Action and Passion

Our story approaches its climax:  Our Hero prepares for the cataclysmic action on which all depends.  She tenses her muscles, tightens her fists, screws up her face into a tense grimace.

Or does she?  There are actually two ways to imagine how one achieves some brilliant feat.  We have conflicting ideas about what makes action most effective.

Passion Conquers All

The most common view is that passion brings a sort of high-tension focus that intensifies action.  (I’m using “passion” here to mean any violent emotion or supreme effort, not specifically romantic passion.)  The more you feel, the more vigorously you act.  This connection obviously correlates with our common experience.  F&SF, as always, takes the idea to new levels.

The HulkWe picture this most obviously in fighting.  Today’s most iconic image is probably that of the Hulk, from Marvel Comics, who changes from mild-mannered Bruce Banner to a massive powerhouse when Banner gets angry.  The idea isn’t new to comics, of course; it goes back at least to the Norse berserker, who fights in what Wikipedia calls “a trance-like fury.”  In a more mundane case, we see the milquetoast George McFly motivated by anger at a threat to the girl of his dreams when he finally decks Biff in “Back to the Future.”

But we also see passion as the path to other kinds of achievement.  Great stress, suffering, or effort leads to a breakthrough in ability.  Jean Grey of the X-Men becomes the cosmic-powered Phoenix when her power and endurance are tested to the limit piloting a space shuttle through a solar flare.

Gully Foyle achieves a previously-impossible interplanetary teleportation (“jaunte”) when he’s at the end of his rope in the SF classic The Stars, My Destination.  Roger Zelazny’s hero Corwin recovers his memory and his full powers when he effortfully “walks the Pattern” in Nine Princes in Amber:

          It was agony to move.  Everything tried to beat me aside.  The waters were cold, then boiling.  It seemed that they constantly pushed against me.  I struggled, putting one foot before the other.

In Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, the tormented Felice Landry achieves new levels of power under extreme stress (The Golden Torc, part III, ch. 3).  On a more positive note, the coda of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series shows Clarissa MacDougall, intensely suffering the loss of her beloved, finding the power necessary to retrieve him from unimaginable reaches (that chapter is a trope namer for TV Tropes’ “The Power of Love”).  Just last night, I saw the movie version of Wonder Woman (excellent, by the way) use the same trope:  a climactic accession of power under immense emotional strain.

Some of the modern roots of the passionate effort concept can be found in the Romantic movement.

Dispassion Also Has Its Points

But there’s a more paradoxical view that we can achieve more when we stop concentrating and enter a state of calmness or centeredness.

This approach also has many roots.  We’re frequently advised, when struggling with a difficult task, that we’re “trying too hard.”  Zen and other Asiatic traditions mobilize a strategy of detaching one’s mind from too great a concentration.  The currently popular practice of “mindfulness” seems to partake of the same idea:  a focus on the present moment without worry or intense concern.  Wikipedia even refers to “choiceless awareness,”  “the state of unpremeditated, complete awareness of the present without preference, effort, or compulsion.”

A nonpassionate sense of focus also appears in F&SF as a way to great achievement, though it’s much more rare.  In Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy epic The Wheel of Time, for example, Rand al’Thor is receiving sword training from a mentor who recommends “[n]ot the wild leaping about and slashing that Rand had in mind . . . but smooth motions, one flowing into another, almost a dance.”

“ . . . Blank your mind, sheepherder.  Empty it of hate or fear, of everything.  Burn them away. . . .”

Rand stared at him.  “The flame and the void,” he said wonderingly.  “That’s what you mean, isn’t it?  My father taught me about that.”  (The Eye of the World, ch. 13, paperback p. 177)

It’s through “the Void” that Rand can be most effective with the sword—and, later, with other things.

Honor Harrington faces the duelDavid Weber’s military SF heroine Honor Harrington, after surviving a shuttle explosion and emotional trauma, faced with a ritual duel to the death, dramatically decapitates her opponent with a single stroke.  But she doesn’t do it in a burst of rage, well-justified as that would be.

Honor waited, poised and still, centered physically and mentally, her eyes watching every part of [her opponent’s] body without focusing on any.  She felt his frustration, but it was as distance and unimportant as the ache of her broken ribs.  She simply waited—and then, suddenly, she moved.  (Flag in Exile, ch. 29, paperback p. 376)

We might also compare Frozen, from a previous post.  Elsa gains full control over her powers not when she lashes out passionately, nor when she painfully restrains herself, but when her power flows freely and gladly.

It’s hard to specify exactly what this dis-passionate state is.  It’s not pure rationality, à la Mr. Spock.  We might consider it a sort of pure will; but it’s not a blind will creating its own goal à la Nietzsche.  What you’re seeking still matters greatly; this Void state is how you approach it.

Nor is it lack of restraint, as we saw with Frozen.  Rather, the mindful actor seems to have perfect direction, perfect control, by means of this very Void state.  The arrow goes straight to the target—but it strikes with unparalleled force.

We don’t see as many examples of such centered intensity in the movies.  Film tends to prefer the display of passion:  it’s showier.  A character whose action arises from an inner balance is likely to look entirely inert, from the outside—until she moves.

Convergence

What these two approaches have in common, maybe, is wholeheartedness.  This seems to be the point of Yoda’s famous advice:  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  Mr. Miyagi says something very similar to Daniel in The Karate Kid (at about 0:54).

The best modern description of a condition in which complete involvement in an action combines calm with wholehearted dedication may be “flow state.”  Most of us have probably experienced this ourselves.  There’s a certain detachment; yet there’s also deep involvement.  Emotion doesn’t get in the way, but the activity itself involves a sort of ecstasy (which, etymologically, means ‘standing outside oneself’).  Note that the berserker was described above as possessing (or possessed by) a “trance-like fury.”

In other words, the two paths may converge in the end, where maximum emotion is wholly embodied in or transmuted into the act.  None of that energy is wasted on subsidiary symptoms or mechanisms like straining, sweating, grimacing, screaming,

 

The way we approach these two paths affects how we tell a story.  Depending on our hero, and the hero’s personality or way of life, we may depict the climax as the moment of greatest strain or passion, or as a great achievement in a moment of crucial calm—“the still point of the turning world.”

If we’re simply living life—dancing, singing, coding, negotiating, loving—this may be good advice as well.  The way to do our best may not be to strain every sinew, but to relax and center.  Or possibly both.

Strangeness

One of the specialties of science fiction—and to some extent fantasy—is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher: Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Alien ship from movie ArrivalSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustrationClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Among the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Toy stack of ringsThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, illustration

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.

How Large Is Your World?

Perceived distance

A story may tell you it covers vast distances—but the reader’s or viewer’s experience doesn’t always bear that out.

Star Wars, for example, opens with the announcement that we’re in “a galaxy far, far away,” leading us to expect events on an immense galactic scale.  And of course the story does involve travel among numerous star systems.

Yet to me, at least, the Star Wars galaxy feels so small as to be almost cozy.  It never seems to take more than a day or two to get from one planet to another.  (Often the trips are made in X-wing fighters or other ships that don’t even seem to be large enough for a bathroom.)  In The Force Awakens, we even have weapons on one planet targeting other planets, as if they were right next door.  We may be instructed that the beam is traversing vast distances via hyperspace—but there’s no visceral sense of great expanses.

This situation isn’t limited to visual media.  I recently read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, which has been billed as a space opera—a category that suggests vast scope.  Yet almost all the story’s action takes place within a couple of spacecraft or space stations, lending an almost claustrophobic feel to the tale.  On the other hand, the movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey devotes a good deal of time to communicating a sense of the vastness of space.

In contrast to these surprisingly pocket-size space adventures, consider a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings.  To my mind, Tolkien’s epic does suggest great distances and broad landscapes.  But the actual distances involved are infinitesimal on a Star Wars scale.  Middle-Earth is about the same size as western Europe.  The Millennium Falcon could traverse the whole expanse from the Shire to Mordor in seconds (even without hyperdrive).  But Tolkien’s world feels bigger.  By the time we get to the end of it, we feel as if we’ve been on a journey.

Map of Middle-Earth

The same is true of most high fantasies, which at most work on a continental scale, given their technologies.  Paradoxically, the low-tech locales seem to be better at giving us a sense of epic scope.  Why?

Getting there is half the challenge

The most important factor, I think, is travel time.  We experience distances not in terms of their metric size, but in terms of how long it takes for us to cross them.  This is the sense in which technology has “made the world smaller.”

Tolkien’s world seems large because we cross it, with the characters, on foot.  All that walking!  (It’s not for nothing that the Fellowship is sometimes referred to as the “Nine Walkers.”)  This means that it takes weeks to get anywhere.  Frodo and Sam leave the Shire on September 23 and arrive at Mount Doom on March 24, a six-month journey—albeit with some stops along the way.

Strictly speaking, this factor may be time-relative-to-lifespan, rather than days or years directly.  A six-month trip would be brief for the star-traveling characters in Blish’s Cities in Flight stories; they live for centuries.  It bulks much larger in our own lives.

A related factor is difficulty.  A journey may take a long time, not just because our transportation is slow, but also because we have to grapple with trouble on the way.  Even an uneventful sea voyage from, say, England to America in the 1700s might take seven weeks on average.  But the dangers of storms, limited food and water, and being becalmed made the trip more daunting.  One didn’t do it casually.

Oregon Trail game, coverSimilarly, the wagon trains of the American West took the settlers through unknown countries full of dangers and delays.  (Recall that Star Trek was originally sold to studios as a “wagon train to the stars.”)  Even aside from the sheer travel time, these perils made the journey a more formidable challenge.  Anyone remember playing “The Oregon Trail”?  It wasn’t easy to survive the strenuous 2,170-mile trip.

The spice of travel

The wagon-train trek illustrates a third factor.  Variety in the places we pass through also makes a trip more consequential.  An Atlantic crossing might be relatively boring, aside from the weather, if you’re not on the Titanic.  But the different kinds of places we experience on the way—terrains, climates, habitations, cultures—also helps give us a sense of distance, of having come a long way.

To some extent this depends on the unfamiliarity of far places.  If another locale has the same chain stores, the same advertisements, the same customs and fashions, we’ll hardly feel as if we’ve gone anywhere.  Passing through a series of identical places will not give us the sense of transition that we gain from different environments.  But as Tolkien’s heroes traverse the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs, Bree, the Wilderlands, Rivendell, Moria, the Anduin . . .  we feel they’ve really traveled.

This unfamiliarity is itself a function of travel time and difficulty.  If it’s hard to get somewhere, not many people in my area will have been there, or know much about it.  Technology also plays a subtler role here.  If we don’t have the technology for recordings—photos, audio, video—then we are dependent on travelers’ tales, less vivid and less exact.  On the other hand, if we’ve immersed ourselves in the imagery and culture of, say, Japan before we visit, the culture shock will be less.  This is another way advanced technology makes the world smaller.

Star Wars universe mapIn a similar way, the different environments we meet on Star Wars planets do provide some sense of genuine travel—though the fact that each planet seems to have a single climate and terrain makes this variety less effective than it might be.

Taken together, the difficulty and variety factors suggest that the number of incidents on an expedition contribute a lot to our sense of size.  A very long trip may seem trivial if nothing happens.  But a quite brief excursion can seem extensive if it’s packed with important occurrences.

Generation ships, inside and out

The generation ship, of which we’ve spoken before, provides an interesting example of both types of journey.  Externally, such a vessel covers vast distances—and taking generations to make a voyage is certainly one way to make the reader feel the distance involved.  But the voyage typically proceeds with very little external change:  the ship bores on through space, for years on end.  If events within the ship are not described, the reader or viewer may not gain much sense of distance.  If the people on board are in suspended animation, there won’t be much sense of time or distance at all.  In the 2016 movie Passengers, for example, it’s only once something goes wrong that the story begins.  (Once it does, the passage of time for the characters who are awake is a major plot element.)

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustration

Interior of starship from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (staticflickr.com)

On the other hand, internally, the world-ship itself may seem a vast environment to the inhabitants.  This is especially true if events have deprived the inhabitants of any high-tech means of travel from place to place within the ship.  A long journey or quest inside the traveling world may thus be a major plot element, as we saw in The Star Seekers or Non-Stop.  Here, again, it’s essential that the characters encounter different cultures or locales within the ship if the reader is to have a sense of scale.

Epic scope

To create a story with epic scope, as in space opera or high fantasy, it’s useful to keep this size issue in mind.  If you want to write an epic, make sure you give it room to breathe.  If that sense of scale is lacking, our grand, sweeping conflict may come across looking like a mere tempest in a teapot.

Science and Swordplay

Bringing a Sword to a Blaster Fight

Since advanced weapons are available in much science fiction—the famous “ray gun” is iconic—it’s surprising how often a fight comes down to the humble, and archaic, sword.

You’d think this would be a classic case of “brings a knife to a gunfight.”  Why doesn’t the blade-wielding attacker get wiped out immediately by an opponent with, say, advanced automatic weapons?  How does a science fiction setting justify the continued usefulness of swords—and why?

Let’s look at some examples.

Swordsmen of Mars

A Princess of Mars coverEdgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories are full of noble heroes engaging in swashbuckling swordfights with the foul villains.  (Those who haven’t read the books may have seen the flawed, but underrated, movie adaptation “John Carter [of Mars]” a few years ago.)  This is despite the fact that most of these warriors are also equipped with guns firing explosive radium bullets.  Why don’t they use their guns?

As the Wikipedia article points out, on Barsoom (Mars) “it is considered unchivalrous to defend with any weapon but the one used in an attack (or a lesser one).”  This allows the good guys to stick to their swords, and also let the bad guys show their unchivalrous villainy by trying to use more advanced weapons.  Since Burroughs’ characters do tend to behave in ways that reflect what we think of as an archaic code of honor, there’s some plausibility to this explanation.  (The first book was published in 1912; there’s been a lot of cultural water under the bridge since then.)

Glory Road

Glory Road coverIn Robert A. Heinlein’s tongue-in-cheek Glory Road (1963), a recently-discharged veteran, whose expertise happens to include fencing, is recruited by “the most beautiful woman in any world” for a mission in one of the “Twenty Universes.”  In that particular universe, the laws of nature are different:  firearms and explosives don’t work.  But blades do.  This gives us a traditional sword-swinging hero (whom Heinlein can then merrily deconstruct throughout the story).

Heinlein also makes the point that a blade can be useful, no matter how advanced your technology, in close-quarters combat; which is (I assume) why today’s soldiers still occasionally use bayonets.

A similar gunpowder-won’t-work-in-this-universe situation is set up by Roger Zelazny in his Chronicles of Amber, where Zelazny’s immortal hero, Corwin, is among other things a master swordsman.  However, in The Guns of Avalon, Corwin solves the problem by finding a universe where there’s a gunpowder analogue that does work where regular firearms do not.  Both Glory Road and Amber make it hard to decide whether we’re reading science fiction or fantasy—which is par for the course where SF swordplay is involved.

Dune

Dune coverThe climax of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune (1965)—after atomic explosions, an attack by immense sandworms, and a clash of unbeatable armies—comes down to, you guessed it, a one-on-one fight with blades.  Herbert gives us a combination of reasons to work with.  His characters learn fencing because their personal force shields stop fast-moving projectiles, such as bullets, but are less effective against relatively slower attacks, such as a sword thrust.  This is a clever science-fictional reason to preserve the swordfighting trope.  Cultural factors also enter in.  The final duel specifically occurs because, as in Burroughs, there are formal rules of vendetta or kanly that allow for such single combat.

You can see the Dune swordfights in video adaptations:  the 1984 movie by David Lynch, or a 2000 mini-series on the Sci-Fi (now Syfy) Channel.

Star Wars

Luke and Vader, lightsabers crossedOf course the case with which most of us are familiar is the famous Jedi Knight “lightsaber” in the Star Wars stories.  Knights, of course, have to carry swords, and Lucas has made the lightsaber an iconic emblem of his universe.  What makes a sword-like weapon useful here is that the Jedi Knights can actually use them to deflect, or even redirect, gunfire (“blaster” bolts).  Personally, I’ve always felt that the only way this could possibly work is that precognition allows the Jedi a moment’s unconscious awareness of where and when the next bolt will come.  No one’s reflexes or muscles could possibly be fast enough to intercept something that fast without foreknowledge.

The Attractions of Swordplay

We’ve seen several ways to justify the use of swords in a high-tech science fiction environment.  It’s a separate question why authors and readers enjoy such scenes.

I think one reason is that sword-to-sword combat allows for a personal engagement more effectively than a gun duel.  Much has been said about the depersonalization inherent in the use of long-distance weapons.  In a genuine battle, we may pragmatically seek the most effective means to prevail, whether personal or impersonal.  But in a story, individual characters, and the drama of their interactions, are at the fore.  A person-to-person duel between hero and villain is more viscerally satisfying than wiping out the opponent at a distance.

The sword also has a long history of symbolic and evocative significance.  We noted above, for example, that the use of sword can call up in a reader’s or viewer’s mind a whole chivalric or feudal milieu.  This is merely one of the deliberately archaic tropes Lucas brought back in the original “Star Wars.”

Using a sword also requires more physical skill, strength, and endurance than using a gun. It’s been pointed out that one of the ways the development of firearms changed the nature of war was by enabling lightly-trained recruits to fight competently, without the lifetime’s training needed to make a good swordsman.  If a story wants to show off the physical excellence and expertise of the combatants, a swordfight will do this better than a gunfight.

Of course, pure bare-handed martial-arts combat, or fighting with other melee weapons like staves or maces, can accomplish the same things—which is why we frequently see these, too, making their appearance incongruously in SF contexts.

Flag in Exile swordfight sceneFinally, a swordfight may be more prolonged than a gunfight, because blades can do more gradual damage than bullets and thus allow for longer duels, intensifying the drama.  This isn’t always the case.  In the page on Single-Stroke Battle, TV Tropes observes that “[r]eal sword fights often take only a few seconds or even a fraction of a second, with one solid hit generally being enough to take a man out of the fight (contrast this with Flynning).”  One thinks of the powerful scene toward the end of David Weber’s Flag in Exile where Honor Harrington does in fact cut short a lengthy duel with one blow.  But this is precisely where an author can set up the desired situation to best advantage.

No matter how much futuristic SF may pervade our storytelling, then, we’re not likely to see the humble sword retired any time soon.

Arthurian Variations (Part II)

We’ve seen that the Arthuriad has generated a wide variety of retellings over the years.  What makes these legends so adaptable, and so congenial to storytellers of all kinds?

To begin with . . .

A few reasons leap out at us.

As we’ve seen before, it helps if there’s no one canonical version of a story.  Without a single clear source, later authors are free from the need to conform to the “classic” tale.  The Wikipedia article says outright, “there is no one canonical version” (¶ 3).

It’s true that Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is the central reference point, at least in English.  But his version is so far from current norms that it would be hard to try and reproduce it faithfully—as Steinbeck perhaps found.  Malory serves more as a library or resource for story elements that can be adapted and recombined at will.

The sheer breadth of that source material is a second factor.  All those knights, all those adventures, even the numerous events of the main storyline:  the Arthuriad is its own ‘Pot of Story,’ a stew full of nutritious narrative elements.  “It held a treasure for every seeker.”  (The Mabinogion, tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman’s Library, 1949, 1974, Introduction, p. xxx.)

The story also occupies a colorful historical setting, whether in the plate-mail-and-castles “high road” approach, or in the more historically plausible “low road” approach.  Many readers have a fondness for this quasi-medieval environment—which is why versions of that milieu are used in so many fantasy stories and games.

A Plethora of Characters

In particular, the Arthuriad is filled with strong and interesting characters.  An author can focus on, say, the character of Percival, or Morgan le Fay, or Gawain, and take off from there.  Or she can ring the changes on the main story by redefining the characters and their relationships, as we saw in the examples from Part I.

Arthur himself can be played in many ways.  Generally he tends to have a certain innocence, a certain earnestness and candor about him.  But this can be realized in the psychologically wounded but charismatic leader of Wolf’s tale, in the essential simplicity of the idealist in White’s Once and Future King, or in the clever but dedicated warleader of “King Arthur.”  (It can also be seen in the weak and waffling character of Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot”—if we include what I consider a failed implementation.)

Other characters are equally mutable.  Mordred is subtle and evil in White; he’s an innocent and rather likable kid in Wolf.  Lancelot contains enough contradictions in himself—loyal friend, betrayer of a marriage, devoted lover, peerless warrior—that an intense character study of this champion is almost unavoidable if we let him into the story at all.

Guinevere is a particularly tricky case.  It’s hard to play her as truly admirable—since so much of her traditional role lies in being untrue, at least after a fashion.  (She’s untrue to Arthur, but true to Lancelot, and the story seems largely willing to forgive the first in light of the second.)  If she isn’t handled carefully, she’s likely to default into being silly, or weak, or fickle.  The challenge of giving her a better role may appeal to an author.  Both books and films have taken up that challenge, though I’m not familiar with those treatments.

Compelling Drama

The story of Arthur contains many events that lend themselves to high drama.  For example—

His origin.  It seems essential for Arthur’s ascent to the throne to exemplify the theme of the lowly raised high, the rise from humble beginnings to glory.  His childhood is modest, in one way or another.  In the traditional formulation, Arthur doesn’t know who he is until he is almost grown, and it may take a magic token (the sword in the stone) to demonstrate his true nature.  As a result, Arthur generally has the humility that I’ve argued characterizes our archetype of the Good King.

This Cinderella-type story appeals to our fondness for the underdog, and the reversal of fortunes is inherently dramatic.  There are a lot of possibilities for how that revelation occurs, and how Arthur and those around him react.

Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur (King Arthur)The love stories.  An eternal triangle necessarily involves passion, betrayal, and drama.  But there are a lot of possible ways to construe the relations among Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot (along with Morgan and other possible players, as we saw last time).

In the central love story, Arthur tends to lose out.  As White puts it (Book Three, beginning of ch. 45):  “Merlyn had not intended him for private happiness.  He had been made for royal joys, for the fortunes of a nation.”

Since Arthur is on the scene first, Lancelot must share some strong bond with Guinevere in order to draw her away from Arthur—unless the Arthur-Guinevere bond isn’t that strong to begin with, as in Wolf.  If we idealize Lancelot and Guinevere’s romance, we have to push Arthur away.

There’s a strong impulse to rescue the love story somehow.  We have three characters, each of whom we love and admire, trapped in this untenable situation.  We don’t want any of them to lose out, but someone has to.

So we get retellings that pare down the triangle.  In The Road to Avalon, Arthur and Morgan are the real romance; it doesn’t matter if Guinevere seeks solace elsewhere (except for political reasons).  In “First Knight,” Arthur is too old for Guinevere; after his inevitable death, Lancelot and Guinevere seem to be left free to marry.  “King Arthur” ends early, in terms of the overall myth, and skips the entire triangular problem.  Arthur and Guinevere marry at the end in a traditional romantic consummation, and Lancelot remains a minor character.

Moreover, if we choose as our main character someone other than the Big Three—one of the numerous other knights or ladies of the Arthurian court—the possibilities for love stories are endless.

The Holy Grail (Indiana Jones)The Holy Grail.  It’s hard to know what to make of the Holy Grail as a storytelling hub.  The Grail’s religious origins (although they are subject to dispute by some literary historians) may cause this part of the story to be bypassed entirely by those writers who prefer to dodge the Christian aspects of the Arthuriad.  White introduces the Grail quest rather ignobly as a distraction to keep the knights busy when there are no wars for them to fight.

Nonetheless, the mythic resonances of this ultimate quest MacGuffin have let it play a role in a surprising number of modern treatments—from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”—even where, as in the last example, the Arthurian tales are not otherwise involved.  For those who want an air of mystery and the numinous, rather than just clashing swords, the Grail is a natural choice.

Key Themes

Finally, the Arthuriad carries a number of themes of lasting interest.  These themes can also draw storytellers to the court of Camelot.

Knights of the Round Table (Excalibur)True companions.  For Western culture, Arthur’s Round Table knights may be the archetypal example of the tight-knit group of comrades fighting together for the right.  The basic story also includes some inversions of this band-of-brothers relationship—betrayals of several kinds—but that only serves to make the ideal seem more dramatic and memorable.  The Round Table is explicitly portrayed in “First Knight” and (without the table) in “King Arthur.”  It’s satirized, yet mourned, in White.  It does not play a major role in Wolf’s version.  But if an author wants to invoke the ideal of comradeship to the death, Arthur’s court is as likely a touchstone as the Three Musketeers or Robin Hood’s woodland band.

Chivalry.  The Arthurian knights represent the archetype of the ideal of chivalry.  Now, our era has a love-hate relationship with this notion.  We frequently prefer to satirize or criticize the ideals that were held up as models for the Arthurian knights.  Yet there remains a certain appeal to what TV Tropes calls Old-School Chivalry, a less literal version that can turn up in cases as varied as Captain America and “Kate and Leopold.”  These later varieties look back to the hazy memory of a medieval ideal that we associate with Arthur’s court.

Civilization is at stake.  Almost all versions of the tale depict Arthur as standing in some sense for the defense of imperiled civilization against the chaotic forces that threaten it.  The opposition may be literal, as in The Road to Avalon, where Arthur leads armies against the invading Saxons.  Or it may be more subtle, as when The Once and Future King shows Arthur striving to achieve the rule of law as a principle to contain the depredations of warlords.  Not Might makes Right, but Right makes Might, protecting the weak from the strong, ordinary people from the powerful:  this is the chivalric ideal Arthur pursues under the tutelage of Merlyn.

You could call it civilization.  What I meant by civilization when I invented it, was simply that people ought not to take advantage of weakness—not violate maidens, and rob widows, and kill a man when he was down.  People ought to be civil.  (Book Two, chapter 9)

The most poignant aspect of the Arthurian tale is that he achieves this ideal, for a fleeting moment—an island of light in an age of darkness—yet it fails.  The Round Table is broken, Camelot goes down in war and betrayal, Arthur does not found a virtuous dynasty.  This chiaroscuro of success and failure has a dramatic appeal that is hard for a storyteller to resist.

CamelotCamelot falls.  And yet, the story does not quite end in despair.  Arthur may die—but he is not entirely lost; he will somehow return.  In White’s touching ending, Arthur hands on the story itself, the memory of Camelot, to a young page named Tom—Tom Malory.  The ideal remains an ideal, and we are reassured that someday Arthur and the ideals he champions will reawaken.

It is no wonder that this kind of ambiguous, yet hopeful, ending attracts storytellers.  It attracts readers too.  All but the most hardened cynics would like to look forward to such a return.  Arthur’s story, like Arthur himself, never quite dies.