Myth and History in Fantasy: A Rant

This post is, in part, a response to Daniel Polansky’s guest post on The Night Bazaar entitled “The Slums of the Shire.” Largely an advertisement for his debut novel, Low Town, the post is notable for positing a clash between Polansky’s type of fantasy and Tolkien’s. Low Town sounds interesting, but I’ll wait and ILL it through my local library in a few months. What interests me about the post is a lack or inability to understand Tolkien’s fantasy. The reason, I think, is perspective and how one views the mythic or imaginative element in fantasy.

Polansky describes himself as a “history buff” and professes an inability to understand the fantasy of the Tolkien school. There are two things to note, I think. One: what is Polansky’s view of history? Two: How does Tolkien see fantasy?

To answer question one: From reading the guest post, I would guess that Polansky has a rather dystopic view of human nature. He posits that humans would, perhaps, gleefully eradicate an elf species that lived alongside our ancestors, and he expresses an interests in the seedier, darker, nastier aspects of history (hence, the slums of the Shire). This dystopic vision of human nature is highly contestable and uncertain. The histories I have read often (especially new scholarship) display as much about our own and our predecessor’s ignorance about history as it does the actual events of the past. Often I wonder, were things truly as brutish as the “Dung Ages” imply?

To answer question two: Tolkien’s vision of fantasy is highly mythic. With The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien creates a work, a world, that aspires to the level of Homer, Ovid, Mallory, Beowulf, The Pearl Poet, etc. Middle Earth is not meant to be taken as a form of history, but it is meant to be taken as a form of modern myth making. One of the themes of The Lord of the Rings is the coming together of various distrustful races to combat an even greater threat to all of them. Rather or not humans and elves would historically have attempted to eradicate each other is immaterial, what is important is what they represent symbolically. And that it is at times the least of us who make the greatest contributions (like the Hobbits).

So, Tolkien, while being inspired by history, does not allow history to dominate the text. Middle Earth is a “fairyland,” a world where myths, legends, and fairy tales walk among average people. And depending on the vision of the author, rather an epic, romantic, comedic, tragic, or ironic mode is at play within that world.

I would argue that the reaction against the Tolkien Clones has produced a movement towards focusing on history over myth. Basically, a type of mundane fantasy in which there is little magic and myth. Historical fiction set in a secondary world focusing on the excesses of the nobility and the absolute squalor of the peasantry is not something I am especially fond of reading. Though I am a fan of Sword and Sorcery, I prefer the sorcery over the sword every day of the week.

The interplay of myth and history plays a key role in the current debate over the direction of modern fantasy. There seems to be a growing movement towards a brutal, dystopic fantasy which can play out for some readers as nihilistic. But is there something missing from these works? Is the mythic element, which is key to fantasy’s true success and power, missing? I don’t know. I’ve read some of the “brutal” fantasy, but not all of it. I have read Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before. Personally, I think anyone familiar with Herbert’s Dune should be able to figure that one out (to an extent).

But, all of this is really a matter of perspective. What histories do you read? When were they published? What audience are they intended for? How do you “read” fantasy? How do you analyse what you read? All of these questions are important in understanding how an individual author or reader looks at the world and what he/ she reads and writes. Take myself for example. I tend to prefer rather more academic (published by academics from university publishing houses) over popular histories (even though there are some popular histories that are quite good), and I tend to be more of a literary critic when I read. I am more prone to see things as constructions, including history. The events happened, but those events are artificially formed into a narrative that is intended for a specific audience. Take the attitude towards the medieval period. Shortly after the “Middle Ages,” they became the “Dark Ages” to contrast the with old light of “Classical” Rome and the new light of the Renaissance (“rebirth”) and the subsequent Enlightenment. The Romantics’ view of the “Dark Ages” is colored by their rejection of the “Neoclassical” rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the Victorians’ view is a conflict between the two. And let’s not even mention the Modern and Postmodern rejection of anything, everything, and nothing.

Would I want to live in another time period? I don’t know. The 1960s and 1970s sound interesting. The 1920s are a possibility. Would I really want to live during the American Gilded Age, the High Middle Ages, the Pax Augusta, or the reign of Ramesses II? I don’t think so. But when writing fantasy, is things really about when one would like to have lived?

In my earlier rant about research and historical knowledge, I mentioned my strong belief  in experimentation. For fantasy to grow as a genre, it has to be willing to move beyond the shadows of the medieval. It has to be able to dance between myth and history, between utopia and dystopia, between symbol and versimilitude, and between the imagination and the real.

Fantasy set in a secondary world that fully explores a setting inspired by early Plantagenets is just as valuable as a crazy mishmash of cultures and inspirations. But it is the talent and skill of the author that makes each work succeed or fail. Manga does, can fantasy?




Posted on September 14, 2011, in Books, Manga and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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