Thursday, March 27, 2008

Prehistoric Scenes in Fantasy

The "fantasy novel" as we know it deals most often either with a present or near-future urban landscape or with a mythical and heroic past - but it is a mythical past that extends back only as far as the invention of ironworking. I am curious how many storytellers who are serious about myth-making weave a picture of earth's prehistory into the mythic histories of their works.

Is the fascination our culture once had for dinosaurs and mammoths now forgotten? Jurassic Park would indicate otherwise - as would this story from the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Research Center, a few years ago:

The Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center offered a reward for information leading to the return of the Albertosaurus head, stolen from the Monument Hill billboard on I-25 between Feb. 4-10. The head piece is 9 foot by 4 foot, really ferocious looking and weighs close to 100 pounds. Tire marks near the billboard site indicate it was probably disconnected from the billboard with power tools -- a lot of effort on the thieves' part and was removed from the scene after a weekend snow.

These are specialists among thieves! The story made me grin.

But back to the question - what fantasy writers find inspiration in the giants of the ancient world? (And I mean besides the obvious examples of Clan of the Cave Bear and its genre, and the Lost World / Land That Time Forgot genre of the nineteenth century.) I'll offer a few examples, in hopes that our readers may suggest a few more.

First, from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, describing the wars between the gods while the world was being made:

Now Melkor began the delving and building of a vast fortress, deep under Earth, beneath dark mountains where the beams of Illuin were cold and dim. The stronghold was named Utumno. ...And the blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the Spring of Arda was marred. Green things fell sick and rotted, and rivers were choked with weeds and slime, and fens were made, rank and poisonous, the breeding place of flies; and forests grew dark and perilous, the haunts of fear; and beasts became monsters of horn and ivory and dyed the earth with blood.

Tolkien paints the prehistory of Middle-Earth with as much wonder and subtlety as he does the more recent history of Elves and wizards. Tolkien peoples the story with characters such as Orome, who hunts the monstrous beasts of prehistory with spear and bow, and sounds his horn, the Valaroma, in the dark forests - and Yavanna, who awakens the wild and ancient plants:

But already the oldest living things had arisen: in the seas the great weeds, and on earth the shadow of great trees; and in the valleys of the night-clad hills there were dark creatures old and strong.

No book I read as a child about the immense animals that preceded the tigers and deer that we know ever spoke of them with such poetry.

A second example: Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet -- Alvin Maker has climbed with the Prophet into the heart of a tornado to watch a vision of the earth's history:

He saw fish leaping in the sea, crawly life on the shore where the tide came in, and then bugs and other small critters, hopping and nibbling and catching each other and eating each other up. Them animals kept getting bigger and bigger, so fast Alvin couldn't follow the changes, just the earth spinning and him watching, huge monstrous creatures like he never heard of, with long snakey necks some of them, and teeth and jaws to tear down trees with a single bite, it looked like. And then they were gone, and there were elephants and antelopes and tigers and horses, all the life of the earth, getting more and more like what Alvin thought animals ought to look like.

And one more example - this one from one of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, Beyond the Black River. I know it is customary to look down on Howard for his often turgid prose and for his pulp extravagancy, but his fiction remains my guilty pleasure. So I inflict this scene on you:

But suddenly the gate was no longer empty. A shuddering gasp swept over the village and men crowded hastily back, jamming each other between the huts. Balthus felt the short hair stir on his scalp. The creature that stood in the gate was like the embodiment of a nightmare legend. Its color was of a curious pale quality which made it seem ghostly and unreal in the dim light. But there was nothing unreal about the low-hung savage head, and the great curved fangs that glistened in the firelight. On noiseless padded feet it approached like a phantom out of the past. It was a survival of an older, grimmer age, the ogre of many an ancient legend -- a saber-tooth tiger.

What each of these tales offers is a recognition of the ferocity and vivid wonder (or horror) that fossils have held for us, a recognition of fossils as a wellspring of new myth -- whether that myth is centered around the conflict of the civilized and the primitive (as in Howard), the heedless rush of history (as in Card), or the theodicy of suffering (as in Tolkien) -- or indeed the triumph of the survivor and of the individual spirit (as in Auel). Is there not something that calls to us when we look upon the ruins of wonders that even our ancestors never got to see?

Gene Wolfe, in The Book of the New Sun, describes a man riding a baluchitherium through the wood -- the largest of all living mammals, a hornless rhinoceros that might have stepped over a small house -- and the beast squeezing itself between the trunks of two old cedars as a mouse might squeeze though a crack in the wall.

I also think of Gurney's Dinotopia series, which began as a series of paintings -- of a lost world where dinosaurs and humans live together -- and quickly became a series of bestselling (and very good) children's books.

Scientific discoveries about the prehistoric world are coming upon us fast and thick: the discovery of remnants of that world that still live, like the coelacanth; the discovery of a race of humans of hobbit height that once lived on an island in the Pacific; the discovery of dinosaurs that lived in Antarctica (Antarctica!), warm-blooded and large-eyed and able to survive through dark, sunless eight-month winters; the discovery of many new and strange species. Amid such wonders, what fresh myths will emerge in our new century?

Marco Polo and his caravan, on the eastern road to China, passed massive bones exposed by the wind in the Gobi Desert, and thought them the bones of dragons.

No comments: