Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The most important failure in modern fantasy fiction Pt 3

Digression - towards a progressive idea of fantasy fiction

The politics of high fantasy - in as far as it articulates them - are deeply retrogressive. While neither Tolkien nor C S Lewis can be simply filed as political conservatives, their works and the works of those who followed them in creating the mainstream of modern fantasy are problematic for the progressive reader.

This is because they fetishise an imaginary medieval.

Humour me while I set up a straw man in high fantasy clothing here. A mediocre author writing in the genre will give you uncritical adulation of monarchy and aristocracy, a poor-but-happy peasantry, nations and species defined by a single characteristic (grumpy dwarf syndrome), fantasy racism (dead orcs don't count), orientalism, patriachy-a-go-go and obfuscatory mysticism.

The classic fantasy happy ending is one which validates any or all of this above. Preferably through a prophecy.

The fact that your setting is pre-modern is not an excuse for any of this if you're making it up.

Good authors can, will and often do subvert these cliches - but in my view most interesting fantasy is being written outside of the genre (wierd fiction, magic realism, science fantasy) precisely because of this millstone.

I don't ask for a politically correct re-imagining of the past, or for Conan to be sent on sensitivity training, but seriously, fantasy writers, the clue is in the name of genre you're writing in.

What does this have to do with Thomas fricking Covenant?

In this context Covenant is interesting because the society he encounters manages to avoid most of the pitfalls I've just outlined.

The people of The Land live mainly in self-governing villages without a trace of a medieval hierarchy. There is no king - there are Lords, but lordship is achieved through initiation into arcane knowledge, training in which is open to all. Men and women alike play leading roles in the villages, the lore-keepers and the military.

Grumpy dwarf syndrome does rear its ugly head with the giants, and fantasy racism with the ur-viles and cavewights existing mainly for plot purposes as sword fodder. But at least the Tolkien xeroxing is kept to a minimum (there are no elves, Galadriel be thanked).

None of the usual grab-bag of forelock-tugging, old-time religion and oppression which usually holds you-haven't-this-through fantasy societies applies in The Land. Instead Donaldson gives us a picture of a people held together by reverence for all that is living, sworn to the healing and protection of the earth.

Whole communities dedicate themselves to the care and mastery of earth and stone, plant and tree, or horses. Other than protecting the Land and increasing their knowledge of 'Earthpower', the Lords pride themselves in their restoration of areas once blighted by Lord Foul.

How many fantasy societies can you think of where everyone swears an oath of peace?

This wierd cocktail of agrarian anarchism, deep ecology and benign academia is there in plot terms, like the geography of The Land, to heighten Covenant's dilemma, to be 'too good' for him. As we shall see, one of the hallmarks of the people of the Land is their refusal to punish him for his misdemeanors (more of which in part 4).

But it also takes us away from the kind of half-baked medievalism of high fantasy into something more like the utopianism which used to be part of fantasy (Cockayne, Shangri-La) before it became the preserve of science fiction and political theory.

The utopian strain running through Covenant is a worthy attempt to use fantasy to put forward some downright progressive ideas about man's relationship to man and nature.

And it's a utopia which had a powerful influence on at least one 90's teenager. When asked, I tell people that the two things which got me into environmentalism were hearing about the greenhouse effect (yes, I really am that old) and reading Covenant and understanding what a reverence for nature and for the achievements of your ancestors could mean in practice.

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