20 January 2012


Reading Diary: The Alchemyst (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel) by Michael Scott

"I want you to remember that everything you know--or think you know--about myth and legend is not necessarily false, nor is it entirely true. At the heart of every legend there is a grain of truth. I suppose that much of your knowledge comes from movies and TV. Xena and Dracula have much to answer for. All minotaurs are not evil, the Gorgon Medusa did not turn every man to stone, not all vampires are blood drinkers, the Were clans are a proud and ancient race."

Josh attempted a laugh; he was still shaken . . . "You'll be telling us next that ghosts exist."

Scathach's expression turned serious. "Josh, you have entered the Shadowrealm, the world of ghosts . . ."

One of my friends is a huge Harry Potter fan who prides herself for having discovered the series a full year before Pottermania really hit the rest of the world. But she was also the first to give me the best critique that can ever be made of J.K. Rowling: "She just invents, Enbrethiliel. I don't know how else to describe it. I read something by Tolkien and it feels so thoroughly thought out, but Rowling just puts in whatever will fit."

Not being very familiar with the oeuvre of either writer (at the time), it took me a while to see what she meant. I get it now.

Middle-earth is, in a non-literal and perfectly appropriate sense, an ex-nihilo creation. It is an earlier version of our own world, yes, but not one cobbled together from any other mythology--which is generally true of mythology, you know? The Greek myths, Egyptian myths, Japanese myths, and what-have-you all developed independently of each other. Like them, Tolkien's vision has integrity: every part belongs to it and only to it, and all the parts are necessary to the whole.

In contrast, Rowling's wizarding world is more of an amalgam of other worlds--some of them instantly recognisable. This does make some sense: wizards walk among us, although they prefer to keep their distance, and they have an entire government ensuring that we "Muggles" never know that magic actually exists. But wizards weren't always as careful as they are now, which is why we non-magical people have some knowledge of wands, brooms, pointed hats and other elements of wizard culture, although of course we don't have the whole story and tend to get everything "wrong."

Hiding the extraordinary in plain sight is a fantasy device that is older than Rowling but is at its zenith in modern YA literature because of her. Which finally brings me to Michael Scott's new series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, the first volume of which came out the year the last Harry Potter book did--a detail of dramatic, if silly significance.

The most remarkable thing about Scott's twin protagonists, Josh and Sophie Newman, is that they are ordinary. They could be any other fifteen-year-old boy and girl in America. And inasmuch as "America" is to the average modern reader what Nottinghamshire would have been to the average Augustan reader (That's an obscure reference to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, by the way), that means Josh is a Stu for boy readers and Sophie is a Sue for girl readers. But now I'm getting ahead of myself.

One morning, the bookstore where Josh works is attacked by strange people who seem to be made out of mud--and Josh's boss, Nicholas Fleming, defends himself with balls of energy that shoot out of his hands. Predictably, Fleming turns out to be the historical Nicholas Flamel . . . and he is only the first of an entire cast of mythical and legendary characters whom the twins encounter and learn the "truth" about.

It's a fun premise. Think: Fan Fiction on an epic scale. Scott borrows from the Old Testament (the Witch of Endor), other Jewish folklore (golems), Irish legends (Scathach the warrior woman), medieval libraries (the Book of Abraham), the myths of Egypt (Bastet), Greece (Hekate) and the Norsemen (Yggdrasil), the Catholic canon (St. Joan of Arc), and of course, to tie everything together, the internal logic of Rowling. As Josh and Sophie learn, all myths are actually, literally true--although the versions we non-initiates are most familiar with have been half-baked into fiction.

If you read lots of modern "pop" literature, all this already sounds familiar. Harry Potter, The 39 Clues, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and Artemis Fowl help hold up the YA end of the trend. I can think of Immortals after Dark, Lords of the Underworld and the Dark-Hunter series in the Paranormal Romance subgenre. And I'm pretty sure there are a bunch of Thrillers with a similar conceit, although the only one I can actually name is The DaVinci Code.

Rowling may be the mother of this trend, but Dan Brown is its father. What they do in their stories is take old knowledge and give it a new twist. It's a device as old as the question "What if?"--but what is new and particular to our age is its popularity. We seem very turned on by the possibility that our ancestors lied to us. The canon isn't half as exciting to us as an attempt to rewrite it. And I think that's because we, as a culture (a multi-culture?), have ceased to believe in absolute truth . . . if only because it's the polite, tolerant thing to do.

So now everything can mean what we want it to mean--even the most verifiable historical facts.

I'd say George Orwell is turning over in his grave, but I don't think he has the right to that luxury. Not when he is the grandfather of conspiracy theory literature. (Yeah, give me long enough and I'll sketch you the entire family tree.)

Image Sources: a) The Alchemyst (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel) by Michael Scott, b) The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien


Salome Ellen said...

I enjoyed The Alchemyst, and so plowed my way through the next few (up to book 4, I think, and mostly because I could borrow them.) Unless they get a LOT better in books 5 and 6, I wouldn't bother with any more. It seemed to me that the series devolved into a medium for introducing a new monster from a different culture every other chapter. That gets old after a while.....

Angie Tusa said...

The thing is, Tolkien didn't create Middle Earth out of nothing. He studied various forms of myth, religion, and philosophy and then simply took the pieces he liked and built his own creation. Really not that different from what Rowling did, he just had a much longer head start, so his feels more original to us.

I also disagree with why these new "twists" are so appealing. I think it's more of the old adage "Tell me something new." We know the story of Cinderella inside and out by now, but if you find a way to turn it on its head and make it a whole new story, with just a touch of something familiar, then we can be entertained by it again.

Belfry Bat said...

I think the key distinction between Eä and Hogsmeade &c. is that, when he got serious about telling his stories, Tolkien had a philosophy to organize all his creativity, while Rowling had a character who needed a home and a family, both in the narative and for the narative.

It's true that the Hobbit of The Hobbit appeared out of nowhere, and the names of Gandalf and the Thirteen Dwarves were largely pulled from old germanic texts, still whether he meant to or not at first, Tolkien worked them into his grand Elvish mythology, and not the other way around.

It's true that the sorts of creatures he talks about --- elves, dwarves, goblins, dragons, and the valorous Valar (not quite of Valhala ... and even werewolves and vampires get mentioned, though never quite explained) --- are suggested by the sorts of things North European tales have alluded to for centuries. But Tolkien's intent wasn't to play a nifty game of "what if", such as Rowling's "what if lycanthrope is a just a painful chronic condition that needn't make its suffers personally evil"; rather, he wanted to work out how could all these creatures, in their "truest" form, be fit into the world created by the God of Abraham, in which the angels variously work for Him or against Him.

mrsdarwin said...

"She just invents."

That is precisely it. I think Rowling is a ripping story teller, but she's not consistent. If it sounds good, she goes for it, and it leaves big holes in her world -- which can be okay, if you don't mind suspending lots of disbelief. I enjoy the Harry Potter books, though as my girls are reading them now (and I know the plots) I'm struck very much by how uninspired a writer she is, stylistically. The first chapter of the first Harry Potter is almost painful to read. But the story is what carries the series.

I had no idea that Nicholas Flamel had an existence outside of Harry Potter. Guess I need to brush up on my Historical Alchemists.

Jenny said...

I have this book on my shelf waiting to be read, but I heard it was all over the place, with so much crammed into it that it's just too confusing??? What Salome says confirms this, I think.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ellen -- I got up to Book 2 (because we already had it at home) and I'd say the main selling point of the series is the non-stop, cinematic-quality action scenes. (I can see Michael Bay directing, you know? LOL!) But I totally know what you mean by "a medium for introducing a new monster from a different culture"! Right now, the only thing that would get me back into the series is a confirmed spoiler that something from Philippine folklore made it in!

Angie -- You're right that Tolkien did some cobbling of his own (if only because it was inevitable), but I think the essential difference is that he took the pieces he thought were true and not just those he liked. (He would say, for instance, that vampires are "true" because: a) we instinctively know what kind of evil they represent; and b) that evil is real. Scott has some vampires in his series as well, but he's more liberal--and strangely enough, more literal--about what they could mean. For instance, not all of his vampires drink blood. A strange creative decision I have no idea what he's ultimately going to do with.)

And yes, Tolkien had a much longer time in which to work out how to make everything fit. It makes you wonder, aye, what Harry Potter, would be like if Rowling had sat on the series for an additional ten years before sending the first volume to a publisher? (Well, at least it makes me wonder!) I've always thought Book 5 was far too rushed and the weakest in the series, and I'm not crazy about the last two, either. I think they could have benefited enormously from a "Tolkien treatment"! On the other hand, I truly believe that Scott's series, if given the same time to age, wouldn't be much different from what it already is. It's "bone structure"--evidence of a definite plan--has been clear from the first book.

Coincidentally, I'm currently working on a post about The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde, in which she retells the old faerie tale six different times. And while Scott turns me off here, I'm kind of charmed by her. =P

Batty Bat Bat -- I completely agree that Tolkien's main concern was not the fantasy, but the truth. And I hate to leave such a short response to your comment (especially when I go on and on for everyone else), but that's all I have to say to it! =P

Mrs. Darwin -- If I remember correctly, Flamel was the first and last actual historical figure that Rowling brought into her story.

And she's definitely not consistent! The example that always comes to mind are the thestrals. First Rowling said that no one can see them until they've first seen death; and then, because of a scene in which Harry doesn't see them after he has seen death, she changed the condition to "until they've thought seriously about death"--which is both obviously backtracking and not half as magical.

What book have your daughters got to? =)

Jenny -- The series is definitely crammed, but I wouldn't call it confusing--although maybe that's just because I have a good background in world myths. The only characters I had to look up were those from Irish legends, and I'm so unfamiliar with them that Scott would have got more of a reaction from me by bringing in Joss Whedon's Slayer mythology instead of the more "authentic" Celtic warrior woman. LOL!!! =P

"All over the place" is a good description of this series--but not necessarily a mark against it. When your premise is that all the myths of all the cultures in the world are real, then you already are all over the place. But as I mentioned to Angie, I could see the "bone structure" of the plot as early as the first book. There's definitely an underlying pattern; Scott is just cramming in as many details that will fit as possible.

I hope that helps! =)

mrsdarwin said...

J is reading Book 4, but she's slowed down considerably, having stumbled across one or two other books that she wants to be reading at the same time. If she makes it through 4, we'll put the kibosh on further reading until she and older sister are older. (J is 8, E is 9.)

E is reading E. Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet. I'm glad for some good old-fashioned tales of the fantastical right now!

Enbrethiliel said...


HP4 is probably my favourite of the series. But I'm still not quite sure what I think of Cedric's death. =/

The only Nesbit Fantasy I recall reading is Five Children and It. I'm a bit tempted to revisit it now--just for the Psammead! =P I could do with a bit more old school English Fantasy in my life!

Shaz said...

HP4 is my favourite too ... and while I also have mixed feelings about Cedric's death in the book, I am absolutely delighted that Robert Pattinson bit the dust in the film. Too bad he was resurrected for Twilight. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


LOL! I actually didn't mind Pattinson as Cedric. No comment on Pattinson as Edward, but I believe everyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows my stand on that. =P