27 December 2019

The Oxford and Cambridge Schools of British Fantasy

From Slate’s interview with Maria Sachiko Cecire, professor at Bard and author of Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century:
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, as many people know, were friends and colleagues, but they were actually working to reform the English curriculum at Oxford, in addition to writing their own fantasy.

They were the architects of this curriculum, which went into effect in 1931. And they really had an enormous role to play in the kinds of questions that were set in examinations, the texts that were required for undergrads to read; then this had this kind of huge knock-on effect in terms of what people were studying for the next nearly 40 years at Oxford. There’s still some vestiges of that curriculum in the Oxford education today. Then the younger authors I was looking at were Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman. They all studied this curriculum and got their degrees between 1956 and 1968.

This curriculum at Oxford was really heavy on medieval literature, just at the moment when most other universities were going in the direction of modernism and the kinds of writing that we now associate with literary fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. At Oxford they were doubling down on medieval literature and also looking at it not just as examples for linguistic analysis—which was how it had been primarily studied in the 19th century under philology—but really looking at it as literature. Really seriously asking students to meditate on both the English medieval past and also this idea of magic and enchantment. . . .

And for comparison’s sake, I also went to the archive at a few other universities, including Cambridge, which went in a really different direction from Oxford in the ’20s and ’30s—much more intentionally towards modernism, towards more contemporary texts, and cutting out medieval requirements for their undergraduate English degree.

And interestingly, Cambridge didn’t really have the same legacy of children’s fantasy writers. T.H. White was at Cambridge at a really interesting time, when there was still a medieval requirement, but right as they were ending it. If you compare his The Once and Future King to, say, The Lord of the Rings, they’re so different in the way they talk about the Middle Ages, with a different level of reverence. There’s anachronism in White’s writing, and pretty profound critiques of the warlike nature of the Middle Ages and of a lot of the nostalgia for that period. Whereas Tolkien and his students tend to be a lot more reverent of that material.
See previous discussions of Tolkien as a teacher of future fantasy writers in 2010 and 2011.

24 December 2019

Life Lessons from the MGM Movie

Emeralds of Oz: Life Lessons from Over the Rainbow is a short but not insubstantial riff on the MGM Wizard of Oz. The author, Peter Guzzardi, is a veteran book editor, but this is the first book published under his own name, several years in the making.

Emeralds of Oz is not based on the Oz mythos as a whole—just the famous movie. Guzzardi writes nostalgically about watching that film on television with his family but shares no fond memories of reading the Oz books as a child. He read a lot, but his taste leaned toward boys’ adventures. It takes over a dozen pages before Guzzardi even mentions L. Frank Baum, and there are only a couple of times when the book invokes parts of Baum’s story that didn’t make it into the movie.

Guzzardi isn’t just playing to the MGM movie’s larger contemporary fan base. That movie really defines his idea of Oz. At one point he recalls a difficult journey, noting he was about the same age as when Dorothy went to Oz. Context makes clear that he’s picturing the young adolescent Dorothy portrayed by Judy Garland, not the little girl drawn by W. W. Denslow.

The bulk of the book consists of lessons drawn from rewatching the MGM movie, rather like a sincere Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewing. A fair number of these homilies actually grow out of the vaudeville-style jokes mixed into the screenplay. There are longer meditations on the movie’s more explicit lessons, and of course a struggle at the end because of the screenplay’s ethical knots.

The “Emeralds of Wisdom” found in the movie tend toward pleasant reminders to keep doing what we normally do or know we should do, not deeper digs into the philosophical and ethical questions that the movie could raise. (Can one be a very good man while pretending to be a wizard?) The working title was All I Need to Know I Learned from the Wizard of Oz, with the implication that we knew it all from when we were young. Guzzardi drops mentions of the Kabbalah, mantras, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and other mainstays of modern self-help books. The more interesting commentary grows from his own life, however.

As an editor, Guzzardi’s specialty was crowd-pleasers, sometimes with fantastic results—Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, most notably. Emeralds of Oz grew out of that same commercial impulse. It’s designed as a gift, with glittery emerald endpapers, deckle edges, eye-catching interior design, and other hallmarks of the book as object. For people who like the movie and this sort of advice, it’s a fine package. But its strength comes from Guzzardi’s sincerity as he seeks guidance in the question, “What Would Dorothy Do?”

18 December 2019

See What See You Yesterday Did There

Stories of time travel with branching possibilities emphasize the results of characters’ choices even more than other types of stories.

Furthermore, the way those stories end is inherently optimistic or pessimistic. They show that people can change their worlds, futures, or selves—or they show those people can’t.

[Since it’s impossible to discuss how stories end without SPOILERS, the remainder of this posting will not only not be SPOILER-free, it will be packed with extra SPOILERS.]

Back to the Future presents such an optimistic portrait of the universe that not only does Marty restore his family but without even trying he actually makes their life much better. In the sequels he also manages to repair the future and distant past.

Men in Black 3 doesn’t fix the losses of the past, but more knowledge of the past gives Agent J a happier present.

In contrast, Twelve Monkeys shows the hero unable to prevent the global catastrophe that leads to a dystopic future. From the same director, Terry Gilliam, Time Bandits ends on a sour note with its young hero orphaned and evil once again loose in the world. Something about free will, the Supreme Being doesn’t really explain.

See You Yesterday, a movie directed by Stefon Bristol and co-written by him and Frederica Bailey, is a time-travel story set in 2019 Brooklyn. Two high-school juniors, C.J. and Sebastian, have built a temporal displacement device as a science project. They have high hopes for college scholarships. The future looks bright.

Unfortunately, C.J. and Sebastian are also in the world where it’s necessary to say Black Lives Matter. Both crime and overpolicing constrict those African-American teens’ lives. Their experiments with traveling through time in their neighborhood end in the death of one character close to them, then another. No matter how many times they go back to the crucial day, someone ends up dead.

Finally, C.J. goes back on her own. And the movie ends with her running along a now-familiar alley. We don’t know if she succeeds is changing events. We don’t know if she can. By American entertainment standards, that’s a pessimistic ending. And a well considered one.

In an interview at the Decider, director Bristol said:
Often times when you have a tragic movie with a happy ending, people are like, “Well, all’s well that ends well.” I don’t want that. I want the audience to be uncomfortable. I want the audience to have their own interpretation of what’s happening with our country.
In other words, if we want this story to work out well for C.J., her family, her friends, and people like them, we have to fix this timeline ourselves.