Friday, January 25, 2013

The Arrogance of CGI

If you’ve been watching the latest movie trailers, you know that Hollywood has ramped up its use of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) to create incredible and bizarre worlds and every manner of fantastic creature. In one sense, this is quite an accomplishment, but in another, it’s a kind of arrogance. Because CGI has, in the hands of some movie producers, tried to pull back the veil on the sacred wood. And I’m fighting back.

Let me back up. This observation began within me like a little kernel, planted there after re-reading Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” a little over a year ago. Tolkien said that of all stories, fantasy was least successful as drama (i.e. theater), because the magical parts of the story come off looking ridiculous and unbelievable. At the time I thought (as you might be thinking), “Yeah. But that was before CGI.” Nowadays, a good graphics team can simulate very realistic fairy worlds, believable ogres, fabulous magic smoke, and transformations that would rival the ones that you see in your head when you read.

Aha! (he says, melodramatically)

Intentionally or not (let’s go with it, though, and say intentionally), CGI has come on the scene to lay bare the fairy wood to the all-seeing camera. Now any lover of things fey knows that all-seeing human eyes, close-ups and slow motions, do not mix well with the fairy world. Those who peer into the mysteries do so to their own doom. Pandora: don’t open that box. Young maid: don’t look at the wolf when you enter the castle. Narcissus: don’t look in the water.


When I peer into the computer-generated world of fairy, what do I see? Is it an image of myself, meant to enthrall me to my doom? Is it an illusion that will sidetrack me from the true path, which would lead to the unmaking of the spell that holds me and mine in thrall? Is it a false wisdom that will cost me no end of trouble?

But there’s more. Perhaps old professor Tolkien was right. Maybe even with CGI, the all-seeing stage—the screen—still makes a mockery or a monster of the mysterious realm. Maybe fairy continues to elude us, because we want to ravage its secrets. We’ve lost sight the peril of treading there, and we’ve made the sacred groves into theme parks.

Better yet, maybe seeing the magic wonderfully enhanced (with digital sound) leads us to disbelieve in it, robbing us of the very thing we enter the fairy wood to find: something beyond ourselves.

Perhaps allusion, which is by nature more elusive, is necessary to create the illusion.

(or have I gone too far ...?)

What think ye? Am I just playing here? Is this just a way to plead for the richer experience of reading, of seeing the fairy world in my own head, experiencing the transformations in the words of the storyteller? Is it, worse still, envy at the skill of CGI? At its capacity to make clear the thing I only imagine?

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

Enchanted Castle (cover)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots  in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, almost anything may happen.

I first encountered E. Nesbit in my little Victorian fairy story collection, “Modern Fairy Stories.” Two of her stories were included in that volume: “Melisande” and “The Magician’s Heart.” The stories were entertaining, but not my favorite in the collection.

This is the first of her novels I’ve read. It was published in 1907, the same year that Ozma of Oz (the third Oz book) came out. I happened to be reading them both at the same time; Ozma to my boys, and this one to myself.

What intrigued me about the book, honestly, was the feeling that “This must have influenced C. S. Lewis.” I thought this because there are two boys and two girls who get caught up into magic at a castle. There’s a mythological, Greek-gods dimension to the magic. But most of all it was the language the children speak, which I seem to recall one of Lewis’s biographers said came from books, not “real life.” (That was A. N. Wilson, whom I have never forgiven for that biography.) Obviously the date of publication and the English setting fit, too. (A quick Google search shows that Lewis was a Nesbit fan and knew he was working in her style.)

But once begun, I found the story intriguing on its own terms and, in some ways, intricately wound. The children get drawn in by degrees and through a series of mistakes in magic. What begins as a nuisance is gradually revealed to be a much deeper, more tangled web. And things that seemed impossible to explain—and deus ex machina plot twists—turn out to have deeper roots in the story. It ties together nicely.

The book also features several fairy tale allusions, most of them humorous, and a bit of horror—nothing too rough for a nine-year-old. Better still, as the quote above shows, Nesbit took seriously in this novel that a fantasy should open up the reader to the mystical dimension just beyond nature—or perhaps always just concealed within it. Like Lewis, her story aims to lift your thoughts to something higher than your mundane experience. It rises at points to genuine mystical feeling.

I needn’t say more. You’ll either read it or, if you’re tempted by a faster resolution, there are plenty of plot summaries on the web.

In fact, I’ll give you one, with analysis (below). Meanwhile, if you’ve read The Enchanted Castle, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

One resolution is enough

I hate making resolutions, because I find that the more I tell myself not to do something, the more I want to do it. Whereas, the more I tell myself I should do something, the harder it gets to do it.

This led me, already at about 18 years of age, to resolve never to make New Year’s resolutions.

Fortunately, that resolution expired a long time ago. And now I’m ready to try a new one. It’s about envy. I hereby resolve to try not to envy other peoples’ success so much.

You see, I’ve spent almost my entire life feeling like an underachiever. (Doesn’t seem to matter that people looking in from outside think I’m the opposite.) By this time of life, I should have … How did that person … while I haven’t yet even …?

That’s a soul-sapping way to live. I’ve tried, more than once, to be happy for those others. I just don’t usually feel it. Maybe I would, if I just kept trying. But one thing I can do, and I’m willing to try to do, is avoid the ugly green feeling, the jaundiced glare. I can at least withdraw from that feeling. I can at least try not to envy the success of someone else. I know well enough that nobody’s life is easy, however it looks from outside. I know that whatever they’ve gained, they have the opportunity—like me—to feel like it isn’t good enough.

But I hope they don’t feel that way. And I’d be shocked if the most successful people allow themselves to glut on that feeling.

While I’m at it this confession business, here’s the really humbling thing I need to do, and that’s learn from the success of others. Where did I get the idea that I had it all figured out? Stupid. I’m just stumbling along here like everybody else. Only I seldom succeed at things I most want to succeed at, because I shrink from failure. I don’t put myself out there for criticism. I don’t take the necessary steps.

So that’s another resolution, wound up in the first. Knock off the envy, one; and try to learn from the people who succeed. Imitate them if you like how they did it; don’t if you don’t. But don’t be all “Well I could have done it too if I had …” Don’t. Ever.

There. That ought to last me another twenty years.

Here's some related reading, if you like: 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

This Year - A Few Highlights

Here are some highlights of year 2012. (I'll keep it brief.)

I published my first story, “The Unicorn Hunt” and had a second (“Stonepit”) accepted into an anthology (I’ll keep you posted when it comes out).

I sent out about 10 stories, some more than once. That includes the two above (and two mentioned below).

I did a fair amount of writing. By my count, I wrote (at least in first-draft form) nine short stories. I rewrote (yet again) my first and still most maddening fantasy novel, Foldwin the Shepherd. I wrote and lightly revised a very short novella, with the working title A Dryad Dream. And I finished and edited (first round) a new novel, tentatively entitled Unfoldings. Whew. And I had thought it was an off year.

I went on at least three awesome hikes with my wife and boys here in North Carolina. I also took them fishing, and my youngest caught his first ever fish.

I broke down and bought an iPad. I also broke down and got a Twitter handle (@pylefantasy). Those things aren't related, I swear it.

I discovered a fascination with Middle Grade fiction. The Tale of Despereaux was an ally in this.

I took a sudden and powerful interest in my family tree. I’ve made astounding progress tracing it back, in some cases into the sixteenth century. All this from scratch as of April.

As an outworking of that, in October I made a meaningful trip to Tennessee, to the gravesite of my ancestor Conrad Pile. Saw the valley where he settled down, among the first to till the land there.

I don’t mean to make it sound like there weren’t any bumps along the way. But I like to lift out the good days, don’t you? What highlights, celebrations, joys, for you this year past?


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