Saturday, December 17, 2011


This is more of a mini-rant / unhelpful lecture than anything. I recently read an article in The New Yorker that was ultimately about the Eragon series of young-adult fantasy novels, but touched on fantasy in general and some of my favorite authors in particular. I'm always pleased when fantasy is taken seriously by the press, especially a publication like The New Yorker, but reading the article made me reflect on a few things. (The article is already several weeks old, so it will probably be disappearing behind a paywall soon.)

I'll jump to the good part first: I think that Adam Gopnik absolutely nails the appeal and value of fantasy to its most devoted fans. He comes to this realization organically: he initially notes that the writing in these books is often quite poor, and wonders why fans are so passionate about them. The answer, he explains, is that fantasy doesn't primarily offer a story: it primarily offers a world. Tolkien was the master at this, but almost all modern fantasy pays a great deal of attention to sketching out the details of its own private fictional world: the species, the cultures, the rules for magic, the history of kingdoms, wars, famines and booms. As I've repeatedly noted, this is one of my favorite thing in the world: when someone does such a good job at this, and manages to make a fully-realized world that feels believable and livable, which operates by its own internally coherent set of principles, where I can imagine hundreds of stories taking place in addition to the one I'm currently reading. I do find this in good fantasy books, but I can also find it in certain video games (currently thinking of Fallout, the GTA series, Grim Fandango), some science fiction novels and series, a few serialized TV dramas, and occasionally literary fiction.

Gopnik also presents an interesting theory for why certain people become fantasy fans. It's a bit of a stereotype, but imagine a teenage boy, who has known almost nothing but going to school, and has to prepare for a college career. Most of this boy's path to success will depend on him being able to absorb, memorize, and synthesize vast amounts of information: math, science, history, writing, etc. Gopnik's theory is that reading a fantasy novel is kind of a primer for this sort of education. People who are reading these books are exercising their brains: sure, the specific facts they're memorizing are completely useless, and knowing whether Cirion was a King or a Steward of Gondor won't get you anything, but by learning this stuff, people can gain confidence in their abilities and strive to do more. It becomes a virtuous circle: smart kids read fantasy books, and so get better at learning stuff, and so get smarter, and read more fantasy books.

It's a cool idea, and much more generous than I had thought Gopnik would be. I got to wondering how one would test the theory, and decided that a good check would be adult fantasy readers. My initial thought was, "Well, I've been out of school for almost a decade, and I still read and enjoy fantasy (if not as much as I used to), so that doesn't seem to explain why I like it." On the other hand, though, the way I came to fantasy could arguably be explained under Gopnik's theory, and once I developed a pleasure for it, it's natural that I would continue to carry it with me, even after the original "reason" had lost its purpose. (Perhaps in the same way that someone who started running to lose weight might continue running after they reached their ideal weight, not because they need to but because they've discovered a love for it.) Anyways, that got me to wondering, are almost ALL adult fantasy readers people who were once teenage fantasy readers? Or do some people get turned on to it later in life? I don't know the answer, but it would tell us a lot about Gopnik's idea.

Now, on to nitpicking:

Gopnik does a phenomenal job at laying out the evolution of English fantasy books, and particularly Tolkien's rightful place in its center. He avoids the blunder of thinking that Tolkien "invented" fantasy, pointing out his predecessors and inspiration; he correctly identifies the extremely derivative books that have filled the market since The Lord of the Rings appeared, including the particularly egregious Terry Brooks series The Sword of Shannara. (It's kind of amusing that one thing most authors copy is Tolkien's sense of decline, where the rich culture and proud accomplishments of the past have faded to an inferior remnant in the present. It's hard to think of a better metaphor for MOST of the fantasy of the 20th and 21st century.) However, I think Gopnik overstates the case: yes, a majority of fantasy simply copies Tolkien, but the most beloved series strike their own path. Gopnik mentions, but doesn't really examine, A Song of Ice and Fire, which has been representing on the best-seller lists even before the HBO adaption arrived; this series practically inverts Tolkien's formula, with a basis in history instead of legend and a strong sense that evil can, and often does, prevail. A comparison that I think would have been even more interesting for Gopnik's angle would be the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson, which is unquestionably fantasy, unquestionably adult, and has some incredibly intense and un-Tolkien struggles with morality.

Speaking of morality - I keep flogging this horse, but I get so frustrated when people repeat the assertion that Tolkien's Middle-earth was a black-and-white world. It was even more frustrating in the Gopnik article, because he even bothers to call out and summarize The Simlarillion. I'm guessing that he hasn't actually read it, though, because it would be impossible to maintain that Tolkien was a moral absolutist after reading that book. Was Feanor a good guy or a bad guy? How could Aule be good if he disobeyed Eru? The Simarillion is filled with a range of characters that include the nearly-perfect (Beren is practically spotless), the purely evil (Ungoliant), and quite a few in the middle (prideful kings, vengeful warriors, jealous suitors). Heck, even if you only know The Lord of the Rings - and I'm sure it has several orders of magnitude more readers than any of Tolkien's histories - you still have some great examples of men trying, and occasionally failing, to be good. Boromir sought power for himself, and broke the Fellowship, yet died to save the others and is, in my mind, a hero, if a flawed one. Denethor has devoted his life to the struggle against Mordor, yet his well-intentioned actions have played into the hands of the enemy.

I think what confuses people is that Tolkien does include SOME moral absolutes in his book. Sauron is pure evil, without any hope for redemption inside him. Sauruman is not pure evil; he could have made different choices, and emerged as an admirable guardian instead of a threat. Eru, Elbereth, and Manwe are pure good. Gandalf is good, but not perfect; he makes mistakes and can be tempted. And men, of course, sit in the middle: some are better than others.

Okay, that aside, one other small thing that I feel like writing about:

Gopnik often uses the term "sword and sorcery" throughout the article. I can understand why he would want a synonym for "fantasy", just to make the article scan better and punch it up a little. Unfortunately, the use of this term isn't just wrong; it actually runs counter to the point he's trying to make. Within the genre of modern fantasy, almost all novels can be placed into one of two sub-genres: "High Fantasy" and "Sword & Sorcery." Pretty much everything that Gopnik describes in his article, particularly the centrality of world-creation over storytelling, belongs to the province of high fantasy. This is the sub-genre that directly descends from Tolkien; it always includes an original fictional world, and usually contains a subset of other qualities of The Lord of the Rings: a multi-character party of adventurers, a conflict between good and evil, a low-magic world, invented languages, non-human species, objects with magical properties. In contrast, sword & sorcery books are descended from Robert E. Howard, the American author who created Conan the Barbarian. Sword & sorcery books are sometimes set in original worlds, or sometimes in Earth's past, but the world itself is always purely scenery; it really only exists in order to provide a setting for the story. These books are all plot; Gopnik might still not care much for the writing, but they're totally focused on advancing the story, and almost never include the interludes you get in High Fantasy when a speaker pauses to expound on local history, flora, or the nearby ruins of an ancient fallen civilization. Most sword & sorcery books will include a subset of other qualities from Conan the Barbarian: strong focus on a single, heroic protagonist; personal quests (of revenge, conquest, or exploration) rather than the world-risking quests of high fantasy; love interests (which can appear in both, but are often omitted from high fantasy). Perhaps the most interesting contrast is the way each sub-genre views entropy and civilization. High fantasy often is set in a declining civilization; there's often a sense of melancholy, a belief that dissolution is inevitable but regrettable. In sword & sorcery books, though, civilization generally exists alongside barbarism (wastelands, jungles, or other regions with no kingdom established); not only that, civilization is often portrayed as decadent, corrupt, and sinister. Here, there's an active struggle between civilization and the uncivilized world, and you're often rooting against civilization.

Aaanyways... that doesn't have a single thing to do with Gopnik's article, but if he ever wants to expand it into a book or a later treatment (and despite my gripes, I do think that he may be on to something here, and could have valuable insight as an outsider examining this insular literary universe), he may want to just ditch the phrase "sword and sorcery" altogether, to keep nerds like me from getting in a lather.

1 comment: