In Defense of the Fantastic
In the June issue of The Walrus, Emily Landau presented a piece entitled 'Slaying Dragons'. This article described in detail the problems and constraints with the literary genre known as high fantasy. It is well written, but in my opinion comes to the wrong conclusion. This is my open letter written in response:
That most modern fantasy novels involve shades of Tolkien is not a large surprise. The Lord of the Rings was the first truly realized and painstakingly imagined book of its kind. Tolkien famously constructed whole geographies, cultures and languages in order to populate the world in which his fable took place. Middle earth was the product of research, imagination and excess, which began the modern fantasy tradition.
Yet Tolkien was not the first to use fantastic elements to tell stories about humanity. Some ninety years before Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring, composer Richard Wagner began to publish Der Ring des Nibelungen, or the Ring Cycle. This operatic epic was constructed over the course of twenty five years, and told a similar tale of human struggle, supernatural forces and beings, and a magic ring. Just as Tolkien was influenced by Wagner, the composer himself drew heavily from Norse mythology to realize his story's themes. Both works are masterpieces in their respective arts, each different in medium and execution, yet both raise the question of the purpose of fantasy. Both men use what has always been the fantastic tradition: Layering myth upon fable upon creation. Your correspondent wishes to posit that fantasy, rather than being concerned primarily with creation and novelty, is instead created to explore real human interactions in inventive ways.
Slaying Dragons describes the birth of literary fiction at the publication of Tolkien's trilogy, and bases it's analysis of the genre in relation to that starting point. Your correspondent wishes to agree with this timeline, yet finds the explicit assumptions that underlie the article's points to be inherently wrong. Consider the phrase:
'Rather than taking advantage of the imaginative freedom fantasy affords by devising outlandishly inventive worlds, most writers recreate tweaked variations of the past. “High fantasy” has become a synonym for “historical fiction plus dragons.”'
Here the article states what is considered the purpose or meaning behind the genre. It argues that the role of fantasy is the invention of far off places, of unique cultures and creatures. Instead, it claims, authors mire in their habit of recreating medieval Europe continuously, failing to live up to the exacting standards of Tolkien, and failing to improve upon the example of same. Your correspondent wishes to politely disagree, arguing instead for a different purpose for the genre.
The issue becomes apparent when we consider the benchmark that the article, as well as the public, place on J R R Tolkien. At once, by revering Tolkien and criticizing his modern counterparts for producing more or less similar work, we reach a double standard. Tolkien himself took influence from the work of his predecessors, across various artistic industries, in order to form Middle Earth. Even further, the name Middle Earth itself is a marker of relation to our world. The similarities between Tolkien's and Wagner's work from a previous century are great. So if Tolkien's ingenuity is the goal, why then is fantasy considered stagnant?
Instead, consider what Middle Earth accomplishes. The story of Frodo Baggins and the ring follows the now familiar trope of the character leaving ignorance, home, and safety in order to accomplish a greater task. This concept also proves true in a type of meta-analysis. The reader, in ignorance of the world in which the story takes place, is equally as drawn into Middle Earth as Mr. Baggins himself. Tolkien's use of a familiar-yet-unfamiliar setting, the Shire as a type of medieval Britain, cements the theme of travelling from what the reader knows, to what they do not. The reader is Frodo Baggins, and his conflicts are theirs. This may seem obvious, but it is a critical observation in order to support the main thesis: The purpose of fantasy is not to create and imagine, but to relate and alter. To say otherwise is to confuse the tools of the genre (World-building, the use of the super or supranatural, etc.) with the purpose.
In the essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, author Ursula K Le Guin describes fantasy as the following:
“It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence.”
This point elegantly illustrates your correspondent's thesis- that fantasy is inherently concerned with real human experience. The use of magic, imagined creatures and lands is simply the means by which this ultimate goal is attained. This view causes issues with the other concerns stated in the article. For example:
''Many novels use backward settings as an excuse for backward attitudes toward women, minorities, and poor people, idealizing hierarchies stratified by class, gender, and race.''
This is an incredibly valid concern, given the article's view that the world itself is the purpose and benefit to the genre. If indeed that were the case, a world filled with violence, segregation and archetypal assignment of value would illustrate an industry pandering to so called 'nefarious desires.' Instead, given the genre's penchant for discussing real experiences and issues using fantastical elements, these examples become vital building blocks, beneficial to the overall arc of the story.
Landau focuses of George R R Martin's A song of Ice and Fire series, due to the incredible popularity the books have received since being picked up as a recurring show on the HBO network. A reader would be hard pressed to find a novel within the genre filled with more nudity, language, vivid combat and debauchery. Yet are these vices and elements idolized or glorified? Take the recent teen phenomenon, Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games. These books received both praise and criticism for it's content. The story revolves around deadly combat held between minors, and certain interest groups voiced outrage at the use of this, stating that youth violence was being glorified. This vocal opposition, as in Game of Thrones, was only increased as the series went from page to screen. Both series also experienced incredible growth and success with their respective transitions. Does The Hunger Games glorify youth violence? Or is it possible that it does the opposite? Your correspondent wishes to argue the latter.
In both cases, the issues the books present are ones to be overcome and or overthrown. In the case of Martin's series, violence, sex, torture et al are not romanticized or redacted in his realization of Westeros. Instead, the reader is quickly greeted with a gritty and brutal world not unfamiliar to those interested in history. The characters that Martin promotes attachment to have inherent goodness, innocence or ignorance. These characters often meet untimely ends, and the author complicates the story and emotions of the reader by illuminating good qualities in previously malicious characters. Landau both criticizes fantasy for 'cherry picking' which historical elements are used, and idolizing vice and violence. Alternatively, your correspondent contends that these elements are neither omitted nor glorified, but are instead included to produce empathy within the reader for the archetypal characters who unknowingly enter the fray, often with dire consequence.
Your correspondent wishes to politely disagree in defense of the fantastic.
You can view the original article here
Notable fantasy works not discussed:
Guy Gavriel Kay - Tigana
- Sailing to Sarantium
-Lord of Emperors
Terry Pratchett -The Color of Magic
Patrick Rothfuss - The Name of the Wind
Robert Zelazny - The Chronicles of Amber