Taking a Hammer to Wish Fulfillment: A Critical Appreciation of James Enge
“I have a theory that the secret source of fantasy is a failure to adapt to one’s environment. As human beings, we make our environments adapt to us, when we can, but we also learn to adapt to our environments when necessary. At the core of any fantasist or dreamer is a voice saying, ‘Yes, I know I could fly in one of those big noisy machines, but I wish I could fly like a bird. I know I can get money by working, but I wish I could change the rocks in my backyard into gold. I know that I can become famous by running for City Council, but I would prefer to slay a Dragon.’
Maladjustment is usually viewed as a bad thing, but the ability to dream about things as they are not may be related to the ability to change things as they are. Escaping briefly from the possible to the impossible may allow us to return with fresh eyes, to distinguish the way things as they are from the way we thought things were. How else can you get this kind of perspective on reality, except through fantasy?” – James Enge
As a writer, a reader, and as someone who finds human behavior and language to be endlessly fascinating, I find metaphors to be educational and entertaining. Whether a bold cliche or a meaning hidden under an obscure configuration of words, the power of metaphor and its linguistic cousins astonishes and intrigues me. That is the inspiration for the title of this column, which is taken from a metaphor that James Enge has used to concisely characterize how he came up with and writes about his creation Morlock the Maker and the world that he wanders through. The crooked-shouldered sorcerer is the central character in his artistic oeuvre , comprised to date of three novels and several novellas and short stories. While Enge is a recent rising star in sword-and-sorcery fiction, his writing has a maturity and deftness that makes it distinctive and worthy of critical appreciation. His work also exemplifies this metaphor in a number of ways, as Enge takes this imaginary hammer to his characters, to his stories, and in some sense to the reader as well, reshaping escapism and wish-fulfillment into something more invigorating. What I would like to do in this column is, briefly and in preliminary fashion, sketch out what makes Enge’s work so singular and remarkable.
Enge’s fiction stands out primarily for its rich, witty prose and its juxtaposition of human characters with outrageous situations. Conflict, weirdness, cruelty, and supernatural forces beset the protagonists (Morlock and whomever is unfortunate enough to be with him), but not for the shock value or for gory distraction. Enge creates circumstances where people have to draw on their human qualities to survive, sometimes aided by magic,but more often by stubbornness and the leveraging of opportunity. He does this not just to create a thrilling moment, but to probe what the characters are capable of as they face often bizarre, seemingly intractable challenges. These challenges (from facing down prophecy-maddened hordes to execution by dragon to obsessive, unhinged sorcerers) frequently have a philosophical inflection. As Enge himself put it in one interview::
“I guess I love fantasy because realistic fiction doesn’t seem to me weird enough to truly express what life is really like. I also think that fantastic imagery is a sneaky way to get under the guard of a reader. Le Guin famously wrote that:
‘The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.‘
And I think, by a similar paradox, that one of the ways to talk to people about the things that matter most is to talk about things that never existed at all.”
This is the impetus behind the hammer’s swing: to talk about some things that matter using a twisted, fantastic setting. Enge has described in his Black Gate interview (linked above) how he “took a big hammer” and smashed away at Morlock to transform him from a “mopey Byronic wish-fulfillment self-image” into a more flawed character. He did this to a large extent to get away from what he saw as the “wish-fulfillment” in much of fantasy fiction. But after reading Enge’s work it is clear that he has continued hammering away at fantasy to bend it into spooky and unconventional shapes, and he continues to do this to his characters as well, from Morlock himself to the strangest insect-mother and werewolf. Even alien or corrupted characters have some echo of recognizability and vulnerable, sometimes humorous qualities as well. Enge discovers novel ways to create sympathy for his characters and to invest their struggles with more than a momentary chill or surprise.
From the reluctant boy-emperor who actually acts like a boy in Blood of Ambrose to prideful dragons undone by their own cultural assumptions in This Crooked Way, Enge creates characters that respond to duress in unexpected ways, but ways that also make sense. A mother trying to protect her remaining children struggles with issues of trust over who can best safeguard her family in This Crooked Way, and an abused jail trustee begins to see his prisoners as potential saviors in The Wolf Age. Morlock himself, for all of his power and long life, is often a thick-skulled, staggering fool who misreads a situation and gets into more trouble as a result. He has a morbid sense of humor and a strong moral sensibility, although the workings of both often mystify observers. Enge’s books are not character studies, but are given vivacity by these very recognizable people who are constantly at odds with grotesque occurrences. They do not respond as we would, perhaps, but we can empathize with their struggles and feelings.
Enge gladly takes a hammer to conventions as well, moreso in his later work. Enge describes his own work thusly:
“I like Zelazny’s description of his masterwork, the original Amber series: ‘a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity.’ That’s what I try to write: philorohorrmorbmance.”
This quotation says more about Enge’s work than it states: it also demonstrates his wry sense of humor, his pleasure at weaving the absurd into the fantastical, and his knack for creating prose that communicates directly and also creates openings and linkages in his language that tell us something about the characters and the story. While quite at home in the sword-and-sorcery genre, Enge writes tales that embrace and exceed genre conventions, philosophically resonant yet viscerally pulpy.
He keeps this back-and-forth from descending into either camp or rising to airy abstraction by anchoring the narrative in characters first, events second. The philosophy is humanistic and often pragmatic, but often not explicitly articulated by the characters, particularly the taciturn Morlock. Gestures and actions communicate a character’s beliefs and values; the interplay of the romance creates a canvas upon which the characters’ sensibilities are displayed and commented upon, usually by their success at not being thwarted or destroyed. Morlock’s world is unforgiving, populated by monsters and powers that constantly manipulate and prey on those weaker than they are. Supposedly benign protectors turn out to be predators, rulers to be pawns, and the world outside of the “civilized” places to be a landscape of mishaps and horrors. This too is a form of anchorage, an assurance of chaos that provides a background in which anything can happen, one that constantly tests those brave or foolish enough to leave the often apocryphal protections of their homes.
In Morlock’s world, the only real “home” that exists is inside an individual and between those few others that you can trust. In each of the novels political systems of all stripes, from empire to municipality to clan, prove to be fallacious and parasitic, often lulling the citizenry into a false sense of security in order to take advantage of them. The only land that seems secure, the Wardlands where Morlock once lived, keeps itself separated from the rest of the world. All else is treacherous and extractive. This is really not a fantasy world that the reader wants to live in, and this is where we most clearly see how Enge has hammered away at the wish-fulfillment that is often found in fantasy
I think this is why Enge focuses on characters, and perhaps why some of his plotwork is basic. His first novel, about a struggle for control of the Ontilian Empire, has a rote structure that is not greatly different than many other fantasy stories, but that is enlivened and made compelling by the characters. His second, which at first glance is a wandering series of vignettes, is on one level a quest, on another a sort of labyrinth, and at a deeper level a tale of discovering how to deal with one’s past and choices in life. Neither has an innovative plot, but Enge makes them absorbing stories by taking his characters’ actions and responses seriously, and rendering them vividly.
His third novel has a richer texture to its plot, and this makes it the most enjoyable, and in some ways the most profound, of his major works to date. My initial thought is that Enge has moved away from perfunctory emplotment and allowed his characters and the world he has created to interact more organically. There is a surer hand at work here, and a smoother progress in the story than in the first two novels. It is inventive in its presentation of a distinct culture and society (that of werewolves) and more probing in its examination of the emotional and psychological effects that this often insane world has on its inhabitants, particularly Morlock. While I am not sure that Morlock grows as a personality in The Wolf Age, I do feel that Enge gives us more insight into his character, and the way in which his limitations and proficiencies play off of each other.
There are other elements that need critical examination, such as the Arthurian and classical undertones to the tales. Enge has explicitly discussed the fact that Morlock’s father, Merlin, is an aged, transposed version of the Arthurian wizard, and that Nimue, Morlock’s mother, is also a carryover from the legends. I think these work fine as background, but I found a number of secondary intrusions of this to disturb my suspension of disbelief and immersion in the narratives from time to time. For example, in This Crooked Way characters twice use the word “Christ!” as an ejaculation, and both times it shook me out of my engagement with the story. This was also the case with the invocation of angels and hell in Enge’s novella “Travellers’ Rest.” These moments seemed very out of place in this world and I wonder why Enge chose to add them, especially given the fact that the strange, capricious gods of this world have no linkage (as far as I can tell) to the Arthurian mythos.
I also wonder about Enge’s framing of each section with a classical quotation, and murmurs of classical undertones and linkages in the stories themselves. Enge has stated that while he has some classical sensibilities they are not really a part of his writing, but I do not think they are as submerged as he thinks. I find myself wondering if his philosophical positions and character compositions have some grounding in classical ideas and forms. I found this to be less obvious in The Wolf Age, but in all of his stories there are tantalizing hints of classical resonance not just with the framing quotations but with specific moments in the stories, the way that choices are determined and substantiated in characters’ actions. There is definitely a lot more to discover in Enge’s work than I have discussed here, which, in the end, is what I admire so much about his art.
NEXT WEEK: Interstitiality: An Admiring Skeptic’s Meditations
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!