A Rant in Defense of Fantasy Castles, Cloaks, Kings, and Cooking

A counterblast to those fantasy-haters who use A Tough Guide as their stick to lambast

A few years back, in the Critters Writing Workshop Discussion newsgroup on SFF.NET, we were talking about fantasy, and what sells, and why, and what we want to write. Some fantasy writers are defensive after the excellent and very funny skewering Diana Wynne Jones gave the unthought cliches of the fantasy genre in her A TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASY. Heck, I have my own, much older, satire in my Henchminions story elsewhere on this website. But Jones isn’t against fantasy—she writes it!—What she pillories are old tropes that are used without much thought, and I maintain that if we think about what in those same tropes we love, and why we love them, then maybe as writers we’ll find ways to make them fresh—and as readers we’ll find writers who them fresh for us.

Well, here’s the rant.

Judging from the sales, it’s obvious that readers really like all those old quasi-medieval tropes. Are these readers all drooling trolls whose idea of haute cuisine is Velveeta on Rye-Crisp and whose idea of landscaping is to park the rotting ’68 Impala on the front lawn next to the rusting Kelvinator?

Here are some of my own observations on the audience for those books.

1. Young readers. We sometimes forget, we who have been reading reams of print for decades, that we too began enthusiastic reading with something that seemed to us new —and that some of our first favorites were, um, not exactly Nobel Prize Winners. Everything is new to each new reader. Thus, the most tired Tolkien-clone is going to be fresh and exciting to a fourteen year old who craves a story about an ordinary kid who ends up, after adventures full of wonder and sorrow, as king, or a plucky orphan who Impresses a horse/dragon/cat/wolf/whatever creature, or finds a magic weapon or ring…who longs for glimpses Beyond the Fields We Know. The distant echo of what drew Tolkien out of his abstruse linguistic studies to fashion a world whose greatness was ending—just as Tolkien’s own world was ending— still resonates in those books, judging from the eager responses of my high school students. And I say, good for them!

2. Older readers. There are older readers who buy these books for escapist reading. Escapist reading has been a subject of debate ever since the first flamewars in Spectator. (I have one issue from the early 1700s wherein the current taste in trash novels is pilloried by the writers.) Charlotte Lennox in her A Female Quixote lambastes young ladies ‘educating’ themselves on romances in, what, 1742? Jane Austen’s juvenilia pokes enthusiastic fun at the novels (making it clear that she devoured reams of them first—probably just as enthusiastically) ending with her brilliant panegyric on her sister authors in the beginning of Northanger Abbey—which in itself is a gentle satire of the Gothick Novel.

The main ingredients of escapist reading across all genres, going right back to those early ones, are recognizable characters, situations, and stories—what critics sneeringly call the mimetic or phatic.

My handy-dandy collegiate Webster’s defines ‘phatic’ as revealing or sharing feelings or establishing an atmosphere of sociability rather than communicating ideas. Phatic discourse when applied to everyday life refers to those meaningless phrases like “How are ya?” that no one really listens to. Such phrases serve to open communication. When applied to literature, it can refer to tropes used over and over again in order to instantly cue the reader to an effect, or an emotion that the author wants the reader to feel: some have likened these tropes to the laugh track on a sitcom in order to let you know you’re supposed to laugh. Mimetic means mimicry, and it’s another way of coming at tropes that have become common—like dragon-riders and impressment, or handsome and sexy vampires who never seem to have death breath, though all they drink is blood. The third term used is the dismissive ‘cliche.’

Unless we’re a middle schooler just discovering fantasy we instantly recognize that doughty young farmboy who defends the village children against a troll, using only his pitchfork, or the gamine-faced young thief whose slanting green eyes and high cheekbones promise great beauty when she does finally take a bath (somewhere after meeting the handsome prince, or bard, who will elevate her to the style to which she wishes to become accustomed). We recognize the Dark Lord as soon as he sacrifices some hapless villagers, or orders his Army of Night into yet another kingdom to conquer once-happy peasants and enlightened rulers. Those elements have become comfortably familiar plotlines: those of us who like to read about the seemingless helpless taking charge of their lives, and the seemingly powerful getting their just desserts, will try to seek characters who aren’t quite cardboard cutouts of the ones we’ve seen so many times before. We’re looking for a fresh blend of the familiar elements, so we can live the story along with our hero who learns to take action. We know that action will actually be effective in the end, that honor means something even in this little scrap of a world, that justice is a concept that brings peace. Where some postmodernists will slam this theme for its political agenda and bourgeouis values, other reader s might only see a social and emotional bond beneath notions of harmony and order.

I like writing about castles, and preindustrial societies. I like cloaks, and stylish gowns. I like duels with steel. I like battles of wits, and I prefer violence to be stylized— swashbuckling—a bit like cartoons, where the bad guys mowed down never seem real, and where there might be deaths but there is no protracted pain and suffering. At my age, I know the difference. I like archetypal characters who display believable personality traits of the sort I see in people around me. I can believe in an awesome Gandalf-like wizard if he reminds me just a little of my Uncle Joe.

I don’t read books about meaningless misery, and I don’t write them. What I like to write is, I know, another person’s cliche, because I love the old-fashioned story in which honor and justice and mercy can win.

I like to think of those tropes in the way I see a sonnet. The sonnet form isn’t going to change. Those 14 lines, and the rhyme scheme, are the rules. But what you say within those limits can, if done right, resonate right down through the centuries to readers whose lives I otherwise would scarcely comprehend—i.e., just like Shakespeare has done for us. That other sonneteers aren’t remembered does not mean that the sonnet form is creatively bankrupt. No, it means that Shakespeare’s are rare gifts.

For a couple of hours there are no fruitless searches for weapons of mass destruction, no child molestors, no cancer, no drunks wiping out whole families on the road at night. No Columbine School re-enactments, with children wiping out other children. We know how the story is going to go, and for a little time, the world makes sense, and right wins because there is justice and mercy and order in the universe.

So next week we might cruise by B&N after a dreary day at work, and there’s a new fantasy, featuring a new doughty character who learns to square up against the powerful—and win. Well, why not? Better than watching the news.