On Fantasy


A couple days ago when I was jotting down my thoughts on The Hobbit I came across this interesting post by Andrea on Fantasy as a genre. I really wanted to incorporate it somehow into my Hobbit post, but I couldn’t think of a direct way to link it in and still discuss my reading experiences and impressions.

I’m refraining from endorsing Andrea’s perspective — I honestly don’t think I’ve read enough fantasy lately to have an opinion one way or the other — but I do find her demolition of a lot of modern fantasy books interesting and entertaining. She tears into David Eddings, a writer who I haven’t read but who I’ve heard about secondhand and seems pretty mediocre from everything I’ve heard:

Edding’s is the kind of writer who would have Frodo say to Gandalf when he was safe in Minas Tirath, “You used me, you bastard. You knew I’d claim the ring, and so you told Sam to kill me and toss me in the Pit of Doom when I did. You didn’t have the balls you needed to do what you and your masters needed to do ages ago, so you arranged for a poor dumb schlub like me to take the fall for you. If it weren’t for Gollum I’d be a dead hero and nobody would be the wiser.”

If this is the impression Eddings gives his fans, he’s even worse at writing fantasy than I remember.

I find this little bit pretty interesting on a couple of levels. I’ve never really looked at what happened to Frodo in the context of Gandalf “using” him, but that’s actually a pretty valid possible interpretation. Now, we know Gandalf is a good guy, so that doesn’t work in any sensible reading of the books as a whole, but kind of curious nonetheless.

I do see Andrea’s point in rejecting that interpretation as being valid for “Fantasy” — Gandalf isn’t a character who inhabits a grey moral area. He’s white. He’s good. That’s all quite clear without needing any explanation. If we had a Frodo that came back to us after the events on Mt. Doom embittered with Gandalf for being “used” then we’d feel very confused indeed, because the majority of three books would have been cast in doubt with such a turn.

On the other hand, I’m not entirely convinced that Fantasy must inhabit a world of stark moral choice between good and evil. The one fantasy series I have been reading recently, A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin, is pretty much the opposite of this. One could argue that the lines of moral choice haven’t been drawn yet — There seems to be a gathering storm in Martin’s universe, but it’s not quite clear what the sides will look like or who will be on what side. I’m not even convinced that the series will have a fulfilling ending, as the series does give the impression it could go on in a soap-operatic neverending series.

Now, even though I’m sort of vacillating between agreement and disagreement, I do think Andrea’s observation on the end result of all this is spot on:

I could go on and on. (In fact, I have.) But I’ll end with the effect all of this downgrading, flattening out, and fluffing has on the fantasy story: it breaks the wall. It jolts the reader awake from the dream. It reveals the gold and scarlet gems to be tinsel and plastic.

A lot of modern fantasy does really give me a cheap feeling. I read about a page or two of Eragon before I had to put it down. Any modern game or videogame in a fantasy setting is pretty much just an excuse to collect hundreds of magical items and get caught up in gee-whiz spell effects. I like spectacle, but I need substance as well. The last fantasy series I tried to read, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, gave me the same feeling. I enjoyed Dragonball Z in a sort of guilty pleasure sort of way, but I find it depressing that Rand, Jordan’s main character, kept giving me flashbacks to Goku as I was reading. It seems ridiculous to look at the Mary Sue/ power trip nature of a lot of this sort of writing with any sort of objectivity.

(I suppose one might argue for a distinction between Fantasy as a thematic genre, and Fantasy / pseudo-Medievalism as a setting. But that’d probably be pointless, as people in general aren’t going to bother making that distinction.)

2 Responses

  1. That was an interesting read from Andrea. Like you, I really haven’t had time to delve into reading much fantasy lately to really have an opinion on it. I had finished reading The Lord of the Rings several months back (with a big thanks from Shamus for the push in interest in finishing it), I only ready a few paragraphs out of Eragon (I didn’t really drop it out of disgust more than never was really interested in reading it in the first place). I did enjoy reading the Dragonlance series, though it seems that many fantasy readers seem to scoff at it. It might be that I’m just not that “hardcore” enough…

    In truth, much of my exposure to fantasy really came from anime, starting from The Record of Lodoss War. I’m not sure if I actually recommended it for viewing, but I do remember reading that the entire anime was loosely based on a series of D&D sessions (or at least the original manga/novel was). It actually seems to play out that way in the original 1990 TV series, especially with the rather stark division between good/evil, and the main protagonists spending much of their time being witness to great things happening around them rather than being part of it. The 1998 OVA “Chronicles of the Heroic Knights” series does have more gray in it, though (Yet it also had worse animation… 8 years later…). The Slayers is another series I remember being the result of D&D sessions, but it has a much more comedic approach.

    Though if you’re looking for swords-and-magic fantasy in the anime world that really blur the lines between good and evil, I would suggest Berserk or The Twelve Kingdoms. Berserk is more of a shounen (guy’s) series which manga series it spawn from has been described to me having a similar construction to a classical Greek tradegy. Pretty good stuff from a manga writer who started the series inspired by older Conan the Barbarian comics. Keep in mind that the series is seriously gory (the manga much more than the anime, though the anime does have some really bloody scenes).

    As for The Twelve Kingdoms, not only was it the series that really pushed me into looking into anime more heavily and has still topped my list for most favorite series, it also has the surprising quality that the original novelist had never read a fantasy book before writing the first book in the series. She got her degree in Buhddists Studies and got much of her inspiration of this fantasy world from Chinese mythology. I’ve heard this novel being termed “The Lord of the Rings of Japan” in some circles largely because of how complete and alive the world she had built seems, and after reading Tolkien’s work and watching the series based on her novel, I can see why. The official tranlation of the first book was released by Tokyopop (titled “The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadows”); it’s unfortunate that it’s a pretty short read at a around 464 pages. I guess something about the Japanese language really makes it harder to make longer novels?

    Well, I should stop here. This is getting much longer than I intended.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve actually had Record of Lodoss War on my list of animes to eventually see for … At least five years now. I’ll get around to seeing it eventually, but I’m not really in a rush.

    Berserk, I’m already aware of. I bought one of the DVDs years ago on a whim and was hooked. I don’t know how well it works in the sense of Fantasy as good vs. evil, but it’s definitely a world in which evil is a manifest thing. Good? That’s another story.

    I recognize the name Twelve Kingdoms but hadn’t ever sought out information about it — From your description it sounds pretty interesting. I’ll be on the lookout for the book (though I fear I’ll probably never find it amidst the shelves and shelves of harem mangas at local bookstores).

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