Monday, March 30, 2009

Culture Corner: The Politics of High Fantasy

All my reading life, I've been a fan of fantasy novels. It started in grade school, where Dungeons and Dragons novels were the first adult-length novels I got my hands on in the school library.

However, in recent yesrs, I've become increasingly unable to read and enjoy traditional fantasy novels. That doesn't mean I've stopped reading fantasy altogether; I've just switched almost entirely to fantasy novels that subvert, challenge, or ignore the traditional tropes of fantasy: kings, knights, dragons, sorcerers, the whole, weighty tradition that runs from J.R.R Tolkien to Joseph Campbell's work on mythology.

Why? Because the politics of high fantasy sucks. It's usually not intentional; most fantasy writers and readers aren't really thinking about politics. But the fact of the matter is that all of those True Kings, Chivalrous Knights, Damsels in Distress, Towering Castles, and the rest of it are all based on the European Middle Ages or the Dark Ages. The source materials - La Morte d'Arthur, Beowulf, older myths of the Celtic, Scandinavian, and Germanic peoples - are all right there. And the society they are based on is one of feudalism and serfdom.

Serfdom, for those who weren't really paying attention to who the peasants fleeing the evil hordes who must be saved by Our Hero were, was the social order that emerged in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire and lasted until, depending on which country you're talking about, well into the 19th century. Under serfdom, 90% of the population were legal property of their feudal lords, bound to work without pay for their masters, and tied to the land which they worked on. Serfdom was imposed on the common peoples of Europe by violence or the threat of violence - in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire, farmers and former agricultural slaves were either pressed into serving the warlords who had conquered their lands, or were driven by necessity to selling themselves to the local warlords who promised protection from other rampaging warlords. While serfdom was not as uniformly oppressive as other regimes of slavery - serfdom divided peasants between "freemen," villeins," half-villeins, and other categories of greater and lesser freedoms - it's still a system of human oppression.

The True King who's been overthrown by his Evil Vizier, Scheming Relative, or the Barbarous Horde? He owns thousands if not millions of people. The noble Knight who rides to save the Fair Maiden from the Evil Dragon? His primary occupation is to kidnap people and enslave them, to put down slave rebellions with brutal violence, and to prevent other armed men from doing the same to his property. The Good Prince? Never worked a day in his life, and every crumb of bread and scrap of cloth he owns was bought with money stolen from ordinary people. This kind of thinking puts something of a damper on my enjoyment of the pleasures found within the luridly-painted covers of airport fantasy novels.

Yet in recent years, I've found myself increasing unable to stop thinking about them, because for me this history is quite real. European working class families have long historical memories, and when I was a kid, my English father told me about the history of his family. One of the stories was that one of my ancestors had been executed for rebellion against the crown. A couple of years ago, I found an actual academic source for this, in William Oren's The Great Rising of 1381:

...the two London butchers, Adam Attewell and Roger Harry, both of whom were afterwards prominent in the troubles in the capital, are said to have been raising the Essex peasantry fourteen days before they entered London, i. e. about May 31 or June i. See Essex indictments and the Sheriff's reports of Nov. ao, 1383, in R6ville, p. 196. (p. 33)

This stuck in my head, and its one of those family legends that you cherish, because it gives you a connection to some kind of past glory. But it did make me think twice about the romance of the medieval. How could I read about good Kings and noble Knights without thinking, somewhere in the back of my mind, that if I really was alive in Middle Earth or Krynn or the Forgotten Realms, that I would probably not be one of the big, muscle-bound armored men on horseback riding around Saving the Day, but rather some poor bastard chained to his plow, who works from sunup to sundown to put food into the belly of that useless hulk with the sword and shield.

It's a strange thing to think of heroes as social parasites, but there you go.

The better fantasy novels are aware of this history, and it allows me to keep on reading them. R. Scott Bakker's series about the Prince of Nothing and the Aspect-Emperor are steeped in the lore of the First Crusade, but it doesn't ever flinch from the fact that the Crusader Knights were vicious murdering fanatics, and that medieval society was based on the oppression of the peasantry. Tad William's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series shows its kings to be liars, madmen, and chronicles the overthrow of a corrupt tyrant. He's replaced by a "good king," which is a bit of a disappointment, but there you go. Other than these, and I'm missing out a few, I've really stopped reading medieval fantasy novels.

Instead, I've started to get really into fantasy novels set in the Renaissance or later. Unmfortunately, there aren't many of these - Mercedes Lackey, Dave Flint, and Eric Feer's Shadow of the Lion and the sequel This Rough Magic, and the various Warhammer Fantasy novels. Why do I prefer the Renaissance? First, you've got more interesting politics - in addition to kings and barons, you've got various forms of Republics, mercantile city-states, and petty princedoms, all of which gives much more scope for ordinary people to do important things. Second, you've got an explosion of knowledge, with a bubbling ferment of science, arts, literature, philosophy, history, political science, and a roster of geniuses whose human brilliance is much more appealing than the aloof other-ness of a Merlin. Third, you've got more cultural diversity - trade, intrigue, and war between Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, a world that is expanding, due to exploration and colonialism.

More modern settings, such as the "urban fantasy" of Charles De Lint, can be also very rewarding, if done with the correct tone and voice. But there's not enough of it compared to the huge mounds of standard sword-and-sorcery worlds with knights and kings, and faceless, happy peasants.

So why don't people go out and write fantasy novels that don't involve the disneyfication of serfdom?

1 comment:

  1. I share your dislike of high fantasy, mainly because it's a sack of cliches; however the middle ages wasn't the hell you make it out to be. Serfdom was common throughout Asia, the West actually had less serfdom; it was nonexistent in Norse nations for example. Peasant and serf are not synonymous; in the countries of what is now Russia, Ukraine and Belarus the vast majority of common people were free. Modern democracy? As Norman Davies points out it's largely medieval in origin; the Swiss Confederaton, Norse Thing, Gaelic assemblies etc. Democracy even existed in feudal countries through the commune movement; in some cases serfs could join communes and improve their lives. For more read this:

    So the middle ages were not hell; the era had its negatives like every other epoch. High fantasy sucks because its unoriginal and ignores the more interesting elements of medieval cultures.