Home Movies of the Soul

Michael Moorcock in his literary study Wizardry and Wild Romance says:

“Epic fantasy can offer a world of metaphor in which to explore the rich, hidden territories deep within us. And this, of course, is why epic romances, romantic poetry, grotesques, fascinated painters and illustrators for centuries, just as fabulous and mythological subjects have always inspired them, as representations of this inner world”.[A]

This is only one use of fantasy, and not necessarily the most serious or productive use. People usually find their own “inner world” fascinating. Others may not share this feeling — at least unless it ties into some aspect of their own “inner world”.

Orson Wells in Citizen Kane builds the whole film around an enigma. The man had said “rosebud” just before he died; what did he mean by it?

Within the framework of the film, the investigators can not resolve the matter. “Rosebud” could be a reference to hundreds of different things; they can not deduce what it meant in Kane’s personal symbolism. The audience would be left equally baffled, except that the solution is suddenly given at the very end of the film. A very unexpected solution – it is in fact the name of a toboggan. But it is not trivial; in a way that I won’t try to summarise here, it ties together the disparate elements of the film and illuminates the complex character of Kane.

These days you get a lot of book and films that leave out the essential explanation; that never bother to fill out the meanings behind their personal symbols. They expect the audience to know. But symbols do not have a single meaning. A picture of a glass of red wine might suggest Holy Communion to one person, a nice meal in a restaurant to another, drunkenness and oblivion to a third. If the film-maker in fact intended it as a reference to the wine-adulteration scandals that happened a few years back, the audience is likely to get very confused!

Explorations of inner worlds tend to become baffling, trivial and subjective; home movies of the soul. There are few things more fascinating than one’s own home movies; few things more dull and boring than other people’s home movies.

At the risk of sounding rude, I quite often find that writer who set out to “explore the rich, hidden territories deep within..” seem totally self-obsessed, eventually vanishing up their own back passages. It is their right to do this, of course. But pardon me if I am reluctant to follow them there!

This sort of thing is in any case hardly new. Mainstream literature has done it already, at least as well and probably much better. “New Wave” Science Fiction was a borrowing of some very old waves from other parts of literature and the arts. For instance Robert Graves once said of the poetry of his times:

“By the Forties, Nature had gone out; the inner recesses of the soul took her place. Revelations of these tended to be dull, one soul recess being much like another – as you may also say about coal-cellars”.[B]

The role of the artist

The simplest link between the “inner worlds” of two different individuals is via the “external world”, which everyone has access to. And there will be a stronger link if the experience is of the same parts of the “external world”. The thoughts of a doubting Catholic are most likely to be of interest to another Catholic, or to an ex-Catholic. The thoughts of a doubting Communist are most likely to be of interest to another Communist, or to an ex-Communist. Meditations upon the validity of transubstantiation (or of the dialectic) will mean little to a reader who barely knows what transubstantiation (or the dialectic) is supposed to be about. It will probably not interest a reader who is personally indifferent to such questions.

On the other hand, fantasy writing can and does work for people whose “inner world” is quite different from that of the author. Kafka’s work, for instance, is without doubt rooted in his experience of being Czech and of being Jewish. It may also owe something to his having had tuberculosis; a fatal illness in that era. Fellow sufferers who read The Trial reckoned that this was its true meaning. But it is nevertheless a fact that Kafka’s writings can be appreciated by readers who are not Czechs, who are not Jewish and who do not have tuberculosis.

I think that a concept from Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories gives the answer. The writer creates a secondary world. This secondary world owes something to the primary or “external world”, and something to the writer’s own “inner world”. But it is not the same as either

Now a secondary world is real in its own terms. It may correspond closely to something in the primary world. Kafka’s The Burrow is at one level coherent enough for one to get a good picture of the narrator-creature — something like a badger, perhaps. This does not detract from the stories’ role as an exploration of a state of mind. Rather, it enhances it; makes it less specific to any human place or time.

Secondary worlds may be quite different from the world of our own experience. Orcs, elves and dragons seem to be absent from own world. But similar patterns of behaviour are not.

Equally, in the world of the Star Wars films, sound seems able to propagate through a vacuum. This is nonsensical in terms of the laws of physics, but necessary for dramatic effect. For the Death Star to detonate in total silence would seem a terrible anti-climax, and might sharply remind us that what we were actually witnessing was the destruction of a small special-effects model.

Secondary worlds work because they are both more comprehensible and more generally valid that slices of the writer’s own “inner world”. Done properly, they are shared between the author and the reader. And the author has a responsibility not to be rude or inconsiderate; to remember that the reader also has a stake in the “secondary world”.

Secondary worlds can also have interesting connections with the external world. The Lord of the Rings is in part derived from Tolkien’s own experience in World War One. It is also a commentary on both world wars. Thus, it ties into major events in the “external world” (which will thus be a part of everyone’s “inner world”, in one form or another). But equally, the derivation is not simple or straightforward. The Lord of the Rings can be enjoyed by a range of people with very different views of the matter.

Had Tolkien simply given us a slice of his own “inner world”, it would mostly be of interest to people whose views and backgrounds were similar to his own. In fact, the secondary world of his writings is appreciated by a great diversity of people. Tolkien was very popular among hippies – a human type that did not even exist at the time he conceived The Lord of the Rings. And he was — and still is — no less popular among people who are not at all like hippies, or who have a definite lack of fondness for hippies. This is the strength of good writing; of writing that goes beyond the author’s immediate experience and creates a secondary world that has a wider meaning.


[A] Wizardry and Wild Romance, p17

[B] Poetic Craft and Principals Cassell & Company Ltd 1967.

This is an excerpt from a much longer essay about Michael Moorcock, his criticisms of Tolkien and the question of fantasy in general.

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