One Book to Rule them All

Well it’s all finished as of tonight, the Big Read votes have been counted. On one level I think the whole exercise was a waste of damned time. Far too many good books ignored and of course it does not for a moment reflect the nation’s favourite book because the voting is heavily biased in favour of England due to the population. Hence very little Scottish literary figures represented. Most shockingly no Alasdair Gray. Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds is in the top 100 but no Lanark? I asked the BBC why there was no break down of the voting in the different kingdoms of the UK and was told they would be doing something ‘soon’ and yet months later still nothing.

Also very pissed off with all the wanker celebrities taking potshots at Lord of the Rings and SF/Fantasy in general. One took shots at LOTR declaring Philip Pullman’s Dark Material’s trilogy was far superior. While I think they are a damned fine read the truth is they would not exist without Lord of the Rings, as indeed most fantasy trilogies would not. Bill Oddie also took a cheap shot at LOTR and ‘silly fantasy’ in general. This from the man who picked Wind in the Willows as his book and was a former Goodie, a show which had a giant kitten toppling the Post Office Tower and children’s TV show puppets like Dougal rebelling and chasing them round the garden. Not fantasy at all either. Bill claimed Wind in the Willows was not a fantasy of course, just as many others claimed anything they liked which was fantasy was not, of course, fantasy, so it was okay to enjoy them. Philip Pullman is not just a fantasy. Well, few truly good books are ‘just’ any one thing, but the genre skeleton it grows upon is FANTASY!. Why the hell couldn’t its champion, Benedict Allen, admit that? Why can’t adults admit that some fantasy is good literature? Newspapers are just as bad. What is this taboo about not admitting some SF&F is GOOD LITERATURE????

Still, once more JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has topped the list, which does please me, despite my misgivings about the whole thing (although it has been utterly fantastic for getting people to READ!). Clive Anderson commented exactly what I was thinking – that LOTR topped polls run long before the excellent movies. A copy of the book is to be sent to thousands of school libraries across the UK, so once again the Geek inherit the Earth; a whole new potential generation of fantasy readers for us to capture (get them while they’re young, as the Jesuits used to say, although they may have had less honourable intentions considering what some of those priests have been up to).

Why is this book so popular? It beat everything in our Waterstone’s Book of the Century poll back in the 90s. We measure all modern fantasies against it. Why? I could point out the incredibly detailed worldscape that Tolkien crafts. In a fantasy you must have some grounding that gives the reader a form of reality – sounds strange but it is true and is something that Peter Jackson, the wonderful Kiwi Hobbit, has understood instinctively with the movie adaptations. Believable cultures, languages and traditions allow the reader to accept more fantastical elements such as wizards, talking trees and monsters. The eternal battle between good and evil could be another element. We all love that, it resurfaces time and again in all forms of art. The sense of history – as his grandson said tonight on the Big Read there was this sense of so many stories untold because of the richness of the history of Middle Earth (and indeed which spawned so many volumes of history later).

The truth is there is no one reason, or at least none I can fathom. All good books are woven like tapestries; so many threads come together to make it what it is. But if I had to pick one I would say that quite simply it is the power of Myth. Ray Mears, championing the book tonight, hit it on the nail when he said that it recalls the kinds of great sagas we used to tell around roaring camp fires long before we wrote stories down. Tolkien understood this extremely well. The heroic quest against the odds could be drawn from Arthurian romances as easily as Classical epics such as the Golden Fleece. The struggle for good, evil and morality and mortality seeps through the pages of Gilgamesh and Beowulf (a work Tolkien championed as an academic). It is something the finest modern fantasists understand and use, like Neil Gaiman in the Sandman series or American Gods, Ashok Banker in the Rama series or Holdstock in Celtika.

Books like The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the Philosopher’s Secret Fire have discussed Jungian archetypes and the universal mythic types which repeat throughout history and throughout cultures as diverse as Aborigines in Australia and Inuits in Alaska. Some Siberian nomads used to tell of the wise man of the tribe having to undergo his initiation rite. He would travel a long way to the edge of the world, passing many dangers. At the end he would have to climb the Iron Mountain which held up the roof of the sky. If he made it this far he would have to find the gap between the sky flapping around the mountain peak, sneaking inside, entering the Earth through the great rock face. Once past this obstacle he would finally face a tiny stone bridge over an endless, black chasm. Should he make it across this last trial he knew he faced certain death – he would be ripped apart by a dark, hidden creature inside the mountain. Afterwards he would be rebuilt with bones of iron – reborn anew, with the knowledge and power his quest had granted him, he would return to his people to lead them.

Recognise it? It’s Gandalf facing his own demon, the Balrog. It’s Sheridan at Za Haduum. It’s about ordinary people who do heroic things and are forever transformed by what they have to do. In the Sandman Gaiman once had Dream talk about the ‘true stories’ in the realm of dreams. These were the tales which are eternal and will be with us forever, across all times and cultures, because deep down they speak to something fundamental in our collective psyche. I’ve devoured myths since I was a child, cutting my teeth on Ulysses when I was in primary school and going on to Gilgamesh(the world’s oldest written story – and it’s an epic fantasy) and the Mabinogion as I grew up. I’m still amazed at how many times I find resonances within the fantasy books I read – or even the non-fantasy books – and the echoes of past stories which keep pushing from our hidden past into the present in new forms, reminding us of who we are.