Thursday, November 19, 2015

About "The Lord of Ragnarök"

Many of the pieces Albert E. Cowdrey writes for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction take place in New Orleans, Louisiana, a venue entirely appropriate for stories involving magic of various sorts. His contribution to the September/October 2015 issue of the magazine, "The Lord of Ragnarök," however, takes a somewhat different path. Set for the most part in and around Mont Saint-Michel--a location prominent in medieval history and literature--and during or soon after the reign of William the Bastard in England (99), the story is clearly marked as a piece of medievalist work (and a well-written one, to be sure). While a fair bit of the medievalism on display in the work is reasonably accurate, there are divergences from the "real," both in terms of geography and in the observable presence of the supernatural. The divergences are typical of fantasy literature, suggesting that, despite the prevailing reliance of fantasy literature on the Western medieval, the genre requires recourse to something outside verifiable history to make it work.

Like most successful fantasy literature, Cowdrey's piece follows one of Tolkien's dictates and grounds itself in the real. In "On Fairy-stories," Tolkien famously asserts that works depicting the kind of fictional world that fantasy literature needs have to partake largely of the observable world of their expected readers; they cannot be so far removed from what the readers know that they cannot be understood by them. Situating his work largely amid history and geography accessible to readers through travel and study--or even a quick Google search--allows Cowdrey to do such a thing. "The Lord of Ragnarök" is embedded in the documented and (largely) verifiable, imbuing it with an authenticity that allows the supernatural elements of the text to occur without straining credulity beyond tolerance and breaking the Coleridgean willingness to suspend disbelief upon which all narrative fiction depends. Additionally, the title itself evokes a fairly familiar concept; Ragnarök is hardly an arcane term, particularly to the audience most likely to read fantasy literature or that most likely to examine treatments of the medieval.

Further, depictions of the peasantry are hardly atypical or inauthentic. In the text, they are left without defense by the exodus of fighting folk to the Crusades--and imperiled by those who have returned therefrom, bereft of lords and governance and honor (80). Their children are bent and misshapen by the hard physical labor they are forced to do (81), subject to conscription and abusive training (81-82), and subject to threats of torture when they are captured as a result of fighting that they do not necessarily wish to do but perceive as one of the few available methods of advancement (82-83). At the same time, the privations of peasant life provide certain skills--such as the ability to wait patiently (89)--and a simple ideation of justice (94-95), as well as a particular practicality utterly unbound by concerns of chivalric codes. That practicality allows the low-born protagonist, Richard, to save himself both after being captured by an enemy force (83-89) and after the battle turns against that same force (91-93). Even after he is knighted through chance (95), the practicality does not desert him; he keeps largely to himself and away from boasting, using quiet diligence as a way to avoid jealousy at being jumped up in social standing (95-96), listening to much but saying little (99-100). In each, as in the many other lingering traces of his peasant background, Richard displays the kind of fortitude and practical cunning often associated with the lower classes, serving as a sharp contrast to the poorly-idealized noble-born and ringing of the kind of truth that makes the story accessible to readers.

Some of the inaccuracies in the text also serve to familiarize it to its readers. For example, the eponymous lord in the story exercises droit du seigneur, the purported right of a feudal lord to copulate with a vassal's wife on the wedding night (103, 116). It is a mainstay of medievalist fiction, and even of supposedly historical fiction, so that its deployment connects to common conceptions and therefore serves backhandedly to connect the text to readerly expectations of the "authentic" medieval. The practice in its supposed medieval manifestation, however, is fiction; there is no direct evidence of the first-night right being exercised, although there are many accounts of neighboring or antagonistic communities partaking of the practice. That is, it is negative propaganda about "those people," far from factual even if embedded in popular conception sufficiently that it has a force not unlike truth.

Other inaccuracies to the known medieval in the text serve less to authenticate it than to imbue it with features that seem necessary for the function of fantasy literature. For example, while there is much of "real" geography at work in the story--the details of Mount Saint-Michael correspond to what is known--there is also much that is less verifiable. The antagonistic nobleman against whose depredations Richard is conscripted into service is described as "Count of the Dry Hills and Dusty Valleys" (82), an area described as easily accessible from Mount Saint-Michael, yet the climate in the surrounding areas is temperate. "Dry Hills and Dusty Valleys" hardly comes to mind as an accurate descriptor, although it is a fitting land for an antagonistic figure to rule; the inaccuracy therefore helps the work to correspond to long-standing readerly expectations. It indicates that fantasy literature needs something else for its functions, even as it benefits from solid grounding in the medieval.

So does the yet more unreal geography of the Hidden Isles from which the eponymous character takes his name. Reached by Breton-crewed longship after a northward journey of just over a week (78-79, 93, 105-106), the area is inhabited by people who speak "a harsh, guttural language that might have been Norse" and ruled from a formerly volcanic island (107). While the description perhaps evokes the decidedly real Faroe Islands, there is no mention of other land being seen along the journey, and it seems unlikely that a craft traveling between the two "real" places would utterly avoid the sight of land along the way. Too, the Faroe Islands were Christianized (admittedly coercively) before the ascent of William the Bastard to the English throne; by the time of the story, the Faroes would likely not be so overtly pagan as the Hidden Isles are described as being (107). The Hidden Isles, then, suggest themselves as being another place, not likely a "real" one, pointing again to the need to deviate from the medieval to make the fantastic happen.

That the Hidden Isles are described as pagan is justified within the text. The eponymous character, who is also known as "Sieur Drangø des Iles Occultes, Comte de Mont Saint-Michel" (99), describes himself as the son of the Master of Tides, "a great magician [who] raises storms to drive ships onto the rocks" (85) and possessed of great wealth therefore--evidence of which is presented in the text. Both are otherworldly. Drangø is possessed of scaled skin taken by many as being evidence of leprosy (80, 100), viewed by the standards of the time as a supernatural affliction; he is in some senses crocodilian, with large scales, an armored back, slit-pupil eyes, and claws (108). His reptilian appearance is not something that is to be found in the "real" world despite the protestations of many conspiracy theorists; its inclusion marks the text as supernatural, out of accord with the observable. So does his transformation into "the reborn Master of Tides" whose "crimson scales glinted, its whiskers had become long, trailing spines, and its huge green eyes...with unwinking gaze" look out on a domain inherited from the mystically-charged father (109); so, too, do the later sending of storms to conclude a campaign and to reveal how an earlier one had been concluded (113). That the text ultimately demands Drangø for its function places difference from the real at the heart of the story. I have argued before that the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction can be taken as representative of the genre as a whole ("About 'Avianca's"); what the magazine endorses stands as exemplary of the fantastic. That the magazine, through its publication of the story, endorses the contents thereof suggests that it takes a view of fantasy as working best when deeply rooted in the real (particularly the medieval, as "About 'Avianca's Bezel'" also notes) but demanding the insertion of something else for its effect.

That fantasy literature seems to need such things, however, does not mean that it should not ground itself in as much accuracy as it can. Artists and scholars both retain the duty Helen Young notes to get things right. The more that is done well and correctly, after all, the more that can be done to go into something else, since that other needs a solid frame of reference in which to exist.

Works Cited

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