mystery

Zarathustra and Mystery

When it comes to choosing names for fantasy characters, there are examples from history and literature that can be inspirational, or even repurposed. “Zarathustra,” or “Zoroaster” is one of those. Zoroaster was an ancient Persian prophet.

My first exposure to “Zarathustra” was via the score for a famous scifi movie.

I have blogged in the past about the sense of mystery, or mysticism, in fantasy and science fiction. I was introduced to this as a young teenager. When 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, my father took me and some of my friends to see it. The story generates all kinds of questions, including who placed a monolith on Earth to influence the evolution of Homo sapiens, and another monolith on the Moon to signal when humans first achieved space travel? What is the meaning of the "star child" at the end of the movie? I’m sure my father left the theater scratching his head and wondering why he had brought us to see this movie. I’m also sure I had some of the same questions, but the difference was I could accept that there are some questions for which there are no good answers. I was comfortable with, even relished, the mystery.

But beyond the mysteries presented in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I remember being profoundly moved by the movie’s score, and in particular, the opening theme by the composer Richard Strauss, which is the introduction to his tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra.” When I learned that Strauss was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous work of the same name (in English, Thus Spoke Zarathustra), I had to read it. This was in the early 1970s, shortly before I started college. It was a time of mysticism and psychedelics and Hermann Hesse and Tolkien and black-light posters of wizards and mountains. In translation, Thus Spake Zarathustra was rendered into “Biblical” English (“thee,” “thou,” etc.), which only added to its mystery.

As it turned out, I don’t think I understood a word of it! But it impressed me, and I went on to read many other mystery-flavored works as I transitioned into college, including those of Hesse and Kahlil Gibran. Feeling nostalgic, and imagining I may decide to reread Nietzsche, I recently added a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra to my library.

An Interview with Author Mark E. Lacy

Recently I was interviewed by AC Cobble regarding my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri. Here is a transcript of that interview:

AC:The Ban or Irsisri is in many ways a traditional epic fantasy with an epic quest, lots of action, and powerful sorcery. It’s also packed full of dream sequences, tribal rituals, and mysticism. Why did you decide to add those elements, and do they add to the story?
 
MEL: The mix of traditional elements of epic fantasy with elements of tribalism and mysticism was something that developed over time. I knew I didn't want my main characters to come from privileged backgrounds. Nor did I want them to emerge from serfdom. If you take Robert E. Howard's "Conan", for example, you have a hero who has great disdain for the trappings of "civilization" and who takes great pride in being labeled a "barbarian". I think Conan would enjoy sharing a mug of ale with the tribesmen in The Ban of Irsisri. As far as dreams and mysticism are concerned, I think some of the most profound stories in fantasy and science fiction have supernatural mysteries at their core. Forces we cannot fully comprehend, forces that transcend ordinary experience but nevertheless influence our values, our choices, our sense of destiny.
 
ACI love that you mention Howard’s “Conan”. I was thinking about that character when I read your book. You have a great sequence early in the novel where one of the tribesmen, Enkinor, enters a city and – spoiler! – runs into all kinds of trouble. In fantasy books, it’s always the dark forest that is full of threats. But in real life, it’s usually the cities where people get in trouble. What do you think is so appealing about the idea of a primal man from the wilderness facing off against a modern (well, more modern) world?
 
MEL: I’m pretty sure one could trace back Conan’s barbarism to the concept of the “noble savage.” But I also think “primal man from the wilderness” has an appeal because life in the wilderness, on the frontier, was simpler in many ways than the “modern” world. Not easier, but not as complicated. The threats to your survival in the wilderness are often better known. And perhaps the wilderness could be said to be less-populated by immoral distractions and temptations.
 
AC: The Ban of Irsisri stands out because of its vivid prose, and in some ways it reminds me of NK Jemisin – which is about the biggest compliment I can give a fellow fantasy author. Sorry if this is rude, but, how did a former corporate guy learn to write like that!?! Asking for a friend…
 
MEL: Asking for a friend? (laughs) We might stand your question on its head and ask, how did a fantasy writer survive Corporate America for thirty years? Seriously, I think that, to the extent my writing succeeds, it has a lot to do with reading and revision. Many successful writers have counseled new writers to read a lot and read broadly. And, over time, the more I read, the more I learned how good writers produced their work. And the more I learned, the more I went back to revise. And revise. And revise. I would set my work aside for a while and come back to it later with fresh eyes, only to discover, with chagrin, I had more work to do. 
 
AC: Tell us something no one else knows about Mark E Lacy or The Ban of Irsisri?
 
MEL: Only my junior high school English teacher knows that the fantasy story I wrote in ninth grade, which won first place in the school's literary contest, was a seed that would sprout and influence the scene, early in The Ban of Irsisri, when Enkinor and Strigin escape into the hills beyond the city of Kophid, only to face their pursuers and a forest fire of supernatural origin.
 

J. G. Ballard's "The Crystal World"

I was about eleven years old when my parents signed me up for the Science Fiction Book Club. I had outgrown the Weekly Reader Book Club years before. I had seen subscription postcards for SFBC inserted into many of the paperbacks I was reading, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series published by Ace Books. Yes, I thought, I want scifi! This is what I want to read!

One of the first books I received from SFBC was J. G. Ballard's The Crystal World. Recently I reread this book. I had vague memories of a mysterious space-time-defying crystallization of the jungle, and the dangers of becoming trapped within it. Finishing the book for the second time in over fifty years, the sense of wonder returned, and I quickly finished it.

I also recalled a certain sense of difficulty with reading it at eleven years old. Now, with rereading, I realize why. Ballard's style is much more literary than a lot of science fiction. And there are some adult themes of love and sex, of intimacy and perceived betrayal, that went right over my head when I was in the sixth grade.

I was also reminded of the power of mystery, as I recently described in one of my blog postings. I see now that at an early age I latched onto this power, even hungered for it, though I might have had a hard time explaining what it was I sought. Fortunately over the years I've found many other books to satisfy this need. I can only hope that I've succeeded in introducing mystery into my own writing.