That title is once again a reference to the Kabbalah. It seems I bring this up often, but I want to point out that I don’t “believe” in it, nor it even represents my view on things. The value I recognize in it, instead, is that it offers some patterns or schemes that, when generalized, can be extremely useful and revelatory when applied to all sorts of different contexts and themes. It’s like a tool that can offer an interesting angle.

In this case I’m pointing this out because it’s directly connected with what I wrote in my review of “Forge of Darkness” and with something I just read in Dune. So I’ll use it to simplify again what I intend with that “metaphor made real” that Erikson uses, and why it can oppose Fantasy “as escapism”.

This is the quote from “Dune”:

“Words,” Kynes said.

Paul stared at him. Presently, Paul said: “You have a legend of the Lisan al-Gaib here, the Voice from the Outer World, the one who will lead the Fremen to paradise. Your men have –”

“Superstition!” Kynes said.

“Perhaps, “Paul agreed. “Yet perhaps not. Superstitions sometimes have strange roots and stranger branchings.”

I doubt that Herbert here made a deliberate reference to the Kabbalah, but the image made me link that concept to how I perceive value in Fantasy.

In the Kabbalah the image presented is that of an inverted tree. You have the roots on top and the branches down. This threshold between roots and branches represents the separation between the physical, material world, and the spiritual one, the metaphysics. A pattern that you can repeat wherever you want. For example between the determined world of cause and consequence, and consciousness (the basic Cartesian Dualism). Between the shadowy activities of the greater brain and those of consciousness, the space that is “lit”. In this case that Dune reference about “the Voice from the Outer World” can also imply the fact that Paul is described (and really is) an external agent that operates meta-linguistically on the fabric of the story/plot (though I’m pretty sure that Herbert dropped the ball here and didn’t carry it all the way). In any case, back to this essential division between material world and spiritualism (which regardless of religion or belief, is the true foundation of what we perceive as “human being”). What Kaballah says is that these two dimensions, or worlds, are entirely separated in substance. Things you do in the material world actually have no consequence on the spiritual one, or at least the cause/consequence is only a relationships that goes from the above to the below, so the spiritual affecting the material, but not the opposite. You’ll see how this one-way also applies to writing, which reproduces a similar duality.

The strong idea is: since these are two completely different and separated worlds, divided by an impassable barrier (that it is impassable is the basic tenet of reductionism), it is then not possible to “speak” of the spiritual world, since language only deals with this side we’re on. So the whole of Kabbalah is shaped like a “code”. When we say “apple” we usually mean the idea of a real apple, whereas an “apple” in Kabbalistic language would only be a symbol representing a spiritual idea. If you then read a Kabbalistic text literally, then you understand nothing of it, because it actually describes an “elsewhere” you aren’t aware of. The “language of roots and branches” is the idea of this code that describes the spiritual world while using material language. For every word, you then have to learn a new meaning that points over, across that barrier.

The reason why I associated this with the Fantasy genre is because I think it expresses well the most fundamental idea. You can have Fantasy as escapism. My point isn’t about diminishing it, it’s just that it doesn’t satisfy me as much. So I can criticize for example Brandon Sanderson’s famous “magic systems”. For some readers they are clever, fun and cool, inventing them so that they make some sense and are consistent. But for me this idea is somewhat “empty”, because it doesn’t really say anything of value (and doesn’t want to, so it’s not a flaw). Being empty for me means it has no “meaning”. No sense of purpose beside the honorable one of pure entertainment. Once again, I don’t want to be judgmental or glorify a sub-genre while dissing another, as I often can join that group too and I’m not a partisan.

But can Fantasy be more? It can when it is more enlightened. It’s very obvious to readers of Gene Wolfe, where for example every little fragment is a manipulation taken directly from the real world mythology (or religion, as a flavor of mythology). Gene Wolfe reshapes myth, adding his own invention, but tries to grasp the reason and core of myth, not just the outward surface, not just its look and manners (hello, Wheel of Time). So that’s also an attempt to plunge in the depth of the soul (because classic myths also weren’t arbitrary, solipsistic inventions), and the soul of “meaning”. “Metaphor made real” is a similar concept. You write about fantastic worlds but only as the shaping of a truly personal landscape that reflects the material, real world. The world as seen, hence the world rebuilt, human-s(e)ized. In the same way Science Fiction can be a thoughtful reinterpretation of society, so too can Fantasy give shape to ideas that have their “roots” this side of the world. Not just unhinged fantastic worlds.

That’s when Fantasy is at its “maximum meaning”. You are completely aware of writing *this*, while thinking and describing *that* (the error is when you only reproduce exactly something specific, without digging at its universal roots). The material world you shape in fiction is the “stage”, that needs its consistency to give the feel of being whole. But what is performed on that stage is something that connects to the reader because it is relevant. The fantasy world rebuilt becomes the “branches” of the tree. The part that is visible, shaped by every word that is written on the page. But it then evokes those patterns and themes that have their core on the other side, which is the case of a book is the dangerous fourth wall, that delicate link to the reader. So giving shape to myths that hold truths about the real world we live in. That is exactly why Greek myths were so powerful and still frequently used in psychological, modern studies. That’s Fantasy that doesn’t sever the link and simply builds an alternative, independent world, but that grows powerful and meaningful because its roots go deep in the human soul, and because it is aware about where it comes from.

From this interplay of meta-linguistic levels you can squeeze so much creativity that is powerful exactly because it’s not merely arbitrary and not severed from the source. That is rich because as rich as the soul, that can only grow more and more, or even be reduced to sharp clarity. Invention in the right place. Wolfe and Erikson (or Bakker) from my point of view do all this, with the difference that Erikson is more accessible and direct, but both originate from a similar intent.

So you can THINK. Not to try reproducing a fictional and sterile landscape, but because those fundamental questions you come up with share the truth of a personal condition, and so observe, learn or whatever you come to. Every branch is relevant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *