Friday, November 11, 2011

Stepping Stones – The Ideas Bridging the Malazan Book of the Fallen

(Be warned: this essay assumes you have read The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Look here for my review.)

Steven Erikson, in writing upon the general aims of his massive Malazan Book of the Fallen, states that the “novels seek to portray a history in an entertaining style” of whose ”underlying themes concern the life cycles of cultures and civilizations (including those of nonhumans) against the backdrop of environmental degradation.”  As is obvious from the ten books which comprise the series, this depth exists.  The incredible variety of homages, themes, satire, humor, action, and social commentaries which develop and propel the work is more than worthy of detailed examination.  More than just world building, character development, and plot, it is my intention by writing this article to survey the major concepts and schemes underlying the multiple storylines and overall story arc, all with the hope of indicating how Malazan stands alone in the context of modern fantasy and literature.  Furthermore, by examining these stepping stones which take the reader from one side of the story to the other, it is my hope to further clarify what makes reading the series worthwhile and valuable to modern literature.

On the surface Malazan appears to be nothing more than a mix of action, comedy, romance, tragedy, and the supernatural.  However, at a deeper level, more complex and poignant ideas take form, no better place to start than the title. The series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Erikson got the idea from Napoleon and his idea to create such a book to honor all who died fighting for his cause, thus ensuring history did not forget their names or deeds.  With this in mind, one of Erikson’s goals in the series—if not the main goal—is to bring to the forefront the lives of ordinary soldiers and the sacrifices they make towards achieving the larger objectives of their group.  Ironically like the infamy/fame Napoleon maintains in the west, much of modern fantasy tells the story of the hero – the undefeatable warrior championing justice.  Malazan instead tells of those around him, the little guys and the invaluable nature of their contribution to the final result.  Wizards, warriors, and gods do play their part, but ever the focus returns to the plight of the soldier.  Thus, the lists of dramatis personae which appear at the forefront of every volume therefore act not only as an introduction to the players on stage, but also as an honorarium to those who will fall, their story to follow.  More than the anti-hero, it is the common man—the quiet hero—which takes center stage in Malazan.

Like the proverbial nuclear cockroach, another aspect of humanity which Erikson foregrounds throughout the series is its resilience.   Despite that most often mankind is its own worst enemy, the gods, nature and the other forces which try to exterminate the human race never prove successful.  Yes, the bodies are often piled high, but the hardiness of humanity, its instinct to survive, and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the greater good always fights its way to the surface, no matter the damage done.  Even when facing apocalyptic events—the convergence in The Crippled God—humanity, channeled through innumerable sacrifices, survives.  Characters like Stormy, Gesler, Gruntle, Beak, and a continuing list, all give their lives for the common good.  Though not morally pure, we are led to believe by Erikson that at the core of these and other characters is the undying belief in the worth of  mankind, no matter the atrocities the group delivers upon itself.  The majority may participate in internecine destruction, but there remains a group with a broader view to the value of humanity.  To this effect, Erikson is quoted as saying:

“sometimes my series feels like a ten thousand page requiem for our species, or a long, drawn-out howl verging on utter despair; as I search in desperation for moral gestures of humanity, no matter how small, no matter how momentary, in the midst of self-inflicted carnage”

Switching gears from the spirit of humanity to its connection with reailty, Erikson is not shy in using basic earth elements as symbolism throughout Malazan.  Hearkening back to a pre-industrial age, fire (the dragons), water (the stormriders, Mael), ice (the Jaghut), wood (the Azath), stone/dust (the Imass), air (the Moranth, Crone and the crows), cosmos (K’Chain Malle, Forkrul Assail), and spirits (demons, the undead) all exist and intermingle to form integral parts of the Malazan world.  Not a pathetic homage to Chinese culture or classic Greek physics, this mix of elements is more a bridge between the metaphysical unknown and the more visceral concept of life and death.  By using these elements as such, the Malazan world ensconces itself in common knowledge while at the same time the forging ahead into uncharted imaginary territory.  The resulting uniqueness validates the world as a literary creation.

Like the foundational elements, light, dark, and shadow are also continually present in Malazan.  Like Genesis, in the beginning there was darkness, the Tiste Andii being the oldest of the three non-human races.  (That Anomander Rake sacrifices himself in Toll the Hounds to prevent chaos from seeping back into the world is significant in indicating the base quality of darkness in Malazan.)  Then came light, the Tiste Liosan.  But it is not an omnipotent force.  Its time must be shared with darkness.  Translated to narrative terms, like the sun’s inability to permanently drive away the dark, so too does the Liosan’s attempt to infiltrate and take over the world in The Cripple God, failFurther symbolism not lost in this takeover attempt is the gender differences; while the Andii continually refer to Mother Dark, the Liosan refer to Father Light.  The qualities that go with the genders further indicate the role each play; light is prone to strength and violence while dark is a more subtle, receptive entity.  One burns in light and rests in dark.  That the Tiste Edur are a product of the two turns the allusion not to gray, but to shadow.  This is significant in that while gray can be a blanketing, smothering force, shadows allow light and dark their place alongside each other, i.e. one does not exist without the other for all of their dynamism. 

Accordingly, of the three species the Tiste Edur are most human, and though Erikson never directly states the fact, it can be assumed that the humans are an evolutionary offspring of the Edur.  Supporting this idea are Shadowthrone and Cotillion’s occupation of the throne of shadow, the lengthy but mortal life spans of the Edur (the Liosan and Andii are immortal), the nature of the wars occurring in Midnight Tides (the Edur are the first of the elder races to do battle with humans), and the more active, sympathetic role the Edur play in human affairs (the Andii and Liosan live apart, while the Edur live among humanity).  Moreover, it is much easier for the reader to relate to the human qualities of Trull Sengar and his brothers than those of the distant Anomander Rake or any of the Tiste Liosan.  That the Tiste Edur as well display the burning, flashing qualities of light, while at the same time the peaceful, introverted qualities of dark, speaks to their connection to humanity.  Both flit through time in Malazan like Plato and Socrates’ shadows on a wall. 

Earth elements and the interplay of light and dark are not the only fundamental aspects of life playing a hand.  Alongside humanity and the human-enough species, animals are likewise fully represented in Malazan.  Soletaken and D’ivers indicating a fuller connection between humans and animals, the purity of the animal idea receives further attention with its inclusion in the pantheon of gods (Fener the Boar of War, Trake the Tiger of War, the Wolves of War, and D’rek the Worm of Autumn).  Some from our world, some from his imagination, Erikson also populates Malazan with an incredibly diverse range of creatures.  Horses naturally being most common, cows, wolves, bhederin, rhizan, and a plethora of other species also intermingle with humans and the human-like.  Thus, not only does humanity and the environment receive full representation, likewise do other forms of life. 

The pantheon of gods in Malazan is a brilliant agglomeration of modern man’s beliefs.  If one attempts a one-to-one comparison with the Greek pantheon, something is left wanting, however.  And the same falls true for the Hindu, the Norse, and any other traditional system of belief or mythology known to us today.  Correlations can be made, but none are direct.  On the surface Mael may seem Neptune, but his continual taking sides with the moral good fails comparison.  Moreover, if one compares Errant to Loki of Norse fame or coyote from Western Native American beliefs, again, parallels do not run at every turn; Errant is more egotistic and diabolic in his actions.  In the end, it can be clearly stated that religious beliefs prior to the monotheistic practices of the west were intended to play strong roles in Malazan.  That Erikson makes them a combination of known concepts and products of his own imagination again lends credence to the uniqueness and scope of Malazan.

The spinning coin a motif that was perhaps more overt than Erikson would have liked it, Gardens of the Moon nonetheless makes it known from the very beginning that no matter how well laid plans can be, chance all too often is the final determiner in the outcome of a situation.  Highlighting this is the presence of three main forces playing with fate: the twins (Oponn) and the Errant.  Pushing, pulling, spinning, and the other agitators of stability continually surface to wreck havoc amongst the characters of Malazan and their intentions.  One of the best examples is at the end of Midnight Tides.  After defeating but not killing Rhulad, Brys Benedict seems to have done the world a favor by eliminating a malevolent force from the playing field.  However, when the undead Guardian steps in, and, believing he’s doing the right thing kills Rhulad, the idea that even the best of intentions can have disastrous effects rises vividly to the reader’s awareness when Rhulad comes back to life and rules Letheri in more than brutal fashion.  Karsa Orlong also, by denying the crippled god, thus acts in his favor.  And there are numerous other examples of the role chance and fate play in character’s lives, enough that it is obvious life in Malazan can never be predicted.  Or in other words, prophesies are not to be fulfilled by the supernatural or divine, only by chance.  (This idea flies in the face of much of modern fantasy, but must be unpacked separately.)

Less noticeable than the previous points, another stepping stone taking the reader through the narrative of Malazan is the nature of questing.  Wholly unlike the simple manner in which Abercrombie attempts to subvert the standard fantasy quest, Erikson’s method is more subtle.  Rather than sending his characters on a lengthy journey only for them to find nothing at the end, Erikson instead distracts his characters from their objective during the journey.  Best exemplifying this point is Karsa Orlong.  On how many occasions does he try to return to his people to lead them to glory only to be sidetracked with matters that seem more important in the moment?  Is this not a closer parallel to humanity in reality than the following of a long and arduous route only for the last step to be missing?  Not rebellion for the sake of rebellion (which in turn admits cliché its value), Erikson’s motif of distraction from a goal is a more realistic manner in which to subvert the traditional fantasy quest, and it appears time and again in the storyline. 

Though ambivalent and mysterious throughout the beginning of the series, the purpose of Icarium and his relationship with Mappo becomes increasingly clear with each book.  Always hinted at being the most powerful of fighters, The Bonehunters is only a peek at what Icarium can do when he is unleashed.  The word “unleashed” has been chosen with care here as it precisely describes the danger of Icarium.  Lying dormant most of the time thanks to the tireless efforts of Mappo and his predecessors, there is ultimately nothing which can prevent Icarium from exploding and causing apocalyptic destruction.  Like war, it is only a matter of time.  Mappo and other kind, peace loving people may tirelessly strive to stop clashes and battles, but as history has proven, conflict is inevitable and Icarium lies at the heart.  Or, from the other side, the tragedy of Mappo’s death can just as easily be found in every peace march ever held against war; the effort only prolongs the inevitable rather than preventing it.  Some may say this viewpoint is pessimistic or nihilistic, Erikson would probably say realistic and provable.  From big to small, the wars and lack thereof in Malazan parallel our own.

Not left hanging in the wind, combating the sobering truth that war is inevitable is Erikson’s response: bear witness to life.  Forces at play beyond individual control, every moment we are alive should be cherished, and in order to do so, one must be aware, to pay attention to the beauty and ugliness around them and to truly appreciate the relationships which have value.  The brutality of Karsa Orlong may not be the easiest aspect of his character to relate to, however, understanding his ability to savor the moment is something we can.  Rather than chopping off heads or igniting Moranth munitions, it is the little tricks and games, the nuances of character, and idiosyncrasies of the Malazan soldiers in everyday life which bind them together as a group and allow them to bear the regular string of tragedies they experience.  In parallel with Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, to stick your middle finger up at the realities of life—to participate in spite of the obvious—is the theme blanketing all of the realities so viscerally displayed in Malazan. 

The entire opening section of House of Chains devoted to him, it would be an understatement to consider Karsa Orlong a minor character.  Modeled after Robert E. Howard’s idea of a barbaric man attempting to tear down civilization, Eriskon describes Karsa’s development as follows:

“In the fourth novel in my series I introduced, rather brutally, a character emerging from an isolated tribal culture, who finds himself first a slave, then an escaped slave, within the far larger world of civilization of which he previously knew nothing.  He ultimately concludes, after numerous travails, that civilization is an abomination, and so he vows to destroy it.”

But Erikson has additional books planned to finish the storyline of the character for which The Crippled God does not conclude, and so for the time being I will leave the idea of anti-civilization as a theme in progress and move on to other topics of Malazan.

Cultural enmity is another force strongly at work in the series.  The Imass hate the Jaghut, the Letherii the Red Awls, the Edur the Andii, and so one.   It seems every group has another to direct their animosity toward.  What could be more realistic than the real state of world affairs?  Every country and culture has its enemy bearing itself out in the evening news.  Where Erikson takes this concept a step further is to offer the reader both sides of the story rather than the singular mouth of the television.  “Multiple points-of-view are for me a way of ensuring that no single world view, philosophy, or attitude dominates the story.”  As a result, the reader experiences empathy for all of the groups and characters involved in a given conflict, with the chance that afterwards, they too may take a broader view of their own culture’s political and cultural stance.  As the Edur learn, often the enmity’s inspiration is founded on lies and twisted truths.  Likewise, as the Letherii learn, cultural dominance by economic means is no less hurtful to those being conquered.  This encouragement to examine our own views, our culture’s views, and our opposition’s views is one of the most respectable aspects of Malazan.

One of the benefits of writing roughly 10,000 pages of story is that time can be handled in a much more detailed fashion than the average novel.   Taking full advantage, Erikson uses the opportunity to piece by piece, scrap of history here, tale there, to tell the pertinent details of what has brought the main groups of Malazan to the their current state.  The history of the Imass-Jaghut wars, for example, are told from many points of view—from those involved to the gods still living—so that the reader is aware of the events which have brought the Imass to regret their immortality and the Jaghut to be in hiding.  Thus, throughout the historical description of the hostility and hatred which exists amongst the various Malazan groups, an even broader cultural development can be seen: the evolution of societies.  This, like the previous point, draws out the similarities between groups rather than the differences.

And there are numerous other ideas at work in the series.  The role humor plays is strong throughout.  Compassion is an idea often stated—almost directly to the reader in the text—as being vital to any understanding of the series.  The role technology plays juxtaposed against the supernatural.  The importance of history to the present and the ability of knowledge to change attitudes and worldviews.  The inevitability of death and the importance of understanding our lives in its context.  And I could go on.  Suffice to say, a writer has the possibility to accomplish a great deal in the literary context when setting out to write a ten book series.  It would seem Erikson has maximized this potential by cramming it full of the basic philosophies in life he holds dear alongside concepts of culture and history which have prove themselves true when measured over long periods of time.  Thus it is my hope that by surveying some of these ideas—the stepping stones as they were—that the reader can have a better idea of the sheer magnitude of the scope and depth of Malazan.  It will be a long time before anything of similar literary weight and caliber is written again.

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