On the Edge of Reason

By Elizabeth M. Stephen

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Although a committed fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, I confess my wider knowledge of Science Fiction and Fantasy is more limited. Clearly, elements from these genres are prevalent throughout Tolkien’s writing, but the depth of the world he created makes his works read more like historical fiction than what most of us today would consider Sci-Fi or Fantasy. Tolkien’s landscape is no alien planet but our own, and fans and scholars alike are more inclined to follow his footsteps exploring our distance past than venturing into an imagined future.

What each of us understands by the terms Sci- Fi or Fantasy is inevitably coloured by our own formative experiences. Tolkien aside, Narnia was a childhood staple of mine, as were a myriad of fairy stories, although my appreciation of both genres has been shaped as much by celluloid as by the written word. I am [just] old enough to remember the very first Doctor Who and, like many children growing up in the UK during the early sixties, Saturday evenings were spent behind the sofa watching the TV screen through half opened fingers, enthralled and scared in equal measure.

Those of us blessed with boundless imaginations are gifts to the writers of Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature who arguably have the more challenging task with nothing but words to conjure all manner of peculiarities into realistic images in our minds. Admittedly, papier-mache monsters were not always the aids to our imaginations that we now expect of visual props, even though there was a comforting amateurishness to the worlds in which the likes of James T. Kirk and the Doctor inhabited. I wonder if anyone really cared about the lack of sophistication; that, after all, was part of the charm, but when Han Solo sped onto the big screen in his Millennium Falcon, our expectations changed forever. The range and diversity of the aliens and the peoples featured in the original Star Wars was quite breath-taking. Who could ever forget their first viewing of the tavern scene? The realism of the production had kept pace with our maturing tastes and held at bay an inevitable growing tendency towards scepticism, especially as the science behind much of what we read or watched inevitably remained inexplicable.

‘Beam me up, Mister Scott’ must be one of the most mis-quoted lines from TV history, but who truly knows how ‘beaming up’ works? It’s a technique that moves the action forward without the need to constantly rescue the characters, but it’s as daft a way of travelling between worlds as a space ship disguised as a police phone box or walking through the back of a wardrobe. But does any of this matter? Well, perhaps to a scientist, though not this one. But then, I’m a zoologist, not a physicist. Maybe if I had a better understanding of the knowledge required to explain these bizarre devices, I might be less forgiving. Instead, I feel suspension of my own disbelief only slipping when presented with monsters of such improbable size or shape that I can’t help but question what environmental pressures could possibly have driven the evolution of such absurdities. Ironically, if the absurdities become too absurd I am forced to abandon any attempt at rationalisation, and am happy to just enjoy the ride. Treebeard is one such creation whose anatomy and physiology defies pigeon-holing but that is the joy of the beast. We can speculate but we can never know for sure. The same is true of dragons, those unlikely, fire-generating reptiles which feature heavily in Tolkien’s writing and, perhaps uniquely, straddle the worlds of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Faerie stories and historic literature. And what of the science behind Tolkien’s Palantíri or his Silmarils? What wonderful feats of magic fuel the Seeing Stones or enable holy light to be captured in perpetuity? Tolkien does not enlighten us, but maybe one day, when our knowledge equals that of the Elves, we might at last understand. Until then, we must be content.

Yet, no matter how realistically portrayed the improbable feats of engineering and unlikely creatures inhabiting the worlds of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, ultimately it is the heroes’ own stories that draw us in. Usually human, or at least human-like, the role of the hero transcends the weird unfamiliarity of these other worlds or lands and is essential for our emotional involvement in the action.

Personally, I prefer my heroes on horseback than in spaceships, but whether he wields a sword or a light-sabre, if he is the kind of person we would aspire to be, I’m hooked. Middle-earth, of course, has heroes aplenty, but I’m also a belated traveller in the world of Westeros, having recently raced through all seven volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire whilst nursing a broken arm. George RR Martin’s heroes are not like Tolkien’s, being characters with dubious virtues who reside at the darker end of a spectrum of grey rather than populating the white. Such treatment might be more realistic, but it is a curious paradox that we grumble about realism in human characterization while being quite comfortable with the inclusion of all manner of ‘unrealistic’ creatures and phenomena!

Certainly, to fully engage our sympathies, our heroes must be ordinary, or at least possess some vulnerability, while it is their forbearance facing dangers far beyond the more prosaic challenges to which normal mortals are usually exposed that earns our admiration. Furthermore, living precariously as they do on the edge of reason, they inevitably face out of the ordinary dilemmas. An earth-bound hero confronted with a threat to his world must be divested with certain self-interest if his home and all he holds dear is at risk. But how is his heroism affected if he has the option, and hence temptation, to simply hop aboard his space ship and whizz off to some other, unthreatened, world?

Answering such questions can only enhance our understanding of ourselves, and perhaps therein lies much of the appeal.


Elizabeth M. Stephen
Elizabeth M. Stephen

A graduate in zoology from the University of Bristol and a former teacher, Liz rears pedigree sheep and cattle on her farm in the Cotswold Hills of her native Gloucestershire. She first discovered Tolkien as a child when she encountered “The Hobbit” in the 1960’s, and, in 2012, her enduring fascination with the Professor’s works led to the publication of her first book, Hobbit to Hero: The making of Tolkien’s King.

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