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Fantasy Literature and Mystification (Part 2)

This is a continuation and completion of an essay I started a while back.  Hopefully the interested reader (if there are any) will read the earlier entry first.

III - Progressive and Reactionary Dynamics in Fantasy

Although there are traditions in fantasy literature that have never been connected to the “feudalism lite” that dominates high fantasy (the so-called “new weird” and its precedents, for example), what is often called “high fantasy” or “heroic fantasy”––that medieval kind of fantasy where there are sword fights and wizards––is definitely dominated by idyllic and reactionary tendencies.  From the conservative Terry Goodkinds (with his “mud people” and oriental despots) to the liberal Russell Kirkpatricks or Karen Millers, a mystified and imaginary feudalism dominates the genre.

But there is now an emergence of a high fantasy literature that attempts to overcome the tropes of problematized in the previous sections.  After George R.R. Martin there is Steven Erikson (the Malazan series) and R. Scott Bakker (the Prince of Nothing Trilogy).  Richard Morgan’s foray into fantasy territory, The Steel Remains, or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy and Best Served Cold, are perhaps the best examples of how what was once fun and mystified in high fantasy can become horrific and real.  Before these there was Mary Gentle’s brilliant Ash: A Lost History, which was interrogating the tropes of popular fantasy literature––and doing so in a way that was more gritty and real than any of this new emergent literature––years before Mieville coined the term “feudalism lite.”   We can also speak of Kate Elliott’s Crossroads Trilogy as a “feudalism hard” because, though it is not as gritty and horrific as some of the above examples, it has probably done what Martin’s books failed to do.  That is, the Crossroads Trilogy excavates the contradictions of pre-capitalist and competing civilizations, and does so without being preachy.

The emergence of this type of high fantasy, however, is often treated and dismissed as a trend.  On a SciFiWorld string, readers complain about the gritty realness of these authors, wishing that this literature would become unfashionable.  There is a longing for fantasy literature to return to the simplistic “good vs. evil” moral tales, tales that obscure so many reactionary ideologies and speak of a feudalism that never existed in real history.  The yearning for a past that never existed, a common trope of this type of literature, is evident amongst its fans.

But this longing represents something common in fantasy literature whether it be high fantasy, urban fantasy, or some other articulation of the genre.  If we define fantasy as a genre that is concerned with the fantastic (magic, impossible creatures, etc.), then the yearning for a past that never existed––for a mystification eroded by modernity and rationality––should be understood as the reactionary element of the genre.  That is, when we are dealing with the fantastic as subject matter, it becomes all too easy to dwell on mystified social relations, along with mystic creatures and magic.

At the same time, however, there are indeed problematic aspects to this neo-grittyness (or "grimdark" as it is sometimes categorized by both its detractors and supports) that would hamper anything that focuses only on its grittiness.  A lot of reactionary thrillers and horror are gritty simply because they want to wallow in violence; the trend of writing gritty fantasy fiction is already producing authors who are interested only in the aestheticization of violence––grit for shock value.  Hence the emergent tendency of "grimdark" novels, written by men, to depict rape in a way that is so infected by the male gaze as to feel like an endorsement of rape.  And this tendency, of course, severely hampers some of the books mentioned above (i.e. George R.R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker have been rightly critiqued for being misogynist in their depiction of women) as well.

Before going any further I should indicate that my above definition of fantasy is intentionally simple.  In the world of speculative fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror often intersect.  If we separate these intersections into genres, and explain what elements and concerns belong to what genre, we can understand how the use of these elements are either politically progressive or politically reactionary.  When it comes to fantasy, then, I believe we can understand what is a reactionary or political trend by considering how the genre concerns are treated. 

Those who question the fantastical elements, refuse to divorce them from reason, and try to demystify the mystified––that is, try to understand how the possibility of the fantastic would actually communicate with the real, either on a literal or metaphorical level––are those who engage with fantasy in a progressive manner.  Take Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, for example: here the magical and the mystic is eventually revealed to be something that cripples society; on a metaphorical level, it becomes an analogy of the demystification of the superstitious world caused by the Enlightenment schism; and wizards and their schemes, Abercrombie teaches us, cannot really be trusted if they ever existed––the wise old wizard is a throwback to an age where humanity is dominated by the forces of superstition.  Similarily, in Melinda Snodgrass’s The Edge of Reason, a work of urban rather than high fantasy, the propensity to lament the end of the magical world because of cold-hearted and calculating freedom is rejected: the heroes are those who fight for the end of superstition.

On the other hand, those who celebrate the mystified, and ignore the social questions that possible reality of their fantastical world (and, in the case of high fantasy, their imagined feudal world), represent the reactionary trend in the genre.  Whether these books be high fantasy or urban fantasy or whatever, this trend is represented by a desire to go back to a world that never existed––a desire to embrace superstition, and the attendant social relations that enable this superstition, as liberating.  There are numerous books concerned with the disappearance of magic under the forces of reason and most of these books (The Edge of Reason, as indicated above, being one of better exceptions) believe that the world will be better, and more beautiful, if it is “magical.”  S.M. Peters’s recent Ghost Ocean, for example, typifies this idea by celebrating superstition, casting those who try to prevent the return of the mystical as “jailors,” and valorizing the esoteric: names like Crowley and Waite are dropped, those proto-fascist throwbacks to pre-Enlightenment thought, and the occult is celebrated as a solution to a much-hated science.  As if science, and not the social relations currently behind science, is by itself a force that causes the instrumental and brutal rationality of capitalism.

(Obviously I am not suggesting that the binary of magic-science is suddenly progressive if the values are placed on science rather than magic.  The questioning of problems related to scientific rationality, though, is not a genre concern of fantasy since fantasy is defined by the fantastic.  It is, however, a genre concern of science-fiction and, as I have indicated, these two genres often intersect.  Thus, a book that might be predominantly fantastic can also contain a sci-fi dimension and, due to this, the same concerns: China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books are paradigmatic examples of this intersection.  In this essay, however, I am simply drawing out the unique concerns of the fantastic tradition for my overall examination of reactionary high fantasy.)

The idea that life would be better mystified, the reactionary dynamic of fantasy, is what leads to the uncritical slough of high fantasy literature.  If life is  better in a world of magical creatures, wizards, and heroes with magical swords, then it can also be argued that the social relations that have historically permitted people to accept that the world is completely defined by magic are equally desirable.  In most pre-capitalist modes of production natural and social forces were explained according to superstition: earthquakes happened because some god was angry, seasons possessed a supernatural dimension, disease was the result of miasma, there were natural gender roles, kings were kings because of divine ordination, other nations were bad because they had the wrong religion and were not chosen by the gods, etc.  But reactionary high fantasy sanitizes this world, transforming it into a yearning for a world that never existed. 

While it is true that the rise of the Enlightenment and capitalism created new alienations and new horrors––nor did it succeed in driving away superstition––those who write the lovely and sanitized epics advocate an escapism from history and society, an imaginary flight into a world where peasants are happy, evil gods and their servants are the problem, and good magic and/or monarchy is always the solution.  The fact that there are fantasy fans who now resent the progressive and “gritty” strains of high fantasy simply indicates that high fantasy is being dragged into the real world and there are those in the the fantasy community who wish to resist this pull––who want an escapist literature where their mystified worlds, boy kings and chosen people are never questioned.