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Henry Neff’s invented world: myth, legend and the boundaries of fantasy

Last week I blogged about Lloyd Alexander, the American fantasist who creatively reshaped elements from Welsh tradition to create an exciting fantasy world and a very successful, award-winning series of books. Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964) is the earliest text explored in my forthcoming monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, due out soon by Palgrave Macmillan. Today, I continue a series of blogs related to my book, with another American fantasist who is on the opposite side of my chronology continuum, having produced the most recent text of Celtic-inspired fantasy I explored.

The name is Henry H. Neff and if you haven’t heard it yet, you’d better take a note of it as his reputation is quickly spreading beyond the USA! Neff’s The Tapestry series is a worthy addition to children’s/young-adult fantasy and his world-building is truly ambitious and original.

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The Tapestry series is made up of five books: The Hound of Rowan (2007), The Second Siege (2008), The Fiend and the Forge (2010), The Maelstrom (2012) and The Red Winter (2014). The pentalogy begins in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the style and structure of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: a young boy suddenly finds out that he is one of a few people around the world who have inherited a ‘spark’ of magic from the ancient powers that once looked after the world. He is then whisked off to a secret school where he takes lessons in a rather eclectic mix of subjects designed to hone his special abilities. But the similarities stop more or less here. Max MacDaniels is only one of two special boys the series focuses on: where Max is unusually powerful and agile, his best friend and roommate, David Menlo, is the most talented “mystic” of his generation. Alongside the two boys we are also introduced to schoolmates, friends, enemies, and teachers (all staple characters of the ‘school story’ genre) but also magical creatures and motifs from myth and legend. In addition to that, already from the first book we have elements of a well-thought-through background cosmogony and cosmology, and from the second book and on the plot expands in space and time to a truly ambitious scope.

One of the most successful aspects of The Tapestry is its hybrid status in terms of genre. Although world-building is at the core of the series and fantasy is its main structural and narrative trope, there are also elements of the ‘school story’, science fiction, as well historical fiction. Myth and legend are also main ingredients in the ‘cauldron of story’ that Neff has created, blending a number of different mythological traditions including Irish, Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Hebrew, Finnish and Anglo-Saxon. The result is a rich mythopoeia which, for me, is mainly carried by the centrality of the Irish tradition in the series. While researching my book, it was so very exciting to see a new fantasist from outside Ireland being so powerfully inspired by the life and deeds of Cúchulain, the most celebrated hero of medieval Irish literature.

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Max in battle, brandishing the gae bolga, Cúchulain’s legendary weapon (copyright Henry H. Neffl; illustration reproduced by kind permission)

The figure of Cúchulain, the “Irish Achilles”, has been appropriated by different sides of the Irish political spectrum for centuries, often for diametrically opposed ideological causes. His status as a national hero is left aside in The Tapestry. Refreshingly, Henry Neff offers us a vision of Cúchulain as a teenager: just like his Irish inspiration, Max MacDaniels possesses supernatural strength, becomes the defender of his people, struggles with the heroic code and his own identity, and all of that at the threshold of manhood. A number of other figures from Irish medieval literature make an appearance, including Lugh, Scathach, and a Fomorian, while Neff’s cosmology involves the legendary race of the Tuatha de Danaan. More on Neff’s creative engagement with the Irish tradition in Chapter 3 of my book!

Henry Neff’s mythopoeia is supported by a creative element that is often seen as ‘para-textual’: Illustrations based on his own drawings. Tolkien famously visualised Middle-earth and provided his own illustrations for The Hobbit, but much of his art remained unpublished in his lifetime. Neff’s five books, on the contrary, engage in a sustained way with the visual side of his world: each chapter opens with a drawing and each volume also contains a handful of full page illustrations. We, therefore, get a very clear sense of how much successful fantasy relies on imagining a rich, alternative world which can be experienced visually.

The vision and scale of The Tapestry is difficult to encapsulate in a single blog post, but let me add a few more interesting elements:

  • Astaroth, the arch-villain of the series, is not the typical “Dark Lord” we expect from fantasy: he is seductive, relatable and unpredictable. As a reader one is never sure how he will react or behave.
  • The series does humour really well, and includes some memorable characters who may initially seem to be there only for comic relief, but end up showing a great degree of complexity.
  • There are some really strong female characters who do not conform to the tired gender stereotypes often reproduced in the genre
  • There are elements of an invented language used by the race of demons who become more central from the third book and on

The ending of the series is both innovative and memorable: I’ve often wondered aloud during my fantasy literature lectures about whether any new fantasy writer will ever challenge some of fantasy’s structural tropes, and Neff has a real good go at this! (I won’t say another word – no spoilers! Read it and find out!)

That Neff’s spin-off series, Impyrium, will be published by HarperCollins (the official publisher of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin) is a clear indicator of Neff’s developing skill and creative vision. Impyrium is out on 6th October, but you can read the first 100 pages as a free sample via the HarperCollins website. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next!

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Paul McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill”, Tolkien’s early drawings, and the Rider-Waite Tarot

We were having a lazy morning yesterday, in the sunny, warm conservatory, and Andrew was playing The Beatles 1967-70 on his turntable, when “The Fool on the Hill” started playing.

I love this song. I do understand why people tend to idolise John Lennon, with his experimentation, controversial ideas, and clear gift for originality, but I would insist that McCartney is the more melodic of the two, and his songs have aged much better and are much more memorable as tunes. “The Fool on the Hill” is a clear example of his talent, and so is “Blackbird”.

But listening to “The Fool on the Hill” on a lazy weekend morning, my mind made a link that is as unjustifiable as it is intriguing and seductive. I thought of Tolkien’s very early drawing, from a sketchbook he had named “The Book of Ishness”, called “End of the World”. This drawing depicts a stick-man happily taking a nice, big stride, without (apparently) realising that he’s stepping over an enormous cliff. And, as a chain reaction, yet another image came and collided with Tolkien’s and with the lyrics of McCartney’s song: the “0” card from the Major Arcana of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, “The Fool”.
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J.R.R. Tolkien’s “End of the World” (in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, by Hammond and Scull) and The Fool from the Rider-Waite Tarot deck.

Now, Tolkien’s drawing is most probably a rather lighthearted representation of his early conception of Arda (the larger world of which Middle-earth is just a part) as a flat world, surrounded by the Outer Sea. One could potentially walk all the way to its end and literally fall off its edge. Tolkien changed his mind later with the story of the fall of Númenor leading to the notion of the World Made Round. But Narnia, for example, which was also inspired by medieval representations of the world, remained flat.

Nevertheless, the carefree, completely oblivious sauntering of the stick-man (you can’t wipe off my mind the idea that he is sporting a “foolish grin”) makes me think every time of “The Fool of the Hill”, who “sees the sun going down/ and the eyes in his head/ see the world spinning round”. Tolkien’s drawing even features a whirling, spinning sky (in a style that has been compared with Van Gogh’s) with the sun’s light merging with the night sky, complete with moon and stars.

As for the Fool from the major Arcana, he’s looking up and can’t see the precipice in front of him, much more interested in spiritual rather than earthly things. Will he plunge into the abyss, the victim of a naive approach to life, or will he fly and defy the pull of gravity? Poised in this position, full of doom or potential (depending on one’s view), he is a symbol of Everyman at the beginning of life’s journey. Or is it at the end? If memory doesn’t fail me, the Fool is either card 0, before even the beginning of numbering, or card 22, the very last one. And so we come back full circle to Tolkien’s idea of the “end of the world”.

Three “fools on the hill”, three travellers in life (or a secondary world), three symbols/metaphors? I am most certainly not claiming any direct links between the three (though the Rider-Waite Tarot deck dates from 1910, if I have it right, and Tolkien’s drawing was done in the 1910s too, while one can’t imagine that the Beatles wouldn’t be familiar with the tarot cards, given their cultural milieu). No, I’m not claiming direct links (that’s why I have resisted “researching” these musings, and adding references, as I usually do), not even indirect ones, in fact! Pray accept this blogpost as random reflections by free association on a lazy weekend morning.

Tackling your first academic conference paper: a practical guide

speechI was recently asked by an early career colleague for some advice on presenting their first conference paper. Instead of just an informal chat over tea/coffee, which is what I’d usually do, I felt a sudden urge to take some time to reflect upon, and record in writing, my own experience and practice of delivering (and listening to) conference papers over many years.

Now, granted, the fact that I was in the middle of a pretty tough chapter of my monograph and just couldn’t face looking at it again that day may have had something to do with that sudden urge! Nevertheless, I ended up composing what became a long(ish) email with “my way” of doing conference papers which my colleague found useful and I’ve since forwarded to students who have asked for advice. I was actually just contemplating sending that same email to three of my postgraduate students, who are about to give their first academic conference papers soon, when I realised I should probably share this in my blog so that it can remain there as a point of reference for current and future students, as well as anyone else who may be looking for practical advice on the web.

So here you go: the pointers and tips below outline “my way” of dealing with conference papers, especially those with very tight slots (20 minutes is pretty standard in large conferences). I am not claiming it is *the* way to do a paper, but it is my way, developed over many years, and it works for me! If it can be of help to others, that would be an added bonus!

 

Step 1

I start with looking at my notes, deciding what my main points are going to be, and narrowing down the scope by picking only a few strategic examples per main point. Usually research papers come out of a much larger research idea, but a paper is an opportunity to share some initial thoughts at the beginning of a research project, or share the most salient findings at the end of one, or report on such a project somewhere in the middle. So picking up 2-3 main ideas to develop in a paper, with a few well-chosen examples, is key. You can indicate that you have more to say on some things but had to set limits, as this will drive people to ask you to expand on a few ideas in the question session that follows.

Step 2

Then I write down the paper. I don’t do bullet points or notes because it’s so easy to misjudge timings and end up covering only half of what you wanted to say in the 20-minute slot. I write it down in complete sentences, but with a focus on oral delivery (so using the active voice much more than the passive, keeping sentences short and punchy, allowing some wit/humour where appropriate, and generally “writing as if I am speaking”). My personal limit for 20 minutes is about 3,500 words – but I am a fast speaker! The main thing is to rehearse the paper (in front of the mirror, in front of your partner, in front of friends, record yourself and listen back, whatever works to give you a sense of real delivery) and make sure you hit the 20 minutes comfortably. Conference chairs/moderators have the capacity (I would say the duty!) to be ruthless and can – and often WILL – stop you mid-sentence once you hit the 20 minutes! One last bit of practical advice on length: when you rehearse the paper at home, I can guarantee you it will be a tad slower than when you deliver it. When you are – as it were – “on stage” adrenaline kicks in and you will automatically go just a little faster, so bear that in mind too. I once heard a paper that was finished at 12 minutes. You don’t want that either. So if at rehearsal you’re (say) at 16-17 minutes, you probably need *just* a little more.

Step 3

AFTER I write the paper, I then construct the PowerPoint or handout. I usually include quotations, especially longer ones, as it is then clear what in the paper is yours and what comes from primary and secondary sources. Also, in terms of my area of expertise, there are often difficult names in Tolkien’s languages to pronounce, or bits and pieces in Welsh/Irish/etc., so it’s easier on the audience to be able to see them – never assume prior knowledge! When I use a PowerPoint I may include a slide when it is not strictly needed (perhaps a relevant image) as it keeps the pace of the talk even (the audience sometimes need to focus their attention somewhere else than you).

Step 4

After the PowerPoint is done, I then carefully insert prompts in the written talk (in red font, highlighted in yellow, so that they stand out) right by the words where I need to change slide, or click for the next bullet point in the same slide, etc. That is the most important practical advice I can give! It takes time to do it (and it often gets you to rethink the way you’re using slides) but it prevents getting flustered while delivering (how many times have I heard papers where the speaker says: “Now, let me see… Did I have a slide on this?…” It is annoying and unprofessional! And it can lose you valuable time from delivering!)

Step 5

Then I print everything in large font (as I am practically blind!!!) and have two printed copies with me, one in my suitcase and one in my handbag. You never know! Oh, and one copy e-mailed to me and one on a memory stick. The same goes with the PowerPoint. You can never have too many backups!

 

If you’ve followed so far and had a go at all the steps above, you should (hopefully) be in a good place to deliver your paper. Best of luck and well done on having your first paper accepted!