One of my favorite authors is Tad Williams, who wrote the watershed series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. To my eternal joy, he has set another series of books in the world of Osten Ard. The first installment, The Heart of What Was Lost, is set to launch on January 3, 2017.
I have it on pre-order, as you might imagine—a Happy New Year present to me.
I became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered this world of Osten Ard and the books of Tad Williams. Each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The arrogance some members of each race have with regard to their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a truth about the real world, something the Buddha once said: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”
Why did I become so captivated by Tad Williams’ work in the original series?
It is well-written, with harsh, beautiful prose, but more importantly an entire world is encapsulated in those pages. It is built from both good and evil, with all the many grey places between those two absolutes clearly defined. For each misery, some small glimmer of hope is introduced, offering a reason for the characters to keep struggling.
Tad Williams created the world of Osten Ard masterfully, exploring it through the diverse people’s thoughts and conversations. He used their impressions to show the setting, the history, and the core of the conflict. He started out slow, introducing Simon Mooncalf (Seoman) and the other players, showing a certain amount of background by Simon’s wandering path through the various places in his familiar environment.
Simon Mooncalf is an orphaned kitchen boy, serving in the immense castle, the Hayholt. He is in service to King John Presbyter, but he is a dreamer, unable to concentrate on the mundane tasks he’s been given. With the reputation of being an idiot, his fortunes change when he is apprenticed to the good Doctor Morgenes, the castle’s healer and wizard.
Unfortunately, the king dies. Many dark, terrible events transpire, and ultimately Simon finds himself alone and on the run, carrying Dr. Morgenes’ true biography of the good King John.
The action then intensifies, as do Simon’s struggles. He finds friends who help him along the way, but they are also in danger. Love, friendship, and loyalty are tested when thrown against a lust for power, a desire for complete domination, and the endless desire of the ultimate mastermind behind the war, Ineluki, the immortal Storm King.
Tad Williams uses contrast. He opens in a place that feels comfortable and familiar, a place where food is plentiful and cats are lazy. He then slingshots the reader into a world of violence and darkness, hunger and fear. Simon is lost, alone, helpless, and terrified. Despite his being an orphan, he has only known comfort and now his life of deprivation is more than he can bear.
When I first began reading the series, it was clear to me that Tad Williams understood a fundamental truth of life: if you have never felt hunger, you can never understand what it is to have plenty. In the same context, if you have never known sorrow, how can you know joy? The contrasts of life are the flavors, the textures that give it meaning.
Since we are waxing philosophical, the Buddha also offered this morsel of wisdom for authors to consider, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”
That contrast of good and evil is a fundamental truth for all writers of traditional fantasy fiction to consider when devising plots. It is one that J.R.R. Tolkien understood quite clearly. After all, what would have been the point of Frodo and Sam going to the depths of Mordor, suffering the hardships they endured if not to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron? And why would they do this, if Sauron was not the embodiment of evil?
In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fiction. Both feature an epic quest where through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.
This use of contrast is why Tolkien’s work is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built. It’s also why Tad William’s work changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. The works of these authors inspired a generation of authors: George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.
In my own current work (as in all my work), good people have found themselves in bad situations. It’s my task to demonstrate the beauty of life through the drama, heartache, and violence.
Employing contrast gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. My intention is to use the emotions that are experienced when joys are contrasted against sorrows to draw the reader in. If I do this right, my readers will think about this story and these characters long after it has ended.
As a writer, if I can create a tale in which the reader experiences the full gamut of human emotion, I will have done my job. The longer I am at this craft, the more I see that the rest of my life will be a training ground, teaching me new things, widening my writing horizons everyday. Reading and analyzing the works of the masters is a joy and a privilege, and is a necessary component of my education in the craft of writing.
One response to “Learning from the masters: @TadWilliams: contrast and texture #amwriting”
Well put. Contrasts employ contradictory desires and suggest that in every assumption lies it’s opposite or its negation or its contrary and the best fiction employs this understanding. Also, I like your admiration for his world building.
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