Regarding his epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, father of fantasy J. R. R. Tolkien said, “the theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.” This is why his secondary world Middle-earth, though replete with elves, dwarves and dragons, is bound nevertheless by its own inner laws that stray not too far from the natural laws of our earth. From Homer to George R. R. Martin, myth, or what we now call fantasy, has always been ruled by what Tolkien calls an “inner consistency of reality”; it is that which gives the genre its relevance and appeal. Stories like the Game of Thrones or The Name of the Wind are so loved not because they depict worlds in which anything goes but because they depict characters bound by rules that force them into difficulties or situations they must face with wit, courage, or conscience. Placing them in a different world simply allows us to see, from a different view and perhaps more clearly, the same age-old human conflicts arising from those clashes of interests and values that have been around ever since humans started living together.
I was sucked for the longest time into the whirling Chinese epic 三国, or Three Kingdoms – the 2010 TV series based on Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese literary classic.
Set in the Han dynasty, the show depicts the struggles between the famous political leaders Cao Cao (曹操）, Liu Bei （刘备） and Sun Quan （孙权）, as well as the highly impressive, sometimes amusing, other times pitiful, but always entertaining battles of wit between their strategists Sima Yi（司马懿）, Zhuge Liang （诸葛亮） and Zhou Yu （周瑜）respectively.
I must admit that I took such a long time watching it because I absolutely refused to rely on English subtitles; so thank God for Pleco, the Chinese-English dictionary app without which my watching of the show would have been a whole lot more tedious. The full force or impact of words are somehow always lost in translation. The rhythms, cadences, meanings and emotional impact of the Chinese poetry and dialogue somehow just seem clumsy in English, or just plain silly.
This is not to say that non-Chinese-speakers cannot enjoy the tale. When I was watching the TV series I was also at the same time reading the English translation of Luo Guanzhong’s novel, and even the bare bones of the plot has sufficient drama to entertain. I found the names confusing, though – often there seemed to be too many characters to remember; characters are not always referred to with the same names (Cao Cao, for instance, is also referred to as Mengde, Cao Mengde or just Cao), and spelling of Chinese names seem inconsistent and overly complicated. Without faces to go with the names it was pretty frustrating. One is much better off watching the TV series, even if it must be with English subs. The plot will blow your mind. I almost fell in love with Zhuge Liang during the show; he’s that brilliant.
And in fact the deeds of Zhuge Liang have been thought of as magic. But no, despite being a lover of the Fantasy genre, I must say Zhuge Liang’s ingenuity far outshines any mere magic. Magic, especially under the hands of less talented writers, can sometimes be used as a much too convenient plot point. But anyone who followed closely Game of Thrones for love of the game would find that the game played here is far better played – a dance that, as Patrick Rothfuss would say, reveals the moving of great minds.