Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Best-Laid Syllabi o' Mice and Men Gang Aft Agley . . .

In my last post, I outlined my planned reading list for my Spring 2014 fantasy literature course here at Big Midwestern Flagship Public University. I was very excited about this reading list.

And then I had to submit my book order. And discovered that Patricia A. McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld has gone "out of stock indefinitely"—effectively out of print. And learned that ordering the UK paperback of Poul Anderson's Broken Sword—the only in-print edition of that novel—was going to be more difficult than I had assumed. And realized that ten novels was going to be too much for the number of classes I had available for the spring semester.


I had to make up a new reading list on the spot. The key requirement for inclusion on this list: ready availability. The secondary requirement was that each text speak explicitly to one other text on the reading list. Here are the pairings I came up with:

Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter (1924) and McKillip's Winter Rose (1996)

The connection here is love that reaches beyond the fields we know into Elfland: a mortal man and an elf woman in Dunsany's case, a mortal woman and an elf man in McKillip's. I'm sad to lose Forgotten Beasts, but Winter Rose is  beautiful book as well.

Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) and McKinley's The Hero and the Crown (1984)

Two books from the last version of the reading list that make it into the next. Here the connection is dragon-slaying—a fairly tenuous theme, but a valid one. The evil of the wyrms Smaug and Maur lives on long after their deaths; in a sense, the dragons are just misdirection for the real evil of the tales.

Vance's Dying Earth (1950) and Lee's Night's Master (1978)

Decadence and exoticism drive this pair of books entering the reading list for the first time. I recently reread The Dying Earth for the first time since I was a teenager and came away incredibly impressed with what Vance achieved in those six stories; 12 or 13 was clearly too young for me to really grok them. As for Night's Master, I lost my copy of the Sci-Fi Book Club Tales of the Flat Earth omnibus back in the spring when the basement flooded. So this is my chance to finally read all of Night's Master.

Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and Miéville's Railsea (2012)

This pairing is so obvious I can't believe I missed it: thanks to Ceridwen Anne for the idea. Two young adult novels, two sailing stories, two great beasts (the Dragon of Pendor and Mocker Jack), and two tyro protagonists. I love Miéville's Scar, but I have included it on the reading list every time I've taught the fantasy course here—it may be suffering from overuse. So a change is good.

(Coincidentally, I'm interested in hearing suggestions for a book to pair with Le Guin's Voices—my favorite fantasy of hers—the next time I teach the course. I couldn't think of a candidate this time round.)

Pratchett's Wee Free Men (2003)

I needed a ninth book, so I decided to indulge myself and go with my favorite Pratchett of all time. What better rationale is there for a book besides Feegles? Crivens, I can't think of one!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Reading List for My Spring 2014 "Literature of Fantasy" Course

I'm scheduled to teach my university's "Literature of Fantasy" course in the Spring 2014 semester, and, while I have yet to write a description of the class, I do have a reading list drawn up for it. Some of the texts on this list will be familiar to those of you who've read my post on the reading list for my Summer 2013 "Intro to Fiction" fantasy class: J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is back for a second round, and so are Patricia A. McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld and China Miéville's Scar.

Other texts are different offerings from authors I taught this past summer:

Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland's Daughter

Because the Spring 2014 fantasy course is scheduled to take place over fifteen weeks or so (instead of the eight weeks I had for the Summer 2013 course), I have the luxury of concentrating exclusively on longer works. In Dunsany's case, that means teaching his masterpiece. King of Elfland's Daughter is the quintessential journey "beyond the fields we know," and I enjoy teaching it as a time travel novel (even if the students aren't that interested in Dunsany's temporal musings).

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

I really enjoyed teaching Le Guin's Voices this summer, but I needed to teach one of Le Guin's 1960s or 1970s fantasies to make my roughly decade-by-decade survey of fantasy work for the new course. So I "reluctantly" replaced Memer's story with Ged's. I thought about pairing Wizard with Tombs of Atuan (something I've done before), but my decision to teach a total of ten novels in the spring means that I had to streamline when possible. 

Finally, because I am a masochist, I decided that I just had to teach five authors for the very first time. (This is a bad habit of mine: I prioritize teaching over research . . . which just isn't done at an R-1 school!) Here are those new authors in chronological order:

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

There's a very simple albeit very embarrassing reason for putting the first book of Peake's Gormenghast trilogy on the reading list for Spring 2014: I've never been able to finish any of the books in that series. I made a good faith effort earlier this year to get through Titus Groan, but stalled out around Titus's christening. So teaching Peake becomes a way to force myself to actually read his books. (Plus it will help the students understand where Miéville is coming from!)

Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword

The other, much-neglected fantasy masterpiece from 1954. (The first was Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring.) Anderson's novel was a major influence on Michael Moorcock: for example, Stormbringer owes much to Anderson's titular blade. Of course, influencing Moorcock means influencing Miéville: there's a direct line from Uther Doul and Mightblade through Elric and Stormbringer to Skafloc and his sword. In fact, it's clear that Anderson's novel has had a much greater effect on British fantasists than his fellow Americans. I'm going to have to order the British edition of the book; there's no American edition in print for decades now.

Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown

Unlike Peake's Titus Groan, Robin McKinley's Hero and the Crown is a book I've read. But I'd like to become more familiar with it, so on the reading list it goes. More substantively, the novel stands in for the incredibly popular YA female fantasy hero tradition that emerges in the 1970s with characters like Anne McCaffrey's Menolly and leads to characters like Tamora Pierce's Alanna and Kristin Cashore's Katsa. I see the book playing well with Wizard of Earthsea.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm

I wanted some British satirical fantasy on the list, and I wanted to maintain the reading list's gender balance (five male authors, five female authors), so I turned to this wonderful book by Diana Wynne Jones. It's a hilarious piss-take on the portal quest fantasy C. S. Lewis perfected: the benighted inhabitants of a fantastic reality find themselves forced to more or less play "Tolkien" for tourists from our world.

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I'll end the course with this outstanding 2010 debut novel from N. K. Jemisin. It's about a society that has enslaved its gods, and the plan those gods have for turning the tables—provided the heroine is willing to go along with them. The book is also representative of an ongoing reaction to the Northern European focus of most modern fantasy fiction; Jemisin, like Charles Saunders and others, is trying to reimagine fantasy for a multi-racial, multi-cultural society.