where assistance can be called if needed. They can be a place to find a wife or a husband, fame and glory and power, riches or magic or just a steady job peeling spuds in the royal kitchens. Castles can be a shelter from the storm when war breaks out over the land, or the leeching, filching, grasping hand that demands more and more for the war effort, raising taxes and punishing those who protest. Castles can also be, though perhaps at heart good places, places of fear when gates or battlements are decorated with the heads of traitors or criminals or enemies - a fate we saw befall Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, and a situation demonstrated with gleeful malevolence by Prince, then King Joffrey to Sansa Stark.

Castles have been known to fly, to go to or provide access to other worlds, other dimensions, to house horrors and dreaded fears as well as riches untold and beauty unthought of. They are frequently the last stand of the hero and his companions, the flag raised in defiance over the battlements as the dragons swoop down, and the site of the chance meeting of star-crossed lovers or long-estranged siblings. They have a power all of their own, their personal magic, and the attraction to castles in fantasy will go on for as long as people dream of all the things they could have, or all the things they fear, symbolised by that shining, or shadowy building perched just on the horizon.
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