Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

Not too long ago, I stumbled upon what I think is one correct answer to a question that has long interested me.

Why has there recently been an upsurge in the genre of “fantasy” for adults?

I’d better define my terms a little.

By “recently” I mean in the last sixty years or so – since J.R.R.Tolkien published the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s, and especially since hippies and the old “counter-culture” adopted Tolkien as one of their own in the 1960s.

As for “fantasy”, I’ll be really specific.

In all popular genres, there’s an element of “fantasy”, in the sense of unlikely events with a big wish-fulfilment element. The detective always cracks the case in whodunits. The ending is happy-ever-after in Mills and Boon and “chick lit”. The international super-spy saves the world and beds the beautiful women in the spy thriller.

All pure fantasy in the general sense of the word.

Nor am I using “fantasy” to mean just any fictional alternative reality. There’s a difference between old-fashioned hardcore science-fiction and the type of fantasy I’m pinning down here. SF looked, with either awe or fear, to futuristic possibilities. It revelled in technology, though I do admit that some forms of SF (especially those involving bug-eyed monsters) showed that the borders between genres were porous. They came close to being new-style “fantasy”.

Unlike hardcore SF, what is now commonly understood by the term “fantasy” is decidedly retro. It turns away from modern technology. It situates itself in the realm of magic, spells, curses, amulets, dark forces, ancestral doom, quests, clans, kingdoms, wizards, dragons and other fantastic beasts. It usually has a sort of cod medieval setting – nothing like the real Middle Ages, of course, but vaguely like the world of traditional fairy tales and with all the Christianity of the Middle Ages removed. Bits and pieces of old European mythologies are liberally plundered.

Think the passé game Dungeons and Dragons – one outcrop of the “fantasy” boom – and you get the milieu I mean.

I admit that my relationship with this “fantasy” genre is fraught. It doesn’t greatly appeal to me and I tend to avoid it. I read The Hobbit with delight as a child, and have re-read it a number of times to my children. I first got around to The Lord of the Rings only as an adult when I read it out loud as a long-running bedtime story for the kids (it took about two months to get through it). I enjoyed it too, but only as an extended bedtime story – not as something to feed the adult soul.

Since Tolkien, however, the genre has boomed.  There are now innumerable multi-volumed fantasy series, often called something pompous with “Chronicles” or “Saga” in the title. As a reviewer I have had to read some of them, and have noted that their “adult” component is usually confined to the explicit sex and violence, not to any subtlety of character or style. If they are fairy-tales by inspiration, some of them are X-rated fairy-tales. The dialogue is often as fake-medieval and Hollywood-ish as the settings.

My observation is that “fantasy” of this order appeals particularly to young adults – those between teenager-dom and about 40. They are the same people who will lap up, along with an even younger audience, all the Harry Potter films and books, turning many ostensibly juvenile narratives into kidult hits.

So having nailed down what I mean by “fantasy” , I return to my original question.

Why has this genre boomed in recent years?

One answer I’ve  often heard is that it’s a general revolt from the complexities, the technology and the impersonality of the modern world, like the hippie movement that put the kick into Tolkien. As such it is more escapism that a real critique of the modern – a daydream world where people interact personally in villages or Hobbitons or just within the citadel walls; where there is no messy democracy or mass society and issues are settled face-to-face by the individual king, knight or champion and his levies; and where we can feast in the thane’s hall in the company of heroes. As for the dragons and fantasy beasts, their appeal has been greatly enhanced by recent computer-generated film special effects. Written “fantasy” has come to have a symbiotic relationship with the stuff that’s put on screen.  (I won’t go into the obvious paradox that the image has been perfected by the selfsame complex technology that “fantasy” rejects).

Then – especially when Tolkien is invoked – there’s the familiar theory that “fantasy” represents a quest for simpler, firmer and absolute values in a world where everything has been relativised. Our world is (officially) pluralist and encompasses many creeds, beliefs and ideologies. It’s postmodern and tolerant. But which creed is the right one? Which one do we rally around? How attractive, then, to retreat into a world where Good and Evil are absolutes and are represented by characters who are either unbelievably good or unbelievably evil, and readily recognized as such. As in fairy tales. No messy and brain-perplexing choices to be made.

I think there is merit in both these theories – nostalgic anti-modernism and a yearning for clear values -  but I think I now have another answer.

I recently spent a semester at the University of Waikato teaching a course entitled “War and Society” to a large class of first-year students. It was a survey course, built on the theme that the way wars are waged tells us much about the societies that wage them.

I marched through the processes by which Western armies, over two hundred years,  massified, professionalised and industrialised – in other words, got bigger, got better organised and became armed with progressively more and more lethal weapons. From soldiers on horseback biffing each other in knightly charges, we moved to piles of corpses slaughtered by machine-guns, bombs and long range artillery in two world wars. From “cabinet wars”, where interested 18th century civilians could watch from neighbouring hillsides as armies fought it out, we moved to “total wars”, where 20th century civilians were in the front lines, their towns and cities smashed. ( For the record, fewer than one quarter of the dead in the Second World War were military personnel.)

War, I suggest, became more and more destructive and impersonal, until we reached the long nuclear stand-off where rival superpowers never did push the button, because they knew that to do so really would destroy everything. It was precisely at that historical Cold War moment that Tolkien was writing.

The Cold War is over, and we are now going through another cycle in the evolution of warfare – no longer warfare between states but postmodernist warfare, war on terror, peacekeeping missions among rival groups in unstable states. But the lethal long-range weapons are still there, not to mention the saturation news coverage telling us that, even if there is always a place for individual heroism, it is not individual warriors who decide the outcome of conflicts, but complex international negotiation.

Now in such a world, isn’t it delightful to pretend that none of this has happened? “Fantasy” allows its devotees to make-believe that war is still personal, chivalric and decided by acts of individual battlefield heroism. And it doesn’t involve complex technology even if it does involve magic. Much easier to insert yourself among the slings and arrows and dragon’s breath of fantasy, than to consider what it would really be like riding a Humvee with enraged civilians throwing stones at you and the news media ready to pounce on your every move. Much nicer to think of the well-wielded sword solving problems than the impersonal anti-personnel device.

“Is war really so essential to fantasy?’ you ask.

To which I reply: “Have you ever heard of a fantasy novel that is not essentially built on violence?”

Don’t they all build-up to a whang-dang Armageddon-like confrontation between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness, decided by guys on horse-back or friendly-dragon-back? Very well, I concede there are some slightly more peaceable fantasies, like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series. But even they assume the norms of chivalric combat.

So here’s my theory – an adjunct to other theories rather than a denial of them.

The “fantasy” genre is the nostalgia for clean, personal war, where the issues are neat and uncontested.   


  1. I like fantasy as a genre. Very much so. I also happen to agree in part with what you are saying in your very thoughtful blog. I find the contrast between your blog and the thoughts of Damien Walter at The Guardian very interesting:


    In essence, the very differences between fantasy worlds and the present world allow the writer to make comments (be it political, sociological or otherwise) that are directly related to current issues. Through removal of the detail of our current situation, it allows a clearer picture to be seen of the issues that matter.

    The sort of fiction that irritates me is the "worthy" genre. Unfortunately I find increasing amounts of this genre in the literary fiction section of the bookshop. This is the sort of thing that seeks to somehow morally improve anyone engaging with the work by raising complex and difficult issues in order to enlighten and extend the horizons of the reader. Now that is pretentious and arrogant.

  2. It is unimaginative to place all these stories in quasi- mediaeval worlds. I am struggling to think of exceptions.