Thursday, November 07, 2019

Worlds with Depth

The Fall/Winter issue of MYTHLORE includes an article by Katherine Sas on creating the "impression of depth" in a work of fiction (specifically, in this case, in the backstory of the Marauders in the Harry Potter series), a term coined by Tolkien in his classic essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." One of my favorite themes in fiction is the overshadowing of the present by the deep past. That's one reason I find Stephen King's IT enthralling, a feature that the new movie tries to present a bit better than the old miniseries, but still not adequately. So I'm glad to have an official name for this theme. Sas herself paraphrases this effect as "a sense of antiquity and historical reality."

The essence of the "impression of depth" consists of a feeling that the author "knows more than he [or she] is telling." Tolkien refers to the creation of "an illusion of surveying a past...that itself had depth and reached backward into a dark antiquity." He mentions the crafting of this effect in BEOWULF by "allusions to old tales." In his own work, Tolkien uses invented languages, frame narratives, references to ancient tales and lost texts, and "hypertextual layering" (i.e., metafictional features that draw attention to the text as an artifact). Such techniques produce the illusion of a world that has existed for a vast expanse of time before the present action and contains places, peoples, and events glimpsed at the edges of the main story.

Within a more limited physical setting, King's IT creates an illusion of deep time by the gradual revelation of how the monster originally introduced as merely a supernatural killer clown has haunted Derry since the town's founding—revealed by Mike's research into the generational cycle of the entity's periodic return and hibernation—and, eons before human settlement, came through interstellar space from an alien dimension. Likewise, the TV series SUPERNATURAL begins on a small-scale, personal level and expands to encompass an entire cosmology. At the beginning of the series, all we know about the background of Sam and Dean Winchester is that their father is a "Hunter" (of demons and other monsters) and that their mother died in a horrific supernatural attack when Sam was a baby. The brothers themselves know little more. We, and they, soon learn that their father made a deal with a demon. Eventually it's revealed that Sam and Dean were destined from infancy, not to save the world, but to serve as "vessels" for divine and diabolical entities. As they strive to assert their free will against this destiny, they uncover secrets of their family's past and the worldwide organization of Hunters (along with its research auxiliary branch, the Men of Letters), they clash (and sometimes ally) with demons, angels, pagan deities, and Death incarnate, and, incidentally, they do save the world and visit Hell and Purgatory several times. They learn the real nature and purposes of Heaven, Hell, and God Himself. The hypertextual (metafictional) aspect of the series is highlighted in episodes such as a visit to an alternate universe where the brothers are characters in a TV show and their discovery that a comic-book artist who turns out to be a prophet (as they believe until he's revealed as the very incarnation of God) has published a series that chronicles their adventures.

Tolkien's colleague and close friend C. S. Lewis reflects on the literary impression of depth in two articles reprinted in his collection SELECTED LITERARY ESSAYS, "Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism" and "The Anthropological Approach." In both pieces, he concludes that the ideas of hidden, half-forgotten, multi-layered dimensions in place or time and disguised remnants preserved from the ancient past are alluring in themselves. We're fascinated by the suggestion of "the far-borne echo, the last surviving trace, the tantalizing glimpse, the veiled presence, of something else. And the something else is always located in a remote region, 'dim-discovered,' hard of access." We're thrilled to enter "a world where everything may, and most things do, have a deeper meaning and a longer history" than expected. Many readers (although admittedly not all) enjoy the idea "that they have surprised a long-kept secret, that there are depths below the surface." Tolkien's exposition of this effect, as well as the creation of it by him and other authors who use similar strategies, offers valuable hints to writers who want to produce that kind of impression.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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