The Fell Gard Codices

Following the previous post, about the difference between fantasy and surrealism, or between stories with defined rules of reality and those without, I’ve had a couple of thoughts. To start with, I remembered that Jeff VanderMeer, commenting on something China Miéville said, briefly discussed “fantasy novelists who read like realists and supposedly mimetic novelists whose world view and approach make them read like fabulists.” Which I think is the effect of the kind of writing I have in mind: a writing that refuses to define the rules of its world. Maybe it’s mimetic, maybe it isn’t, but even if it’s explicitly fantastic it’s not clear how far the fantasy extends; why or how the fantasy shapes the world.

I note VanderMeer’s comments here because they remind me of an angle to keep in mind. He says: “For a certain kind of writer a sense of fantastical play will always exist on the page.” So he seems to be talking about the blurring of fantastical and mimetic forms as a function of artistic vision, which it often is. I find I’m interested less in the reason why a writer chooses to write in such a way, and more in what it is that the writing does and how it works. I’m approaching this subject, as I tend to approach a lot of things in writing, as a question of rules and structure. What does it mean for the piece of writing that fantastical play exists within it?

But more relevant for Fell Gard I find myself wondering how defined is defined. And whether one of the issues with much fantasy, perhaps especially fantasy in gaming, is the overdefinition of its rules. That’d be heresy in some circles, maybe. To some, magic’s a dangerous thing to have in your stories; its limits have to be set, or else it turns into a deus ex machina, getting your characters out of scrapes with a wave of their hands. I’ve never really bought this. Or more precisely it seems to me that there are intuitive rules to magic, not conscious explicable rules. Nailing down what level of magic-user can cast Fireball and what level can cast Wish doesn’t really make magic any less likely to ruin a story.

Any force that comes in from the outside with no set-up can deflate tension, whether that’s magic or a winning lottery ticket. That doesn’t mean that you need to nail down the ‘physics’ of magic, any more than you need characters to give long explanations about the nature of probability. Just establishing a character likes to buy lottery tickets is good enough. Or that lotteries exist, or that one-in-a-million things happen. And if you position the point where the character wins the lottery correctly, you can use it to set up and heighten the climax, rather than defuse the story’s tension.

So: you can have magic without rules, fantasy without rules — something that’ll look more like surrealism, maybe, the fewer rules are given. Given that, what I’m now wondering is: is it in fact essential to fantasy that rules not be given? Is part of the appeal of the genre the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen, or why?

More rambling on this later, I think.

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