Tamara MacNeil’s Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Also discussed: Domestic violence, cheese and tomato sandwiches, and Tolkien

Tamara MacNeil had a lot of thoughts about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, way more than could fit on twitter but no blog of her own. I’ve never had a guest blogger, and I really wanted to hear what she had to say. The result is this amazing post. 

TW: Domestic violence, child abuse

Also, SPOILERS

When I was small, there was a thing inside my dad. It was the same thing that made Pippin look into the Palantir, the thing that  turned Grima into Wormtongue and corrupted Saruman the White. It frightened even Gandalf, who could name the thing, and understood it. And if the man who fought the Balrog was afraid of it, then it was OK if I was too.

More important, there were ways I could fight the monster even though I was afraid. I could protect Frodo and the Ring. I was Aragon. I was Gandalf. I was all of Gondor. I knew that battle would mean my complete destruction and that the only thing I had on my side was time. I knew that eventually the clock would strike 18 and I would be able to get out, but until then I had to be cautious, to ride out and face the Mouth of Sauron, to keep my troops ready to fight even while I danced and dissembled and wasted the Enemy’s time.

“When adults fight children, adults always win”, says a line in Neil Gaiman‘s new book,The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s true, one of the myriad small, true things that lie embedded in the text and left me shaking when I read them. I supposed I ought to talk about this book exclusively, since it is what I said I’d do, but I want to talk a little bit about fantasy as whole too because in my experience these things are linked. I hope you’ll excuse me.

I would have liked a book like this when I was growing up. I would have liked a book that understood without preamble how hard it is to reconcile a world that says, You are safe when you’re with your parents with the family I actually had. I would have liked a hero who could look at his terrifying father, red-faced and bellowing, and ask him if it made him feel big to yell at little boys, because that was more or less the question I always wanted to ask and knew I never could. Those things would have mattered quite a lot to me.

I don’t know if Neil Gaiman meant to write a book that explored familial violence, but he did. Oh, sure, you can read it as the sort of story that fits on the shelf alongside the Narnia books and those books about Alice, and read like that I’m sure it’s great, but because of my experience I didn’t want to read it like that. I wanted to read it the other way. So I did.

I sometimes hear people refer to fantasy as “escapism” as if that is some kind of pejorative, as if wanting to not be in this exact place and time is some sort of moral failing. I don’t know about the experience of others, but I started reading fantasy because it made sense to me. You could find all sorts of people in fantasy, including good people who did bad things. Fantasy was the crooked mirror through which I could face my reality and create strategies to manage it. I escaped many battles merely by being bookish and simply not being around. I usually went to bed quietly and without fuss and turned out my lights on command, then read by the light of my clock-radio (after midnight it got harder with one fewer illuminted digit, but The Lord of the RingsThe Horse and His Boy, and most of all To Green Angel Tower were totally worth it).  And I learned a lot about human nature and how to live in this exact place and time.

I was aware even as a kid that I was reading fantasy for two reasons, to be out of my own world and to understand it at the same time. I think that’s why I was never interested in mainstream YA fiction as a kid. I didn’t care about other kids who were having problems with math and didn’t make friends easily, I cared about what adults were thinking and why I felt different from everybody else. Obviously, I was a princess in hiding. Had a magical secret. Was being prepared for greater but world-saving hardship. And, while I was enjoying those thoughts, I studied adult motivation and behaviour. While I was trying to find a way to understand what was happening in my world, I learned that sometimes adults are scared and out of their depth, like Dave when he landed, friendless, in Fionivar, and sometimes they’re bullied, like Sparhawk had been before he got tough, and sometimes they’re weak like King Elias when he took the Dragonbone Chair. I learned that adults can be unhappy and struggling and broken, that they could be bad people and still cry at the door of their daughter’s bedroom and mean it when they say, “I love you” to the daughter they’ve confined.

And I learned something else, which came back when I was reading Ocean the way that memories came back for the boy who is a man who is narrating the story. I learned that at some point in your life, you will realize that you are different, and someone somewhere is different too, and they’d like to be friends.

Nobody starts out with a Fellowship. You start out with people you know, and then, somehow, a Fellowship happens. And it might not be the one you want, or the one you think you ought to have. It might be dwarves who are terrible houseguests but turn out to be great guys who do things their own way. It might be a relative you didn’t know you had. It might be an old woman who lives down the lane, who sometimes seems so wonderfully youthful that you think she’s 11, or so wise that she’s a million years old, or somewhere in between.

And once you have your fellowship, you can tell your story. You can talk about how daddy held you down under the water (a scene that hit me like floodwater and left me breathing hard and shaking). You can talk about how someone has replaced your real mother and now this other mother wants to sew buttons on your eyes. You can speak your truth and in spite of everything the world says about children and safety and families, you will actually be believed.

This book is the right book for me, now, an adult still sometimes staggered by a memory, who is still astonished by a fellowship that holds me up when I’m too tired to stand and will never let me go. It is a story in the style of the tales you heard at family parties when you went and sat with the old folks, and the fairy stories you heard, and the stories you probably made up on endless summer afternoons. It is also a book about survival, about a world that just accepts that battles must be fought and monsters conquered, and sometimes the monsters will literally wear your parent’s face.

I still read piles of fantasy. These days I read it for the pleasure of the story more than as a survival manual, but I also I read it to remind myself of the things that I have now told you. I read fantasy because when you grow up in a family that rotates around a hub of alcohol and violence there is a thing that lives inside of daddy, the same thing that made a very good and brave hobbit look into the Palantir, and corrupted the greatest of the great Wizards; and because sometimes the mother in the kitchen is the Real Mother and sometimes she’s the one who wants to sew buttons on your eyes. Sometimes there is a monster you have to fight, but that’s OK, because you are Aragorn. You are Gandalf. And you are all of Gondor and the Shire. You can fight it and you can win. And you don’t have to do it alone.

And when it is done, you can sit at the water’s edge, like the man who is still a boy who tells the story in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and you can eat a cheese and tomato sandwich and just be a normal person for a change. Which is really nice, actually.

I’m honored to be a part of Tam’s fellowship and grateful we met at Viable Paradise last year.

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It Must Be That Time of Year Again: A Response to Has Fantasy Forgotten the Consequences of Violence?

There’s a post up at A Dribble of Ink, Has Fantasy Forgotten the Consequences of Violence? by Adam Calloway that asks

…it occurred to me that I was writing a fantasy novel with almost no violence (outside of a fistfight or two). The plot is resolved through hard work and cleverness. It got me to wondering why there aren’t more fantasy (or science fiction) novels that deal with issues outside of violence?… Is it time that genre media diversifies into non-violent narratives as well?

If we take for granted the fact that four out of every five fantasy books will have a non-negligible amount of violence in them, then should the discussion be less about whether fantasy has too much violence, and more about the purpose the violence serves?

I think this is the real discussion. I’ve suggested that violence works best when we’re forced as readers to confront both the action and consequence.

A while back, I was shocked out of a book by a popular MG/YA writer by the casual violence of a pre-teen casually killing a foot soldier of the enemy. It happened in passing, on the way to the important confrontation, without emotional consequence for the character either immediate or in the future.

Good fantasy presents violence in a way that affects both the characters involved as well as the world in which the violence takes place.

That’s Adam again, but it’s essentially the thought I had as I began to write my own YA fantasy, which I couldn’t help but see as in conversation with the book by the popular writer. I was determined that violence would be relatively easy for some and relatively hard for others, but it would always have consequences, both immediate and in the future. Around the same time I read What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes and On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society Dave Grossman. Both those books talk about how hard it is, even for soldiers trained (read psychologically broken down and rebuilt as soldiers) and facing enemy fire, to kill. The latter includes information such as during World Wars I and II, only and estimated 15-20% of frontline soldiers actually fired their weapons and of that, many fired into the air instead of at the enemy. The numbers are even lower for earlier wars and, according to the author, hold true for whichever nation you study. Later, armies got much better at getting soldiers to kill, but even so, Karl Marlantes, who fought in the Vietnam War, talks as much about the times he didn’t kill as much as the incandescent joy he felt when he did.

Violence happens of course, but even in war, even in the Medieval Ages, which we think of as brutal and ugly (although this article by Kelly DeVries, a medieval historian, tells us they were actually very boring (sorry, the article has been moved beyond a paywall)) the actual hacking and mayhem occurred less than we like to think it did. And violence, when it is used, in our present day and stretching back into the past, is often used against women, children, marginalized people and, as Liz Bourke reminded us, against male soldiers captured in war.

A Song of Ice and Fire is very violent, but in many circumstances, the violence has meaning and far reaching consequences. After a fight or a battle comrades are grieved over, foes are cursed, tallies are taken. However, the series seems to focus on the consequences of shocking violence: an assassination, an ambush, an orchestrated martial campaign, a naval attack. Casual violence — especially sexual violence — often goes without comment or consequence. This is the type of violence that I believe detracts from a work

I agree with Adam. I can’t read the more explicitly violent books and I rarely see, much less enjoy, the blockbuster Hollywood movies because of their emphasis on meaningless, endless, gory violence and action for the sake of moving. It’s boring and offensive at the same time, to me. It’s also lazy, probably a symptom of our ongoing and never-ending wars (drone strikes, anyone?) and says something about the American psyche that we probably all don’t want to know. But it’s also a symptom of chasing the already has been done: The Matrix was incredibly popular, we’ll make another movie just like it, but with more violence! Some video game was incredibly popular (I betray my ignorance about them), we’ll make another just like it, but with more violence! Hollywood is still chasing what they imagine are the tastes of the 16-24 year old males (why should they be any more right about this than they are about what women like? Have you tried to sit through a “romcom” lately?) and the rest of our entertainment follows suit because for most of us our palate is so accustomed to it, we can’t taste it unless it’s bigger, bloodier, more violent than the last. Because we’re so used to it, we don’t see it.

Why am I writing this blog post? Because comments.

But realism, a few responders (notably mostly male at the beginning of the attack, sorry I mean conversation) cry. Stop trying to dictate my art, others cry, how dare you make me think that what I do may have real world consequences. But genre expectations; but Adam, you stupid; but only white Westerners live in a world without daily violence (and those Other People don’t feel it the way we do anyway); but diversity (Adam rightly points out that he’s asking for more diversity in fantasy because he loves it, not less); but promotion=evil, he just wants to sell books (I’d point out this book isn’t finished yet, and Adam is musing out loud about what it means to write a book without violence); but numbers! are you sure what you’re saying is true?

It all wearingly reminds me of last summer’s conversation about grim dark. Some of us want less violence; some want to examine the consequences of the mainly gendered violence in the media we consume; some of us love the anti-hero and tragedy, and some people knee-jerk and shout censorship! cooties! you (women, pacifists, communists, un-Americans) just don’t understand and are trying to take over the world anyway!

Sigh.

Since so many said it better than I can, just think about it with violence, general, instead of grimdark, specific:

Elizabeth Bear, I Love a Good Tragedy As Much as the Next Guy

If every woman’s going to be raped, if every hero is going to turn out to be a pedophile or a coward, if every halfway honorable man is going to be impaled, if every picturesque little town is going to be burned to the ashes… Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies is just as lazy a narrative as the one where all challenges are resolved by a handy Deus ex machina. And possibly a little more juvenile.

Foz Meadows, On Grittiness and Grimdark

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

Liz Bourke with some facts about violence against men in war (think about why it’s so disturbing to talk about this kind of violence, but we accept depictions of the same kinds of violence against women without a blink—even me sometimes. We all swim in the cultural soup). Realism, Male Rape and Epic Fantasy

Kate Elliott reflects on consensual sex in fantasy in What is Your Consensual Sex & Love Doing in My Epic Fantasy?

Sophia McDougall on rape as wallpaper in The Rape of James Bond (The google results while I was looking for that were horrific)

I’ll leave you with Marie Brennan to end. Welcome to the Desert of the Real

I repeat: there’s nothing wrong with writing about violence (even bloody, horrific violence), sex (even nonconsensual sex, which is to say rape), or moral greyness. All of those things are real. But they are not the whole picture. Reality is not a desert in which we stagger from one tiny oasis to the next, barely sucking down enough muddy, stagnant water to stay alive. If you’re writing about the desert, ask yourself why, and where you’re going in it, and whether you’re following that path because it will take you somewhere useful, or just because everyone else has gone that way.

And finally, various people:

It’s fantasy! Why would you want to do the same old thing and keep the same old rules when you could make up anything? Isn’t that the point?