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In defence of fantasy This much-mocked genre was once the cornerstone of our culture

Fantasy is no longer on the fringes. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty

Fantasy is no longer on the fringes. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty


November 26, 2020   6 mins

When I was about 12, I discovered The Belgariad, perhaps the high point of 1980s fantasy fiction in the po-faced medieval style. David Eddings’ shepherd-boy-discovers-hidden-magic-and-saves-the-world format may seem hackneyed now, but my tween self was entranced: siblings would try and fail to get my attention before shouting “Fire! Death! Mary!” into my ear to wrest me from that world of infinite possibility and high adventure.

Back then, fantasy was a nerd hobby. Today, though, both fantasy and the moral policing of fantasy seems increasingly mainstream. Fantasy novels can be pulled for wrongthink and even wildly successful fantasy authors such as JK Rowling get dogpiled. Not even actors representing fantasy characters are safe: witness the treatment meted out to Mandalorian actress Gina Carano after being judged by the court of social media to be guilty of heresy.

To those uninterested in fantasy “fandoms”, these may seem absurd dramas. After all, when we’re talking about imaginary worlds populated by imaginary people, who cares about the private opinions of those who create the stories, or represent them on TV?

This dismissive attitude is a mistake. The truth is that a culture’s ideals are always delivered via stories, and in most cultures telling and re-telling these has been taken very seriously indeed. It’s only in our modern world that tales of gods and monsters, rather than taking centre stage in our shared cultural life, have been shoved off into a box called “fantasy fiction” and treated as a mezzobrow hobby for the incorrigibly childish.

It should be clear by now that I have a personal stake here: I’m a full-bore fantasy fiction nerd. Whether it’s solemn sword-and-sorcery, the comic adventures of Terry Pratchett, or the weird worlds of China MiĂ©ville or Josiah Banks, if it’s even half-decently written and concerns fantastic kingdoms and impossible adventures I’m there. But I’m also, to a modest extent, interested in literary history. And it’s striking how fantasy fiction popped into existence as a Western genre more or less at the exact point where epic poetry in the classical style stopped being taken seriously.

Rewind a few hundred years, and everyone writing in English sprinkled references to the Greek and Roman gods into their stories and poems, while the Homeric myths occupied a place in the Western imagination almost as central as the Bible. It’s difficult to imagine today but figures such as Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, Circe the sorceress and snake-headed Medusa were common cultural reference points for the educated class.

And it wasn’t just the mythic memes of antiquity that larded our literature — it was the forms as well. The hero’s quest, as set out in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and later in Virgil’s Aeneid, formed a template for heroic narrative that continued almost unchanged into the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Countless authors borrowed, imitated, translated and ironically reworked the epic mode, from Spenser’s hallucinatory Faerie Queene (1590) to Milton’s barnstorming retelling of the Christian story, Paradise Lost (1667), to arguably the last effort at epic poetry, Byron’s Don Juan (1819). But it couldn’t last. In Don Juan, Byron captured something sad but unmistakably true: the classical epics were losing their aura, leaving behind only a sense of lost grandeur. As Byron’s hero laments, while trapped on a Greek island (with only a nubile pirate princess for company):

THE isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.

Byron’s 16,000 lines of satire, sex and mourning for the vanished glories of classical antiquity put paid to epic as a usable form for anyone with a desire to be taken seriously as a writer. Or was it science? Imagine a looming form that by candlelight seems a shadowy, terrible monster — then turns out, with the lights switched on, to be just a coat-stand. With scientists explaining away ever more of the world’s mysteries by the light of reason, maybe the old gods just started to look a bit silly.

So a few short decades later, the epic style migrated into the first fantasy novels: George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858), and the children’s adventure The Princess and the Goblin (1871). Even as epic poetry died off, modern fantasy fiction was born.

The high point for our rational world — Peak Reason, if you will — was probably the end of the Cold War, when it seemed all the grand battles between good and evil had been won. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was in the 1980s that the fantasy market went supernova.

Remembering my adolescence in the 1990s, the everyday world seemed flat, dull and stripped of all enchantment. But fantasy blossomed: after my baptism-by-Belgariad, I fell feet-first into the then freshly-published greats of modern fantasy, by now-classic authors such as Robin Hobb, Tad Williams and of course JK Rowling. Epic imagination scaled new heights, even as geopolitics sought perpetual peace under the “liberal international order”, the Communist threat evaporated, and the scope for heroic achievement in the “real” world seemed as vanished as Byron’s vision of classical Greece.

Those who went on dreaming of earth-shattering battles or heroes plucked from obscurity to save the universe have spent the Age of Reason with their heads down. Tolkien’s classic of 20th-century fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, is one of the best-selling books of all time; but one 1955 letter to WH Auden, Tolkien ruefully describes being “scourged with such terms as ‘pubescent’ and ‘infantilism'”. And everyone loves dragging millennials about the Harry Potter thing.

But while science has plenty to say about the “what” and “how” of our world, it has far less to offer on “why”. We may laugh at the tweeness of being a Harry Potter obsessive in your thirties, or someone with a mortgage and two kids cosplaying at a Star Wars convention. But we’re not so different from our fireside-storytelling ancestors, in craving stories that help us get at the dark, strange questions — or the big ones about power, empire, good and evil.

And while mythology seemed temporarily defeated by the End of History, today successive crises of finance, terrorism and pandemic have shown our world to be far more dangerous and unpredictable than we once imagined. So even as history has come roaring back, we shouldn’t be surprised to see gods and monsters doing the same. They might take the form of Baby Yoda memes or emetic Gryffindor avatars, but they’re playing the same role as the Greek and Roman pantheon centuries ago: providing a common narrative language for debates about the big questions.

From this perspective it’s easier to see how quarrels over whether or not an actress thinks you should wear a mask, or what JK Rowling thinks about transgender women, aren’t ludicrous culture war sideshows at all. Rather, they’re border skirmishes over the content of our moral operating system. The woke grasp this fact instinctively, which is why they reserve a special fury for policing heresy in our emerging new mythologies.

But the new would-be guardians of our epic mythologies are likely to find in time that their subject has a habit of escaping their control. The long history of stories that survive and replicate tells us it’s not the morally correct ones that make the cut, but the ones that ring true. No one today reads that classic of 17th-century woke literature, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, unless they absolutely have to. Meanwhile, it’s a testament to the continued power of the old pantheons, that having disappeared from highbrow literature, they’ve since reappeared in (among other things) PlayStation games and the Marvel universe.

And the power of such gods lies partly in their refusal to be domesticated: they’re two-faced, ambivalent, bloody, capricious and awe-inspiring. They’re not at all inclusive. They carry a payload of intuitions about — for example — the persistence of power, violence and hierarchy, the often-untidy dynamics between the sexes, and the obnoxiousness of heroic personalities, that don’t sit comfortably with the sanitised modern imagination. Stories are too unruly to be easily contained by moral correctness.

It was the pursuit of Reason that chased the old gods into the shadows of children’s literature. But today, our faith in Reason is well on its way to collapsing. David Goodhart wrote recently about how, as media control has decentralised in the internet age, what looked like a consensus on “objective” discourse has been upended by a tidal wave of emotionally inflected personal testimony. Even the New York Times, which has for decades styled itself as the objective ‘paper of record’, has been convulsed by civil war over whether it should instead embrace more polemical, politicised stances.

As the lights go out and we see the world by firelight again, expect to discover the old gods striding, full-sized, across our imaginations again. We may find their return a mixed blessing.

 


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

To be a fantasy enthusiast is an act of resistance. Those who love fantasy fiction are those who are aware of the blurry but real distinction between fantasy and reality. Those who condemn the enthusiasm for it as ‘infantile’ and ‘escapist’ are mainly those who are trying to impose particularly shallow, nasty fantasies – mostly of a leftist, political kind, with a simplistic line-up of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ – as actual reality. No wonder they are against the rich anarchic life of the imagination.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago

FFS why is it always the lefties fault? Tell me again about the “simplistic line-up of bad guys’

Sam Piantadosi
Sam Piantadosi
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

Why is it always the lefties fault?

Because despite the ideals of the left being generally good for society, they manage to screw up the good message through their god awful delivery, making everyone the enemy.

This and their rank hypocrisy on many issues.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago
Reply to  Sam Piantadosi

What in God’s name has that got to do with fantasy fiction and it’s fans ?! Somebody rub the magic crystal and get me out of here. It’s gone properly surreal.

Sam Piantadosi
Sam Piantadosi
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

Champ, you’re the one who brought up the left. I just finished your argument for you.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago
Reply to  Sam Piantadosi

Read the initial post again, Sport. Try it slowly with your finger under each word.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

Because they’re everywhere, even in Dungeons & Dragons. Orcs are being revamped because it was decided that they too much resemble a certain real life demographic. Because of this Tolkien is now problematic as he is the creator of orcs. One of my favorite fantasy series is being televised soon, but most of the characters have been changed to suit current wokeish fads with regards to racial diversity and sexuality. The fantasy equivalent of the Left is the Nothing from the Neverending Story.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

aware of the blurry but real distinction between fantasy and reality

I’ve started to think that early training from cartoons such as Tom & Jerry helped my generation (best known as ancient) to understand the differences between reality and fiction that’s now seems to be lacking in so many. It was continued by reading F&SF where its fairly obvious that its not the real world (much as I would love it to be)

Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
3 years ago

The power of storytelling is far mor invasive than people instantly understand until one consideres how a chap who was nailed to a tree for suggesting life would be better if people were nice to each other spread his message by telling stories. We all know them. The one about the man who was swallowed by a whale. The one abiut the ethnic minority who helped the rich merchant. The one about the public meeting where people got hungry.

Micheal Lucken
Micheal Lucken
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Powerful indeed and societies that adopt the best the ones
that identify real needs, suggest useful solution and beneficial behaviours
are ones that flourish. Say what you like about Christianity but it has proven
highly successful for a very long time and the values still underpin our
society.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  Micheal Lucken

As I never tire of pointing out ‘Christianity’ is not one thing. Even before the Reformation it encompassed two wildly varying views of the world. The period from 0AD to c. 337 AD was as startlingly different from what then followed as Protestantism is to Catholicism. ‘Christ on the Cross’ bears no real relationship to a non-Jewish ‘Christus Imperator’ which has bequeathed socialism and Communism to us, not as a small-sectarian or personal choice, as in the case of the presumed original Christians, but as a universalist State religion, with troops. This itself died out when the French revolution (the last gasp of ‘Romanism’) eventually was undermined, leaving us today with a degraded, secular version of two forms of ‘Imperialist’ Christianity.

Funnily enough the founders of the EEC wanted this old Imperial State religion to be recreated (‘in the spirit of Charlemagne’ as Giscard-D’Éstaing said and his chums had it at the time). This is something that the British have never really felt at home with. This is I think why Peter Hitchens, now C of E, described Catholicism as rather ‘European’ and ‘foreign’ in character, IIRC. If you select ‘Roman Catholicism’ from his blog index, you’ll come across his exact words eventually. G.K. Chesterton (in my view a Catholic convert who had to keep reminding himself he had to be one) specialised in this ‘Die for the Flag’, Nationalist, Globalist, Chivalric form of Christianity, now erroneously held by many atheists to have been the only historical one.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

“This is I think why Peter Hitchens, now C of E, described Catholicism as rather ‘European’ and ‘foreign’ in character, IIRC.”

I’ve long been of the opinion that the EU is basically a secularised Roman Catholic project, and this explains why the Protestant nations have always felt less comfortable in it than the Catholic ones. We voted to leave; the Norwegians and Icelanders never went in; the Swedes and Danes rejected the single currency; and the Dutch have always wanted the EU basically to be a trading bloc rather than a federal enterprise. Germany, with its mixed Protestant and Catholic population, is anyway a special case for historical reasons, but the German founding father of the EU, Adenauer, was like his French and Italian colleagues Monnet and De Gasperi a devout though enlightened Catholic, who had consciously worked to shift the centre of power in Germany from the Protestant east, which he associated with Nazism, to the Catholic west and south (he was assisted in this project, of course, by the fact that large parts of historical Protestant Germany had been amputated by the postwar division).

Euroscepticism does exist in Catholic Europe as well, but is temporary and situational (e.g., related to the unsuitability of the single currency to the economic situation of the Mediterranean members) rather than being perennial and philosophical.

Micheal Lucken
Micheal Lucken
3 years ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Fair enough I bow to your superior knowledge of Christianity. The principle still holds firm though if you consider Christianity as meaning in all its various manifestations.down the centuries. It seems reasonable to suggest there is something common to them that has proven beneficial overtime to societies that have adopted the values.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago

I don’t think it’s just snobbery. It’s more that fantasy seems to generate a higher proportion of badly written, derivative tosh. Classic mythology and epic narrative gets fed into the marketing machine and turned into simplified, sanitised chewing gum for the eyes.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

Sadly true for most modern fantasy and sci-fi.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

I’m not sure that is true, compared to other types of fiction. There is quite a lot of badly written mystery fiction, and literary fiction has become so poor that I generally don’t bother with it unless I have a recommendation from someone whose opinion I trust.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

Philip Larkin called it the ‘myth kitty’, a reliable stand-in for many when inspiration dries up, and you’re writing to a deadline.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

Sturgeon’s Law.
When it was pointed out to the American science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon that “ninety percent of science fiction is crap”, rather than contest the assertion, he concurred, but observed that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”

Last edited 3 years ago by David Brown
Anna Clare Bryson
Anna Clare Bryson
3 years ago

You mention Auden. He had some wonderful lines on this subject:

So the age ended, and the last deliverer died
In bed, grown idle and unhappy; they were safe:
The sudden shadow of a giant’s enormous calf
Would fall no more at dusk across their lawns outside.

They slept in peace: in marshes here and there no doubt
A sterile dragon lingered to a natural death,
But in a year the spoor had vanished from the heath;
A kobold’s knocking in the mountain petered out.

Only the sculptors and the poets were half sad,
And the pert retinue from the magician’s house
Grumbled and went elsewhere.

The vanquished powers were glad
To be invisible and free; without remorse
Struck down the sons who strayed into their course,
And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
3 years ago

Though I was a big reader of fantasy as a teen, and still enjoy it at times, my sense is that for some it has take the place of religion – it offers a world with a moral order and meaning, an escape from a reality which seems largely meaningless and impotent. The obsession with the details of the imaginary world consumes a lot of time and energy. It demands little, however, being recognised as fiction individuals are free to disregard what they wish, avoid the difficult work of ethics, self-reflection, or metaphysics, or shape the world in their own image (fan-fiction, anyone?)

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

There are, of course, distinguished works of fantasy literature, but I do rather take issue with the notion that “gods and monsters […] tak[ing] the form of Baby Yoda memes or emetic Gryffindor avatars […] are playing the same role as the Greek and Roman pantheon centuries ago: providing a common narrative language for debates about the big questions.” Homer and Sophocles believed in the reality of the Greek pantheon in some sense – whether in terms of their own personal faith, or in the sense that those gods at least represented a broadly accepted answer to questions of meaning, informed by the sincere belief of a wide community in the culture in which they lived. The same is true for the great Christian epics – the Divine Comedy (the supreme masterpiece of fantasy literature) and Paradise Lost were the creations of people who genuinely believed in the Christian God – the power and validity of their art depends on that belief, even for those readers who do not share it.

By contrast, Harry Potter and the Jedi are idolatrous fakes.

N A
N A
3 years ago

Hmm perhaps but I’d say many modern fantasy authors and fans genuinely believe the messages of the stories even if they don’t believe the actual stories.

One of my favourite series involves characters who swear the oath ‘Life before Death, Strength before Weakness, Journey before Destination’. It might be corny and it might just be a made up story but I truly believe that’s a good motto to live by and the example of the characters do occasionally inspire me to live better, silly as that sounds. And that’s enough to make the stories inspiring in my book.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  N A

Fair enough. I guess my main reservation about fantasy stories that are created, rather than derived from pre-existing myth, is that the author gets to set the rules, essentially arbitrarily. That’s why I persist in thinking the Narnia books a finer work of fantasy than the Lord of the Rings. Because of its basis in Christian myth, we know that there are certain things that Aslan can and can’t, must or won’t do. No such restrictions apply to Gandalf, who could do whatever Tolkien wanted him to do.

Mark Woods
Mark Woods
3 years ago

‘The long history of stories that survive and replicate tells us it’s not the morally correct ones that make the cut, but the ones that ring true. No one today reads that classic of 17th-century woke literature, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, unless they absolutely have to.’ Those are sentences written by someone who’s never read it. It’s brilliant, and held its own for centuries – much longer than any modern fantasy writer (other perhaps than Tolkien) will.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Woods

Indeed I remember listening to by chance as a child when it was read out on Radio 4 and was spellbound by the wordplay and imagined world he developed.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

While I’m not sure if what I’m about to say is relevant, I’m finding that other than Unherd, the only online place I can have a rational, polite, and frankly grown-up discussion is on a forum for a Star Wars game. I think it’s partly because politics is banned there, but there’s all sort of gentle non-vulgar yet mature humour, and interesting discussions about history that take place there.

Even when people are debating how Kuat Drive Yards slotted Mandator II star dreadnoughts into the Republic fleet during the Clone Wars, I feel that I’m able to watch a pleasant discussion that won’t devolve into childish insults and unpleasant behaviour that often results when “mature” subjects like politics or defence occur on other forums.

Of course, sci-fi websites can have horrible trolls, so this forum is possibly an exception, but it really kept me sane during lockdown when I was temporarily living with parents. Even they liked watching the occasional conversation on the Discord forums.

John Hancock
John Hancock
3 years ago

I like, for example, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series. With humour, it includes humanity and some historical allusions. I commend it to my grandchildren’s generation amongst others.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago

And the power of such gods lies partly in their refusal to be domesticated: they’re two-faced, ambivalent, bloody, capricious and awe-inspiring.”
But is their home called Dunmanifestin?