October 1984: Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Trilogy: Westmark, The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. Reported by Ruth Berman.
Joan began by commenting on Darrell Schweitzer’s letter in Mythlore on the inadequacy of Donaldson as a successor to Tolkien in any literary sense-Joan agreed. Debbie commented that Diana Paxson’s article in the same issue documents what is meant descriptively by saying that various authors are Tolkienesque, without reference to literary quality.
Polly (Peterson) was partway through BQ. The rest of us had not read it, but had read one or both of the first two Westmark books.
Joan asked why a Westmark discussion, as the books seemed to her pleasant but not outstanding. Ruth said because Alexander’s work in general is so interesting, especially the Taran books. Marianne pointed out the Taran books had been discussed at a previous meeting.
David’s proxy remarks on the Westmark books as good in portrait of maturation of an adolescent and good in restraint in use of violence. Joan said she had liked the plausible changes of characters, that the hero in the first book after killing once is horrified and determined not to kill again, and in the second book is a general of the rebel army.
Ruth objected to the preachiness of the books (despite agreeing with the ideas preached) and wondered if it meant anything to point out a likeness in plot between Westmark and the “Star Wars” movies (innocent hero becomes rebel leader, encouraged by courageous princess). The others agreed that those plot elements were too common for the likeness to mean much in itself.
Joan remarked that it was unusual to find a fantasy set in a post-medieval setting, but wondered if imagining a universe which is different from ours in geography and history but which has otherwise no fantasy elements satisfies the expectations of a reader who wanted a fantasy story. Should there be another word to describe that kind of literature?
Ruth agreed that it would be nice to have another word for the sort of story found in Alexander’s Westmark or Le Guin’s Orsinian tales, and wondered if people who like fantasy generally also mostly like this sort of non-realism (if warned in advance of what it is, so not disappointed simply by the absence of magic in what is labelled a fantasy story) or if the two types attract different readerships.
Joan commented that she hadn’t known in advance, but hadn’t consciously noticed the absence of magic. Debbie said she thought the appeal of magical and non-magical world-building was basically similar.
Paula remarked that a medieval setting makes it easier to have magic plot elements, as the characters believe in magic. Debbie said she thought the appeal of magical and non-magical world-building was basically similar.
Marianne asked what people thought of the establishment of a constitutional monarchy as a resolution of the political plot. Paula was disappointed that Florian accepted any form of compromise. Marianne liked the awareness of the need for time to educate the populance before democratic government is practical, but wondered if it was elitist to think so. Joan liked the compromise, finding it believable and emotionally satisfying.
Debbie said it was interesting that Alexander chose to leave religious motives out as a factor in the Westmark plotting (as Tolkien left any portrayal of an organized religion out of Middle-earth) and wondered what advantages that omission has artistically and whether it damages the plausibility of such stories. Joan said removing religion as a factor in Westmark focussed attention on the political issues, and suggested that including both would make the story too crowded. Ruth said that having a religion known or believed to be true in a story limits what other supernatural material can be used, as it has to be made to fit in a single theological scheme; also, that a world where magic unquestionably is real is not neccessarily going to have the need for organized religious rituals that our world does (these two factors apply more to Tolkien than to Alexander). It was Lin Carter who originally criticized Tolkien for omitting religion in Middle-earth. There was general agreement that religion can be a useful element artistically and its absence not necessarily harmful to the plausibility; and that in both Westmark and Middle-earth the absence is appropriate.