Saturday, 10 January 2009

From the Elder Days to the Dark Tower

I had a sense of eucatasptrophe (what Tolkien calls the good catastrophe) this morning as I was reading Wolves of the Calla. It happens when Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy go todash (courtesy of Black Thirteen) and land up (in a manner of speaking) in New York. They go visit the rose that might be a doorway to the Dark Tower or the Tower itself. When they see the rose there is a sound of many voices singing:

“Here is yes. Here is you may. Here is the good turn, the fortunate meeting, the fever that broke just before dawn and left your blood calm. Here is the wish that came true and the understanding eye. Here is the kindness that you were given and thus learned to pass on. Here is the sanity and clarity you thought were lost. Here, everything is all right.”

Every age has its great stories: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Hamlet, The Divine Comedy, Alice in Wonderland, and many other tales besides. In terms of sheer epic scope J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium stands head and shoulders above any other work of the 20th Century and that mantle has been passed down to Stephen King I think. I’ve read many fantasy books where the blurb compares the story to The Lord of the Rings but they all just don’t live up to that high standard. SK does not try to create an epic story of a world gone but rather he writes about a world that’s moving on, a world that’s dying . . . our world. Tolkien starts his story when the world is yet new and already evil has entered into it and stops in a time where the world has forgotten the beauty of old and the power of Elves and Men has declined. SK’s epic story starts with a lone gunslinger, the last of his kind, following the Dark Man across the desert. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. Roland is the last true hero of a world on the edge of oblivion. At the centre of SK’s epic story is the Dark Tower which holds all worlds together and what I love about SK’s corpus is that all of his work is somehow connected to the Dark Tower, all his books are interconnected. In SK’s universe everything means, when things are said it’s best to pay attention because ka is at work.

What I love about good stories is the storyness of them; their text-ure, that warm feeling they give you as a reader. Great stories are an echo of life, not the humdrum everyday sort of thing but the sort of life where anything might happen at any time. In a way stories are more real than ‘real’ life. In books people get killed and it causes the reader real grief, in real life people die every day and we don’t give a damn. We turn on the news and we think, Conflict in the Middle-East, I’m so bored by this. Stories give us our humanity back so that we may care about people dying in senseless conflicts and maybe even do something about it. In The God of Small Things Arundhati Roy says:

“… the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t… In the Great stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.”

The stories Tolkien and SK write are like that, you never grow tired of them because they don’t try to trick you into liking them – they simply reveal certain truths about the human condition. The theme of these stories, like Christianity . . . like life, is eucatastrophe – the good turn. No matter how dark things become they remind us that there is light and beauty forever beyond the reach of the dark cloud as Sam realised when he spotted the lone star from the slag heaps of Mordor.

If you want great stories that deal with a magical world of old, read Tolkien. If you’re looking for something more modern but just as epic, read SK.

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