When a Fantasy should be a Mystery: or The American Gods TV Show and Tolkein

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is by far one of my favorite books.  And HBO has just contracted to turn it into a six season tv series.  This worries me.  The plot of the original novel could probably fill a six episode miniseries, but certainly not six full seasons of tv.  But worry not, says Neil himself: “No, 6 years of AMERICAN GODS on TV doesn’t mean just the 1st book. It means I need to write the 2nd now, for a start.”  This too worries me.

Of course Gaiman has written other stories in the world of American Gods, and they were good.  And that’s because that world is so intriguing.  Which, ironically, means I don’t want to know too much about it.

Orson Scott Card in his How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, organizes speculative fiction into stories about a milieu, an idea, a character, or an event.  Gaiman’s novels are mostly — maybe even all — milieu stories.  They are stories where a protagonist explores a world which is equally alien to the protagonist and the reader.  The world is the point of interest as much as or maybe even more than the character.  This is the operating principle of American Gods and Anansi Boys, and also of The Hobbit and the tv show Lost.

I much prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, which I think is some sort of geek blasphemy.  I find the world of The Hobbit far more interesting — even though it is the same world as in The Lord of the Rings.  It’s seen through different eyes though.  The Hobbit is more or less a book for children (or adolescents maybe) and Bilbo, is in a certain way, a child himself.  He really knows nothing of the world outside his home.  Since Bilbo is so mystified by so much of Middle Earth, then why shouldn’t the reader be?  Since the Fellowship of the Ring is so much more wordly, Middle Earth becomes a much less mundane place.  There are no longer giants in the mountains, and we begin to ask questions like “Does the Balrog have real wings?”  “Does the Balrog have wings?” is a boring question.  If Tolkein had answered that, wouldn’t you be dissapointed either way?  The fact that that detail escaped Tolkein should tell you how unimportant it is.  The man wrote reams of material cataloging the entire history of the world created to the point where he left us only one good question (and left it on purpose) — “Who or what is Tom Bombadil?”

Gaiman was once asked to reveal the identity of the forgettable god in American Gods and said he was prepared to until someone else begged him not too.  He understood the importance of the unsolvable mystery — the mystery in the sense of “These things are mysteries.”  Tolkein clearly understood this, but I think the scope of his world-building work was just too vast to not share.

Perhaps, there is a difference of personality, too.  Is it any surprise that the Oxford Don teaches his readers to be good scholars of history?  And there are many people who are quite well versed in the history of Middle Earth.  Of course, unlike in real history, in Tolkein’s, all the answers are literally in the back of the book.  In Gaiman, the answers never were in the back of the book.  Gaiman teaches us to be something like philosophers or writers.  Sandman is not entirely a milieu piece but it certainly has a strong sense of milieu.  And the reader is left with a number of questions of “Who is Tom Bombadil?” scope.  Why is Delirium no longer Delight?  What happened to the first Despair?  and more broadly What are the Endless and what does it mean when they die or are imprisoned or abandon their post?  Gaiman is asking us to play philosophy with a toy world.

And maybe this is practice for philosophizing about our own world, which is indeed very mysterious and strange.  But playing philosopher with a toy world is just what writers — especially scpeculative fiction writers do.  Gaiman, unsurprisingly for the man who made his name telling stories about storytelling is teaching us to do his job.  Lost had much the same effect.  Most Lost  viewers started to develop theories of how the world of that show worked.  They believed they were uncovering secrets that were hidden from view, solving mysteries, doing play philosophy.  But they were also making up their own Losts and some of those were far better than the real thing (especially those which included space aliens).  When they explained everything in the end (as much as they did explain), they took the toy away and the fun stopped. I hope that the Neil, and the tv writers don’t take our toys away.

I think the longest lasting effect that American Gods  had on me was a desire to visit The House on the Rock.  Mostly, though, the book reminds us that the United States in mysterious and strange and that we can be strangers in our own world as much as Bilbo.  If we can get six seasons of reminders that we live somewhere weird and wonderful, then I’ll put my worries aside.

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Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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