Fantastic Defenders

momotaro enlists allies

Momotaro enlists allies: a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. [Project Gutenberg]

I have recently served as co-editor of a short story anthology, Fantastic Defenders, with my fellow writer, David Keener. The official release was during Balticon. I had fun writing the introduction, and here it is, to give you an idea of what the book’s aim is:

One place to begin, in talking about fantastic defenders, is the Japanese folk tale “Momotaro”: a childless old woman finds a beautiful peach floating down a stream and she takes it home to her husband; the peach suddenly splits open and a miraculous baby boy is inside. When the boy grows to fifteen years old, he hears of the people of northeast Japan being terrorized by demons who arrive by sea to pillage, kidnap, and murder. Momotaro determines that he will be their defender and fight the demons.

Or, if you prefer, look at Beowulf: the young man hears of a land being tormented by the man-eating monster Grendel and he sails from his home in Geatland to offer himself as defender to King Hrothgar.

As for the “fantastic” part, while it points to the story having fantastical elements, the defender often does not have any magical powers—but still may have to oppose supernatural creatures. Momotaro may be a gift from heaven to a deserving couple, but no special powers are given to him. Beowulf relies on his courage and his great physical strength.

In these two exemplar stories, we can discern the nature of the defender, who:

• is compassionate and feels intensely the distress of others;
• may defend an individual, but frequently is defending an entire people; and
• possesses an extraordinary firmness of will and clarity of purpose, and does not waver or give up.

Every defender will not perfectly fulfill all of these traits, but this is our starting point.

The struggle against despair is a frequent theme in stories of fantastic defenders. Sometimes it is an inward struggle, a personal dark night of the soul. Or despair permeates an entire community; a people have lost the ability to live their lives free from oppression and violence. The defender is the enemy of despair.

To point to another well-known defender, Gandalf does have magical powers—he is a wizard and also possesses one of the rings of power. Yet his actions with the greatest impact, for all his ability to bring down bolts of lightning on foes, are in discernment and hope. He counsels and persuades Theoden to resist and fight rather than surrender to hopelessness; he rallies scattered forces to return and fight; dread flees from his presence because his courage and steadfast commitment heartens people.

And here’s another: Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence—in spite of his cherubic demeanor, tendency to giggle, and dithering over ordering a flaming rum punch or mulled wine “heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves”—proves to be a determined, indeed, a steely and almost cruel defender against despair. He allows George Bailey to see an alternate future in which he never existed: a brother dead in childhood; his mother old, embittered, poor; his uncle in an insane asylum; and most painfully, his never-wife Mary alone, childless, not recognizing him. This is tough love at the highest setting.

It’s rather fun to put Clarence in the company of Gandalf, Beowulf, and Momotaro. But something even more unusual is under the surface of It’s a Wonderful Life. In the process of saving George, Clarence doesn’t just keep him from jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. He enables a revelation: it turns out that George is the defender of the town of Bedford Falls, and has been ever since he took over the family building and loan after the death of his father.

As the alternate-reality scenario later makes explicit, the fate of Bedford Falls depends on the outcome of the struggle between the predator, Mr. Potter, and the defender, George Bailey. George makes a blunt assessment of what’s at stake very early in the story, when he hears the town banker call for the Bailey Building and Loan to be shut down: “My father…did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter… People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle… This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.”

And yet, somehow, George remains largely unconscious of his calling as a defender. Momotaro knows what he’s set out to do. So do Gandalf and Beowulf. George, however, doesn’t see the latent, ghostly potentiality of Pottersville, awaiting the moment when the will of its would-be maker is free and unopposed, ever ready to manifest itself and grow into merciless and degrading reality. George runs his business, makes loans, celebrates the new houses of his friends, and all the while his life is a disappointment to him. Distracted by his regret for the adventurous life he never achieved, he misses the big picture of his purpose in family and community.

That awareness comes as part of the climax on Christmas Eve, when George faces despair and sees what it means to not be there, to not take action. How interesting it is for the audience to see the hero’s purpose—which is usually presented early to drive the story—arrive so late, and yet be so satisfying!

We have stretched the definition of a fantastic defender and ventured outside the confines of genre by including George Bailey. He does not face a supernatural foe. But look again at Beowulf’s enemy, Grendel. Why does he hunt and murder the Danes? Because the sound of music and joy coming from the beautiful hall Heorot arouses his anger and hatred, directed against the people inside. In terms of character psychology, Grendel’s estrangement from mankind seems strangely similar to Mr. Potter’s.

So, step into the circle, George Bailey. Shake hands with Beowulf, but do be mindful of his powerful grip.

One last thought. Why do we love stories of fantastic defenders? Here is a possible answer, first provided by G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already,” he wrote. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

This idea was paraphrased more succinctly by Neil Gaiman as “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Chesterton and Gaiman are speaking of stories about fantastic defenders, the ones who see rapacious and violent enemies and refuse to flee, will not lay low. They run toward the terrors. We admire them and take heart from their courage. And it is with pleasure that we offer the stories of Fantastic Defenders. We hope that the stories do justice to the spirit of real defenders everywhere.

 

Balticon: The Social Side of Writing

soot sprite

My very own soot sprite, purchased at Balticon.

Just got back from Balticon on Monday, and I was thinking about the wonderfully various array of activities and people, and what a great experience it is for a writer to get out and mingle.

And that led me to think that there’s a missing part to the standard exhortation “To be a writer, you must write.”

It makes more sense to say, “You must write and you must be read.” Writing is communication, and communication doesn’t happen until the message has been received by someone, who then responds. It’s a conversation.

“Write and be read” is only half of a conversation, the sending-forth part. “Read and listen” is the other part, where you receive, think about, and react to others’ ideas. If you speak or write without listening or reading, you’re only communicating with yourself. The writer and what is written both need to interact with other writers and other texts.

There is a social side of writing, which is why we gather. Balticon and the other cons aren’t the only ways that a writer can socialize. There are writing groups, too. They focus on the writing. But cons bring together the greater community — writers, editors, artists, agents, readers, fans — all of whose voices make up a larger conversation.

[Oddly, “social media” is weak in this respect, usually being declamation rather than conversation.]

I think that there is a connection between a writer who is social and a writer who is read. First of all, at cons you meet people who become curious about your writing, and you may also find sources of new ideas. But on another level, when you meet and listen to other writers, you and your writing are out there in the world, impacting and colliding with all those other writers and their ideas, getting stronger and gaining confidence.

Join the conversation.

giphy

Soot sprites leaving. Meeting new people is not for them.

Let the Coast Guard Handle This

363px-punch_davy_joness_locker

Davy Jones’ locker: much pleasanter to say than “drowned”

I don’t do reviews of short fiction anymore, for a number of reasons. For one, see Neil Clarke’s column from last year, i.e., lack of impact.

However, just for fun, why not give a little nod toward recent stories, such as last week’s “A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea” by Ada Hoffmann at Strange Horizons?

When your lover drowns, please don’t cast a spell;
They’re finicky and monkey-paw-ish, and, well,
He’s dead, you know—so have a long talk with mom
And update your profile at Match.com.

Leaves Falling Fast in Goldengrove

leafless_oak_tree

Many autumns ago, my cousin told me that her daughter had asked her, greatly upset, why all the trees were dying. Apparently, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ young friend asked him the same question.

Spring and Fall:
to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Hopkins’ mind looked for the unifying principal of whatever he was examining, so “Sorrow’s springs are the same” is a key line leading to the poem’s conclusion.

FYI, “ghost”=spirit; “unleaving”=losing leaves.

Hopkins couldn’t find a publisher for this poem (written in 1880), although he had been published numerous times. “Spring and Fall” was not published until 1918, 29 years after his death. It’s a powerful work, but maybe it took the World War I generation to recognize it.

Clarion

I’m taking part in Clarion West’s Write-a-thon starting today, and it goes for 6 weeks. My goal: I’ll be working on a YA novel, and trying to improve my skills in story development. You can see my profile here.

I also want to increase my daily word count, but I can only do that by getting better at knowing where a story is going.

Not to make this all about me, the Write-a-thon is Clarion West’s summer fundraiser. Roping in all these outsider writers makes the event a bit of a self-help experience for writers who are not part of the actual workshop, more fun and interesting than just handing over a donation.

And, in case you don’t know anything about Clarion West, it’s a writing program specifically for writers of science fiction and fantasy.

I’m crossing my fingers that the blog won’t be me talking to myself for the next 6 weeks, so I hope others will drop by and say hi. If you like, give your own thoughts about how you (if you are a writer) conceptualize and build a story from the starting idea. And if you are a reader rather than a writer, maybe you have thoughts on the genre, what you like, and what makes a weak, newly hatched idea gather its strength, spread its wings, and take wing.

Shipwreck — part 7

Jiro thought that he was fortunate in one respect: no one had actually seen him leave the house and take the direction that he had. Perhaps the villagers assumed he would take either of the ways along the coast. It was a steep, exhausting path, and he saw signs that it was used for woodcutting and other kinds of foraging. If the woman had told him the truth about how they traveled to the nearest town, the road where “people disappeared” would not be in favor. He was tired, hungry, wet… When no immediate pursuit came, his pace slackened to a weary trudge.

Finally, he had to admit that there was no path at all and when he came to a tree with an unusual fungus growing on it — that he had already seen and passed once, hours ago — he realized that he had walked in a great, exhausting circle. He was too disheartened to go further. What use to drive himself now? He did not even know where he was going, except that it was into wilderness where people disappeared. And no wonder. He flopped down under a dripping pine, leaned against the trunk, and went from resting to sleeping in a matter of minutes, exhaustion a substitute for a dry bed, comfort, and soft quilt.

It was not an easy sleep, however. He ran from demonic villagers with red-coal eyes, who carried forked spears and who were right on his heels, and he stumbled. Somehow, though, he didn’t die and found himself elsewhere, looking at a white fox with red ears and beautiful green eyes.

It sat looking back at him, with its soft plume tail curled around its forepaws, looking very self-possessed, and lowered its head courteously in greeting.

Jiro did the same.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the fox. “My name is First Dancer.”

Shipwreck — part 6

The village huddled on the last flat ground at the foot of a steep rise toward the mountains. Jiro found a path that led upward (to where, who knew?), climbed a short distance to a vantage where he could see the nearest houses, and watched.

He saw something move—away in the rain where one house was a gray half-real presence, a man darted quickly from one house to the next. Then, for a while, nothing. He continued to wait and watch. Finally, from this house, someone emerged. Then another, and another. Men and women, a group of at least a dozen, all holding oars, spears, and other objects that could be used as clubs. Jiro shrank behind his tree, and watched as they stealthily approached the house where he had been resting. Even the women! Yes, there among them was the woman who had given him the tea, and the warning, inadvertent though it had been. Run—no, wait.

The group made a rush to the door of the house and bunched up, all trying to get in.

Jiro took that moment as the best time to run.