• Gateway Drugs

    31 May, 2012 • 1 Comment

    A couple of days ago, I suddenly rediscovered one of LibraryThing’s beta features, which I had looked at when it first debuted and then not thought about again until now: lists. In particular, the one that caught my eye was a list of fantasy gateway books. The idea of the lists feature is that it aggregates the individual lists from the members that create one, and generate a common list from it, in this case of books that first sparked the reader’s interests in fantasy.

    I like this, and it got me thinking about which books made me so interested in that particular genre. Now, this particular list asks members to list a single book, which I have completely failed to do – what’s the fun in just one? But I’m having some trouble thinking back – what were the books that formed my tastes in early years?

    There’s one that’s not even a question, the one I’ve put on spot number one, and the books that without question has been the most formative reading experience I had as a child: The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. I don’t know how many times I read that book back when I was twelve, or how many times since then – every couple of years, at least. It remains my favourite book. The series it’s part of is great as well, but this one was my first and will always have pride of place.

    But I don’t think I can attribute my love of fantasy just to one book – if all the other ones I read hadn’t been good as well, I don’t think it would have stuck. The truth is, though, I don’t really remember reading much fantasy as a child. I remember reading sci-fi. Jon Bing’s Starship Alexandria series and, a few years later, Animorphs. I did read Narnia at some point, but I think I was into my mid-teens by then, having previously contented myself with the excellent BBC TV adaptation.

    I do have a very vivid memory of reading Mio, My Son at what must have been a young age, and being so utterly terrified at the first appearance of Kato that I actually screamed aloud and ran away from the book. I have vaguer memories of reading Micheal Ende’s Momo, and I’m not sure if that was before or after I saw the film adaptation. I was 13 when Harry Potter first came out in Norway, and read that not too long after, so I suppose that has been an influence as well. I don’t remember when i first read Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, but I think those came later, when I was already in love. The Belgariad certainly came after that again, so I’m afraid Eddings doesn’t get much credit for my tastes at all.

    I’m trying to think back to afternoons spent snooping through the public library, digging out treasures and duds from its shelves, and completely failing to put any titles to these experiences. What books were big before Potter? What was the first fantasy I read? I have no idea. But I’m interested in seeing the other lists, where other people got started in on this peculiar genre, so I think I’ll make a point of going back to this one periodically, and see what’s changed.

    One Response to Gateway Drugs

    1. 31 May, 2012 at 10:48

      As I do not have the time, energy or on-hand resources to actually use Library Thing properly, making a list there is somewhat of a pipe dream for me. I can, however, make a list here. So I will. Because the alternative is doing something actually productive for the next ten minutes.

      The first major fantasy love of mine was “The Jungle Book”. Before I even read it, I was walking on pins for weeks waiting for it to arrive in the mail. I’d seen the ad for it in my Barnas Bokklubb flier, and talked my mum into buying it. I kept the flier on my nightstands for the six months it took for the beautifully illustrated book to arrive. Well, I say six months, it is entirely possible it was just two weeks or so. Whatever length of time it was, I don’t think I’ve waited that excitedly for anything ever since. And I absolutely loved it. While clearly not traditional epic fantasy, it was still fantasy, and formative as all get-out. A few years later I bought a hardcover version that included “The Second Jungle Book”, and it is one of the most frequently re-read books I have.

      Second must be mentioned my love of fairy tales and myths. When stuck at my grandparents’ without anything to do, I read, re-read and re-read yet again an illustrated children’s edition of The Old Testament (epic fantasy if there ever was one) that they had there, as well as a rather thick and adult collection of Grimm fairy tales. And on every longer car-trip I ever was part of, I had six full-length both-sided tapes with narrations of Norwegian fairy tales to listen to. Back home, I read myth compilations – usually biased towards Greek and Norse – and at the library I completely fell in love with Tor Åge Bringsværd’s “Den Enøyde”. Oh sure, I hated (and still dislike) many of the more artsy illustrations in it, but the prose, the stories, and perhaps most important of all, the CONTINUITY that other renditions of the Norse myths lacked, it was grand.

      Third, Donald Duck. Or, Scrooge, more likely, as I never really liked his nephew much. The longer adventure stories (frequently with fantasy elements) of Barks, Rosa, and the nameless Italians I assume wrote all the good pocket stories, has probably been more formative for me than anything outside of “The Jungle Book”. “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” remains my favourite graphic novel, and as he visits Heaven in one of the chapters and sees prophetic cave paintings in another, and, well, has a BEAK, I dare you not to classify it as at least partially fantasy.

      Honourable mention at this point to Disney movies, which were a huge part of my childhood, and obviously are stuffed with magic from one end to the other. But I don’t think they were as formative for my tastes as anything I ever read, so a mention is all they get..

      Fourth, Jostein Gaarder. My favourite was “Kabalmysteriet”, but I read everything I could get my hands on for a period of cirka two years, immediately preceeding my teens. Not fantasy in the traditional sense this either, but certainly a gateway for it. And in my mind’s eye, I still think George Martin’s Tyrion Lannister and Gaarder’s Joker are the one and same person.

      Fifth, adventure books. I do not recall when, but at some point reasonably early on I borrowed and read my mum’s “The Three Musketeers” and “Treasure Island”. Neither of which is really fantasy, but both of which clearly appealed to that exact same desire as fantasy later would. At school, I plowed through dozens of books on Davy Crockett and Robin Hood. Same result there.

      Then, finally, actual fantasy. I think I was twelve, possibly eleven, when in a flier – again, Barnas Bokklubb, thanks mum – there was this feature on this strange fairy tale-like story. I figured, hey, I like fairy tales and myths rather a lot, and asked if I could order it. Mum said yes. Gorgeously illustrated by Alan Lee, I read it, loved it, and saw some odd footnote referencing something called “The Lord of the Rings”.

      Gateway drug if there ever was one.

      I doubt it was two months from my receiving “The Hobbit” in the mail until I had read every little thing (Every. Thing. “Tree and Leaf” anyone?) with Tolkien’s name on it in the local library, and of course bought everything I could get my hands on. Stumped, at the end of the list, the librarian suggested I tried out this “Wheel of Time”-thing that so many other kids who liked Tolkien apparently were reading. Sure, I tried it. And… underwhelmed. It wasn’t awful, but it sure wasn’t “The Lord of the Rings”, either. Next I tried Eddings at the library – and Feist, which the library didn’t have, but that I picked up on a whim in a bookshop because “The Magician” sounded like a fantastic title for a book. And BOY did they suit me, at the time. Not as grown up as “Wheel of Time”, but just grown-up enough not to feel like kiddy-things (a problem I later had a little bit with “Harry Potter” – I didn’t start reading them until the first three were all out in Norwegian translations). I’ve stayed with Feist, but found in high school I had already started outgrowing Eddings. Oh well. Third out was Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth”, and for all the preachy failings of the later volumes, I still love that first book to bits. I recall being so captivated I was reading WHILE WALKING home from the library that day. Miracle nobody ran me over.

      I should also mention “Star Wars”. Somehow, I managed to never see or hardly even heard of the films until the year 1998 – just a short year or so after I first fell in love with Tolkien. My family was visiting another, and they had the original trilogy (well, the only one, back then). We watched all three films in two days, and I loved it. I’ve been an on-again off-again Star Wars geek ever since, but it was the fantasy aspect that sucked me in from the beginning, and I’m sure they were great fodder for the growing flames.

      So that’s how it started. Oddly, I don’t think I read “Narnia” until later on. I also picked back up “The Wheel of Time” in high school, and liked it better this time around. At the same time as I started reading fantasy, I started playing “Magic: The Gathering” and a frightful amount of board games. I also bought some basic Dungeons & Dragons-books (the only two ever translated to Norwegian, I think), and eventually started reading anything resembling fantasy in the comic book shelves. (I’d already been reading “Asterix” since I was very little, but now I added Witchblade, Spawn, The Darkness, and various anthology comics (“13”, “Terra Incognita”, “CrossGen”) They all suddenly disappeared from the market – I guess the fad was over – and I weened myself off by starting to read super hero books instead. So really, “The Jungle Book” is why I watch Batman movies in the theatre.

      Sci-fi, oddly, I’ve hardly never read any of. I guess it’s because Bagheera never needed a cyber-optic third eye.

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