Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Joy of the Impossible

Over at The Disoriented Ranger, Jens is talking about maps. I don’t want to get too deep into those articles yet because there’s a Part 3 coming and I want to be sure I understand what’s being said before I weigh in.

But there was a link to this terrible article at Tor about how Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth are “wrong.”

Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. I’ve heard the reasoning before that suggests Sauron has made those mountains somehow, and I suppose right angles are a metaphor for the evil march of progress, but I don’t recall that being in the books I read. And ultimately, this feels a lot like defending the cake in the song MacArthur Park as a metaphor—okay fine, maybe it’s a metaphor…but it’s a silly metaphor that makes my geologist heart cry tears of hematite.

I imagine most geologists who read Tolkien can get over themselves enough to understand that the geography of Middle Earth has jack-all to do with geology. Or did they have fits when Sauroman stoked a mountain to anger? Or when a river was coerced into swelling its banks? Or the fact that rivers have daughters who sing and dance and marry men in yellow boots?

Even if you stick your fingers in your ears and go “LA-LA-LA!!!” whenever the War of Wrath is mentioned (like Alex Acks apparently does), there’s more than enough going on in just Fellowship to let you know that Middle Earth (like Narnia) is an animist world where geographical features are not just anthropomorphized but have actual spirits, personalities, and can take action in the world around them. Even individual trees can turn evil and carnivorous and devour unwary passers-by!

Your first reaction to the right-angle mountains of Middle Earth should not be, “THAT’S WRONG!1!!ELEVEN!!” It should be, “Whoa, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The rules that govern geology like plate tectonics and all that don’t apply here. I wonder what does?” Otherwise, you probably shouldn’t even start reading The Hobbit because you’ll never get past the part with the giant fire-breathing reptile that flies.

Reading fantasy (and most sci-fi that’s not diamond-hard like The Martian) is playing a game with the author. “This place I describe is just like the real world,” the author says, “except…” Everything that comes after the “except” is where the magic happens, the reason we read sci-fi and fantasy rather than mysteries or historical fiction. That’s where the game starts, where the author reveals the rules of the fantastical world to us and then use those rules as a lattice upon which to weave their story in entertaining and surprising ways. The only way to get things “wrong” is to contradict yourself; if you’ve already established that an angry mountain can be lulled back to sleep with lullabies, you need a good reason why this particular angry mountain isn’t lulled back to sleep with lullabies (like Sauroman keeps goading it to anger).

This is why things like magic need rules. We need to understand when the heroes can rely on magic and when they can’t. While you don’t need to explain every crossed-t and dotted-i, you do need to be consistent; if magic could put out a fire at the beginning of your story, you need to explain why it can’t at the end of the story (and a good author will give you that explanation far in advance of introducing the fire that magic can’t put out). And the underlying rules don’t really need to be delved too deeply into. The fairy-tale logic that says vampires are destroyed by sunlight doesn’t really need detailed explanation. But a vampire walking about in broad daylight does.

So when an author (or a DM) gives you something that’s impossible, that’s a sign that Something is Up and Needs Investigating. If you’re the DM in this case, feel free to point out, “Hey, this thing I just described, you’ve never seen anything like it before. In fact, it’s impossible because blah-blah-blah. It shouldn’t be there, but there it is!” so the players can be intrigued by it.


Rob Schwarz said...

Look at the angle formed by the Pyrenees and the Alps. Looks like a right angle to me.
A few other ranges would connect at right angles if they happened to be a bit longer. So this geologist saying mountains don't form at right angles isn't entirely correct.

I'd also add that medieval maps are notoriously inaccurate to begin with so that suggesting an incorrect map somehow nullifies the story shows the guy never got into the spirit of the thing to begin with.


trollsmyth said...

Rob Schwarz: Ha! Nice catch. I don't normally think of the Pyrenees and Alps lining up, but yeah, they do, don't they?

The late medieval/early Renaissance maps could be really interesting. As Italian merchants went further and further abroad, they needed more accurate maps. So, for a while, you get these really accurate maps of coasts, fuzzy with tiny detailed writing, but the interiors look like the older, less accurate "Prester John's Kingdom is here" medieval things.

Rob Schwarz said...

I found some cool maps once that were just liniar maps of a major road and what could be seen directly. What difference does it make where Berlin is if you only need a map to take you from Rome to Paris. I'm amazed no RPG took up this idea.

Rob Schwarz said...

Or twisted and barely recognizable like this map of Italy and surrounding areas.

Who knows what Middle Earth really looks like when the distortions of the OCD Elven Cartographers is removed.

Jens D. said...

Love the maps people are posting here! Anyway, while I agree with everything you said, Brian, I still think that Tolkien drawing those maps did not benefit his story. Nothing crucial, obviously, but at that scale it doesn't do much. The problem is, imo, a discrepancy between "real world" animism and the artistic aspiration to deviate from reality without quite losing touch with it. That is to say, while animism construes what is from a different angle than, say, science, it still describes phenomena everybody can experience and make his mind about. Following that logic, if there is a thunderstorm and you hide because you "know" the gods are angry or because you "know" it's something weather does for a reason, ultimately makes no difference. There are theories out there that (early) tribes had story tellers to teach people about the world. Sure enough, those stories had gods and angry spirits and what-not, but still, knowing those stories gave you a blue-print how to interact with reality effectively, regardless of how you explain it. We still have that today, to a degree, I believe, even among educated people. But I digress. The thing is, you don't need to understand why something is to explain or describe how to handle it.

Art, on the other hand (I know, can of worms, but bear with me), will always try to "just" reproduce reality in an abstract way. You don't (necessarily) learn from it, you recognize what it captures. The thing is, you need to understand the aspect of reality you try to recreate to some extent to make it recognizable. The creation of worlds as made popular by Tolkien, now, poses an unique challenge in that it tries an artistic recreation of describing the world through stories. It really works for Tolkien, mostly because he knew those old stories very well and took a lot from them. The real world resonates hard there. My argument is (and where I understand why it bothers that TOR guy) that Tolkien didn't know maps as well as he knew those legends of yore (couldn't have known, actually!) and that's why it doesn't jive right with some. It fails as art in that it doesn't make reality recognizable (you might get something of a ninety degree angle where tectonic plates meet, like with the alps shown above, but a c-shape just goes beyond physics) and reducing this to a fictional animistic world view doesn't work properly, because while animism works without knowing why something is, it's internal logic still holds up because reality constantly proofs if it works or not (the internal logic of reality explained through trial and error, if you will). The focus, however, lies on how to make it work for the people living along those rules, while saying "it's magic" tries to use the same technique to explain the fiction, which makes it sound wrong, because (art again, recreating) it's never been used in that context with stories, since it wasn't needed!

Sorry about the meandering thought process, but I hope I got my point somewhat across (having a hard time to put my finger on it myself): If an artist draws a mountain, he will base it on reality, if someone explains how to survive reality by talking gods and spirits, he'll never bother telling you why the things are shaped as they are (maybe how it happened, but that's another story altogether), because it is not necessary beyond putting their existence in context. To be clear, what I'm saying is that it works for the fiction to some degree, but a map also has an artistic pretense to recreate and show something that is rooted in reality, because it is expected even for fictional worlds to manifest realistically through art (for the reasons discussed above). At least that's where I see the problem. Here is an interesting article covering some of that: https://phys.org/news/2017-12-storytellers-cooperation-hunter-gatherers-advent-religion.html

Sean Meaney said...

Block subsidence.

Jens D. said...

Wrong direction?

trollsmyth said...

Jens D.: ...because it is expected even for fictional worlds to manifest realistically through art..

Part of the joy of Lewis Carroll's stuff is that it absolutely doesn't manifest realistically. It joyfully subverts such expectations. Much of Lovecraft's work is built around the notion that we not only don't fully understand how the material world operates, but that if we did we would go mad.

Fantasy is all about worlds that do not work under the rules of science. Modern fantasy frequently (but doesn't always) delineates and describes where their worlds diverge. But where animism is no replacement for science in our world (burn all the kings and criminals in wicker baskets you want, they won't have any measurable effect on rain or sun) it can totally work by understandable rules in a fantasy world. In our world, the only rational thing to do when a tornado is headed your way is get to an interior room without windows. But in a world where animism works, ritually slaughtering a sheep and dragging its carcass three times around your house really can divert the course of the storm.

Part of the fun of fantasy worlds is divining what the rules are from the story and seeing how the author uses them to get the characters into and out of jams. Again, Tolkien invokes classics of animism like people-eating trees who can be lulled into relinquishing their prey via lullabies. How is this a realistic portrayal of the world? It isn't, but it is internally consistent with the world Tolkien created.

Am I addressing your point, or am I off the mark and talking past you? As you say, you've not quite got your finger on the thing you're trying to articulate, so there's a good chance I'm barking up the wrong tree here.

Jens D. said...

It might be the right tree and we are just not agreeing, tbh :) My girlfriend just told me I‘m overthinking this in an unhealthy way. She might be right … I also apologize for the long answer. I hope you see some merit in it, regardless if you agree or not.

Here we go: Lewis isn't that far off if you ever tried mushrooms or anything like it and Lovecraft is deeply rooted in the early fantastic ... Shelley, Hoffmann ... or go further with the Brothers Grimm or the Edda or the Kalevala ... Actually, we've always tried to explain the unknown somehow (with a good dose of mental illness in there for good measure) and we've always told stories to teach and warn others. While it didn't work to sacrifice people to stop the rain, they still might have good reasons to sacrifice people (politics, for instance). Early Christian preachers converted Germanic warriors by telling them god fights on their side to make them win. It's not only politics, it's also psychology. You do not necessarily slaughter a sheep to talk to the gods, the effect might still be palpable and real enough to make it seem as if the gods intervened (a brain is a mighty tool). Then you add Chinese medicine or Feng Shui or Chakras and you‘ll fast get into territory where science is just catching up although people have to do it for thousands of years and talked about it ... But that's neither here nor there. All those things Tolkien, Lewis and so on wrote are deeply anchored in our history to some extent or another. I'd go as far as saying, there aren't new stories, just new ways to tell them. Fantasy stories aren't much different to fairy tales aren't much different to picaresques or knight stories from the 13th century ... there are Roman ghost stories, knights were superheroes in the 13th century and there is some pretty wild stuff in the bible. It's a rich corpus of works to mine and we have stories that are thousands of years old that are still going strong today. In that, they actually predate the rules of science as we know and use it today to a huge degree, so science is not what I was talking about when I say „realistic“.

We don't even disagree about something crucial here: "Modern fantasy frequently (but doesn't always) delineates and describes where their worlds diverge." Yes, very true. The thing is, you need an understanding of the world to diverge from it, right? You can compare it and with the comparison, you connect it to a story in a way another human being can recognize. It leads the reader from a known place to an unknown and makes it alive through the process. After that, it needs to be consistent, though, and that's another hard rule of reality (or at least how our brains are wired). Suspension of disbelief and all that jazz. So Tolkiens world is "realistic" in those terms. In a way, you can cook this down to the use of language in general. The words we use and the semantic possibilities they carry are predetermined selections how we see reality. Change the words and you change reality, simple as that (it happens all the time): until the 1950s people thought smoking was healthy and people would tell you (very convincingly, too) why that is. That's just one example.

Stories, as we understand them today, are entertainment (had been for some time now), they are art as I described it above: they recreate and summon a reality in an abstract way. They are like drawings or sculptures. But there is another kind of stories, the stories shamans told, the stuff they talk about in the article I shared above. The purpose of those stories had been to teach others how to interact with the world surrounding them and with each other, they'd been used as a method of memorization or to reach enlightenment, for instance. Aborigines, to name one example, still do this today. Animism is one expression of this.

Jens D. said...

Of course, the water's all muddied and even commercial stories can have elements of both recreation and carrying meaning (although I'd make an argument for literature here ... there are stories to read and recognize and there are stories to transcend a topic). Still, I think the distinction is real.

With all that said, I'd close with that while Tolkien masterfully spins his story by using other stories that carry a deeper meaning than most are aware of, creating something that rings true in a sense that makes the world come alive to the reader. Following what I said above, it‘s sort of an (unintentionally?) hybrid between carrying meaning and recreating. The map falls short for some of the same reasons: it doesn't ring true if you know how mountains are formed, it seems "off" and trying to give this a meaning after the fact makes a week argument since the map is put up front without that context. You look at it as a map and that‘s where it has to hold up. Have one sentence in there, maybe a boxed text, stating: „And Sauron formed the land after his will ...“, it‘d be all good, no argument there. You have to set off expectations to not have them triggered. There‘s an art to it too (and it is the reason why some things work for one group but not for the other … watch children‘s cartoons, to make an easy example), which also explains why some people care and some not, btw. Does it mean anything if people object or not? I‘d say no :) But I also think it‘s interesting to discuss the mechanisms behind those different perceptions. I also still think that Tolkien could have left the maps out and it would have been for the better.

Dammit, close to a thousand words and I‘m still not sure I got my point across … It‘s not that I care that much in that special case, to begin with, not in a significant way anyway. But I think there‘s a lesson to be learned here about how and why we use stuff and how it is perceived, right?