Over at The Atlantic, E.D. Kain, editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen and writer on public policy and criminal justice reform at Forbes, wonders when fantasy (he’s mostly talking about Tolkien-lineage secondary world kind), once dorky, is going to lose its media popularity.
It’s hard to dissect a zeitgeist when you’re in it. And sometimes there’s no particular reason for a fashion, other than that someone made money from a particular product and others hope to do likewise with a similar product. And some fantasies — vampires, for instance — are enduringly popular because they speak to something, perhaps something physical, that generation after generation goes through. Girls and vampires are like girls and horses — the fascination may never fade unless whatever unresolvable thing the fantasy figure brings up is, in fact, resolved. The popularity of Twilight shouldn’t be assumed to be related to the popularity of Harry Potter or A Game of Thrones.
“There’s a reason fantasy wasn’t mainstream before. It’s a genre that appeals to people who play D&D and get their kicks reading about elves with names like Tanis Half-Elven and Galadriel,” writes Kain. Hmm. So why is it mainstream now? (I have no idea, actually.) Regarding the people who play D&D etc., maybe I’m wrong (hey, the internet is the place to be wrong, innit?) but, having been one in my youth, I would say fantasy appeals to people who, amongst other things, prefer elves and dragons to whatever fantasies the popular mainstream is pushing. A materialist fantasy? A religious fantasy? A fantasy of power, beauty and love via possession of brand-name items? Someone who sees through all this crap still needs an outlet for the natural human tendency to dream and imagine, and perhaps would like to dream of a world that isn’t full of crap. Elves? Better than crap. Dragons? Better than crap. (I was more the kind who would have gone for at least some of the crap if I could have afforded it, I admit.)
More complexly (is that a word?), some people might want to live out popular fantasies as fantasies only. Military conquest is a dangerous but enduring fantasy. Better to enjoy it in the privacy of a book, or a roleplaying game, hopefully aware of what you’re enjoying, than to go forth and kill real people who don’t need killing.
The dreams of science fiction, that other refuge of nerds, haven’t come true, except for one or two that we aren’t sure we want to be true, like cloning. The holy grail of the popular science fiction dream, FTL travel, is probably locked out of reach by the laws of physics. Our itch to explore goes unscratched.
Our minds have to go somewhere to play.
Human beings live through our dreams in so many ways. We dream collectively. The post-war dream, the capitalist dream, doesn’t have an external enemy these days — at least, not one against which it can wage a narratively satisfying war. A madman with a dirty bomb could do a lot of damage. The Yellowstone supervolcano could do a lot more. We’re at the mercy of chaos, just as we’ve always been. The climate? Science makes a compelling case that we’re our own enemy on that front, which is no fun, and we seem not to have the will to fight ourselves.
Fantasy provides an escape into a world where there are at least a few rules — as many if not most books do, but the presence of rules in fantasy is highlighted by their unfamiliar nature. As for fighting ourselves, though, fantasy does tend to offer heroes who overcome their own weaknesses, and who endure privation and pain and make sacrifices. They could serve as examples in many situations (if we ask them to do myth duty rather than just entertain). But there’s a danger in being satisfied with vicarious experience of the example, so that one doesn’t enact it in life. I think I’m as prone to this as anyone.
I have no idea when fantasy’s spell will wear out, but I find it interesting to wonder why, at certain times, a culture gets a boner for certain forms of dreaming. Sometimes it’s obvious at the time, but although I can think of reasons why we’re into fantasy right now (and I’m aware that this post isn’t any kind of cogent presentation — I’m out of practice at even pretending to be cogent — but more a vague drifting around what those reasons might be), nothing leaps out at me going “This is why!”
On a soapbox on a tangent: Kain diverges briefly into talking about fantasy and genre, getting right under the bunions of the Clomping Foot of Nerdism with “whether the Harry Potter books qualify as true fantasy is more controversial, with many fans and many detractors in the fantasy traditionalist camp”, and claims “no self-respecting fantasy purist would ever be caught dead reading [Twilight].” I don’t know what a fantasy purist is when it’s at home — my mind helpfully makes a picture of Oliver Cromwell armed with Excalibur. Then Excalibur goes all Stormbringer and starts laying waste to Cromwell’s nearest and dearest before plunging into Cromwell’s chest and claiming his soul for God. Fade to black. Anyway, most conversations about what is or isn’t fantasy remind me of metalheads arguing about whether some screaming distorted paean to the rotting anus of Christ is Blackened Death Metal or Black Christian Metal. In a word, disturbing.
“Fantasy” is a broad-reaching term. It covers all manner of myth, including science-fiction, as well as its other, real-world meaning, where it covers pornography, advertising and of course religion, and is implicated in psychology and political ideology — and I think an understanding of fantasy’s operations out of reality help to identify its operations within reality, where they otherwise may go camouflaged like ninjas in out midst. Maybe we need a special word for “secondary world fantasy with dragons, magic swords and optional elves” to avoid confusion?
Whew. Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything but “this is what I did today” or “I like this.” Give my brain a week off writing and it gets the blithering urge!