Moments of truth in a fantasy gruel

One of my older addictions that I occasionally refeed is trash fantasy — subpar, clunky, terribly-written derivations of Tolkien or Robert E. Howard for the most part. As the two most influential avatars of fantastic fiction in English, it makes sense that they would be the general lodestones, and so you have either huge epic quests to defeat a dark lord or one man/woman/person/thing off chopping their way through a world of ravening monsters. The lack of surprise is monumental in stuff like this, which is in part the point — total comfort food through and through if you’re into this sort of thing. (The success of something like World of Warcraft is to my mind a logical extension of this impulse — the world itself combines these two models, adds others, brings in gaming = instant success! It’s not a literary masterpiece and is not conceived that way but it is very arguably a creative one on many levels given all the varying elements that fed into its creation, and deserves attention as such.)

For this trip up north I grabbed the first five novels in the Mithgar universe by Dennis L. McKiernan. I first heard about him over twenty years back in a brief, dismissive review of the first three, The Iron Tower Trilogy, in a Tolkien fanzine (anyone surprised by the idea that I would have subscribed to a Tolkien fanzine when I was 14 or so doesn’t know me very well). The local library had these books, though, so I decided to see what they were all about — and they were, indeed, absolutely awful. McKiernan to his credit never once tried to hide the Tolkienian debt, even in the foreword (which I actually do like — he names many influences and is honest enough to say he knows it can’t reach their level), yet even so. Terry Brooks‘s ‘borrowing’ of Tolkien for the first Shannara book in particular was bad enough, but this makes Brooks look like E. R. EddisonThe Iron Tower Trilogy is for all intents and purposes The Lord of the Rings slightly rewritten. There are a few changes — the Mordor equivalent is a frozen mire up north rather than a volcanic desert down south, there’s no Ring to destroy, there’s a conventional ‘prince must rescue his betrothed, captured by the baddies’ subplot, and neither a Gandalf nor a Gollum appear. Otherwise, though, bring on the analogues — the geography is otherwise near similar to Middle Earth, there’s a Shire (the ‘Bosky’ — oh dear), a Rohan, a Moria (with a Balrog — or rather a Gargon), a Gondor, a Rivendell, a Lorien…you see where this is going. And OH are the Hobbits (ie, the Warrows) a merrie folke in this one, at least at the start.

The Moria knockoff sequence is particularly egregrious. Minor details aside, EVERYTHING IS THE SAME. There’s a Watcher in the Water, it’s an old abandoned Dwarven kingdom destroyed when great evil was unleashed, there’s this bottomless gap in the rock spanned by a single bridge…I could go on. (So did McKiernan — whose followup books, The Silver Call Duology [try saying that last word out loud without gagging], turned out to be a sequel to this part of the story, imagining what would happen if Dwarves tried to retake their ersatz-Moria a couple of centuries later. The story I’ve heard indicates that this was written first as an intentional sequel to The Lord of the Rings which the Tolkien estate rather wisely turned down. So he changed all the names and tried reselling it, leading publishers to ask, “Well, what’s the back story here?” Thus the Iron Tower Trilogy‘s existence, which explains a lot.)

To top it all off, while he might well have improved since then, McKiernan’s a terrible writer, someone who uses all the language of epic fantasy without getting a sense of how it’s actually spoken and meant to be used — Tolkien as linguist would have had a fit, and quite how Ursula K. LeGuin has forgiven McKiernan for dedicating the Iron Tower books to her is beyond me (unless she’s wisely never noticed). I refuse to quote examples here, they’re not worth the typing up. It’s just maddening sometimes — and the abuse of italics, where to start. Lots of emphasis! A lot a lot!!!

Okay, so why do I have these books and why am I reading them again? Well, I have them as short, torn paperbacks — easy to abuse, great for trips. But there is a pearl in all the mire, and it’s a telling one. Like Tolkien, McKiernan is a war vet, in this case the Korean War. He knows his military experiences, and to a strong extent certainly knows its cliches. But this is the essential difference between the two — Tolkien, notably, is not a ‘military’ writer, for all of his own background in World War I’s trenches. His heroes either do not fight much or battle the enemy as part of a separate context from larger armies. Gandalf is an occasional war-leader, Aragorn leads men into battle and so forth, but there’s almost nothing of a ground’s eye view of the battle outside of the hobbits, and even their views are very specific and singular.

But McKiernan sets most of his figures into military or militarized situations, and in doing so both unconsciously calls to mind the eternal struggle between romanticization and honest description of this approach to life (and while his characters are often mouthpieces for commonplaces, they’re no less apt for that; the Silver Call books arguably do an even better job at this) and the fact that war is truly destructive. Indeed, compared to Tolkien’s story, McKiernan is far more blunt and bloody, and above all else focused on the fact that death is not merely a strong possibility but an overwhelming certainty depending on the situation. Perhaps this is seen in no better light than the difference between the Shire and the Bosky — the former is run into the ground by Saruman and turned into an environmental dump, but the Hobbits are mostly cowed than anything else, and the recovery of the land is done with a couple of swift battles before everything is begun to be set right.

The Bosky suffers no such easy fate. A good chunk of the story takes place there, and an invading army lays it waste. People of all ages are butchered, survivors are desperate and band together not without arguments and overwhelming fear, and while good wins out in the end, the price is almost too much to ask for. It’s notable that unlike Tolkien most of McKiernan’s characters are well-situated in families whose stories are teased out if not overexplored — by the end of the story nearly everyone has lost one or two parents, a brother, a sister, children, even more. The feeling after it all is less overwhelming victory than what the average dweller in the Soviet steppe must have felt after the Nazis were driven back from Stalingrad.

That there should be such resonance given the current historical moment may seem obvious. But there is something about McKiernan’s placing of the topics — and for all the mock-European language and so forth, I believe it to be a specifically American view of the topics, from thinking on girlfriends left behind to larger questions of morality in wartime — that has a place in the moment. As with Tolkien, I do not agree with everything McKiernan explores necessarily (ultimately the trope of the mindless evil hordes is a big problem in any such work, and how it is dealt with is not always well done either), but I see where he is coming from, and can sense the similarities that must be going through the heads of many of my fellow citizens now, and that have been for some time. It’s a pearl in the darkness, but a relevant one.