Liberties With Realism: Balancing the Fantastic

If I could have written The Year of the Red Door as historical fiction, or even as contemporary “literary” fiction, I certainly would have.   But the things I wanted to explore, and the direction that the story took, decided for me that it should be fantasy. So when it came to writing about the “magic” of this story, I thought it best and natural to take a rather understated tone.   I would try to refrain from exaggeration while at the same time not shrink from the fantastic.

I quickly encountered the dilemma of how to do this.   How much should be realistic in terms of what we think of as “historical” accuracy, and how often should realism be strained or sacrificed to render the story effectively?   Rather than grapple with such questions, wouldn’t it be easier just to let magic and heroic resolve come to the rescue of every problem?  That way, at every complication I could call in the special-effects team and voila!  Problem solved, storytelling not required.

Moving right along…

I think authors must face such dilemmas fairly often, especially those who write fantasy.   Some stories require only a touch of the fantastic in order to advance the plot and to affect the reader, while others are almost entirely composed of fantastic elements, settings, and situations.   The question becomes how much of the fantastic can the audience really relate to?   That is, how might that which is fundamentally outside of our own day-to-day experience be shaped into that which, if not comprehensible, at least gives the framework for a suspension of belief?   Or, rather, of disbelief. To succeed at this would, as Tolkien said, “demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” In The Year of the Red Door, I only aspire to exercise a smidgeon of that craft, since my supply of Fairy Dust is so modest.

So, I’ve thought it necessary to maintain as much realism as possible.   Modes of travel, for instance, must be appropriate for the setting, else the reader would be jarred right out of the tale.   No airships, no internal combustion engines, and no teleportation devices.   Technology is rather simple, more akin to that which might have existed four centuries ago, or more. In terms of transportation, there is only one “magical” vehicle (a carriage) mentioned in the story*, and there is only one type of magical creature capable of carrying a person to far parts at great speed.   And neither of these are part of common, everyday experience for the people in The Year of the Red Door.   There are mechanical devices, to be sure, such as clocks, pumps, and spyglasses (large and small).   But these things have existed in our own world for centuries (in the case of spyglasses, for example) or even for thousands of years. Weaponry, for the most part, remains firmly pre-chemical.   There are no firearms as yet, though the reader can see how those might be developed very easily and quickly with just a few more discoveries (and with fewer unfortunate accidents).   Steel and iron rule the battlefield, with bows and arrows, trebuchets and ballistae providing what we might think of as artillery and firepower.

Of course, the world of The Year of the Red Door was created through what we would think of as magical and mythical processes.   Since the creation of this world, such processes have all but ceased operating (or so we are led to believe).   People, called the Faerekind, once had wings and could fly wherever they wanted.   And all things, living or not, could speak and hear a language common to all others, a language called the First Tongue.   There was no strife. All that was in the beginning, before things went wrong.  But wrong they went, else we would have no story.   Strife ensued, wings were lost, and the world changed.  The First Tongue faded from memory, and the communion between people and the earth was almost entirely broken.

Almost, but not quite entirely.

Some things that were once commonplace became preternatural. In the twilight crack between light and shadow, between certainty and doubt, linger aspects of the earlier world.   Some of these aspects are in the form of creatures, while others are magical objects.  Still others live on in a less exalted form as those who fell from grace, those who were once Faerekind but are now the Elifaen.   Of these latter, a very few have retained, in greater or lesser degree, something of those abilities they had before.   Not the ability to fly, but the ability to speak into the substance of other things, or the ability to See and Hear, or to make uncanny things happen.

Thus the plain iron of the Great Bell of Tulith Attis “heard” the enchanted commands breathed upon it, altering the very nature of the Bell.   The wondrous staff of Thurdun, called Swyncraff, is as a living thing, obeying the wishes of its master like a loyal and obedient dog.   And the dreams of Islindia are made into substance, to be touched and experienced by those chosen by her to share in them.   So, too, new things have come into being, and old creatures have been transformed.   Some, like Solstice, were transformed through the goodness of their hearts, while others, like Secundur and Lord Banis, by the falling darkness upon their souls.   Others persons are trapped somewhere in between, by history or by fault or by circumstance, like Certina or Lady Esildre.   But they might go either way, for good or for ill.

In the story that is The Year of the Red Door, I have not thought it necessary to fully and completely explain why or how such things are as they are.   Any attempt to do so would, I think, undermine the reader’s experience of the tale.   At least, that has been my approach: to offer some explanations, but not to carry them too far.   Clues, for those who wish them, are strewn about here and there, and might also be found in a few tales that I have recorded elsewhere.** Thus is my brief explanation as to why The Year of the Red Door is not, strictly speaking, an adventure tale, certainly not by modern standards set by fast-paced, frenetic action films.  And also why it does not fully commit itself to either the “fantastic” nor to the “realistic.” And neither might The Year of the Red Door satisfy Tolkien’s definition of what fantasy ought to be.   That for others to say.

What I have found is that “elvish craft,” as it were, is sometimes practiced upon anvils of cloud, with hammers of down shaping steel heated by firefly light.   It might or might not seem implausible.   I only hope that one may hear from such industry the ring of truth.

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*The Reader’s Companion mentions another vehicle, the Flying Rug of Zan.

** Such as in The Prequelia and The Reader’s Companion to the Year of the Red Door .


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