An apology in advance is due here, I feel. This is a rather meandering post, and I’m not sure I can structure it any better currently. Please bear with me, you’re following a thought process here, rather than a clear and well-reasoned treatise. So apologies in advance for the back-and-forth.
I’ve been getting mired in the videos of Team NChick recently, because Lindsay & Co do some fantastic criticism of films and the film industry and their surrounding social milieu all in one. And recently they’ve done a fantastic four-part review of the Lord of the Rings films and the effect they’ve had on the industry. I’ve loved watching them, but the following quote derailed my thoughts (please forgive my terrible transcription skills):
the two different genres [science fiction and fantasy] have a touch of an ideological split… …the basic gist is that fantasy is more history-oriented and backwards-looking where science fiction is more speculation and science-oriented, and forward-looking. Obviously these things exist on a bit of a spectrum, you look at something like Dune which is a weird futuristic/historical fiction that’s very influenced by history and mythology, and the Dragonriders of Pern, which was at least as sci-fi as Star Wars was.
But fantasy as a genre has always been kind of limited by its influence. And that influence in modern times has been one thing: [cue LOTR shot]. The modern fantasy genre was heavily inspired by Mr Tolkien, and Tolkien was heavily inspired by European languages and history. Also, the western world… “We just like Europe!” So as a result, fantasy is very rooted in European folklore and history. Movies like Princess Mononoke for instance, which incorporate lots of Japanese mythology, yes, but they don’t define the genre to western folks in the same way something familiar-feeling like Dragonheart or Willow might. Fantasy is the realm of magical expansions of things that are already familiar in the western collective unconscious.
But this really is nothing new, unfortunately. The fantasy genre isn’t exactly brimming with originality. The same tired human-dwarf-elf fighter-thief-wizard archetypes do seem to get trotted out a lot. I’ve joined the condemnation and ranted about it on here, as have others. So why the sudden realisation about it now?
Firstly, the fanboy in me leapt to the defence of my pet genre, citing examples such as the Elder Scrolls series of computer games and White Wolf’s Exalted roleplaying game, both of which are recognisably fantasy, but pull influences from elsewhere the world and their authors’ heads. Tolkien’s stuff gets used as the template for a lot that came after, but Middle-earth is still unique among them in feel. Surely all this breathtaking originality is enough to save the wonderful treasure that is fantasy fiction?
And then I calmed down, and thought what is it that makes these particular titles and worlds unique (at least to me), when there is so much generic rubbish out there? The answer again lies with Team NChick. In a Men in Black review. In a nutshell, it’s the world that draws you into the film, that make you think that this is only a small part of the whole, that there’s so much more out there for you to discover. In short, the mystery of the setting. Not the graphics or the action or even really the story, but the world that seems to breathe through them, that we only glimpse out of the corner of our reader’s eye.
That the glimpse is fleeting is key for me; things that are fully explained get boring quickly. And one of the major concerns of many fantasy writers is to have a rulebook for their world. There are many, many such rulesets. Not all of them bad, it must be said. So why are some things so boring and awful? I believe it’s because they try to explain things too much, to cover all bases. To make a science out of magic, rather than a philosophy. The latter leaves room for questions and uncertainties, whereas the former leaves none.
And so to step away from magic and back to Lindsay’s last point, that the warm fuzzy familiarity of much fantasy is that we’re hearing the same stories told with different sets of rules. What’s bad about this is that we wind up already knowing much of the story and the outcomes, and even the templates used to explain them, before we ever turn the first page. This can be cleared up quite easily by using a different kind of rulebook, if it is a rulebook. Rather than blathering on vaguely about this, I’m going to take a brief detour into Greek words.
In Ancient Greek, there were two words for knowledge, logos and mythos. Logos was science-knowledge, the true-false absolute that could be arrived at via reasoning and evidence. Mythos was moral truth, the shared experiences and feelings evoked through storytelling, singing, poetry and the like. Logos is what spoke to the head, mythos is what spoke to the heart. Our own word mythology presses both of these into service – it’s the seeking and application of logos about mythos.
In that sense, then, most fantasy these days seems to be mythology; it is applying a logos mindset to mythos. This means that much fantasy loses its mythos because it’s too rigid in its truths; they become matters of fact, rather than the feeling that they should be. Fantasy novels become stories about a kind of science, primarily explaining how the new world works, rather than creating drama.
Those fantasy series that I feel break the current fantasy mould and go beyond this to do new and interesting things tap mythos as their main driver; they keep the mystery there, using the setting to drive the story rather than the other way round. We never fully understand the reason of several of the elements of the settings (like the reason that Solar Exalted are returning to Creation in greater numbers after the disappearance of the Scarlet Empress, or the reason the Dwemer disappeared from Mundus), because applying reason to them isn’t something that’s meant to be done. That these things are left unexplained is so much more fulfilling because a) it leaves more room for the real human drama to unfold, and b) it allows us to use our own imaginations as to what the answers might be. Which leads to creativity in us, and allows mythos to be expressed so much better.
I know that most of these examples aren’t really about stories as such, more setting information and the like supplied through pen-and-paper roleplaying and computer games, but I hope it helps reinforce my point; when the setting becomes the (slightly blurred) backdrop rather than the focus of the narratives, they end up being much richer for it.