At the World Fantasy Con with Terry Pratchett, Jules Verne and J. R. R. Tolkien
The sun was rising lazily over the horizon. A bright light flashed and a sudden gust of wind swept through the trees. It was much too early for anyone to have noticed it, being a Saturday and all. Most people were still dreaming peacefully.
Today was the first day of the World Fantasy Convention. A long-awaited gathering of some of the best and brightest in the field of fantasy writing and art. It was being held in Seattle, Washington, on a bright October morning in 1989. This year the theme will be about Roots of Fantasy: Myth, Folklore & Archetype.
Many people have already started to show up and were making their way towards the art exhibition. Among them was a rather short elderly man, sporting a large black fedora, who was swaying back and forth on his heels, admiring what appeared to be a painting of an orangutan.
Standing by the entrance was a dapper gentleman, clean shaven and tall, holding a pipe in his hand. He was scanning the crowd as if looking for someone in particular. His sight fell on a magnificently bearded fellow who was sitting at a small table across the room.
The short man adjusted his glasses, intrigued by the new-comer. He thought his face seemed somewhat familiar and decided to follow him. As he approached, he overheard the two gentleman’s conversation.
‘I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone,’ said none other than J. R. R. Tolkien, carefully lighting his pipe.
‘I can undertake and persevere even without hope of success,’ valiantly stated Jules Verne, beckoning the tall man to take a seat.
Terry Pratchett’s eyes widened with glee. He didn’t know what it was about but he knew he had to take part in it. So he stepped forth and said, ‘I know that I am a small, weak man, but I have amassed a large library; I dream of dangerous places.’
Smoke was swaying gracefully from the pipe, while Verne was sizing the bold little man. A moment passed then Tolkien decidedly said, ‘You have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’
Verne smiled and welcomed him at his table. Pratchett sat down and stared at the other two expectantly, putting his hands together like a zealous freshman awaiting his first assignment.
Tolkien began telling them about his desire to create a most epic tale, and that he required their assistance. He asked them for their input, wanting a new perspective.
Jules Verne hastily replied, ‘What I’d like to be above all is a writer…’
To which Pratchett said, ‘Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself. The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.’
Tolkien smiled benevolently at his companions. ‘For we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make,’ he responded sagely, ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
Jules Verne went on to say, ‘Anything a man can imagine, another can create. With time and thought, one can do a good job.’
‘Every step is a first step if it’s a step in the right direction,’ Pratchett pointed out, acknowledging his colleague’s statement.
Tolkien smiled softly, tasting the flavor of his pipe. He closed his eyes and recited with a wise tone of voice.
‘The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said.
The chances, the changes are all yours to make.
The mold of your life is in your hands to break.’
Unanimously the two of them were delighted by their new friend’s talent and skill.
Pratchett even tipped his hat with respect. ‘Most modern fantasy just rearranges the furniture in Tolkien’s attic,’ he said, stretching his arms to feature Tolkien. ‘What is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons?’
Jules Verne points to his temple and says, ‘The human mind delights in grand conceptions of supernatural beings.’
‘It simply isn’t an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons,’ stated Tolkien, waving his pipe in an act of emphasis. ’After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.’
‘The truth isn’t easily pinned to a page. In the bathtub of history the truth is harder to hold than the soap and much more difficult to find,’ asserted Pratchett, gesticulating to prove his point, afterward adjusting his glasses. ‘Legends don’t have to make sense. They just have to be beautiful. Or at least interesting,’ he stated frankly. ‘Imagination, not intelligence, made us human.’
Jules Verne placed his hand on Terry’s shoulder and calmly said, ‘We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones.’
Pratchett went on, ‘One of the things forgotten about the human spirit is that while it is, in the right conditions, noble and brave and wonderful, it is also, when you get right down to it, only human.’
A sense of accord was shared between them. They began discussing how the story should begin.
After a moment’s pause, the first to speak was Tolkien. ‘The world has changed. I see it in the water. I feel it in the Earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it,’ he said with a distant look on his face.
‘Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you,’ Terry said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
A hearty laugh was heard from Jules Verne. He stroke his glorious beard pensively, then began, ‘We were alone. Where, I could not say, hardly imagine. All was black, and such a dense black that, after some minutes, my eyes had not been able to discern even the faintest glimmer.’
Pratchett couldn’t help himself and retorted, ‘You get a wonderful view from the point of no return.’
The others faced him with a hint of suspicion in their eyes. Jules Verne asked what he thought would be a better way of introducing the plot. Tolkien raised his eyebrow expectantly and silently smoked his pipe.
‘There have been times, lately, when I dearly wished that I could change the past. Well, I can’t, but I can change the present, so that when it becomes the past it will turn out to be a past worth having,’ expounded Pratchett with confidence.
Verne critically stated, ‘It seems wisest to assume the worst from the beginning… and let anything better come as a surprise.’
‘Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory,’ said Tolkien putting his hands together.
To which Terry replied, ‘Escapism isn’t good or bad in itself. What is important is what you are escaping from and where you are escaping to. Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages.’
Tolkien, though amused by the comment, responded, ‘Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations.’
‘Well, I feel that we should always put a little art into what we do. It’s better that way,’ said Jules Verne resolutely.
Their conversation was interrupted suddenly by a deafening sound. Everyone’s attention was drawn to a woman on the stage, who was making the loud echoing noise as she tapped the microphone, ‘Hello… is… is this thing on? Thank you all for coming! We’re about to begin the award ceremony.’
‘Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine upon your faces!’ Tolkien amicably said as they all rose from the table.
As they made their way towards the conference hall, they passed by the orangutan painting and felt like something was watching them. Verne turned his head to look at the ape’s face and realized that it was staring back at him. He yelped and jumped backward, losing all composure.
The rest of the party quizzically spun around to see what had spooked their companion.
Verne looked at them with a shocked expression on his face and pointed frantically towards the painting. Tolkien opened his mouth to say something, but before he could utter the first a word, the eyes of the orangutan were starting to glow. In a split second, a blinding flash of white light enveloped the trio and they vanished without a trace.