Ultimate Fantasies – the Golden Age

The new Ultimate Fantasies sequence (Orion) gave me a good excuse to explore the Golden Age of Fantasy. Some of these titles I had already read – albeit as a boy – and others I had come to by proxy, as in the case of Conan, familiar with the character through comic books and film. There is, of course, the Fantasy Masterworks Series, which includes these eight volumes in the Ultimate Fantasies sequence. Nevertheless, arranged chronologically, the Ultimate Fantasies sequence presents an excellent overview of the genre and a basic map of its evolution. An interesting consequence of this journey was a deeper understanding of influence in fiction. From the outset, I could read between the fairy-dusted pages of Lud-in-the-Mist and see the seeds of other novels, whether these seeds were intentional, actual or not. Bilbo Baggins appears to have had a ruddy-cheeked forebear in Nathaniel Chanticleer, the pot bellied, daydreaming mayor of Lud. The fairy fruit smugglers upset Mayor Chanticleer’s everyday world in an anarchic manner I’d not encountered since An Unexpected Party. And in Lud, it seems, are the ripples that later touched such magical tales as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.

Moving into the 1930’s and beyond, Robert E.Howard’s Conan comes swinging his sword out of Cimmeria and into the pulps, giving birth to a different kind of Fantasy, the savagery of the Hyborian Age. As mentioned, I came to these stories backwards, through a tattered collection of Marvel Comics, L.Sprague de Camp novels, Schwarzenegger’s oafish screen rendition (which, as it happens, bears little in common with the fictional character) until finally coming to drink from the source. One of Lovecraft’s regular pen pals, when Robert E.Howard writes of the Old Gods beyond the stars, whose remnants haunt the primitive lands of Zamora, Koth, and Shem, the influence of Howard the Elder is clear. Lovecraft describes the Conan tales as ‘pure adventure yarns’, and he wasn’t wrong. My imagination roamed free through guileless forests, climbed bejewelled towers to carry out unsophisticated robberies and face magicians in unaffected conflicts.  In hindsight, time has lent Conan a darker edge. My eyebrow lifted more than once over the apparent racism

peppered in the narrative. In The Vale of Lost Women (not published in Howard’s lifetime), there is an unashamed reference to ‘black sluts’. At one point, Conan even remarks, 'I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man’. I’m aware that Howard has faced such criticism before, but to my mind these stories remain classic, and as misguided products of their age, perhaps we should not judge them too harshly. Robert E.Howard committed suicide aged 30 and the world and the genre lost a gem.

1954 saw the publication of Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. In retrospect, the tale seems almost wilfully naïve. A sweeping epic that draws heavily from Norse myth in a more direct fashion than Lord of the Rings, Anderson captured the flavour of those myths with energetic narrative and lyrical prose. Faery changeling Skafloc, embroiled in a long war between the elves and trolls, seeks to remake the cursed sword Tyrfing, despite warnings of tragedy to come. In that tragedy, there appears to be a stark prototype of Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer – a blade that must draw blood whenever it is drawn, that screams and sings and will one day turn upon its wielder. Moorcock nods at The Broken Sword as an influence, but Anderson’s novel lacks the cosmic scope and depth of emotion of the Elric tales, and it seems to me that Moorcock merely enhanced the idea. From the vantage point of this progressive age of Steampunk, New Weird and Dark Fantasy, I found it interesting to come across clichés before they had become so, and in light of that, I very much enjoyed The Broken Sword.

©Boris Vallejo

The innocence of these early stories starts to give way under the wit of Fritz Leiber. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser first appeared in 1939 and their published adventures span five decades. A favourite of my youth, revisiting Lankhmar, The City of Seven Score Thousand Smokes, was nothing less than a thrill. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were as vivid as I remembered them, their boldness and bravado unchanged. Not to mention their dry humour and sarcasm. Leiber adopted a literary approach in crafting his stories, an approach that seems fresh even by today’s standards. He remains credited with single-handedly creating Sword and Sorcery, the first – but far from the last – offshoot of the modern genre. Fantasy was changing, keeping pace with more cynical times, and the mythically based tales of yore made way for those of a less haughty flavour. In the verbal sparring of the red haired barbarian and scrawny wizard thief, there is still a terrific touch of maturity. When

Moorcock claimed that Leiber is ‘still the greatest writer of us all’, I felt inclined to agree with him.

With Elric, Amber and Lyonesse still to come, the Ultimate Fantasies sequence is a treat, whether read in chronological order or not. I have emerged from these books with a deeper understanding of the genre I love, but have also been tremendously inspired. These stories are the seeds which encouraged me to write, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Vive le Fantasy!


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Stardust best fantasy tale since The Princess Bride

51pu-9 TnSL._SL210_ Tristan Thorne is a humble shop boy from a small English town. He has a problem because he found his true love Victoria Forrester only she was being courted by Humphrey the town hunk.

Tristan fianlly gets Victoria to enjoy a romantic dinner under the starlight only to find that Humphrey was willing to travel to another town to get her an engagement ring for her birthday. After watching a falling star Tristan makes a deal with Victoria that she will marry him if he gets her the falling star and returns to her by her birthday which is within one week. The problem is that the star fell on the other side of the Wall which divides England and the magical world of stormhold.

The rest of the tale is an adventure fairy tale following Tristan as he races to get to the fallen star and return before the week is up. He also has to survive while the evil witches and the Kings murderous sons also pursue the fallen star in hopes of cutting out it's heart for eternal life.

This is the best epic quest / fantasy tale since The Princess Bride! I give it 10 out of 10, wow! Stardust is pure art* presenting me with a delightful tale suspending me in time and space through it's immaculate reality*. The twists and turns of the story surprised me and even though it had a typical fairy tale ending I was proud for the hero whom I cared about watching him grow in skill and character and actually earning the happy ending.

Tristen is set on an epic quest with only one week to earn the love of his true love by getting the fallen star and return back through the wall. All of the classic elements of a Joseph Campbell's hero's journey were present but Neil Gaiman enhanced the tale with delightful touches to those steps. One instance was when the hero was about to cross the threshold and got denied by the threshold guardian. I mean he got his ass kicked by that old man who demonstrated an unexpected proficiency with that stick, I was in tears from laughing so hard.

Stardust is an expression of pure art bringing me to a suspended moment through a beautiful balance between drama, action, comedy, and tension. There are many films that try to get this balance but many merely push and pull me from one moment to the next taking me on a roller-coaster ride of emotions leaving me feeling drug out and tired at the end of the film. Neil was able to get it so that I laughed often while griping the edge of my seat thrilled by the action and drama of the scene.

Neil uses a delightful sense of dark humor that put such a twisted smile on my face. He just hits you right from the start of the movie with a murder that I could only laugh at because it was delivered with such tong in cheek. Neil has the King disappointed in his sons because they haven't murdered each other yet, desiring only the strongest son to survive and ascend to become the next ruler of Stormhold. As shocking as the kings position was Neil made it seem so natural that a short distance into the film I found myself only laughing when a son would get himself killed, thinking to my self 'well he wasn't kingly material,' like it was some kind of acceptable behavior. Twisted... I love it.

Throughout the movie there is a beautiful exploration of true love. This story line was masterfully woven into the tale and takes the audience all the way to the very last scene where we find out that true love is not conditional and it is eternal.

The artwork, set design, and graphics all lend to the immaculate reality that Stardust is able to forge from the very beginning and maintain through to the credits. For example the wall that separates England from the magical world of Stromhold was short maybe 3 feet tall yet I never once thought to question why everyone passed through the crack in the wall and not just jump over it. Another example would be on the air ship where the crew collects lightening but it seems so natural like any other type of fishing barge that is out the on the ocean.

The special effects were absolutely beautiful. I loved the scene when the evil witch used her magic to create a road side in by having it form from a point in space and expand out until it filled the normal space it should fill. The subtle use of a light effect for Una which made he glow but they did it in such a manner as to make the whole thing seem so natural. Not only well done on the effects but they added to the immaculate reality keeping me pulled into the world Neil created.

With all of this raving I do have to say "Please, Please stop the use of the helocoptor pan shot." I am so sick of seeing a helicopter pan shot of people walking. Why not try something different. If you want to show them walking a long distance then put the camera behind them and focus on a far off distance point in front of them or something else. I was also disappointed when the director let Una ride the unicorn in an un lady like fashion and did not make her ride side saddle.

The plot twists were really well played in Stardust. Neil builds beautifully an expectation, lulls the viewer into a false sense of security and then blows your mind by zigging when you expect the plot to zag. I could sit here and list the many, many instances when this occurs but I don't believe in putting spoilers into reviews and for those readers who have already seen the film then you already know of the moments I am speaking of and you are probably sitting back like me with a big goofy grin on your face as you recall those moments.

In addition to maintaining such a tight immaculate reality with beautiful effects Stardust had some wonderful little touches too like the use of traditional folk magic. Neil surprised me by not turning to the traditional overused and expected forms of divination like the use of the crystal ball, reflecting pool / mirror, seeking an old shaman but instead had two less used forms the main one being the use of intestinal divination. Yes folks, things get eviscerated so that the witches can view their organs to see the future. As gross as this practice is they did a wonderful job with it making it seem so natural and by not showing anything to the audience and thereby avoiding the modern day trap of being grotesque. The other form of divination was the use of rune tossing. All I can say is that there is a beautifully tense scene on a beach that just wowed me.

In the end it is all about the performance and everybody loves a good show even swashbuckling, murdering, privateers!

The movie Stardust is available through: UnBoxed, Widescreen DVD, HD DVD, or the Book Stardust written by Neil Gaiman.

The film stars: Adam Buxton as Quintus, Ben Barnes as Young Dunstan Thorne, Charlie Cox as Tristan Thorne, Claire Danes as Yvaine, David Kelly as Guard, David Walliams as Sextus, Henry Cavill as Humphrey Monday, Ian McKellen as Narrator, Jason Flemyng as Primus, Joanna Scanlan as Mormo, Julian Rhind-Tutt as Quartus, Kate Magowan as Una, Mark Heap as Tertius, Mark Strong as Septimus, Mark Williams as Billy, Melanie Hill as Ditchwater Sal, Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia, Nathaniel Parker as Dunstan Thorne, Peter O'Toole as Lord of Stormhold, Ricky Gervais as Ferdy the Fence, Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, Rupert Everett as Secundus, Sarah Alexander as Empusa, Sienna Miller as Victoria Forrester

*Art: as defined by James Joyce something that neither pushes nor pulls you but merely presents it's self holding you in the moment. As apposed to pornography which he describes as something that drives you either toward or away from it.

*Immaculate Reality: Akira Kurosawa talks about immaculate reality where the story / movie is so self contained that the audience is pulled in and does not question the events because they are natural within the reality crafted by the story / movie.