Thursday, July 24, 2014

Romanticism as an essential element of fantasy

Let me start with a few quotes from Wikipedia:
"Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.
In popular culture, the fantasy genre is predominantly of the medievalist form, especially since the worldwide success of The Lord of the Rings and related books by J. R. R. Tolkien.
"The identifying traits of fantasy are the inclusion of fantastic elements in a self-coherent (internally consistent) setting, where inspiration from mythology and folklore remains a consistent theme."
Here's something from Andy Greenwald, in reference to The Game of Thrones TV show.  I think it's broader in its scope than just that show, however.
"So I listened closely as Tyrion told his tale of Orson, the simple Lannister cousin who spent his time not planning out wars or paying off debts but sitting in a garden smashing bugs. Day after day, Orson would pick up a stone and settle into his grim task, splattering beetles by the thousand. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to Orson’s slaughter, no motive or purpose. Just the endless “kung kung kung” of a big man murdering something smaller, again and again and again.
But Tyrion, we learn, wasn’t satisfied. Though he was born to a powerful family, he couldn’t help but empathize with the littler creatures. And so his interest in his cousin morphed from mockery to curiosity to something bordering on obsession. What was the reason for this constant extermination? It was inconceivable to Tyrion that butchery on Orson’s scale could simply be the way of the world. A life was a life, whether it was protected by a suit of armor or a carapace. Surely, it deserved better. If that wasn’t possible, then at least it deserved an explanation. What, after all, was the point?"
Recapping a specific episode, he said the following:
"It was all quite thrilling, for a time, with the Red Viper leaping balletically through the summery air and Alex Graves’s camera swooping vertiginously to catch him. Game of Thrones has often punched me in the heart, but it’s rarely had it fluttering so mightily in my throat. But then, just as Tyrion was getting his hopes up and Cersei was reaching for her Big Gulp of merlot, Oberyn spiked the ball at the 1-yard line. Rather than finish off the Mountain, Oberyn was just getting warmed up, demanding much more than an improbable victory. Instead, like Tyrion in the garden all those years ago, Oberyn demanded logic and an answer. And we all know what happened next. Kung. Kung. Kung.
Actually, the sound of Oberyn’s head exploding was much more terrible than that. The defanging — and defacing — of the Red Viper was among the worst things I’ve ever seen on a screen, but it was definitely the worst thing I’ve ever heard: It somehow managed to remind me both of my own mortality and of Gallagher. (Trust me when I say I’m not sure which was more unbearable.) And in that gruesome, hideous moment I realized that the real takeaway from Tyrion’s story isn’t that he’s a fool for wanting order when there is only chaos. It’s that we just might be for greedily tuning in to the Orson Hour every week and expecting the same thing.
Look, contra Ramsay Snow, I have been paying attention. I harbor no illusions of a happy ending. But even in the midst of an epic, excellent season that has provided more wit, resonance, and emotion than I had previously thought possible, I am growing slightly weary of being taught the same merciless lesson again and again. I’d like to think that Charlie Brown had some grudging respect for Lucy the first time she pulled away the football. But the fifth? What happened to dashing Prince Oberyn was gripping, horrifying television. But, unlike his skull, it was also rather hollow. Few authors could introduce such a fantastic character with such economy and skill (and fewer showrunners could do the same on television, with even more of both). But only George R.R. Martin would so sadistically run that character into the buzz saw of disappointment and plot that is Game of Thrones just to prove a point — and, I suppose, to tighten the noose a bit more around Tyrion’s neck. Like a beetle, Oberyn was born to die, and in the most gruesome, splattery way possible. And to what end? Shocking us isn’t the same thing as challenging us. A simpleton with a rock might not need to explain himself, but a writer usually does. At this point, the most radical thing Game of Thrones could do is to make the audience exhale in relief."
This is in stark contrast to what Tolkien himself felt about fantasy, which was fundamentally—and profoundly—mythic and even romantic (not in the Romance genre sense of the word, however.)
"Eucatastrophe is a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien which refers to the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom. As such, it is a kind of deus ex machina common in fantasy literature. Tolkien formed the word by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically inspired literary criticism to refer to the "unraveling" or conclusion of a drama's plot. For Tolkien, the term appears to have had a thematic meaning that went beyond its literal etymological meaning in terms of form.[how?] In his definition as outlined in his 1947 essay "On Fairy-Stories", eucatastrophe is a fundamental part of his conception of mythopoeia. Though Tolkien's interest is in myth, it is also connected to the gospels; Tolkien calls the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of "human history" and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation."
In this sense, which the more I think about, the more I believe strongly that there's something to this.  The bleak, nihilistic sense of much of the modern fantasy genre is completely opposed to fantasy that I (and many like me) grew up on, and which made us love the genre in the first place.  As John C. Wright said (this is my last quote in this post; I promise!)
"An artist can draw a picture of the rotting skull of a dead dog on a dungheap with maggots and blind worms crawling on its exposed brains with perfect perspective, shading, composition, and balance of light and dark, and yet it is still a picture of a dead dog."
And yes, I'm actually mimicking somebody else's post about a similar topic; quoting some of the same material (and some other material) because he made the point first and he made it well, and well, why not ride his coat-tails in that case?  But if this bleak, nihilistic, "crapsack" world fantasy is in opposition to "real" fantasy as we have known it, as we grew up on, and as we think of the genre, why is it relatively prevalent?  And why is (at least some of) it relatively popular?  And what does that have to do with DARK•HERITAGE anyway?

1) I think it's perceived by some to be more sophisticated, more mature, etc.  I think this perception is false, however.  Bleakness, nihilism, hopelessness, despair—these are not mature emotions.  This is not the perspective of an adult, it's the perspective of a whiny, angsty, bratty adolescent.  It's not sophisticated and deep, it's merely empty and soul-less.  2) Is it really that popular?  Sure, GRRM is a pretty big deal, and guys like Joe Abercrombie and a few others.  But how much room for more is there?  Is there any nihilistic work that is still read 100 years after being written?  And how much of it can you stand, even if you can stand it, without needing to break for something more light, anyway?

Keep in mind, I'm referring specifically to nihilism, not tragedy.  Although they may resemble each other superficially in many respects, they are not the same.  There's no catharsis at the end of a nihilistic work.  The same is also true of most works of horror fiction—they're not nihilistic (well, some of them are) although certainly they are dark and the end is not usually happy for the protagonists.

3)  DARK•HERITAGE is fantasy and horror, not nihilism.  The world is bleak, there are certainly issues that resemble that of a horror fiction story, but characters meet them like horror fiction protagonists. They may not triumph, they certainly don't "win" in a traditional sense, but their heroism can be seen and it has meaning.  Like the bleak fatalism of the Norse sagas, which Tolkien reflected in many ways, it's not purposeless.  It's not senseless.  It's not nihilistic.  This is part of the reason why fantasy is so fundamentally rooted in a romanticized Medievalism.  My own setting has looked in many ways to other romanticized adventurous periods; pirates and Westerns, in particular, but the end result is the same—without that romanticized adventure story baseline, the horror is just bleak nihilism.  It doesn't ring as profound as that of Norse sagas, Shakespearean tragedies, or even more modern works like Dracula or Lord of the Rings.  It would just feel like a tawdry snuff piece.

Anyway, between this and the earlier post on a similar topic, I think I've talked enough about the tone of my setting for the time being.  Unless I run a game or actually write a novel in the setting soon, it doesn't really matter much.


Konsumterra said...

Thomas Covenant series repulses me. I prefer a broader definition of fantasy that includes horror and sf also. I love mythology but would rather it be handled well. Clark ashton smith fantasy more of interest to tolkien. Moorcock is a opposite to Tolkien too - includes mythic elements but not pro royal and not pro superstition. There are many many aproaches o fantasy and mythology. Diversity is good but you can always just read some classics if moderns get you down.

James Sullivan said...

"1) I think it's perceived by some to be more sophisticated, more mature, etc. I think this perception is false, however. Bleakness, nihilism, hopelessness, despair--these are not mature emotions. This is not the perspective of an adult, it's the perspective of a whiny, angsty, bratty adolescent. It's not sophisticated and deep, it's merely empty and soul-less."

This is right in line with what you said in your previous "Crapsack" post and I couldn't agree more.

I've never been able to reconcile the portrait of the supposedly sophisticated person who prefers to wallow in nihilistic film and literature.