July 6, 2016

Good and Evil in The Black Company

The Black Company (1984) is interesting because of the moral vision Glen Cook expresses through it. For the Black Company, "good" and "evil" are issues of scope and scale rather than universal moral principles. On the level of the interpersonal, i.e. relationships between brothers of the Company, such as Croaker and Raven, and other people, such as Darling and Soulcatcher, virtues such as loyalty, kindness, and empathy rule. But on the level of the global or political, i.e. the Company's relationship to, say, the Syndic of Beryl or the Lady and the Ten Who Were Taken (whatever patron the Company is serving), realpolitik, strategic cruelty, and malice prevail. The difference between "good" and "evil" in the world of The Black Company turns on the difference between a friend, a member of your "in-group," and an anonymous Other, i.e. a slave, a civilian being policed, an enemy soldier. Cook's The Black Company gives us a cruel framework for reflecting on how we can dubiously participate in evil enterprises (i.e. The Lady's war against the Circle of Eighteen) while justifying our actions as virtuous.

June 25, 2016

Some Reflections on Elric of Melniboné

Elric is interesting to the extent that he is an avatar of a decadent, overdeveloped civilization. He is morally ambiguous. If he was a Dungeons and Dragons character, his alignment would be Chaotic Neutral, of course. We see in Elric an interpretation of civilization espoused by his creator, Michael Moorcock. For Moorcock, civilization has an adverse effect on the moral quality of humans (as well as non-human intelligent beings, such as the Melnibonéans). In Moorcock's world, indoctrination by civilization alienates us from our innate moral being. Like Elric, people innately understand certain things to be bad, certain decisions to be driven by selfishness, pride, status-seeking, or convention, and yet, we have become alienated from our conscience in the state of civilization. There is also an interesting temporal dimension to Moorcock's vision of the morally corrupting nature of civilization: civilizations become more corrupt the longer they persist. A reason, perhaps, why the Melinibonéans have fallen into devil worship is that they have survived as a civilization for so very long.

January 27, 2016

The Priority of Atmosphere in A Wizard of Earthsea

I just re-read Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). Such a wonderful novel. What distinguishes it, I think, is the nuanced intensity with which Le Guin renders her secondary fantasy setting and fictional cultures. Earthsea is just as important a character as the protagonist, the transgressing magician, Ged. I propose that the world, the atmosphere of Earthsea, subordinates the characters and the narrative. This is a dangerous aesthetic experiment, I think, and risks frustrating the expectations of some enthusiasts of popular fantasy fiction who come to her work because of comparisons between it and J.R.R. Tolkien. Such readers, to generalize, are just as invested in good stories, engaging narrative events, conflicts, and resolutions as compelling secondary fantasy worlds and fictional cultures. There are times when Le Guin's narrative pace slows, but her atmospherics are always engaging. The strangeness and beauty of her fictional world is a satisfying payoff for me, and I find, as I read her work, that I am o.k. with lingering over specific scenes, such as Ged having tea in a hut with his former master, Ogion.