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December, 2004 : Review:

Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock

[Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy by Michael Moorcock, Monkeybrain Books, 2004. ISBN 1-932265-07-4.]

In the introduction to the new, updated edition of his classic study of epic fantasy, Wizardry and Wild Romance, Michael Moorcock is honest about the book's limitations: "As it is, I shall only be able to deal briefly with many of the writers discussed, and I'm aware that I frequently fail to support my cases as fully as I should." The book feels less like a systematic study of anything than like a great conversation in a bar with a phenomenally well-read and opinionated man. When that man is someone as experienced and influential as Moorcock, the irritations are minor compared to the wealth of small gems offered.

Moorcock claims that anyone not already inclined to agree with his opinions will probably not find anything to convince them otherwise in the book. This may be true, because the text rapidly jumps between subjects and examples, seldom staying on any one point long enough for it to sink in before a different subject is at hand. Entire monographs could be written from the ideas in just a few of Moorcock's paragraphs. For instance:

I sometimes think that as Britain declines, dreaming of a sweeter past, entertaining few hopes for a finer future, her middle-classes turn increasingly to the fantasy of rural life and talking animals, the safety of the woods that are the pattern of the paper on the nursery room wall. Hippies, housewives, civil servants, share in this wistful trance; eating nothing as dangerous or exotic as the lotus, but chewing instead on a form of mildly anaesthetic British cabbage. If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits, and for rabbits.

Moorcock is at his best when he is discussing what he doesn't like, because it injects specificity and energy into his prose. The chapter titled "Epic Pooh" has, justifiably, gained some notoriety, because it is a devastating (and morbidly funny) argument against the kind of fantasy written by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. "The sort of prose most often identified with 'high' fantasy," Moorcock says, "is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby, it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles, it makes friends with you, it tells you comforting lies."

It is rare to encounter someone who is so willing to state the limitations, pitfalls, and failings of a type of writing he clearly loves. What Moorcock's honesty does, though, is create new possibilities within a debased and ravaged mode of literature; he sees the gold hidden beneath mounds of dirt and seizes it. Fantasy writing has become such a commodity that there is little incentive to create vividly original work, but where many people would dismiss such writing altogether, Moorcock sifts through it, holding a firm and vehement belief in the form's validity and value. He offers strong, sharp analysis of many revered writers and books, but he also offers alternative books and writers that have been overlooked or underappreciated. Over and over again, Moorcock finds wonders in work that has not received nearly as much attention as the books most people think of when they hear the words "epic fantasy."

Tolkien and Lewis get whacked about a good deal in Wizardry and Wild Romance, and Moorcock delivers a couple of quick blows to many other writers along the way, including H.P. Lovecraft, whom he says is "a somewhat inadequate describer of the indescribable," whose stories exhibit "obsessive aggression" and a "neurotic drone." (In an introduction to this edition, China Miéville takes exception to Moorcock's bashing of Lovecraft, while pointing out that one of the virtues of this book is that it contains so much with which to agree and disagree. In an afterword, Jeff VanderMeer cites the "inadequate describer of the indescribable" phrase as "both funny and true.") His opinions are admittedly personal, but they are backed up with intelligence and experience, which makes them more than the cantankerous ramblings of a crank.

For the new edition, Moorcock has edited his text, adding references to recent authors, and adding some of his reviews from the Guardian as appendices, along with an introduction to a book about Mervyn Peake, the author most frequently referred to in the text as a fantasy writer of high quality. The reviews are slight, and some of them suffer the hyperbole and vagueness that are endemic to such writing, but they offer a good guide to readers looking for excellent books to read.

Moorcock's knowledge of fantasy literature is vast, and the first chapter of the book, "Origins," is a tour-de-force of concision, taking us in nineteen pages through hundreds of years of literature. It's a survey that doesn't feel like a list, which such things can easily become, but rather the sort of wide-angle view of a subject that lets us see broad outlines and symmetries. The second chapter, "The Exotic Landscape," seems to me to be the best of the book, because though the primary subject is the function of setting in fantasy, this subject allows Moorcock to bring in many others, and the subject of landscape itself is one that he explores with passionate intelligence, demonstrating that one of the most important criteria for determining excellent fantasy from the mass of mediocre and execrable tales is how deeply and creatively the writer has imagined a setting and linked it to the action, characters, and themes of the story:

A writer of fantasy must be judged, I think, by the level of inventive intensity at which he or she works. Allegory can be nonexistent but a certain amount of conscious metaphor is always there. The writer who follows such originals without understanding this produces work which is at best superficially entertaining and at worst meaningless on any level—generic dross doing nothing to revitalize the form from which it borrows. A writer's work tends to last in direct ratio to the degree of originality and vitality put into it.

Moorcock brings in many examples in this chapter from a wide range of writers: John Bunyan, A. Merritt, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E.R. Eddison, Clark Ashton Smith, Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Patricia McKillip, Elizabeth Lynn, and M. John Harrison. Leiber and Harrison are held up as models both of what fantasy can accomplish at its best, and what avenues still lie waiting for more comprehensive exploration.

Later chapters are devoted to heroes and to wit and comedy in fantasy. Each offers plenty of epigrammatic pleasures, but not the sort of sustained and original argument of the second chapter. For instance, Moorcock's ideas on the relationship between fantasies written for children and fantasies written for adults are provocative and deserve more exploration. As he notes, fantasy novels with characters who are not identifiable as either heroes or villains, but something in between, something more realistic, more skeptical and sardonic and world-weary, may strain epic fantasy to the breaking point and alienate an audience looking for familiar pleasures. (Such books already exist, of course—some of Moorcock's own, M. John Harrison's Viriconium series, K.J. Bishop's Etched City—but they are hardly the mainstream.)

Moorcock's vision is one that has come to be associated with the British, and the kinds of books he advocates for—books that are more urban and ironic—are a kind the British seem particularly good at producing. Because of his dislike for Tolkien and Richard Adams, Moorcock overemphasizes the inherent power of an urban environment to be meaningful in fiction, but there have been seemingly few writers who have tried to prove him wrong about the use of rural settings, which tend in most fantasy fiction to be the home of romantic nature gods and wise, herb-making hermits.

Moorcock deliberately left discussion of his own contributions to fantasy literature out of Wizards and Wild Romance, but there are a few anecdotes he passes on that made me yearn for him to write his memoirs:

I appeared on a panel with a group of sword and sorcery writers who told the audience that the reason they wrote was because they (and, they implied, the audience) felt inadequate to cope with the complexities of modern life. "Where today," asked one, "can you put an arm hold around a man's throat and slip a knife into him between the third and fourth ribs and get away with it?" The answer was, of course, that the Marines were still looking for recruits. But maybe he meant, "Where can you do that and not have someone retaliate?" If that's the main appeal of such stories it probably explains why most people over the age of eighteen stop reading them.

The world of fantasy and science fiction needs more writers like Michael Moorcock who are able to discuss what they do and why they do it, their passions and peeves. Such writers invigorate the traditions they are a part of, and they help readers clarify their own values. There is no need to agree with all of Moorcock's statements any more than there is a need to agree with any critic all the time; the best critic is one whose ideas inspire readers to new ideas of their own. I doubt any reader could come away from Wizardry and Wild Romance without their mind humming with thoughts, arguments, examples, and, perhaps most of all, a desire to track down some of the more obscure writings Moorcock cites. Above all else, his passion is invigorating.

Copyright © 2004, Matthew Cheney. All Rights Reserved.

About Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction with Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, One Story, LCRW, Electric Velocipede, and elsewhere. He is a columnist for Strange Horizons and writes regularly about all sorts of things at his weblog, The Mumpsimus.