Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

Something most of you will not have read

This is a piece I wrote for POLDER, a festschrift for John and Judith Clute and the flat they live in, edited by fjm and published by Old Earth Books of Baltimore. And if you want to get it...

I started off just writing a straight piece about the creation of subject entries for the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, and something took over.


I live, myself, in rooms full of books and recorded music - but I am known for my untidiness, for stacks that may only occasionally actually fall, but always look precarious. ( LIBRARY OF BABEL)

John Clute, by contrast, has everything in order, on shelves. When he needs more shelves, he finds ways of reconstructing rooms so that they have them, which is why many of his classic DVDs are to be found, alphabetized, in a rack in the toilet. ( LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA)

When I have to find something, I have to remember where it was when I last saw it, and get past all the associative memories that flock in when I try and think it through. Half the time, I don't find what I am looking for, but something else that just about suits my needs; the thing I am looking for floats to the top of a stack almost as soon as I stop looking for it. My mind is like this as well as my flat. ( AS ABOVE, SO BELOW )

John's mind is like his flat as well - organized and efficient. He walks to the right room, and pulls the right thing off the right shelf, as long as he knows precisely what he is looking for. (ORDER)

The work we did together on creating the names for fantasy tropes that we were going to use in the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy was very much a matter of putting these two ways of being side by side and reinforcing each other's weaknesses. I'd be vague and lateral and John would suddenly realize that I was telling him something he knew, but hadn't thought of yet; John would name a problem for which he had not got a solution and I would wibble around it until I stumbled on the answer. It was humbling for me, and probably deeply frustrating for him, but it worked, more or less. ( ORDEAL)

One of us would name a key text and the other would start trying to enumerate the things that were important about it. (TRUE NAME)

'Moorcock', one of us said, and the other said, 'Order and Chaos. Hero with a Thousand Faces. Liminal Being.'

And I made a note that heros who have bits missing are liminal because part of them is alive and part dead.

'Lords of the Balance' John said.

'Lord of the Rings' one of us said, and the other said ' Umm. Quest, obviously, riddles, elves.'

The other would say 'Dark Lord - and omigod, the intrinsic racism of that trope is going to demand a link to Maggots.' ( Which was already John's term for crack-brained ideas which permeate the genre from its beginnings and rarely get sufficient deconstruction as such.)

Soon we'd be talking about ideas we had already had, and going ' Is the Ring A Thing Bought At Too Dear A Cost? Is the Quest here a Wager Lost By Winning?' Every text became an inspiration for new ideas and a test bed for ideas we had already had.

I would say, ' Telepaths hunted by the state, elves chased by the Inquisition, witches burned and drowned. Yet somehow they are essential to the maintenance of the world. Are they a saving remnant, do you think?'

And John would say, 'That's a bit too damn Christian. They are despised and rejected - now you've got me at it - and they are the best as well.'

'Fan identification figures,' I'd say. And John would look quite ill, not least at the idea of fandom as the Elect and Mundanes as the Preterite.

And eventually we got to Pariah Elite, which works and has fewer religious connotations.

Wainscot Society was easy, by comparison, but that was because we got to the Borrowers almost at once.

I can't remember whether it was when we talking about Tolkien that I said 'What do we call it, when there is a place, which may or not be magical, or a realm of order, or might be an element of the normal in a sea of magic? It's the place that has to be preserved for its intrinsic qualities, but those are not necessarily sacred, just essential in some vaguer way.'

Certainly the Shire is an example of what I was talking about. And so is Minas Tirith.

On the other hand, so is Tanelorn. And Melnibone is the bad bad equivalent. (SHADOW DOUBLES. MIRROR MAGIC. TWINNING )

One of us, probably me, intoned portentously 'Do you think Darkness is coming? Darkness Unescapable.' And the other said, 'Remind me what that's from' and was reminded that it was when Eowyn is talking to Faramir about how Numenor was swallowed up by the wave.

And then, suddenly, John said 'Polder'.

I said, 'Yes, of course, because that makes the point that it is a product of Will as well as Rightness.'

John pulled his 'you're such a Catholic' face. (ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE)

I said, because one of us always had to say this, 'Are people going to know what the word means? I mean, Dutch land reclamation? Is this an accessible concept?'

John looked at me with those narrowed eyes and suddenly more intensely domed temples which means he has made up his mind.

'They'll know,' he said, 'because I will define it for them.'

And that, O Best Beloved, is where Polder came from as a critical term. (JUST SO STORY. ORIGIN MYTH)

It is also one of the best descriptions I know of how John works. His critical mind is a place of intense order in a sea of vagueness, and it is a product of will as well as rightness. You don't get to be like that without working at it really really hard. (POLDER)

Especially in a field like sf and fantasy criticism where vagueness is too readily accepted.

Eventually, after several Fridays in the course of which we consumed lots of black coffee, cheese and crackers, stir-fry and red wine, and played our way through several Strauss operas in the background to fill in the silence between great thoughts, we had our list.

And then we had the real test. We had to sit down with a popular fantasy series we had never read, and try out the list and see how much of it could be ticked off as we went. (NIGHT JOURNEY.)

I don't remember what John had to read - I got stuck with Robert Jordan, but that was because John lost the coin toss. And they were all there as I read. (THING BOUGHT AT TOO DEAR A COST)

Maps - tick. True names - tick. Dark Lord - tick. After three or four volumes of Jordan in a day, I started to worry that maybe we really did need an entry for Nuns, Spanking, but decided that this meant that I was over-tired. The list worked, mostly, and we had done it.

Fantasy is a vague and amorphous field, like the seas of chaos of which its practitioners are fond. The list was a polder itself - a little place of intellectual neatness among all of the endlessly mutating possibilities of the conversations that led to it. It is a place of balance between the Order of John's mind and the Chaos of mine.

John is the hero of this story, which probably makes me the plucky comic relief. (DUOS. TRICKSTER. HARLEQUINADE.)

Which is all very Moorcockian, for some reason.
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