Thursday, January 24, 2013

Paging King Lycaon

Fantasy fiction holds an annoyingly singular focus, be it in books, movies computer games, what-have-you. For over half a century, "fantasy" as a spin-off of fairy tales at least in the western hemisphere has been increasingly dominated by J.R.R. Tolkien's vision of Middle-Earth, which is an intrinsically northern-European world. Legolas the elven archer shares the limelight grudgingly with the vampire Lestat, splitting that niche market into high and dark fantasy, and their many clones, look-alikes, copycats and unauthorized spin-offs are all too familiar to those of us of the geek persuasion. There were hobbits in movies long before Peter Jackson's crew popularized the Lord of the Rings itself and pretty, sensual vampires are now all the raging foaming-at-the-mouth, sweet merciless Satan, why-is-this-crap-popular! ... ahem, where was I?

American imperialism and mass-media output play a key role in securing the cultural capital which backs up the primacy of these Anglophone interpretations of old European myths. Even the big dogs of fantasy games, Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf Publishing, wrote their names on the coat-tails of Tolkien and Rice's books and their various copycats have grown into a very profitable industry while hardly ever bothering to look beyond elves and vampires. Some lip-service is occasionally paid to expanding the horizons of our modern fairy tales but this is mostly new-age kow-towing to the growing cultural capital of the Orient, an attempted coup rather than diversification. There are golden mountains of folklore to be mined in old Europe and the near-east still, not to mention Africa and the Americas, ready sources of inspiration which remain largely untouched.

Here are a couple of examples, most striking because while they do have a presence in mass-market fantasy, they've so far never been addressed properly.

The first is a subject near and dear to my lupine heart: lycanthropy.
Ever notice that there's never been a good werewolf movie? The closest that jumps to mind is Wolf which was sadly bereft of special effects and carried largely on Nicholson's admirable knack for sneering and snarling. More recently, Tim Burton's Dark Shadows showed some promise of keeping things in perspective, even if it was just one scene: "Yeah, i'm a werewolf, let's not make a big deal out of it." It even got the werewolf's attack right, pouncing on the victim, going for the throat, tearing and biting and trying to overwhelm its enemy. Wolves don't do jiu-jitsu.
For the most part though, werewolves as they appear in movies are always entirely too overblown to make good characters, gigantic muscle-bound bipeds which serve as a conveniently impressive-looking straw-man for the hero to defeat. They never take center stage and are never given personalities.
In order to make werewolves full-fledged characters instead of window-dressing, they must be given the same treatment as vampires were in Interview with the Vampire. Before fame went to her head and her head floated off the deep-end, before she started having her characters arm-wrestle the devil (i am not joking) and lick menstrual blood out of women to ease their cramps (oh gods, how i wish i were joking) Rice, in that first book, created an admirable world of fearful, hunger-driven, fallible, lost and tormented creatures of the night. It was almost comparable to Gardner's iconic Grendel in portraying the inner workings of boogey-men.
We need a werewolf-centered literary universe which sets them apart as the villainous or tragic figures they could be. The central image of the werewolf should not be the instantly shapeshifting canine incredible hulks but the hermit on the edge of civilization constantly living in fear of discovery, living his two half-lives at the whims of the moon, maddened by hunger and rage, a snarling, dirty, disheveled cornered animal, an embodiment of the dangers of the woods set against society.

The second example is the nonsensical way Greek mythology is used in modern-day fantasy, if at all. What a marvelous visual journey one could make out of the labors of Hercules with modern-day special effects and a Hollywood budget, if only a studio might be willing to keep the Mediterranean feel of the characters, de-emphasize the Germanic chest-thumping with which they insist on imbuing nominally Greek myths and adopt the morality of the Aegean trading culture which coined the very concept of tragedy. Look at Zeus and Poseidon and what-have-you in any Hollywood movie and the main problem anyone should be able to spot is that there's nothing special about them. They don't act like Mediterranean figures. They act like Norse gods with Greek names.

Greek mythology is not a representation of a fringe culture, some obscure reference which would have to be dredged out of millennial dusty tomes in an effort for originality. For centuries, Greco-Roman myths were the fairytales of the entire southern half of Europe, and Christianity never managed to entirely uproot the old stories any more than it could salt the druidic soil of northern Europe. The myths still exist in the collective subconscious of western culture, ready to be tapped. From nymphs to centaurs to titans and harpies, Ancient Greece could fuel series upon series of fantasy books, be they tragic, romantic or grotesque. What Tolkien did with elves can be done with satyrs and the "goth" appeal of vampires can't hold a candle to hauntings by the furies.

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