Movie Night: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Year: 2018
Genre: Fantasy
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

The  second installment of the “Fantastic Beasts” series featuring the adventures of Magizoologist New Scamander.

I was curious at the critical dislike for this movie, considering how successful “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was back in 2016. In fairness, I didn’t go to see this movie in theaters when it was released, although I do regret that – if nothing else, the Wizarding World films have proved to be some of the most visually spectacular in recent cinema history.

After a while, I began to assume the hate was directed at poor casting choices, or controversial thematic material (e.g. Dumbledore’s alluded-to romance with Grindelwald), but I never really paid much attention until I finally watched the film the other night.

I thought it was great.

No, really – I actually very much enjoyed it. I do think I understand some of the criticism levied at it – in particular the plethora of characters, the inexplicable rewriting of wizarding history, and the bizarre, one-line reference to homosexuality (I mean, either dive in and embrace it, or just forget about it) – but for me, it was a worthwhile installment in what I hope will become an excellent series.

I was afraid that Johnny Depp would bring his characteristically outrageous performance to Gellert Grindelwald and ruin the character; I was also disappointed at the casting of an American in a distinctly European role. I was also afraid that Jude Law, who in my eyes can really only play a villain, would ruin Dumbledore for me.

I’m glad to say I was wrong. Depp was surprisingly understated and reserved – just what was called for. Law was able to be both charismatic, charming and dangerous – exactly what I wanted Dumbledore to be. And the supporting cast all performed admirably, as well.

The movie isn’t without imperfections; as a sequel to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, Newt Scamander’s role is becoming somewhat relegated to the sidelines of another story. In fact, it really seems like the first film should have stood on its own, and this one been called something else entirely. I agree with the criticism of having a large number of characters, but not with the idea that there are too many to care about; I’m used to plentiful characters from Rowling’s novels, and it fit the feel of what she’s created in the past.

In the end, I’m glad I watched it, and although it’s no “Deathly Hallows”, it holds a dear place in my heart as a continuation of Rowling’s admirable magical world.

8/10 would watch again.

Elric and the Advent of Sword and Sorcery

I probably don’t need to remind anyone that there are a lot of genres of literature out there. Sometimes, of course, books can be forced into categories that they truly don’t match, but for the most part, the reason we have genres is because a lot of stories tend to fall into those categories fairly neatly.

And for every genre of writing, there are endless sub-genres, too. Look no further than Amazon’s ranking system, where The Redemption of Erâth falls under “Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Epic” as equally as “Literature and Fiction > Horror > Dark Fantasy”. (I don’t make up these categories, nor did I place my books into them; there’s precious little horror in The Redemption of Erâth.) The goal of this, of course, is to make accessing literature easier, so that the reader knows what to expect. After all, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are both considered fantasy, yet they have about as much in common as The Wheel of Time does with A Song of Ice and Fire.

But then, every once in a while, something comes along that redefines a genre. Or, if you’re lucky, creates a new one. Within the world of fantasy, which typically governs stories with alternate worlds, magic and medieval-type settings, the gamut runs from high fantasy – set in an entirely alternate world – to urban fantasy – set in a cross between a fantasy world and the real world. And whilst Tolkien is typically regarded as the master of the first, with C.S. Lewis arguably pioneering the second, today I want to talk about a genre that is sometimes unfairly dismissed as ‘easy’, or less serious: sword & sorcery.

Sword & sorcery fantasy, as the title implies, typically deals with the heroic adventures of a sword-wielding hero as they go from battle to battle, traveling the length and breadth of whatever world they’re set in, often pitted against dark sorcerers or magicians. Whilst there are obviously many possible crossovers between sword & sorcery and other fantasy sub-genres, some of the key elements are that the hero often knows they are the hero, and may even embrace that fact; also, that those same heroes typically live for adventure, and may go seeking for the glory of battle.

The term “sword & sorcery” was first coined by author Michael Moorcock in a letter to the magazine Amra, looking to describe the works of Robert E. Howard, and in particular, his Conan adventures. He was looking for something to distinguish these tales from other, similar genres, whilst focusing on the supernatural/mythical element that is so often prevalent in the genre.

Michael Moorcock himself became one of the best-known names in the sword & sorcery genre with his ongoing tales of Elric, the last emperor of Melniboné, and his adventures through lands of danger and deception. One of the lynchpins of sword & sorcery – the sword – makes a prominent appearance in these stories in the form of Stormbringer, a weapon that both confers strength to Elric (a physically weak antihero) whilst also eating away at his soul.

I remember greatly enjoying the tales of Elric and Stormbringer when I was young, primarily because they didn’t necessarily come with the deathly-serious world-saving implications of books such as The Lord of the Rings. It was adventure, pure and simple; there were stakes, yes, but they were always personal to the hero, and the world was just the world in which these adventures took place. For me it was refreshing, as so many of the tales I had read unto that point revolved around a reluctant hero that had to save their entire world (too many stories today, I fear, follow this tradition – including my own!).

It’s an interesting sort of idea, I think, to have a story whose sole purpose is to entertain; a story that has no allegory or moral, no lesson to be learned, and no great consequences for the world should the hero fail is something that provides a delightful escape from the realities of the ‘real’ world around us. And whilst there will always be a place for the Harry Potters and the Brandyé Dui-Erâths, there should equally be room for the Elrics, too.

What are your favorite sword & sorcery fantasies, and why?

To Trope or Not to Trope? A Balancing Act

One of the things I’m highly aware of in my fantasy work, The Redemption of Erâth, is that there are quite a few parallels and similarities to many other fantasy novels out there. From character names to events and creatures, I’ve borrowed heavily from the great fantasy masters that came before me to craft a world that, whilst unique, might feel suspiciously familiar to those who already know well Middle-Earth, Narnia, or Westeros.

That isn’t to say that those same early fantasy writers didn’t borrow themselves; even Tolkien relied heavily on Anglo-Saxon mythology for his invented creatures and languages (though their invention is still masterfully his).

Everything in storytelling is rehashed, recycled and reused eventually, and this is of course where tropes are born. Elves, goblins, fantasy languages and healing herbs find their way into so many fantastical tales that it becomes difficult at times to know which story inspired which. Where did the concept of speaking dragons first come about? Was it Christopher Paolini who popularized them? Was it Tolkien? Was it in Beowulf?

Tropes have become so frequent in the canon of popular fantasy that even using them has, in some circles, become a trope of its own. Articles such as this one from The Toast point out so many of those frequent fantasy themes that one bows one’s head in shame to find them in one’s own work. (There may or may not be quite a few in my own.)

So when is it acceptable to use a trope?

But here’s the thing: tropes have their uses. They help to define genres, for a start; after all, what defines a fantasy novel? Typically the concepts of an alternate world or history, yet one bound strictly to a single place or planet (as opposed to sci-fi), languages that don’t really exist, and mythical tales, quests and demons, all play a part in helping the reader to establish the type of novel to expect. If one were to open to a page that contained sentences such as, “She caressed his chest, as smooth and hard as the Glock 9mm she kept in her purse,” we’d probably have a very different concept of what sort of book we were reading.

So when is it acceptable to use a trope, and when does it cross the line? Is there a difference between a loving homage and outright plagiarism? And what is the tolerance of a reader to coming across the same concepts over and over again?

In my own fantasy novels, I’ve tried hard to navigate the line between these two realms. I do not have elves, or orcs – though I do have races other than ‘men’. I do not have any ‘magic’, or at least anything along the lines of the Harry Potter universe (or even words of ‘power’, such as in The Lord of the Rings) – but I do have unexplainable phenomena. I do have a mythical weapon of legend to be found. I do have numerous languages and civilizations. Perhaps most importantly, I do have a young orphan who is taken in by his grandfather when his parents die in a fire.

I can’t argue that the world of Erâth is utterly unique or inventive, but I do find that these tropes help forward the story itself. You see, what I’m trying to achieve is really a sense of grandeur, of nostalgia, and of lost hope. By the projected end of the series (seven novels in total), the hero will have gained and lost everything – and may not make it out alive (I have yet to decide). In fact, the hero may not even end up being the true ‘hero’. I think that if I focused too hard on making the world and its inhabitants completely ‘original’, it would detract from the actual story I’m trying to tell.

And that’s where I think the balance lies: using tropes to our advantage, whilst not over-relying on them to support the plot. Is it important that a character be able to heal from a wound or illness? Then why not use some healing herbs – a staple of fantasy since time immemorial – so that you can get on with what really matters: the emotional journey of the characters.

At the end of the day, I think there are some authors who spend so much time making their world original that they forget what the story was meant to be about in the first place. I don’t need worlds I’ve never conceived of before, so long as I’m reading about characters I’ve never conceived of before. I don’t need to dream of new and fascinating creatures, so long as the emotional and spiritual journey of the people in the story rings true.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that fantasy can’t be original; it just means that to focus too narrowly on the details risks overlooking the bigger picture: the fact that every story is unique in its telling by the nature of the person telling it. So don’t worry about making your story stand out with details no one cares about; make it stand out with a compelling character arc and an exciting, fresh journey.

In other words, don’t fear the trope.