Monday, January 23, 2017

Filling our minds with stock figures: On an essay by Terry Pratchett

For the Deal Me in 2017 challenge, I read Terry Pratchett's grumpy, funny essay/rant on the clichés of fantasy fiction, and what 'fantasy' and 'escapism' mean. He calls his piece "Elves Were Bastards," to attack the cliché of the noble elves from Tolkien.

He rails against:
... so much round-eyed worship of mind-numbing myths, so much mindless recycling of ancient cycles, so much unthinking escapism.
I like how he distinguishes between meaningless escapism vs. an experience that you learn from and take something from.
But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience.
And later:
The best stuff does take you somewhere. It takes you to a new place from which to see the world.
It's also a sense of wonder not limited to fictional stories.

Pratchett's repeated use 'mindless' is key. It's inevitable that we'll retell stories, but they shouldn't be expressed in rote ways, without care, thought or imagination, not if they're to be meaningful.

This got me thinking about the contents of our minds in all respects, especially our representations of other people. It would be easy to fill up on 'stock characters' - two-dimensional representations. It makes life simpler in some ways; what to think, and the right ways to act, take on apparent clarity. At the same time, it's an unfulfilling way to live. It's also like a bad diet that poisons the health of the mind. It compromises the ability to understand complex situations, in anything from politics to personal relationships.

Stock figures are stunting. If we can imagine only the 'noble elves,' we're limited, lacking in wisdom and more vulnerable to deception. The stock figures populate a deceptively simple world, and chances are if we escape to it too much, we'll stay trapped in it. One way or another, we'll suffer and allow others to suffer without understanding complex situations and the possibilities for how to act.


Brian Joseph said...

Great post Hila.

I see how folks put others into stick categories all the time. I facilitate a diversity class and one of our exercises is designed to show how easy it is to place people into categories that have little relation to reality.

I love "Elves Were Bastards concept.

Yvonne@fiction-books said...

Although Sir Terry Pratchett lived close by to us in Wiltshire, UK, I have to admit that I must be one of the few people never to have read any of his books.

I'm afraid that neither science fiction nor fantasy, are genres I enjoy.

I do agree that it is all too easy to pigeon hole people and make judgements about them, without due care and thought as to their individual circumstances.

"Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes"


Roderick Robinson said...

Noble elves, I'll get around to them. Rather more pressing is the need to explain my abrupt presence here on The Sill Of The World, presumably an eminence of some distinction, both literally and metaphorically. In this I'm guided by a passage in a novel by Mary McCarthy (title forgotten, not The Group, nor The Groves of Academe) wherein a young American woman living in Paris and acting on charitable impulse invites a clochard to spend the night in her apartment and lives to regret the gesture, matters of hygiene being uppermost. Moral: the socially disadvantaged are not necessarily good company.

I suspect there are more but we have three things in common. Although a Brit I once worked for six years in the USA, part of the time almost-but-not-quite on the Eastern Seaboard, if Philadelphia so qualifies. Second, we seem to share a love of conciseness: you aim - using a judicious amount of fibbing - to summarise a given week in seven words whereas all my posts since 2008 have been limited to three-hundred words on the principle that less is more. Third, I am presently at a loose end as you may be, following Lucy's departure from cyberspace.

There is a fourth possible commonality, rather vaguer. Following 44 years in journalism I am desperately seeking credibility as a writer (four novels, 30-plus Shakespearean sonnets, 40 short stories, the usual gradus ad Parnassum) whereas you are already there.

And here's the downside. I am very badly educated having left school aged 15 years and 358 days; journalism has taught me how to fake knowledge but I am vulnerable to informed assault. I dispute things and in seeking to hide my vices I call myself an oenophile rather than admit to a less polysyllabic truth. True I got on with Lucy but that is probably because we are both quite soppy about France.

If it's OK I'll drop in from time to time allowing you to assess the cut of my jib. I'm great at reading between anyone's lines so if you wish to discourage me it won't be necessary to tell me directly, a carefully calculated sigh will do it.

Noble elves? I think I've used up my available allotment. In any case I never got past page 3 in LOTR so I'll pass on that. But I'm willing to take an exam on Ulysses if that helps.

HKatz said...

@ Brian - your class sounds interesting (and I agree how easy it is for people to push others into categories, regardless of facts/complexities).

@ Yvonne - I like that quote. Also, I haven't read much of Pratchett yet either. I'd like to start his Discworld series.

@ Roderick - welcome. I can commiserate with you about Lucy's blogging break (I'll be going back to look through her archives now and then). As for credibility as a writer, I'm in my early 30s and still establishing myself as one. In any case, drop by whenever you wish. I'm pretty relaxed about commenters as long as they aren't spamming or being hostile.

The Bookworm said...

Not an author I have read but this does sound interesting. I like the quote about escapism, it is very true.
Great post!

HKatz said...

Thanks - I'd like to read more of Pratchett too.