Robert F. Kauffmann,
The Mask of Ollock
(Arx, 2002)

Advice to those who would write fantasy novels in the guise of epic poems: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Given that so much of epic poetry deals with grand adventures strongly infused with elements of the supernatural, it would seem only reasonable that fantasy would be an ideal choice for such a vehicle. But there are huge pitfalls.

One who is writing a fantasy/epic poem has attempted to enter the company of some of the all-time literary greats, from those anonymous bards and skalds and court poets who left behind them Gilgamesh and Beowulf, to the likes of Tasso and von Eschenbach, to some of the most highly respected authors of modern times, such as John Gardner and Nikos Kazantzakis -- all of whom created masterpieces of epic poetry. The standards are very high and the competition is fierce. So, one must create something that is "story plus" and as nearly flawless as is humanly possible.

Robert F. Kauffmann's The Mask of Ollock is a valiant attempt that doesn't gel.

Kauffmann's story is fairly simple, and fairly predictable: good king Olgo of Umbra, a just and kindly man as well as an accomplished wizard, to ensure the continued rule of his line creates a magical mask for his beloved son Ollock that will grant him eternal youth and unbounded power. Ollock, of course, is a creep of the first water, a fact to which his father is somehow completely blind, and immediately upon receiving the mask, effectively usurps the throne and begins conquering the immediate world in a particularly bloodthirsty fashion. He seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The story follows his trail of conquest, perfidy, unholy glee and the like until the necessary and expected result finally occurs: Ollock and all his ambitions are ultimately brought to ruin.

I had high hopes for this book. The very idea of a fantasy tale set as an epic poem seemed, as noted above, perfect. I had even had the opportunity to read a short selection, which, although the lines were not perfectly set, was fairly absorbing. It set me up for a grave disappointment.

Alas, for the fact that the flaws are so basic and so avoidable that there is really no excuse. Writing an "epic" gives no special dispensation from the standards of literary accomplishment that include believable, well-developed characters, realistic portrayal of events, and clear and intelligible development.

Ollock upon his introduction is already so corrupt that there is nowhere for him to go. He is little more than a cartoon of evil, and neither his character nor his motivations are really believable. This is an area where many writers of fantasy fail -- "evil" is not a motivation that anyone is going to believe. It's almost axiomatic that truly evil deeds are not the result of a conscious attempt to be bad but are much more likely to be the result of a warped sense of what is good, if the perpetrator has any such sense at all. Somehow, we have to see this. Ollock glories in his nastiness, which is unrealistic in itself -- no one, outside of comic books, really thinks of himself as a bad person -- and is ultimately brought low by treachery among his own, which is almost a Rule, but again, not quite believable -- knowing that his power has limits, one wonders why Ollock hasn't taken precautions -- a lack of intelligence is not purported to be one of his many flaws.

Diction in this work is problematic: This is ground to tread very warily -- nothing can spoil the effect of poetry more easily than usage that jars, that calls attention to itself as out of place, such as contemporary colloquialisms inserted into a "high heroic" poem. One can forgive a few inconsistencies of meter, but the repeated introduction of anachronisms or other "off" usage (a surgeon in a medieval world "prepping" his patient, for example, or rebellious nobles attempting a coup d'etat in a world where the French language never existed) is more than likely to destroy whatever effect you were reaching for.

The cover copy notes that the author, who is also a graphic artist and filmmaker, made an award-winning film based on this story. Perhaps it is better material for animation than for literary treatment -- the degree of development and background required in the absence of visual images requires a radically different approach, and regrettably, the book just doesn't make it.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 21 August 2004

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