The Death of Fantasy? What?

Earlier today, on the Gollancz Blog, A.J. Dalton wrote a post pondering the “death of fantasy.” The posit is that because there seems to be a lack of magic in some recently published fantasy that fantasy itself is in danger of either “dying” or undergoing radical change. My own comment on the blog post argued that fantasy is not going anywhere, nor is it becoming less magical.

The question boils down to what one reads. I would argue that a lot of the seeming absence of magic is probably a result of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Magic plays a very small and limited role, and magic’s limited role has become a point for those inspired by him. The success of the series can be pointed to the human conflict over the Iron Throne and what that conflict does to the people involved. This means that the actual epic conflict gets pushed to the back burner.

It is not beyond reason to assume that more recent fantasy writers, inspired by Martin, would have similar attitudes towards magic. In a way, magic may be a victim to the general rebellion against Tolkiensian fantasy that has been going on for the past few years.

Does that mean that magic itself is becoming less prominent in the genre? No. Read Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, Patrick Rothfuss, R. Scott Bakker, Harry Potter, etc. Hell, read manga- Fairy Tail is all about the wizards. And it is awesome.

This whole thing annoys me to no end. It is the same kind of bunk spewed about science fiction every year. How long has science fiction been at death’s door? Twenty years? Still not dead yet.

Fantasy is not dead yet, and neither is magic.

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Posted on December 9, 2011, in Books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. “magic may be a victim to the general rebellion against Tolkiensian fantasy that has been going on for the past few years.”

    “I’m not entirely convinced that the movement away from Tolkien is primarily towards less magic.”

    If you think about it, there isn’t that much “magic” in LOTR. The association of Tolkien with magic comes more from his imitators and from Dungeons & Dragons than from LOTR itself. Yes, Gandalf is a wizard, but what spells does he actually cast? When I saw FOTR with a friend who had never read the books but who had played a lot of fantasy games, he complained that Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog was just a “shouting match” — no prismatic sprays or lightning bolts or anything impressive.

  2. I recall reading somewhere **cough–Wikipedia–cough** that George R.R. Martin took as a major influence for _A Game of Thrones_ historical fiction. Though I can’t confirm this, it makes sense to me. But it’s still fantasy. Backing up, we need to remember that most of what we refer to as fantasy was part of a previous satirical tradition of the Utopian novel, a tradition lots of folks point to being inaugurated by Thomas More’s _Utopia_ (hence the name of the tradition), and that was subsequently carried on, most famously, by Swift in _Gulliver’s Travels_, Butler’s _Erewon_, and the fantasies of Lord Dunsany, and many more. Their big innovation was formal and it had to do with setting rather than any deviation from the real–i.e. the inclusion in their stories of dragons, demons, witches, imps, etc..

    How did they innovate in terms of setting? Well, they created a fictional one! This fictional world didn’t necessarily include magic, although many of the things the fictional visitors to those worlds encountered were wondrous indeed (e.g. the political system of the Utopians, the teeny Lilliputians, etc.). The key issue for Utopian fiction was it freed up writers to create alternative worlds.

    Something really unique happened with Tolkien. In his earliest scribblings were little of what we would recognize as modern fantasy. Anyone who has tried to read through his edited notes and histories will probably agree with me. This was because Tolkien was modeling Lord Dunsany, who write extremely flowery, almost “prosy-poetic-Frankenstein-hybrid-fantasy-stories” (a horrible word for some work difficult to define). Tolkien was somewhat slavishly emulating Dunsany in the early days. And from Dunsany he inherited the right to create an alternative world wholly unnconnected to this one with its own history and gods and peoples and cultures, etc.. Dunsany’s world was a mish-mash of all sorts of mythologies–Greek, Arabic, Anglo-Saxon, Persian–more Eurasian than European. Tolkien, being a philologist of the English language, was “all about” Anglo-Saxon mythology. Thus, a lot of the fantastic elements (and linguistic elements) he lifted straight out of Anglo-Saxon folklore and epic poetry like Beowulf (Smaug is a direct descendent, I would wager, of the fire-breathing dragon in Beowulf).

    Tolkien’s “genius” was to combine the Utopic convention of the imaginary world with the formal conventions of the realist novel. And he initially did this with _the Hobbit_. Think about Bilbo: he’s a comfortable little guy living in a ordinary, mundane hamlet paying the bills, making tea, gossiping with friends, smoking, reading, etc. etc.. Like this, the realist novel has always been preoccupied with the mundane. Bilbo is the archetype of many yeoman gentleman who just sit around and talk in the novel of manners.

    So we can see how, using the same conventions to depict this normal, mundane world, Tolkien juxtaposes fantastic elements–the dwarves, the goblins, the spiders, the elves, Smaug, etc.. The imaginary world is incidental but extremely important: it gave Tolkien an occasion for mixing these things together.

    I sometimes forget that “fantasy” as we know is less about the purely imaginary and more about a combination or “alchemical merging together” of two reagents: like an alka-seltzer tablet into a bottle of diet soda (god–forgive this metaphor) the fantastic has to be injected in a world that is tangible, visceral, raw, earthy (what other adjectives can I think of?), IMMANENT! It is the spiritual jelly to the worldly peanut butter that results in a delightful combo.

    Martin, I think, is doing something really smart, though it’s frustrating for folks like me who love our goblins, zombies, wizards, orcs, etc.. He is, step 1, establishing the immanent world and slowly but surely, step 2, adding fantasy into. Not to get lewd, but a sexual metaphor might be appropriate here (and doubly appropriate for Martin, if you know what I mean). He basically allows the pressure of the immanent’s inevitable collision with the fantastic to build, build, and build through subtly implying that fantastic elements will indeed show up soon. I would argue that his emphasis on sexuality is a function of his desire to foreground immanence in order to contrast it more intensely with the fantasy (when it finally shows up, of course).

    Enter Postmodernism: In the postmodern era, we are told, the distinctions between the immanent and the spiritual are diminishing. Clear cut distinctions between the real and unreal, the simulation and the reality, the fantastic and the mundane, etc. etc. are breaking down. Why? To answer that would take a long jaunt through continental philosophy which I’m just not qualified to do. Better to just state it and allow people to disagree with it. But the idea is out there and it goes something like this: we are postmoderns now and thus our ability to discern between the real and the unreal is atrophying. And if we are losing the ability to discern between reality and unreality then, then–*gulp*–the first principles that allow writers to write “fantasies” as opposed to “journalistic accounts” are diminishing. And in the half-light of dawn everything becomes *fiction*. AND everything becomes *real*. We all come to dwell in a gray that middle place Rod Serling elegantly refers to as “the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” You can take the work of Martin as a symptom of our flagging ability to discern between reality and fantasy. Think about it. Think how weird those novels are! They are so-called “fantasy” novels; and yet–and yet! dragons don’t show up ’til the end! This is pretty strange I think.

    I’m not saying fantasy is dying. That’s hyperbole. But I can see where the argument comes from. Some interesting changes are on the horizon. And here is where I get on a high-horse: rather than it dying, I think it’s coming to life. We’re experiencing a quickening, something Jackson’s LoTR films, the Harry Potter Phenom, the Game of Thrones novels and show, the success of games like World of Warcraft and Skyrim attest to. Thesis: the other worlds, the Utopic **fantasies** (oh the irony of that name!) are becoming more and more *real* to us. Fantasy isn’t dying. It’s coming to life! *thunder, lightning, laughter*

    • Jrcarney, great comment.
      I never thought that George R.R. Martin holding off on the heavy magic as a means of building excitement. I always thought that the Iron Throne plot became more popular with readers and Martin decided to write to the audience. Personally, I’m not as impressed with A Song of Ice and Fire as most fantasy fans. I’ve read them and enjoyed them, but I wouldn’t call them the greatest epic fantasy series of the last twenty years.
      Anyway, I do like your arguments about fantasy. The notion that “fantasy” is becoming more “real” is an interesting one and, I think, deserves more work.
      Personally, I think that Dalton’s post is more geared towards trying to interest readers in his own book (which plays into his argument about the “death of fantasy”).

      • Thanks! I got the idea from writing an essay on Fantasy Film of all things. See, I don’t know why, but I find I’m more moved by the old clunky special effects of, say, Ray Harryhausen in movies like _Jason and the Argonauts_ (1963) or _King King_ (1933) rather than, say, the CGI of Jackson’s LoTR. Growing up I was amazed by the skeleton battle in _Jason and the Argonauts_. In my essay I compared that scene to some of the epic battle scenes in the LoTR movies (I watch the Harryhausen skeleton battle scene on Youtube probably once a week–kind of an obsession). I’m not saying the LoTR movies are *better* than Harryhausen’s _Jason and the Argonauts_. I don’t want to quantify their aesthetic worth; however, I would go so far as to stay the special effects–the skeletons, the cyclops, the hydra–of Harryhausen’s films are…were…. (struggling for a word) … more “stirring” when I first saw them. See, there’s a major imbalance between the real actors dressed up as Greek warriors and the clay-mation hydra/skeleton, an interesting constrast between the real and the unreal; in LoTR the hobbits are just as much an illusion as the CGI effects. They are combo of small actors, tricky shooting techniques, and computer editing. They are just as optically unreal as the Balrog. The key thing about the fantasy of the LoTR movies is that the “fantasy” and the “mundane” are on even planes; in old movies where special effects were more visceral, the mundane was below/in direct contrast to the fantastic. This imbalance, this contrast, intensifies the collision between *two worlds*: the world of fantastic and the world of the real. I quickly realized that this is not simply a cinematic effect and that there are literary analogues to this effect. At least I think there are. Thanks for the great blog! I’ve been enjoying reading through previous posts, having just come to it.

  3. Fantasy isn’t dying, but it is changing. There is definitely a movement away from Tolkien’s work, which really was the basis for a lot of fantasy novels for quite a few years after he died.

    I think that Martin’s books are showing people that you don’t have to have wizards and magic as the central aspects of a fantasy novel for it to be successful, and you’re very right that his success is probably leading to a lot of other authors following in his footsteps and writing “low” fantasy (fantasy without much magic).

    On the other hand, there is still a lot of very good “high” fantasy being written. The last book in The Wheel of Time should come out next year, and that series is overflowing with magic use and the mages throughout the world. You also mentioned Harry Potter in which the characters use magic for everything including simply camping (some of their tents would be really cool to have). The Magician’s by Lev Grossman is another book where magic plays a huge part in the overall story.

    The Name of the Wind to me kind of falls in the middle of those two. There is magic in the world, and it’s used for a lot of different things, but it isn’t as abundant as it is in the works of Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, The Way of Kings, etc.).

    If anything, we’re experiencing a rebirth of fantasy and an expansion of the genre into separate sub-genres based upon the amount of magic used in the book.

    • Interesting points, but I’m not entirely convinced that the movement away from Tolkien is primarily towards less magic. Rather, I think it is trending more towards an increase in dystopias, brutality, and a more violent form of romanticism.
      Don’t get me started on “high” and “low” fantasy, I’ve already got a post up on that. That said, I don’t think there is a movement towards dividing fantasy up into “lots of magic/ fantastic stuff” and “not so much magic/ fantastic stuff” genres. There may be a slight increase in mundane fantasy, but I don’t know if it will last (even in science fiction).
      Fundamentally, you are right that fantasy is in a remarkable place right now. The creativity and newness of a lot of the ideas is great. And I’m big on encouraging this creative experimentation. Moving fantasy as a genre past Tolkien and his clones is a great thing.
      Whether the new dystopic post Tolkien rebellion has a more lasting impact than Mieville’s New Weird, though, remains to be seen.

  4. death of fantasy my ass.

    if it doesn’t have magic in it, does that mean it’s not fantasy?

    last time I was at Barnes & Noble I saw a boat load of books on the “New fantasy and science fiction” shelves that were covered in magicians, witches, dragons, apprentices, mages, all sorts of magic and magical creatures.

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