Anne Leonard's fantasy novel Moth and Spark comes out in paperback today. To celebrate, Leonard's written us an essay about how the "mundane" and everyday things are even more important to include in a book about dragons and heroic quests — because without them, you'll never understand the scale of magic.
When Ursula K. Le Guin's fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, came out, I read it and was underwhelmed. I wanted lots of magic and spells and glorious heroes, and instead I got a farmer's widow and a used-up mage. There was a lot more about goats than there was about dragons. It just didn't seem very much like fantasy to me. At the time I was fairly fresh out of college, renting a room and commuting back and forth to my job at a D.C. law library. I wanted magic and adventure in my hum-drum life, damn it!
Now Tehanu is one of my all-time favorite books. I did my first reread after a few years of writing and literature classes in grad school and fell in love. I don't know exactly what changed in the interim – perhaps it was maturity, perhaps it was having been exposed to a lot of different ideas about literature, perhaps it was knowing more of Le Guin's ideas about women and writing. At any rate, what I love about the novel now (besides the excellent craft of it) is exactly those things I initially did not like: domestic life, ordinary characters, lack of pageantry, lack of violence. I like that a fantasy novel can feature a middle-aged woman and that descriptions of shelling peas, weaving baskets, keeping up a farm, taking care of goats, and other quiet activities are the center of the story.
I still really like epic fantasy, and especially the world-building part. What I've come to realize, though, is that for me world-building is necessary but not sufficient to suck me into the story; for the epic to be epic, it needs to be set against the mundane. By "mundane" I mean "worldly as opposed to spiritual," rather than the more colloquial usage implying boredom and dullness. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about "exoticizing the domestic," and I think that concept is what makes for really good fantasy and speculative fiction. The writer takes the ordinary and twists it, or puts it into a different context.
My favorite example of using the domestic is The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien does the domestic wonderfully. Fellowship begins with that most ordinary event: a birthday party. The Return of the King ends with another ordinary event: a father holding his baby on his lap. All the magic and wonder happens in between those two very domestic and familiar bookends. In epic fantasy, where things are writ large, the mundane provides a sense of scale. We first see the malign power of the Ring by Bilbo's hand spasming when he tries to put the envelope containing the Ring on the mantel beside the clock, punctuation to his argument with Gandalf. That gesture beside the non-magical items – clock, envelope, mantelpiece – demonstrates how powerful the Ring is and hints at what lies outside the safe comfortable world of the Shire.
Using the domestic as way into the unfamiliar is done all the time in portal fantasy and urban fantasy, where the reader goes along with the protagonist into experiencing the new world. J.K. Rowling is great at mixing the mundane with the magical: there are earwax-flavored jellybeans and people in paintings who get drunk. Another good example of using the domestic is the Narnia books; we start in war-time Britain, then we move into Narnia. Lucy meets a faun, and the first thing she does with him is have a very British tea.
But in secondary world fantasy, it can be trickier to portray the mundane because what's ordinary in that world can seem exotic to the reader. For example, I know I'm in a different world when I see characters with occupations – non-magical occupations – that don't exist in my life: blacksmith, highwayman, bard, galley-slave. Even though that's familiar to the characters, it's not familiar to me as a modern white Westerner.i I think this is one of the reasons for the persistence of the "farm boy" (or his equivalent) trope: first the writer establishes what's ordinary in that world, then takes the reader along with the character into the larger world. It's a two-step process into the epic world, not a plunge.
Some writers prefer to throw the reader right in to the strange and magical world, but there's still a need for the mundane to provide a balance, though. It doesn't have to be either real or non-magical; it does usually need to be small. A spell that lights a candle, an imaginary plant, a talking squirrel. In Moth and Spark I contrasted the arrival of a dragon with a horse nuzzling the rocky ground in search of new grass. In Philip Pullman's His Dark Material trilogy, we got Lyra's daemon in the very first sentence; she's also in Oxford. Her version of Oxford, true, but an Oxford that people can recognize. If she'd been on the planet Vigghjkklfy with eight moons and transparent rocks, the significance of the daemon would have been initially lost in the noise of all the strangeness. (Pullman also does another great trick, which is reference to the "anbaric lights." It sounds magical – but anbaric is derived from the Arabic word 'anbar, from which English gets "amber," and the ancient Greek work for "amber" is elektron, from which English gets "electric."ii So, mediated through several languages, anbaric just means electric. In using a coined word to describe a familiar thing, Pullman makes the familiar seem exotic.)
Using the mundane well, of course, often boils down to good writing: believable characters, a plot people care about, sufficient but not overwhelming detail. Once I believe the character is a person like me fighting a problem I can understand, the book's world can go crazy and I'll accept it. The character and the problem come from ordinary things. The Iliad survives in part because it begins about two men quarreling over a woman and ends with funeral games and a father grieving for his son. It's not about the battles between the Olympian gods; it's about the human cost of war.
Here's where scale comes in again. The really epic epic fantasies, the ones that fill multiple volumes, are trying to tell the whole story, not a section of it. But by and large that's too much for a human mind to handle. The Iliad tells neither the beginning nor the end of the war; it's a section of a much larger story, a slice of the entire Trojan War. In The Two Towers near the end, Sam and Frodo have a discussion about how they are in the same story as Beren and the Silmarils, and the great stories never end. Fordo remarks that people's parts in them come to an end, though. And that's what distinguishes The Lord of the Rings from The Silmarillion. Most people don't find the latter book very interesting – it's all epic, all the time, and that gets old surprisingly fast.
So in epic fantasy, the great stories get broken down into multiple narratives and points of view; the scale gets reduced to Tyrion Lannister peeing off the side of a boat. When a writer tries to tell the whole story without the worldly element, it's not a story. Readers of epic fantasy want story and action and characters with flaws and emotions. The author achieves these things through use of the mundane. A secondary world that was truly unlike our world would be incomprehensible.
If Tehanu had not included magic and dragons and princes and wizards, even in as understated a way as it did, I would probably have continued to be uninterested in the book. I like magic and splash and larger-than-life things too. I don't want my reading to be too mundane. But I appreciate the magic all the more because of the very worldliness of that world. Stories are one of the things that make humans humans, and the more fantastic the story is, the more human it has to be.
i There's a lot that could be said here about cultural background and norms and what seems "exotic" or "ordinary," but it's beyond the scope of this article.
Anne Leonard is the author of MOTH AND SPARK, available in paperback from Penguin Books 12/30/14. She lives in Northern California. You can find her on Twitter @AnneLeonardAuth.