Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was the author of The Chronicles of Prydain, The Westmark Trilogy and other myth-laced novels for readers young and old, widely acknowledged as classics of our field. In this passage from "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance," he looks at the roots of fantasy literature, gives advice to writers today, and talks about his own experience of writing The Black Cauldron and The Book of Three:
"While its full meaning remains tantalizingly unknown, we can trace mythology's historical growth into an art form: through epic poetry, the chansons de geste, the Icelandic sagas, the medieval romances and works of prose in the Romance languages. Its family tree includes Beowulf, the Eddas, The Song of Roland, Amadís de Gaule, the Perceval of Chretien de Troyes, and The Faerie Queene. In modern literature, one form that draws most directly from the fountainhead of mythology, and does it consciously and deliberately, is the heroic romance, which is a form of high fantasy. The world of heroic romance is, as Professor Northrop Frye defines the whole world of literature in The Educated Imagination, 'the world of heroes and gods and titans..., a world of powers and passions and moments of ecstasy far greater than anything we meet outside the imagination.'
"If anyone can be credited with inventing the heroic romance as we know it today -- that is, in the form of a novel using epic, saga, and chanson de geste as some of its raw materials -- it must be William Morris, in such books as The Wood Beyond the World and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Certainly Morris showed the tremendous strength and potential of the heroic romance as an artistic vehicle, which was later to be used by Lord Dunsany, Eric Eddison, James Branch Cabell; by C. S. Lewis and T. H. White. Of course, heroic romance is the basis of the superb achievements of J. R.R. Tolkien.
"Writers of heroic romance, who work directly in the tradition and within the conventions of an earlier body of literature and legend, draw from a common source: the 'Pot of Soup,' as Tolkien calls it, the 'Cauldron of Story,' which has been simmering away since time immemorial. The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history -- spiced and spliced -- with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied.
"Among the most nourishing bits and pieces we can scoop out of the pot are whole assortments of characters, events, and situations that occur again and again in one form or another through out much of the world's mythology: heroes and villains, fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers, princesses and pig-keepers, prisoners and rescuers; ordeals and temptations, the quest for the magical object, the set of tasks to be accomplished. And a whole arsenal of cognominal swords, enchanted weapons; a wardrobe of cloaks of invisibility, seven-league boots; a whole zoo of dragons, helpful animals, birds, and fish.
"But -- in accordance with one of fantasy's own conventions -- nothing is given for nothing. Although we are free and welcome to ladle up whatever suits our taste, and fill ourselves with any mixture we please, nevertheless, we have to digest it, assimilate it as thoroughly as we assimilate the objective experiences of real life. As conscious artists, we have to process it on the most personal levels; let it work on our personalities and, above all, let our personalities work on it. Otherwise we have what the computer people delicately call GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Because these conventional characters -- these personae of myth and fairy tale, though gorgeously costumed and caparisoned -- are faceless, the writer must fill in their expressions. Colorful figures in a pantomime, the writer must give them a voice.
"Since I have been talking about the 'Cauldron of Story,' I am now reminded of the Crochan, the Black Cauldron that figured in one of the books of Prydain. Now, cauldrons of one sort or another are common household appliances in the realm of fantasy. Sometimes they appear, very practically, as inexhaustible sources of food, or, on a more symbolic level, as a lifegiving source or as a means of regeneration. Some cauldrons bestow wisdom on the one who tastes their brew. In Celtic mythology, there is a cauldron of poetic knowledge guarded by nine maidens, counterparts of the nine Greek muses.
"There is also a cauldron to bring slain warriors back to life. The scholarly interpretation -- the mythographic meaning -- is a fascinating one that links together all the other meanings. Immersion in the cauldron represented initiation into certain religious mysteries involving death and rebirth. The initiates, being figuratively -- and perhaps literally -- steeped in the cult mysteries, emerged reborn as adepts. In legend, those who came out of the cauldron had gained new life but had lost the power of speech. Scholars interpret this loss of speech as representing an oath of secrecy.
"One branch of The Mabinogion, the basic collection of Welsh mythology, and one of my own prime research sources, tells of such a cauldron of regeneration, and how it ended up in the hands of the Irish. And, in the tale of Branwen, the Welsh princess rescued from the Irish by King Bran, a great number of slain Irish warriors came back to life. Naturally, this cauldron posed an uncomfortable problem for the Welshmen, who were constantly finding themselves outnumbered; until one of the Welsh soldiers sacrificed his life by leaping into the cauldron and shattering it. This incident gave me the external shape of the climax of The Black Cauldron. Though changed and manipulated considerably, the nub of the story is located in the myth -- except for one detail of characterization: the essential internal nature of the cauldron, its inner meaning and significance beyond its being an unbeatable item of weaponry.
"And so I tried to develop my own conception of the cauldron. Despite its regenerative powers, it seemed to me more sinister than otherwise. The muteness of the warriors created the horror I associated with the cauldron. Somehow, I felt that these voiceless men, already slain, revived only to fight again, deprived even of the oblivion of the grave, were less beneficiaries than victims. As the idea grew, I began to sense the cauldron as a kind of ultimately evil device. My 'Cauldron-Born,' then, were not only mute but enslaved to another's will. If they had lost their power of speech, they had also lost their memory of themselves as living beings -- without recollection of joy or sorrow, tears or laughter. They had, in effect, been deprived of their humanity: a fate, in my opinion, considerably worse than death. The risk of dehumanization -- of individuals being manipulated as objects in stead of being valued as living people -- is, unfortunately, not confined to the realm of fantasy.
"Another example of the same kind of creative invention on the part of a writer has to do with the birth of a character; and in this case a most difficult delivery. Writing The Book of Three, the first of the Prydain chronicles, I was groping my way through the early chapters with that queasy sensation of desperate insecurity that comes when you do not know what is going to happen next. I knew vaguely what should happen, but I could not figure out how to get at it. The story, at this point, needed another character: Whether friend or foe, minor or major, comic or sinister, I could not decide. I only knew that I needed him, and he refused to appear.
"The work came to a screaming halt: the screams being those of the author. Day after day, for better than a week, I stumbled into my work room and sat there, feeling my brain turn to concrete. I had been reading a very curious book, an eighteenth-century account of the various characters in Celtic mythology. One of them stuck in my mind -- a one-line description of a creature half-human, half-animal. The account was interesting, but it was not doing much to solve my problem. I was convinced, by now, that I had suffered severe brain damage; that I would never write again; the mortgage would be foreclosed; my wife carried off to the Drexel Hill poor-farm; and I -- quivering and gibbering, moaning and groaning -- I did not even dare to imagine what would become of me. The would-be author of a hero-tale had begun to show his innate cowardice, and I was feeling tremendously sorry for myself.
"At four o'clock one morning, I had gone to my work room for what had become a routine session of sniveling and hand-wringing. I had decided, one way or another, to use this hint of a half animal, half-human creature. The eighteenth-century text had given him a name -- Gurgi. It seemed to fit, but he still refused to enter the scene. I could see him, a little; but I could not hear him. If I could only make him talk, half the battle would be over. But he would not talk. And so I sat there, expecting to pass the morning as usual, crying and sighing. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason what ever, I heard a voice in the back of my mind, plaintive, whining, self-pitying. It said: 'Crunchings and munchings?' And there, right at that moment, there he was. Part of him, certainly, came from research. The rest of him -- I have a pretty good idea where it came from.
"My point, in these examples, is simply this: A writer of fantasy, like any writer, must find the essential content of his work within himself, in his own personality, in his own attitude and commitment to real life. Whatever form we work in -- fantasy or realism, books for children or for adults -- I believe that the fundamental creative process is the same. In his work, the author may be very heavily disguised, or altogether anonymous. I do not think he is ever totally absent.
"On the contrary, his presence is required; not as a stage manager who can be seen busily shifting the cardboard scenery, but as the primary source of tonality and viewpoint. Without this viewpoint, the work becomes more and more abstract, a play of the intellect that can move us only intellectually. It may be technically brilliant, but it becomes sleight of hand instead of true magic. If art -- as Plato defined it -- is a dream for awakened minds, it should be, at the same time, a dream that quickens the heart.
"High fantasy indeed quickens the heart and reaches levels of emotion, areas of feeling that no other form touches in quite the same way. Some books we can enjoy, some we can admire, and some we can love. And among those books that we love as children, that we remember best as adults, fantasy is by no means least."
The art today is from The Mabinogion, magnificently illustrated by Alan Lee. The paintings first appeared in an edition published by Dragon's Dream in 1982 (translated by Gwyn Thomas and Thomas Jones, 1949), and can now be found in a volume published by HarperVoyager in 2000 (translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1838-1845). The Easton Press published a sumptuous limited edition (with the Guest translation) in 2015.
More of Alan's artwork, including other Mabinogion paintings, can be found in this post from last week.
The passage above is from "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance" by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Books, Dec. 16, 1971). You can read the full essay here. All rights reserved by the author's estate. The paintings above first appeared in The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones, illustrated by Alan Lee (Dragon's Dream/JM Dent & Sons Ltd, 1982). All rights reserved by the artist.