Monday, July 22, 2024

GRRM’s With Morning Comes Mistfall is a love letter to fantasy

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Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote With Morning Comes Mistfall during his productive summer of 1971. The short story was published a few months after The Second Kind of Loneliness, in the May, 1973 issue of Analog.

“Two stories appearing in the field’s top magazine so close together attracted attention, and ‘Mistfall’ was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, the first of my works to contend for either honor.” (George R. R. Martin in Dreamsongs)

Although it lost both awards, Martin considered this story to be one of his finest works to date. Decades later, it remains a poignant and effective testimony to its author’s love for the fantastic.

A flying castle amid a sea of clouds

With Morning Comes Mistfall brings us to the distant planet of Wraithworld. The planet is popular among tourists not because of its beautiful scenery, but because of the wraiths that give it its name. There’s no actual proof that such creatures exist, but the reports of sights and mysterious disappearances are enough to keep the legend alive. 

The wraith myth is aided by the unusual mists that shroud Wraithworld. With every sunset, mistrise takes place, and the whole land is covered by thick mists except for the highest mountains. With morning comes mistfall, and the mists recede back into the valleys. Wraiths can be wherever the mists are.

Our narrator is a journalist of unknown name and gender coming to Wraithworld to accompany a scientific expedition. Headed by Dr. Charles Dubowski, the expedition seeks concrete evidence of the wraiths, if there’s any to be found. Dubowski believes the wraiths aren’t real, and he has the resources to scan Wraithworld and find out.

The headquarters of the expedition is the Castle Cloud hotel, the only permanent human habitation in the planet. Standing tall above the mists even at night, the hotel is always safe from the wraiths. The hotel owner, Paul Sanders, isn’t very happy about his new guests; he fears Dubowski’s expedition will ruin the magic that brings people to the planet, regardless of the outcome.

During the expedition, the narrator slowly falls in love with the uncanny beauty of Wraithworld, befriending Sanders in the process. They explore the planet together, until there comes an opportunity for the narrator to cover a different and potentially bigger story elsewhere. Jumping from planet to planet and story to story, the narrator only returns to Wraithworld as Dubowski calls a press conference to announce his findings.

As predicted, Dubowski found no evidence of the wraiths, concluding they don’t exist. This effectively kills the legend and the tourism that came attached to it, including Sanders’ business. Within a few years, Sanders is gone and his Castle Cloud is abandoned and crumbling. Wraithworld is now just another unremarkable human colony:

“Otherwise the planet hasn’t changed much. The mists still rise at sunset, and fall at dawn. The Red Ghost is still stark and beautiful in the early morning light. The forests are still there, and the rockcats still prowl.

Only the wraiths are missing.

Only the wraiths.”

A strange sort of beauty

People will have different opinions on Martin’s prose, but it’s usually not one of the reasons why they remember his writing. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but he did write lines like “the sight of their arousal was arousing” (A Dance With Dragons).

Still, one of the biggest merits of said prose is to showcase Martin’s worldbuilding skills. If you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), you know what he’s capable of. Martin creates entire cities, complex family trees, regional cultures, rich history and mythology, all while making them believable and engaging. It’s no wonder so many people discuss the series with academic devotion.

I’ve been somewhat missing those skills since I started the GRRM Reading Project. The worlds he builds in his short stories are not bad, they’re just not memorable either. Perhaps the format doesn’t help, but worldbuilding is more than just long descriptions and appendices full of names. In fact, With Morning Comes Mistfall shows that you don’t need those to bring a setting to life.

Despite the generic names  (“Wraithworld” and “Castle Cloud” are right there with “Seven Kingdoms” and “Narrow Sea”), the setting never feels generic. Martin’s exceptional skills as worldbuilder manifest in how he creates atmosphere and mood. The world becomes tangible not because of what he describes, but how he describes it. This carries throughout the entire story, and the Wraithworld we meet with the narrator is not the same planet after Dubowski’s expedition.

Wraithworld needs to feel so compelling for the story to work. We need to fall in love with its beauty and wonder before we can mourn what was lost after the wraiths are gone. There we’ll find the central thesis of the story.

Eternal war between sun and the mists

You know how sometimes just one line can elevate an entire story to a different level? The final two sentences of With Morning Comes Mistfall have that effect for me. My reaction upon reading them was a bunch of exclamation points, because those two sentences encapsulate the central conflict of the story and what makes it both beautiful and sad.

There are two main tensions in the story: the obvious constant clash between Sanders and Dubowski, and the more subtle battle between the mists and the sun for the lands of Wraithworld. Both conflicts complement each other and the story’s themes.

Sanders and Dubowski antagonize each other from the start, since they represent very different positions. Sanders is passionate and romantic, defender of mystery and wonder, keeper of the unanswered questions.

“Answers. Always they have to have answers. But the questions are so much finer. Why can’t they leave them alone?”

It’s not clear how much he actually believes the legends of the wraiths or how much he simply doesn’t care to know the truth. He’s protective of that legend all the same, because of the enchantment and awe it lends to the planet.

“Each guy who touches down here is secretly hoping he’ll have an adventure with the wraiths, and find out all the answers personally. So he doesn’t. So he slaps on a blaster and wanders around the mist forests for a few days, or a few weeks, and finds nothing. So what? He can come back and search again. The dream is still there, and the romance, and the mystery.”

It’s telling that Sanders disappears with the wraiths, his fate unknown. There’s no place for him in a mediocre human colony, one among thousands, a world stripped of all its magic.

Dubowski is the one responsible for that transformation. He’s excessively practical, cold towards the beauty of Wraithworld. He doesn’t explore the planet unless he has to and never bother contemplating mistfall or mistrise. He doesn’t seek answers driven by curiosity, but by arrogance. He’s not evil, but he lacks humanity.

There was silence. Then Sanders spoke, but his voice was beaten. ‘Just one question,’ he said softly. ‘Why?’

That brought Dubowski up short, and his smile faded. ‘You never have understood, have you, Sanders?’ he said. ‘It was for truth. To free this planet from ignorance and superstition.’

At first it may seem that Dubowski won: his expedition is successful and he proves the wraiths aren’t real, just as he believed. Meanwhile, Sanders loses his business and everything he loved about Wraithworld. Yet Sanders has the existential victory, since the narrative sides with him. The story doesn’t celebrate Dubowski’s discoveries, but mourns the loss of the wraiths and everything they represented. In the end, Sanders is proven right.

(Martin is a fan of existential victories. Characters that lose and fail and die, but who are ultimately proven right by the narrative because of the choices they made and the values they defended. Think Ned Stark here)

Despite clearly siding with Sanders, the story doesn’t feel anti-science. The problem with Dubowski is never the science he represents, but his cold approach to it. He wants answers for the wrong reasons and never bothers actually knowing the planet he’s supposed to be exploring. 

The final dialogue between Dubowski and Sanders underlines this well. They discuss a possible colonization of the Wraithworld, now that the expedition proves the planet to be wraith-free:

“‘You haven’t freed Wraithworld. You’ve destroyed it. You’ve stolen its wraiths, and left an empty planet.’

Dubowski shook his head. ‘I think you’re wrong. They’ll find plenty of good, profitable ways to exploit this planet. But even if you were correct, well, it’s just too bad. Knowledge is what man is all about. People like you have tried to hold back progress since the beginning of time. But they failed, and you failed. Man needs to know.’

‘Maybe,’ Sanders said. ‘But is that the only thing man needs? I don’t think so. I think he also needs mystery, and poetry, and romance. I think he needs a few unanswered questions to make him brood and wonder.’

Dubowski stood up abruptly, and frowned. ‘This conversation is as pointless as your philosophy, Sanders. There’s no room in my universe for unanswered questions.’

‘Then you live in a very drab universe, Doctor.’”

This isn’t the last time Martin tackles similar issues; Dubowski is just one of his excessively practical, no-feelings-allowed types, and the narrative always proves them wrong. Compare the above dialogue with this one from A Song for Lya (1974), for example:

“You think the Shkeen have found the answer to the mysteries of creation. But look at them. The oldest civilized race in known space, but they’ve been stuck in the Bronze Age for fourteen thousand years. We came to them. Where are their spaceships? Where are their towers?”

“Where are our bells?” I said. “And our joy? They’re happy, Dino. Are we? Maybe they’ve found what we’re still looking for. Why the hell is man so driven, anyway? Why is he out to conquer the galaxy, the universe, whatever? Looking for God, maybe…? Maybe. He can’t find him anywhere, though, so on he goes, on and on, always looking. But always back to the same darkling plain in the end.”

What Martin says, in both dialogues, is that we need more. We need more than just the practical aspects of life, more than just basic needs. Answers will not suffice, because what we’re longing for is this unanswerable, intangible thing. We need meaning, and hope, and wonder, and possibility.

Stories can give that to us. Genre fiction, more specifically.

More real than real

Few writers understand the appeal of fantasy as well as Martin:

“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.” (x)

I’m not saying this is one of the best quotes ever written, but it totally is.

Throughout Martin’s bibliography, we can see this appreciation for fantasy in different shapes. With stories like ASOIAF, he establishes a dialogue with other fantasy works. He examines and deconstructs popular tropes, reminding us why we loved them in first place. Then you have stories like With Morning Comes Mistfall, that read as a meta commentary on the importance of fantasy—here less as a clearly-defined genre and more as imagination and dream.

Meta stories are hard to write, but With Morning Comes Mistfall is successful because it also works as an independent story. It doesn’t feel like Martin is hammering a point home, but that the point is a consequence of the story he’s telling.

Martin shows us a world involved in the mists of fantasy, where mysterious creatures and haunting sights can hide. It’s a world full of possibilities and unanswered questions. Then the light of Dubowski’s concrete answers drives the mists away, and it’s not a coincidence that the story is named after this phenomenon. When we see the Wraithworld again, everything has changed. On a surface level, only the wraiths are missing. But gone with them is everything they represent, the mood, the atmosphere, the meaning.

By the time we reach the final line, With Morning Comes Mistfall seems to ask us: now do you see? Do you see why we need the wraiths, the legends, the possibilities? Why we need mystery and fantasy and unanswered questions? Do you see now what those stories can do for us?

Next time: following the order of Dreamsongs would lead us to my all-time favorite “A Song for Lya“. Since I talked about this one before and my feelings for it haven’t changed, we’ll visit the strange and disturbing “This Tower of Ashes” instead.


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