Uncharted regions

Isn’t it astonishing that our minds are capable of exploring an endless variety of hypothetical realities? Just as those alternate realities are not limited by the bounds of physics, neither are they limited by the bounds of any other constraint of plausibility, whether psychological, cultural or ethical.

Every time you pick up a novel, you are entering in a world that was created entirely within the mind of a fellow human being. That world can be vast – filled with nooks and crannies, minute details and cataclysmic events, never seen upon this or any other world.

When I was a teenager I read Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” series. On the level of discovered worlds, I found it far more compelling than Tolkien. Not only was Peake’s fantastical world insanely detailed, but those details differed from our own in telling ways. There were physical differences yes, but – more important – were the psychological differences.

The driving forces within the people of “Gormenghast” bear only a tangential relationship to those within the people we know. They are recognizable by analogy, but only in the way that, say, an American might recognize a dinner of boiled cricket to be food.

Tolkien, in contrast, is far more conventional – and therefore less exciting in my book. His hobbits and elves think very much the way we do. They may look different, but they are essentially us, in thinly veiled guise of chestnut brown and kelly green. Only Tom Bombadil is fundamentally different (unless you count Sauron as a character). Tellingly, Bombadil never made it into the film.

Not that this is a fair comparison. Tolkien was far more concerned with mythology than with psychology. Exploring uncharted regions in mythology can a lot less disturbing than uncharted regions in psychology. Which is probably why Middle Earth is a much more popular place than the Castle Gormenghast.

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