Fantasy times

Fantasy fiction, like crime fiction, looks set to becoming one of the dominant cultural genres, in both books and films. In books, fantasy is making huge inroads; not only was Lord of the Rings voted top book of the 20th century by a majority of readers in the English-speaking world, not only was urban/dark fantasy author Stephen King given one of the US’ top literary honours, and the extraordinary British children’s fantasy author Philip Pullman given one of Britain’s top literary honours(a coup both in terms of fantasy and children’s literature), but the mass excitement around each new Harry Potter book is reminiscent of the 19th century crowds queueing to buy the latest instalment in a Charles Dickens serial. Fantasy is inching off the specialist shelves and into mainstream fiction. The latest big fantasy discovery, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, has been a hit with all kinds of readers, and reviewed in all publications, while the jaunty fantastical satires of Terry Pratchett continue to attract mass attention.
As far as films are concerned, consider the fact that of the ten top-grossing movies in Australia this year, the first four are straight fantasy–Shrek 2, Lord of the Rings–Return of the King; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; and Spider Man 2–; two others are also fantasy with a ‘science-fiction’ edge: The Day After Tomorrow and Matrix Revolutions; and yet another, number five on the list, is a historical film with strong fantasy overtones: Troy.

Meanwhile, one of the most momentous archaeological discoveries of our time–the Homo floriensis or miniature Homo erectus of Flores–is described not only by journalists but by the scientists at the centre of it(who incidentally come from our town!) as ‘hobbits’. That’s because ‘hobbit’ immediately conjures up an image to people; the word has passed into our collective unconscious, our bank of cultural images. And the editor of Nature talks about how perhaps we should investigate stories of elves, fairies and dwarves to see if they have any connection to actual, real ‘Little People’ living in the distant past (this theory of ‘fairy origins’ is not new; it was first aired in the 19th century). Perhaps that means the ‘two irreconciliable cultures’ CP Snow once talked about, science and art, are finally coming closer, if a scientist is happy to shorthand-describe his discovery as a ‘hobbit.’
So why is it that fantasy themes and images seem to strike such a chord with people? It’s not just because other fictional forms–aside from crime, and perhaps historical novels, which are also booming(for similar reasons)–have become stale, tedious, petty, navel-gazing and irrelevant.
I’d suggest the main reason for the growing popularity is not escape–though of course it’s fun to take a holiday in another world–but much deeper than that. It’s because people need the intensity and willingness of fantasy to tackle big themes. We are living in times when people are very aware of the metaphysical battles of good and evil, of finding the truth, of what power means. Whatever political base you come from, there is agreement that we are living in momentous, starkly metaphysical times. People just differ on where the good is and where the evil.
And rather than being a divider, fantasy, by its very otherworldly, timeless nature, is a unifier. You can interpret fantasy in any way you like–you can see Lord of the Rings for instance either as left-wing or as right-wing, depending on your inclination. Similarly, Harry Potter can both be seen as anti-Christian by certain radical fundamentalists in the US, but as deeply Christian by none other than the redoubtable Cardinal George Pell. Fantasy escapes political classifications and is therefore able to reach a wide swathe of readers. It taps into the deepest human dilemmas and explores what it means to be human. That’s why it is also immensely popular in non-Western as well as Western countries: not only Western fantasy, but fantasy from other places, such as Japan and China, are making a great mark on the cultural world.
It’ll be interesting to see how far it goes.

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Mark U
Mark U
2022 years ago

Perhaps readers are looking for the certainty in their fiction that does not exist in reality. All the fantasy that you have mentioned makes a stark distinction between good and evil that rarely exists in reality. In that regard, it could be argued that most fantasy is a deeply consevative genre and does anything but tackle the big themes.

That is not to say I do not enjoy it myself. I just don’t go there to find the meaning of life.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Your comments about the attractiveness of dramas depicting the battle between good and evil go far beyond fantasy, though. As you point out, crime is also currently hugely popular, no doubt for the same reason. In an earlier era, westerns fulfilled a similar role (although in a distinctly non-PC way, in many cases). War movies often deal with similar themes, often also branching out into the redemption theme. Much of the great literature also deals with similar themes, although generally in a more sophisticated way. Seems to me that the good/evil battle is actually hardwired into our brains, and reflects ongoing inner conflict. We like to see the good guy win in the movies or wherever because we know that the inner battle is never finished.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Mark, with respect, I’m not sure you can have read all the fantasy I mention, if you think it’s all about certainty and stark choices between good and evil. The struggle between good and evil (often in the same heart) are certainly central features of all of them, but there are many complexities involved in every single work–including in the supposedly dualistic Lord of the Rings. As to Terry Pratchett, one can scarcely accuse him of promoting certainty–nor Susanna Clarke’s book. Not sure what you mean by ‘conservative’ –an evil regime like the one in Mordor can be hell-bent on conserving its own power and status quo while being determined to destroy others’ way of life. You can be conservative about good things or bad things, and radical ditto. (and of course these can be interpreted differently by different people).

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago

Just what does it take for a genre to qualify as culturally dominant? And why no mention of the “Romance” genre? It’s been a nice little earner for Mills & Boon over the years – or am I confusing popularity and book sales with cultural dominance?

Mark U
Mark U
2022 years ago

Where is the complexity in Lord of the Rings? Everyone divides fairly neatly into good or evil, with the exception of Boromir (who doesn’t survive past Part One) and Gollum who we sympathise with because he is possessed by the ring and is powerless to make his own choices.

Same with the Harry Potter series to date.

I confess I have only read the first Pratchett book. This struck me as a good romp, with self-interest being the driver of the behaviour of many of the characters. There was no sense of a fundamental battle between good and evil, which you seemed to be claiming in your original post was the reason that fantasy was popular.

I would appreciate being pointed to those fantasy novels that are both well written and recognise that good and evil reside in the one person. I am looking for some good holiday reading!!

Graham
2022 years ago

Go away, read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and then come back. (It does get a tad didactic in parts, but for the most part it’s pretty good. Plus it is anything but “conservative”.)

mark
2022 years ago

Mark, practically anything Terry Pratchett has written!

His first (published) book was /The Carpet People/, but I assume you mean you’ve read /The Colour of Magic/, which is sort of the first Discworld book. /Colour of Magic/ isn’t a real novel. It’s three separate short stories — one parodies fantasy as she is typically written, one parodies HP Lovecraft, and one’s, well, just an ending (of sorts) for the other two stories.

You want a Pratchett book which deals with the struggle within a person between good & evil? Pretty narrow criterion, but okay: /Guards! Guards!/, /Witches Abroad/, /Feet of Clay/, /Carpe Jugulum/, /The Fifth Elephant/, /Night Watch/.

Of course, there’s a metric truckload more to Pratchett than just that. Any questions?

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Mark, for good holiday reading, I’d highly recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell–a wrist-breaking book, but absolutely wonderful–a mixture of sly wit, amazing magic, fairytale, earnest ‘scientific’ enquiry and sheer fun, all written in a leisurely early 19th cent. way. Also, doing a bit of self-advertising here, you may enjoy some of my books–my adult historical fantasy Forest of Dreams, set around the life and work of the 12th cent. French poet Marie de France(one of the first to use Celtic themes of magic and the Otherworld in the romance genre), and my latest, children’s fantasy which many adults seem to enjoy–In Hollow Lands, set in 14th cent Brittany, around the legends of korrigans, the strange, ambivalent Breton fairies; and Snow, Fire, Sword, a fantasy set in a parallel-world version of modern Indonesia, which also explores the threat that Islamism poses to the traditional syncretic culture of Indonesia, particularly Java).Also, yes, Pullman’s His Dark Materials is highly recommended, though it’s a bit of a curate’s egg–Northern Lights, the first in the trilogy is fantastic; The Subtle Knife is still very good, the third, The Amber Spyglass, though still magnificent, is too preachy by half (and as Graham points out, it’s anything but conservative being as it is about ‘the death of God’). Pullman’s other books, well worth reading, include: Clockwork, a perfect little Gothic gem; I Was a Rat, a wonderfully witty extrapolation of Cinderella, and the Sally Lockhart quartet–The Ruby in the Smoke, the Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, The Tin Princess–great, beautifully-written Victorian crime adventures with a hint of the supernatural and a dab of politics (Philip’s a bit of an old-fashioned Socialist).
Then there’s also Michael Swanwick’s extraordinary The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a curiously moving, violent, exotic story which features an Otherworld gone robber-baron capitalist. Gummo, you’re right about romance being hugely popular but it’s not really dominant in terms of the general culture–which is what I was really writing about. (eg the way in which the Flores researchers used ‘hobbit’ as shorthand for their Little People).

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Incidentally, meant to say too mark–the complexity of Lord of the Rings lies in its central theme–the Ring itself, which represents the will to absolute power, which is at the ocentre of evil itself, and which brings temptation for many characters, not only Boromir and Gollum(who’s been destroyed by it) but also Bilbo and Frodo.

Mark U
Mark U
2022 years ago

Thank you all for the holiday reading suggestions!

harry
harry
2022 years ago

‘Only Forward’ by Michael Marshall Smith gets my nod.

Speculative fiction has, as it’s root, philosophy. That is looking at the world, interpereting it and exploring ideas.

Surely Gollum brought the idea of drug dependance to the fore?
Surely (despite Lucas’ hamfisted efforts) Darth Vader can be seen as a tragic character rather than just the embodiment of evil?
Heck, toss around ideas of The Force and compare it to Buddhism and it’s idea of becoming a buddha and being one with the universe. Then find that the same idea is found in celtic mythology with ‘The search for Cernunos’ etc etc etc.
How about the ideas in CrouchingTigerHiddenDragon: the incompatability with the life of the warrior with a life ruled by emotions, in particularly love. Is the shunning of what makes us human neccesary to fullfill the task of a warrior ie take life, arguably the ultimate act of inhumanity?

The best definition I ever read for Science Fiction is ‘Take real life, and change just one bit.’

For condensed non-good/evil speculative fiction find an anthology of short stories (preferably Australian, of course) eg Dreaming Down-Under or one the ones put out by Agog press (Fantastic Fiction, Terrific Tales, Smashing Stories).