No Time but Today
Sometimes, if I brood on something for a while, I get a better handle on things. I’ve been thinking a lot about fantasy, history, and reading lately. Obviously, it has been a somewhat regular feature of my blog (that and Bas Lag). So, I’ve been brooding, and I’ve come to an interesting and obvious conclusion. No matter what time a fantasy is set, it is always reflective about the concerns of the present.
We can all accept that most fantasy set on secondary worlds take place in historic periods relative to our own day. Typically, these worlds are highly inspired by the medieval period of Europe. My argument is that while interest in the roles of English queens may provide an intellectual inspiration, more often than not, the work is not really about an alternate version of Queen Isabella or Queen Margaret.
Take King Arthur. He performs different meanings for different times. For the early myths, he represents a national hero, a defender from invasion. For the Pearl Poet, he represents an idealized court. For Malory, he represents another form of the idealized court. For Bradley, his myth represents a religious conflict between nascent Christianity and the Old Faith. The story of Arthur is a reflection of the concerns of the writer’s present colored through the lens of a mythic past.
Howard’s Hyborian Age is another excellent example of writing with the present in mind. There is a strong concern about the decline of civilization, of degeneration, of a loss of vitality. These concerns play into an early twentieth century dealing with the effects of modernism and the Depression.
Even Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire can be seen in this light. I would like to know exactly how much of the series was planed from the start and how much of it developed in the writing. I’ve heard that Martin is a gardener when it comes to his writing, so it would be really interesting to see how the series developed. Part of my curiosity lies in whether or not Martin originally intended to focus most of the attention on the war for the Iron Throne or if it gradually supplanted the epic conflict with the Others as the main focus.
I suspect the fascination with A Song of Ice and Fire has something to do with concerns about our own political issues. That the political problem, instead of being shunted to an impediment, has become the main focus is one I think needs to be addressed.
China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels obviously belong in this discussion due to the highly political nature of the narratives. Each one, in one form or another, are highly suspicious of authority. The novels are also highly challenging to the notions of neoliberalism and globalization. And, I think, in Iron Council, Mieville questions the efficacy of protest, of fighting for change. Is it worth fighting for freedom, for political change if the protesters are getting their heads smashed in?
History, myth, etc. are inspiration in fantasy. But authors are writing with the concerns of the present in mind. Now, some of these concerns may be optimistic or pessimistic. Some writers may be playing intellectual games with their inspiration, but they still write with the present in the background.
The fantasy genre has been changing for some time now. New voices are entering the field bringing in new readers or supplying readers with protagonists little depicted in the past. Ambivalence and ambiguity have places of pride, and the former certainties of the past, of concrete good and absolute evil, are being challenged. In the end, some readers will find that the protagonists seem to resemble them a little more while others will feel at a loss without their sure hero.
Posted on February 14, 2012, in Books and tagged A Song of Ice and Fire, Bas-Lag, China Mieville, Criticism, fantasy, George R.R. Martin, Historical Inspiration in Fantasy, Robert E. Howard. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.