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