Saturday, May 28, 2011

Granfa Grig, The Hobbit, and Finding My Way: a Ramble

When it comes to writing new blog posts -- or writing fiction -- these past few weeks, I've become a sluggard.


photo by Jose L. Ramos, from
Whenever I hear, read, or (in this case) type that word, I am reminded of a "nursery rhyme" I first encountered as a little kid while reading Granfa' Grig Had a Pig and Other Rhymes Without Reason (granfa' being short for grandfather):
Slug-a-bed, slug-a-bed, Barley Butt,
Your bum's so heavy, you can't get up.
If I recall correctly, the corresponding picture was of a pig in a too-small bed.

I don't know what's happened to my well-worn, well-loved copy of that insane and happy book of Mother Goose rhymes -- the illustrations are fantastic -- but I suspect I gave it to my niece or to some other child who would appreciate the goofiness that sometimes hides a comment on life.

The publication year is 1976, the year I turned five, went to kindergarten, and started learning to read -- the year before the animated version of The Hobbit was released. (Someone later gave me a copy of the read-along record, too.) I tend to say that Tolkien's novel was my introduction to the fantasy genre but, truthfully, all the nursery rhymes, fairy tales, tall tales, myths and legends that I'd heard and read before I finally picked up The Hobbit and read it for myself, those were really the beginning for me.

Isn't all fiction fantasy? After all, unless it's somehow autobiographical, based on history, or a modified version of fact, all fiction springs from the fantasies -- be they dark, merry, extravagant, simple -- of writers who let their imaginations roam free.

I used to get irritated at my dad analyzing Westerns, telling me that a horse had the wrong saddle or that an outlaw was using a gun that wouldn't work. "A real cowboy would never treat his horse that way," or "A man trying to hide would never ride the ridge like that, " and so on. My response was always, "So? It's not real life. It's a story. Anything can happen."

Well, technically, that's true. Just a story. Just a fantasy.

All stories are fantasies -- we make them up -- but even the most improbable fantasy should make sense within the parameters of its world.

Granfa' Grig can keep his pig (in a field of clover. Piggy died, Granfa' cried, and now the fun was over), Thor can wield his hammer, the three billygoats can fend off the trolls, Raven can play his tricks, and, sure, a fairy godmother can swoop in out of nowhere and make magic -- but has anyone else but me ever wondered where she came from and why in the world she'd help a perfect stranger go to the ball to meet the prince? I mean, what's her angle?

Maybe that's just the cynic in me, but everyone -- real or imaginary -- has a motive. What they say or do, what they believe, why they change or remain the same, it all has a reason. It may not be a very good reason, but it makes sense to them if to no one else.

So, even in fantasy, writers need to keep their facts straight, and be aware of the why of things.

photo by D. Friedman, on
I'm preaching to myself here. When I'm not sure where to go next with a story, I go back and try to get back inside the characters' heads, try to view a situation from their perspectives. What do they value? What do they need? What do they hate, love, want?

That doesn't mean I don't lose my way, but losing the path is part of the journey. Wander around, check out the forest, find a new route through the city, return to the main road, continue the journey.

Maybe while I'm spending time finding out what my characters will do next and why, I'll see a previously hidden path, surprising myself and, hopefully, the reader.

Bilbo Baggins met Gollum while trying to escape the goblins, thus placing himself in new and more intense danger -- the riddle scene is one of my favorites in literature -- and leading Tolkien to write the finding of a ring capable of making Bilbo invisible. In the beginning, it was just a magical ring. Only later did it grow in Tolkien's imagination to become the center of an epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.

The things we discover on the way can be treasures untold.

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