Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly: Part I

Let me guess: you read the title of this blog post, and immediately thought “Ahaha, I’ve seen this before – yet another online spiel about the evils of Chosen One(TM) meets Dark Lord(TM).” A few years ago, such a thought might well have been accurate – fantasy has never suffered a drought of that sort of storyline – but the genre likes to think of itself as rather more sophisticated these days. We now live in the age of Moral Ambiguity(TM) and Realism(TM), et cetera, and the old Tolkienian certainties have been discarded (I’d argue that Tolkien’s certainties were anything but simplistic, but that’s a discussion for another time). If the classical Chosen One rears his head (it still is, generally, a him), you’re often dealing with an author who knows full well what they’ve got on their hands, and will at least try to take things in a new direction. If you aren’t, well, there are now entire websites devoted to bashing such stories.

In other words, the Chosen One may be the most hackneyed of genre clichés, right up there with Prophecies and the notorious Plot Coupon Quest, but putting it in this sort of list might well be the most hackneyed form of genre criticism. Rather than a flogging of old-school fluff (which would only serve to stroke our collective egos about the apparent superiority of 2016 compared to 1996 or 1986) consider this a rant about those clichés that are still going strong at the time of writing…

1. Faux Medieval European Fantasy

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I’m not a dogmatist. I think any fantasy setting can work, if done well, and that includes Medieval European Fantasy. Where I have the issue is that it long ago became the default setting. Fantasy, even more than  Science-Fiction, is the genre where the author is able to truly let loose their imagination – it is the one form of fiction where you are not bound by the chains of real-world cosmic laws. On paper, then, you would expect Fantasy to be a phantasmagoria of the weird and the creative; the surrealist cousin of conventional realist literature. Yet it hasn’t worked out that way; generally speaking, Science-Fiction is filling the role instead.

Why? Well, that much alone is obvious. The modern Fantasy genre was born with the likes of William Morris, and popularised in its present form by J.R.R. Tolkien. Most Western Fantasy authors continue to draw from the well of traditional myth and legend (or, less charitably, draw from other authors who did), and the myth and legend they know best is that of Europe. Which in practice means Medieval Europe. Similarly, genre is a signpost to readers, letting them know whether this book is like other ones. If you want to write something that appeals to Tolkien readers, having a Medieval European setting should help, right? This was the entire basis of post-1977 Tolkien imitation – the (depressingly wrongheaded) notion that mimicking the surface characteristics, the literary wrapping paper, of The Lord of the Rings will somehow capture the magic and depth of the original. Suffice to say, it didn’t work out like that.

It has even gone a step further. Fantasy since 1977 has not only been trying to borrow from Tolkien, in its more sophisticated form it has been trying to engage with it – to rebut it, deconstruct it, or take it in different directions. Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, for example, posit a protagonist who is about as far from Frodo Baggins as possible (specifically a whining rapist leper). George R.R. Martin has a setting with graphic violence, sex, and swearing, famously described by one commentator as The Knights Who Say Fuck. It has become a case of “it’s like Middle-earth, but really different!”

All well and good, but going from a genre of Tolkien imitators to a genre of Tolkien imitators and deconstructors still means you’re writing works that orbit The Lord of the Rings. You’re still left, if you’ll pardon the phrase, with a literary Land of Shadows. It doesn’t even have the benefit of exploring an actual Medieval setting – as Martin himself has pointed out, that sort of mindset would be far too alien for your average modern reader (and in any case, Westeros has variable seasons, a giant ice wall, necromantic ice demons, and dragons, none of which were found in actual Medieval Europe). Part of me also wonders whether Martin’s comment is itself is a sad indictment on us as Fantasy readers – as though we, who like to consider ourselves imaginative, are uncomfortable with straying beyond the bounds of Enlightenment liberalism. Perhaps that’s why Tolkien, who wasn’t an Enlightenment liberal, managed to make his world work – he wasn’t trying to tie an anachronistic belief system into a setting where the mindset would have been so utterly different. It’s also why the likes of R. Scott Bakker deserve credit for actually sitting down and giving us something truly alien – ironically in Bakker’s case, the sort of objective damnation world our ancestors thought they lived in.

Rather than going round and round, coming up with ever more creative deconstructive variations on a theme, I think if Fantasy is going to escape this Land of Shadows, it needs to take at least a temporary break from endless facsimiles of Medieval Europe. There are plenty of myths and legends out there from other civilisations, from Native Americans to Africa, from Asia to the Middle-East, from the Australian Aborigines to South America. The Aztecs alone provide scope for a delightful Lovecraftian nightmare. So much material to use as inspiration! Nor does Fantasy (even if European based) have to be Medieval in flavour. You can go with something more Eastern European (Faux Medieval Europe often stops at a variation on the British Isles). Or something more modern. Or something more ancient. Or something more Science-Fantasy. Or something more out-there altogether. Just give us something different, damn it! 🙂

(Essay to be continued in subsequent post).

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