Tuesday, October 7, 2014

About "Avianca's Bezel"

Matthew Hughes's novelet "Avianca's Bezel" appears in the September/October 2014 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction as an example of the former; it is a fantasy piece set in a future version of Earth and follows the continuing travails of Raffalon the thief. In the text, Raffalon finds himself imprisoned for attempted breaking and entering, in debt because of expenses accrued during incarceration, auctioned off to pay the debt, and ensorcelled into attempting to retrieve the eponymous bezel. It allows him to escape his ensorcelment, but at the cost of altering his body substantially; he is able to secure assistance in undoing the damage done to him and eventually comes away with exquisite goods to sell as he makes his way away. It is an entertainingly episodic piece, and it is one that, as is typical for the fantasy genre, deploys a medievalist milieu--even if it is one so far in the future that Sol has grown orange and dim, as an earlier Raffalon story notes ("Stones" 160).

A number of features of the setting establish it as partaking of the medieval. One is its carceral practice. In the piece, Raffalon is taken into custody for "intent to commit depredacious entry" (170), a charge that evokes wording attested as far back as 1483 in works printed by Caxton ("Depredation") and thus connects back to the end of the English medieval from which much of the popular understanding of the Middle Ages derives. His being taken in "Nooses and manacles" and being held in a tower whose sanitary facilities consist of a bucket he has to empty himself also evoke stereotypical images of medieval dungeons--and his being charged for his upkeep does, as well (170). One of the features marking the late medieval prison--again familiar through association with Caxton by way of Le Morte d'Arthur and its author--is its permeability, as a number of scholars have asserted.* That permeability is largely enabled by the ability of prisoners and those who care for them to pay for such luxuries and even staples as they receive; without that payment, the late medieval prison is a dreary place indeed, but with it, it could be reasonably comfortable. That the prison into which Raffalon is cast functions similarly (170-71) marks it as aligned with medieval carceral practice, highlighting the conformity of the novelet's milieu to the expected medievalism of fantasy narrative.

Another connection of the milieu to the medieval or medievalist is in its evocation of Dante. The Florentine poet is, of course, best known for his intimately detailed biting commentaries couched as descriptions of the multi-leveled underworld (which depictions are often appropriated and refigured for comic effect as well as in the occasional interactive media production); he accords his Purgatory and his Heaven no less detail than his Hell, offering for each a nine-part division. Hughes offers what appears to be a similar cosmology in the novelet; it exists within a creation of nine planes (178), each of which exists at a higher level of intensity than that which lies "below" it. "Higher" levels are generally only accessible by the higher faculties, and that only after intensive preparation (181); the process is not unlike the atonement for sins in Dante's Purgatory. Hughes' fictional milieu operates much as the tripartite division of Dante's spiritual world--and in both cases, the world the reader occupies is the reality that stands apart from what is described in the text. One character remarks that "'Virtually anything from the Fourth Plane is valuable on the Third [the "real" world of Raffalon]. Pebbles there are gems here'" (196), and "a twig from which sprouted a blossom [taken from the Fourth Plane]....were quite the most beautiful objects Raffalon had ever held, seemingly made of polished platinum and flakes of pure gold" (208). Too, the Fourth Plane cannot safely be viewed without normally-opaque protections against being "eye-staggered" or suffering a terminally self-destructive "Euphoromania" (202). It is a region of "rarefied energies" that threaten to consume "lesser" souls that enter it (204), not unlike the increasingly bright and brilliant levels of Dante's Heaven. Approaching the Seat of the Most High entails continuously growing removal from the terrestrial and exposure to divine radiance unendurable without marked assistance--save for those who have made themselves ready for it through what can be called intensive spiritual training. In that similarity, then, is a connection between Hughes's work and the medieval ideal prevalent in English-language popular culture.

More could possibly be taken from "Avianca's Bezel" to tie it to the medievalist setting frequently adopted by fantasy literature; consideration of the series of stories featuring Raffalon would doubtlessly provide yet more to tie the stories to medieval antecedents. The appearance of the stories in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction serves to mark them as representative of quality work in the fantasy genre; the magazine has high publication standards, and its endurance in print, even if somewhat reduced from years past (with bimonthly issues having succeeded eleven issues annually a few years ago), bespeaks the regard in which it has been and continues to be held. That Hughes's story evokes medievalism in is milieu thus serves as an indicator that, despite the increasing divergence of societies and analogues of societies presented in fantasy writing, the medieval still serves as a primary, still-ever-acceptable venue for the presentation of that writing which relies upon magic for its effect.** It indicates that at least one of the dominant threads of fantasy readership still looks to the medieval, for reasons I have motioned towards yet which I know are not so thoroughly explicated as they could be or ought to be ("Thoughts"). And thus it shows that the kind of work the Society seeks to promote remains relevant, as does the work of the more traditional medievalist upon which the Society happily relies.

*I discuss some of this in my dissertation (69n11).

**I have a piece under review as of this writing that works towards an effective definition of "magic" for use in fantasy literature. I realize it is an open question.

Works Cited

  • "Depredation." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, 2014. Web. 7 October 2014.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. The Establishment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as the Standard Text of English-Language Arthurian Legend. Diss. U of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2012. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 2012. Print.
  • ---. "Thoughts about Why We Still Look to the Medieval." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 24 June 2014. Web. 7 October 2014.
  • Hughes, Matthew. "Avianca's Bezel." The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction September/October 2014: 169-208. Print.
  • ---. "Stones and Glass." The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction November/December 2013: 156-97. Print.

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