I confess I’m struggling a little with this post. The Fantasy genre, from its humble beginnings as stories for children, that blossomed into fiction for adults by Lord of the Rings and has close dies to RPGs, video games and movies really is a fictional staple, and its hard to analyze something so ubiquitous in culture.
I have to credit KnightOwl for giving me a start. In an earlier comment they mention how the ‘Western’ as a genre showed a highly romanticized version of the wild-west, and there is no doubt that fantasy stories depict a romanticized version of medieval times. After all we’re really happy to hear about swords and armour and castles, however disease, back-broken peasant workers and wide-spread illiteracy tend not to feature so much.
But why do we romanticize such things, and why does Fantasy seem to “fit” so well, after all we also seem to glamorize other historical periods, yet ‘Hunter-Gatherer’ isn’t really a genre and other than maybe ‘Pirate’ movies we don’t really see quite such huge focus on others.
My first theory is that the time-period (or technically speaking “era” after all the majority of Fantasy novels aren’t set in the past per se, they are set in alternate worlds) that Fantasy are set in captures society at a crux between global organisation, and individual freedom. By which I mean society is somewhat organised, there is a sense of a world – and perhaps importantly a world that can be changed – however there isn’t a more modern feeling of any given individual being overwhelmed and disappearing into the morass of human civilization. Conflicts are often presented as warfare between races, not necessarily (I hope) because the stories tap into our innate racism, but because we long for a world so simple, where baddies are Orcs, and goodies are Elves. In more modern settings such simplicity doesn’t fit, and push too far into the past like say in Clan of the Cave Bear, one has sense of simplicity but not that the actions of one can change the world, because the world is essentially a few isolated tribes.
Granted all fiction has that element of simplification, however I think Fantasy captures our imagination in a way that doesn’t make us balk. It’s hard to imagine Lord of the Rings in a modern setting because there are so many factors that don’t fit, travel for one thing, global communication. More on this in a second but also magic and modern technology are an awkward fit.
I have another slightly left field theory and that is the nature of the technology and yes specifically weaponry creates a more personal feel. For whatever reason, swords and shields capture our interest and I suspect part of it is that physical conflict becomes up-close and personal. While a lot of movie demonstrate the joy of guns and explosions I’m not sure that the written word captures much of it, and when it comes to blades you know that characters are going to be within speaking distance of each other.
Also there is something blunt and immediate about castles. It would be wrong to discuss the Fantasy genre without mentioning our weird obsession with castles. I don’t know whether we want to live in them (apparently probably not a great idea, they were actually drafty, and very open with little privacy) like the look of them or what but again there is something clear-cut about a castle, its either held by the humans or the “bad-guys”, standing or fallen, draw-bridge up or down.
Finally I need to mention the presence of magic and Fantasy. I find this a real challenge because I can’t quite pin down what is going on. I do think there is an element of magic fitting well with swords and primitive technology. The moment ‘science’ catches up to magic you’ve got some complications. While obviously modern settings do often contain magic, e.g. an entire genre called Urban Fantasy. It seems pretty obvious that Fantasy novels is the mainstay of magic. But I also think that it’s easier to suspend your disbelief of magic and monsters in a past setting. Like I said above Fantasy seems to be set in a time where you can change the world, and Fantasy is usually set in a way where you can safely believe that Gandalf the Gray has wandered the world for 2000 years without anyone posting conspiracy blogs about it. Point is you dump a dragon into the modern world and you have to explain why many different outcomes haven’t occurred, and in some respects people aren’t picking up a novel to listen to different rationales for why your story works, they just want the story, and its instantly more believable that a dragon has gone unpoached, studied or documentaried, in a medieval setting than a modern.
So in short, I think the allure of Fantasy or rather the market success, is driven by the freedom of the genre. Within Fantasy there is a lot that can be explored without having to explain just why exactly. Equally there is a sense of freedom, of potential characters in Fantasy aren’t crushed by social media, working weeks, and uncomfortable global politics. They may be crushed by a cave-troll, but that is a nice straightforward problem, dealt with by a handy and sharp blade!
Thanks for reading!
What are your thoughts on Fantasy as a genre?