Where the great plain of Tarphet runs up, as the sea in estuaries, among the Cyresian mountains, there stood long since the city of Merimna well-nigh among the shadows of the crags. I have never seen a city in the world so beautiful as Merimna seemed to me when I first dreamed of it. It was a marvel of spires and figures of bronze, and marble fountains, and trophies of fabulous wars, and broad streets given over wholly to the Beautiful. – Lord Dunsany, “The Sword of Welleran”
I read that fantastic excerpt of Dunsany’s work (which is available in its entirety from the Project Gutenberg folks) from the most recent edition of Michael Moorcock’s “Wizardry & Wild Romance” a study, retrospective and call-to-arms on epic fantasy by one of the most opinionated masters of the field. I picked it up awhile back and finally read it over the last week, partly to participate in a challenge but for the most part to help me prepare for a submission to The Farthest Shore: Fantasy from the Philippines a soon to be released online anthology of Fantasy Secondary World fiction from Filipino authors, edited by Dean Alfar and Joseph Nacino.
Of course after reading the book I felt woefully incompetent at writing anything remotely resembling Epic Fantasy–but then that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with a man who dismisses even Grandfather Tolkien’s work as “Epic Pooh.” (His words, not mine!)
I’ll save a more in-depth discussion of my, er, epic battle to hammer out a submission for another day–but obviously trying to write for the Farthest Shore got me thinking a bit about secondary fantasy worlds, which I’m going to try to present here, as well as point to what others have had to say on the topic. Actually, let’s start with those others.
In one of his weekly essays, the Bibliophile Stalker discussed the idea of Secondary Worlds, and brought up a point many of us Filipinos can relate to (as also discussed below): that our first brush with Speculative Fiction/Fantasy was probably with Secondary Worlds.
When I first got into the fantasy genre, I was actually reading secondary world fiction although I obviously didn’t call it that (nor was I aware there was such a term until two years ago). Terry Brooks, Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore–all of these authors usually write in such a sub-genre. For the most part, fantasy for a time was probably synonymous with secondary worlds. Personally, the only reason I see the need to make a distinction is due to the recent proliferation of urban fantasy (in the mainstream sense of the word) which doesn’t usually qualify.
Charles probably trolled the same bookstores I did (there was really only National Bookstore to speak of when I was growing up–Goodwill only brought out the good stuff at the Bookfair ^_^). My first was actually a borderline work – The Guardians of the Flame series, by Joel Rosenberg. I graduated from that to David Eddings’ Belgariad, Feist, and Brooks (who I actually read before Tolkien) as well as Anne McCaffrey’s first Pern books.
Towards the end of the essay, Charles poses the question of whether secondary worlds, by their nature, can in fact be seen to be “Filipino” even without the story having Filipino characters or the Philippines as a setting. It’s a question that also seems to have weighed on the mind of Banzai Cat as well, although in the end, like Charles, he answers that question in the affirmative:
So I thought about it and I came up with a couple of insights. One is that there is a difference between fantasy and fantastical. The other is that one can develop a Filipino sense in any fantasy story (or horror or SF) even with the most Western of tropes. With these two insights, I started writing again and crafted a number of stories that I felt could stand against criticism in terms of national identity without foregoing the sense of wonder in such stories.
I’ve already proven I can write about dragons in the muck and grime of Philippine soil, or serial killers in the cold towers of the local call center industry. But gazing inward, I now want to look outward.
Thus the idea of a secondary world anthology. Just because these stories will be harkening back to the use of Western ideas (i.e. Tolkien, Donaldson, etc.) doesn’t necessarily mean we have ignored what it means to be Filipino. However, this also doesn’t mean that we’ll only limit ourselves to being only Filipino. We are— but we’re also more than that (and I’m not even talking about international markets and globalization).
From what I read in Wizardry and Wild Romance, I think that Moorcock might agree with the idea that a Filipino secondary world fantasy is indeed possible–for to him, assuming the fantasy is done well, it cannot help but be a reflection of the author’s inner life which as a matter of course will be colored by his homeland. In the foreword to the book he states:
For me, the main fascination of the fantasy story lies in its manipulation of direct subconscious symbols. The mingled attraction and revulsion often felt by its readers might well express the combined curiosity and fear of seeing too deeply into themselves. If our “irrational” dreams are potent images “explained” by the semi-conscious mind and blended into some sort of rough plot, so fantasy stories take the same material and attempt the same sort of job, with the object of convincing our rational minds, even if only temporarily.
Epic fantasy can offer a world of metaphor in which to explore the rich, hidden territories deep within us.
I think that as long as the story deals with the internal life of a person whose inner life was developed here in the Philippines, or the story tackles issues and themes relevant and important Filipinos, then there is nothing to keep that story from being characterized as a Filipino story. Those themes need not be uniquely Filipino, nor, for me, does the author himself or herself have to be Filipino–what really matters is whether Filipinos can relate to the work at some level, whether literal or metaphorical.
Does that make my definition to broad? Maybe. Yet I think good literature becomes great literature precisely when it can transcend nationalities while, at the same time, being subject to appropriation by many cultures. Just because a story is a Jewish story, or a Greek story doesn’t mean it cannot be equally and uniquely a Filipino one.