Out of the Games Cupboard

A random assortment of reflections, musings and a running commentary on life.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The problem with fantasy literature....

My favourite novel is undoubtedly The Lord of the Rings. I greatly admire what Tolkien achieved in conceiving and writing it. However, he also sort of created the genre oft referred to as "epic fantasy". Over the years I've read many novels falling into this category, I guess in the hope of finding something that hits me in the same way as LOTR does. As a genre fantasy writing has become phenomenally cliched and rarely displays much originality. Tolkien is not really to blame, however, but his imitators should maybe try to do things differently!

Here is a list of the most common epic fantasy cliches that I can remember:

  1. You can't contain an epic fantasy in one novel. Oh no... you need three. It's almost always three. Often you could have cut out the crap and have had one good novel (well, often a novella).
  2. There's always a map at the front. It will often contain every type of landscape found on earth but compressed into a small area. How would that climate work?!? Geographic and geological features often occur in unlikely or impossible places. There is rarely any truly origianl landscape; you have to shift genres to Sci-fi to find 1000' tall trees or mountains floating on seas of gas....
  3. The 'world' of the novel is almost always 'quasi-medieval'. That makes it easy for any twit who's seen an Orlando Bloom movie to be able to picture the landscape. Unless they've only seen that crap one where he's a boxer. Quasi - medieval means there will be knights, lords, a feudal system, swords, bow and arrows, small villages, larger market towns, and impressive cities often with big boats in them (to transport our hero to a new life of course). Things you'll remember from school basically, just like the author did.
  4. There will usually be elves, dwarves, men and some sort of goblinoids... who are "evil". Elves are always smug, arrogant gits who are superhumanly strong and are usually immortal... so that they can't be arsed to recreate. Therefore elves are usually diminshing in numbers. Dwarves tend to live under mountain ranges and have Welsh accents (okay maybe that's just me and Pratchett!). They usually don't get on with elves due to something someone once said about our Sharon or something similar. Dwarf women rarely make an appearance. The hero will usually come from the newest race - man. How man has survived when he is so cloddishly dense and physically puny is a mystery; sometimes it's their strength of numbers (elves take note!) or their adaptability.
  5. Men will usually exist in geographic groups whose appearance/manner/ mode of warfare/ love of drinking will feel strangely familiar. To make us feel at ease in this new fantasy world the writer (and I use this term generously) has plundered history to give us stereotypes we feel familiar with, and that he could remember from school. Vikings therefore crop up a fair bit (well they're such good fun), Romans and Greeks make a few appearances as do Machiavellian style traders and politicians. There's sometimes some plains indians and orientals thrown in for variety. That people with technology's separated by centuries can co-exist (not to mention the elves and dwarves) truly is a work of fantasy.
  6. The aforementioned hero is usually a lowly farm boy, baker's apprentice, peasant, whatever. He usually follows one of two paths; he may discover he has strange magical powers, for which he is ridiculed by the bumpkins, and so has to flee the only life he has known (which has been fairly crap up until this point) or he accidentally gets thrust into the path of great events and turns out to be a diamond in the rough.
  7. The hero will always encounter a stranger, be he a storyteller, wandering peddler or deranged loony. He will smooth the rough diamond or tutor the lad in how to use his powers discretely and safely depending on which plot we're following.
  8. This stranger will inevitably turn out not to be a wandering popcorn salesman but either a great wizard or a great warrior. He will usually have a beard (symbol of wisdom, except for dwarves for whom it is a symbol of... well... being a dwarf). He may also carry a hidden artefact of great power - a staff or suspiciously unadorned sword, or a moustache comb.
  9. A lot of epic fantasy contains magic. This is usually less fun and more irritating than it sounds. Few writers have employed magic that doesn't come with consequences (to my mind that would be the only fun sort). Oh no. In fact most magic users seem to spend most of their time rigorously not using magic. This is because with great power comes great responsibility. Or a need to remember a shed load of complex spells (a bit much for our lowly bumpkin hero). Often it requires jsut as much effort to do something with magic as to do it manually. Who thought that one up? Or, using magic alerts other magically-sentient beings to your precise location - a bit like a mental flare gun. Sometimes characters are allowed to use magic for safe, mundane tasks, but that's hardly fun.
  10. Religion sometimes makes an appearance, but a lot of writers choose to give it a wide birth. The best ones practice human sacrifice, often on a grand scale, but most are more nature-loving and are based on sound Christian morals. How sad is that? Come on, it's fantasy, live a little. Why isn't there a race in just one novel who worship ferrets, or frogs or have banned underpants as they are offensive unto their God?
  11. Languages. Tolkien's world was created from its languages upwards. He was a very clever man and so his languages had their own history and evolution which prompted him to create the history of their speakers. Oh, and it was so detailed you can believe it is real quite easily. Everyone else pretty much just copies this a bit. It's often just embarrassing. You get far more accents in epic fantasy than in any other form of fiction (apart from French language novels I expect). There are usually more acutes, graves and circumflexes than you'd find in a dictionary. Inever know how to pronounce them but it doesn't really matter as the bits written in a made up language are usually outstandingly crap.
  12. Fantasy writers mst spend ages dreaming up unearthly sounding names for all their myriad characters. But every so often one slips through the net; however you spell it it's still Kolyn, and its still Ny-gel!
  13. There might be dragons. They can usually talk, are very clever and often quite decent sorts. They tend to have been misunderstood and thus virtually wiped out. If there is a dragon there's a 95% chance he's the last one. He'll probably make friends with our hero. After a misunderstanding in which he comically almost roasdts him alive.
  14. There is usually an evil advisor stood near a good, benign monarch. He usually has spies which strikes me as quite sensible. He may have dabbled in magic, but not being a bumpkin from Clodsville he has been drawn to the powers of evil - it has better PR than the forces of good.
  15. War is usually looming. This was often true of the medieval world (not much for knights to do before TV came along) so it's hardly surprising that everyone can't get along when you add in the dwarves, elves, goblinoids and the dragon.
  16. If there are battles they are usually brutally described. Two months after first holding a sword, our hero will be wielding it like a battle-hardened war veteran. But that's usually because he isn't really a bumpkin at all! He will probably have royal blood coursing through his veins (which make his indecent thoughts about the inevitable feisty princess okay.... unless she turns out to be his sister). Of course, he is rarely welcomed with open arms (he still has the odour of the farm clinging to his peasant rags) but has to demonstrate his nobility .
  17. Most of these novels are aimed at teenage boys/young men. That means they have girls in... and sometimes even sex...or the suggestion that there might be some sex somewhere between the pages. It's not really necessary but it makes a change....
  18. Women are usually poorly written. Tolkien just didn't bother and countless others should have followed his example. Instead we have a host of identical elven princesses - cold and aloof; strong, independent women who no man dare marry (or buy depending on the culture - well, borrowed culture); seething, beautiful but twisted-inside queens locked in a loveless marriage made for strategic/dynastic reasons. She usually poisons someone. Or sleeps with her brother.
  19. Kings always go hunting and something untoward will often happen. Sometimes this will involve a wild boar.
  20. There will always be one nobleman who is harshly moral, another who is strict but fair, and one who has gluttonous tastes in all things.

When you have finished reading all three volumes you will have not a sense of achievemnt, satisfaction or even wonder. Instead you will be left feeling as if you've read it all before. Don't worry, you have!


Chronicles of a Stay at Home Dad #7

Ellie finally got to go on a dragon hunt! I made a giant dragon head without her knowing and placed it on top of the garden shed. I placed the dragon we had made together in Ellie's wendy house. Her toy green plastic dragon sat on a garden step, whilst the similar red one hid by the trampoline. I hid my Nazgul's Winged Beast model (!) in her pop-up castle tent. I drew a map of the garden with strange names for features such as "the Geranium Jungle" and "the Trampoline of Terror". The wendy house became a mountain cave and the back step became "the Step of Mystery". The dragons were marked with red crosses. Ellie donned her armour and, with me for protection, she ventured into the garden. It took her nearly forty minutes to find all 5 dragons. She was great at "hitting" them with her sword. The one on the shed initially terrified her (boy, did I feel like a bad parent!) but then she asked me to lift her up. She prodded it with her sword to establish that it wasn't real and then proceeded to whack it repeatedly with her "sword" whilst laughing. Great fun.

At the weekend we managed to attend the York Carnival. Ellie really enjoyed Chris the Magician and a man walking on stilts. She particularly loved the company of friends and had a great afternoon. My favourite moment came with the Mayor's Balloon Launch.... when many of the red balloons became trapped in the grasping branches of the nearby trees.... it was quite funny really!

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Morris Dancing

In the last few days I have twice endured Morris dancing. I have never particularly enjoyed the spectacle of gentlemen wearing short trousers and bells prancing about with hankies or hitting sticks together, all to the accompaniment of that most horrendous of instruments - the accordion. No, I'm not a fan. I've never really seen the point of it. I know it's a refined version of old fertility dances common in agrarian cultures etc but still... it seems a bit daft! It has also always made me feel uncomfortable. I thought this was because if you take away the bells, sticks, hankies, hats and garlands then you're left with how most men look when dancing. But yesterday I realised what actually made me uncomfortable. Most men engaged in any form of dancing look vaguely idiotic (apart from the gifted few and those who have shelled out for lessons) but they do it in the, often misplaced, hope of attracting members of the opposite sex. A mating ritual if you will. But there is absolutely no way on our beautiful, resplendent planet, that any female can find Morris dancers even remotely sexy/ appealing/ likely to be good mates. Therefore they must do it simply because they enjoy it (and the beer). Now, how scary is that? They live amongst us.....


French For Fidgets

Ellie and I have recently started attending 'French for Fidgets' with her best friend, Elen, and her dad, Jason. It is great fun. Lucy, the organiser/teacher, puts an incredible amount of effort into the classes. Every week she has baked biscuits (shaped like animals) which the kids love. Many of her props are beautifully homemade - I particularly like the happy and sad wooden spoons! She has printed out and laminated all the song lrics in French and English. Every week there is a structured art/craft activity which goes down well after the singing and games.

I think Ellie was initially a little shy around the new people but seemed to understand that most of the speaking was in French; Lucy says something in French first, then in English, then in French a few more times. But after a few weeks Ellie is tentatively saying, bonjour, au revoir, merci, s'il vous plait, oui, non, j'ai trois ans, je m'appelle Ellie, ca va bien and I've heard her singing "cinq fromages dans le fromagerie..." and "sur ma bicyclette..."! She's even tried teaching her peers at nursery to count in French and say bonjour.

Lucy has put a lot of effort into promoting the classes. She firmly (and correctly) believes that the approach to learning languages within our education system is all wrong. Young children below 5 can learn several languages as easily as they can learn one. This ability decreases as the child grows. By ages 10-11 its an upward struggle but this is traditionally when children first start formally learning other languages. It's crazy when you think about it! The saddest thing is though, as Lucy says, she encounters much resistance from parents of 2 or 3 year olds who think their child will fail to master English if they are confused by the presence of a second language. This simply is not the case. It is noticeable that the 2 year olds at the class pick up new words in French quicker than Ellie and Elen, and yet their Englsih is about where you would expect.

We are not expecting that Ellie will be fluent in French by the time she's five or anything, but at least she is starting out appreciating that their are other languages and cultures with their own songs to sing. She enjoys the company and the activities and therefore it is a good thing.

I strongly recommend language courses of this type to toddlers everywhere! It's good for parents to brush up on their skills to!

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Definition of 'sad'

Imagine..... a quiet road.... a pedestrian crossing.....both sides lined with parents with pushchairs or holding the hands of eager toddlers.... everyone is waiting for the green man to appear...... he doesn't...... time passes...... toddlers become restless....... nobody moves - no parent wants to be the first to imply that it's okay to cross when the red man is still lit up..... the road is clear but still no parent wants to be the first to yield and traumatise a horde of kids instilled with a Pavlovian sense of safety.... the road still clear.... no one yet moves.... did anyone actually press the button? Apparently not.


Top tip for parents

I have found a fantastic site for kids who like Disney movies (I suppose that's most kids!). Here you can print off cards and calendars featuring all your favourite Disney characters. You can even print them out in black and white to colour in yourself. There's even dress up characters you can print and cut out..... which I'm sure Ellie will love in a year or so. Great fun and it's all free!

Go on, go and have a look.... you know you want to:http://disney.go.com/magicartist/coloring/index.html

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

What Stat Trek character are you...

I recently did this quiz:

which works out which Star Trek charcater you are like. In fact I did it 5 times and, unless I lie outrageously, it consistently says I'm like Deanna Troi. But not just a little like her..... 80% like her! Now that wouldn't be so bad by itself except that my other close matches are Uhura, Beverley Crusher and Geordi LaForge! Maybe I need to lie more about using weapons and liking maths....

But no... this is me:

"You are a caring and loving individual.You understand people's emotions and you are able to comfort and counsel them."

Rigth, it's time to set phasers to 'kill'...

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Chronicles of a Stay at Home Dad #6 - How to make cardboard armour....

Well, Ellie and I finally got around to making her some cardboard armour ready for her 'dragon hunt' (hopefully tomorrow, weather and presence of mythological beasts permitting). We went to 'French for Fidgets' on Monday with Elen and her dad, Jason. The girls had a great time and did use a few French words. I was proud of Ellie, particularly as she awoke at 5am and so had every right to be overtired and grumpy. Instead she was vibrant and fun!

After an all too brief afternoon nap we set about measuring her and cutting up some old Amazon packaging. We decided that she needed a helmet, a shield, a breast and backplate(corselet), some armour to cover her thighs (cuisses), lower arms (vambraces) and upper arms (brassard I think...).

We used spray glue to stick tinfoil straight onto the cardboard to make it shiny and "metallic". We used elastic secured with tape for fastenings along with brass paper fasteners to look like rivets and to secure the elastic (and to make a decorative 'E' on the breastplate!). We were more than happy with the results:

Ellie chose the pink feather for her helmet herself (I thought she might go for green or purple... how wrong was I!).

I made the swords without Ellie's assistance as it involved using a saw. I used a 1 metre length of foam pipe-lagging cut in half. A 30cm length of dowel (cut to fit) was placed in one hollow end of the tube and tightly taped. The part sticking out formed the hilt. A guard was fashioned out of cardboard and securely taped on. The beauty of the foam pipe is that we can actually hit each other (gently) without injury! Not that I advocate teaching children about violence but...hey.... swords are part of pur history and hitting a shiny shield or a plastic dragon is fun!

Hence Ellie's maniacal laugh.....

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