Every boy’s fantasy

FANTASY JUVENILIA 'Rogan Crag', from 'Shelhal, The Seahart' (pen and ink) by Michael Burge.
FANTASY JUVENILIA ‘Rogan Crag’, from ‘Shelhal, The Seahart’ (pen and ink) by Michael Burge.

A Writer’s first lesson on charisma.

LIKE many of the awkward, nerdy boys at my high school (and there seemed to be a larger-than-usual number of us), I was drawn very quickly to the fantasy genre.

I willingly signed-up for Dungeons & Dragons on Thursday afternoons, where the Doctor Who lookalikes with their endless Tom Baker-style knitted scarves held court over the game boards, role-playing with their little die-cast figurines and throwing intriguing multi-faceted dice. ‘D&D’ had a kind of gambling quality to it, and the older boys playing it sported an attractive, intelligent confidence.

The hierarchical structure of the group meant I never actually got a turn at the board, in fact I think I ditched D&D quite soon in favour of a singing group that went to entertain the residents of a local nursing home, but not before learning an important life lesson.

“Something about alternate worlds and universes made the real world more palatable.”

It was Dungeons & Dragons that introduced me to the concept of ‘charisma’. Being one of the traits that your D&D character (like an avatar) was required to exhibit, in addition to strength and skill and such things, charisma could see you charm your way past a three-headed guard dog or a pack of orcs in a tower.

I think D&D’s creator’s might have been gently reminding us all that to attain charisma meant ‘getting a life’ in addition to fantasy role-playing. I resolutely resisted this prod until many years after leaving school.

Instead, I devoured fantasy fiction: Tolkien, of course; Stephen Donaldson; Ursula Le Guin; Anne McCaffrey; and semi-fantasy works like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.

Something about alternate worlds and universes made the real world more palatable. While unravelling the finer points of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I was distracted from the shame of receiving two black eyes while in the outfield during the one cricket match, when the ball hit a clump of grass and angled straight into my eye socket… one on each side. Secret knowledge of imaginary places anesthetised such low points of my adolescence.

By the age of 14 I started writing my own fantasy fiction, and unlike most of my early writing, some of these stories have survived.

All of it is completely derivative, such as the (thankfully lost) Tale of Ninior and Galdain, the result of reading Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in one sitting after Scouts on friday night. Filled with un-explored romance, my hero and heroine were ill-fated lovers traversing my imaginary land, constantly missing one another whilst lost in barren dragon-scoured hills, or exiled beside cold lakes in faraway mountains.

Great ways to avoid writing a love scene! I would have been incapable of executing one at that age, but I won the school’s junior writing award with that story. Actually, I think mine was the only entry.

FAST-TRACK TO FANTASY Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 Album.

The writing of this piece also coincided with my first hearing of When Doves Cry on the radio. The borrowed electric typewriter I was using had a kind of current humming through it which resonated with Prince’s beats.

Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart had been the soundtrack to many Choose Your Own Adventure reads the year before, and Chris de Burgh’s Don’t Pay the Ferryman seemed specially designed to keep all nerds reading our mythology books. There was a kind of fantasy role-playing ‘cool’ in the charts during the early 1980s. It didn’t last long, but it happened. I was there.

The next year I embarked on a whole novel, tapped-out on a brand new Brother typewriter I’d received for Christmas.

Titled Shelhal, The Seahart, this innocent piece of juvenilia survives. After many years stuffed into a file of my childhood art, I recently re-read it. Taking into account all the obvious influences (Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea being the strongest, but even J.K. Rowling has been accused of drawing on that), like an archaeological find, my first real novel reveals its secrets slowly.

The story of Peri, the son of a King drawn into a great adventure, Shelhal is replete with ancient oracles fulfilled, spells to release tools of discovery and the kind of alternate language consistency that would have made Tolkien proud.

I created whole races of sea creatures, mermaid clans and dolphin tribes, in a classic power struggle between the realms of the Sea and the Land, ruled by supernatural deities who thwart or aid Peri on his journey.

Peri’s quest is to recover a lost treasure – the Shelhal – a great shell known as the ‘Heart of the Sea’, in order to restore balance and continuity to the line of Kings he is descended from. He encounters characters along the way whose positions in life are as tenuous as his.

The most telling of these is the moody Landevaw, unwilling earthly puppet of Rogan (the supernatural ‘Wisdom Keeper’ of the Earth). Peri himself serves the same purpose for Nerrinal (the ‘Wisdom Teller’ of the Sea).

By the time Peri and Landevaw come face to face, Peri has managed to discover all the tools he needs to recover The Shelhal, and Landevaw has supplanted (by magic) the rightful King. Peri falls into the trap and is about to surrender his birthright, when all of a sudden… but that would be giving the story away.

From an adult’s perspective, the psychological journey I was on is so very clear. Suffice to say that Landevaw resonates powerfully with where I was at as a 14-year-old – tortured, conflicted, without power to determine my own fate (or much charisma), and bearing a great secret that, if revealed, would see my whole dynasty come crashing down on top of me.

I won the senior literature award that year, and again, I think mine was the only entry. But heck, I’d written a 45,000-word novel with psychological depth, and illustrated it to boot. Not bad at age 15.

Whether it was my idea or someone else’s, mum asked another school parent, Australian writer Kit Denton, to sketch out for me how to format the manuscript to send to a publisher. He suggested a small Sydney outfit called John Ferguson. My cousin was recruited to type the work up in the correct way, and it was bundled off sometime in 1987.

In 1988 I received a rejection letter – my first of many. I was 18 by then, and my novel felt silly and probably held too many of the kind of truths I was trying, like Landevaw, to conceal. The letter was very encouraging, but I filed it, with the manuscript, deep in my bedroom and tried to forget about it.

The reality of university was looming ahead of me. Life outside my bedroom was becoming all too real, and there were other words to employ my Brother typewriter on.

Feature image from 2013 comedy Zero Charisma.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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