Avoiding Fantasy Stereotypes
...And Sometimes Not
Saturday, July 8, 2017
The very act of trying to define "fantasy" often ends up being a testament to fantasy's biggest problem: suffocation by stereotype. The academic parameterization of fantasy premises upon the effects of the supernatural upon the world, and the transformation of civilization (usually highlighted through the transformation of a few individuals)—yet the vast storytelling space contained herein goes broadly unutilized and unexplored. Instead, to define "fantasy" we customarily invoke certain iconic, medievalistic conditions of the milieu—that is, the stereotypes: the knight in shining armor; the wizard in the tall tower; the old witch in the swamp; internecine political intrigue; and village after village of ugly, ugly people smeared in dirt and dressed in colorless tattered rags. Most popular fantasy—across all media; I'm not just talking about books—lays its foundations here, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones.
There are two flaws in this: First, even just within the much narrower space of a medievalist environment, most of the potential storytelling space goes unused. The major tropes I mentioned occur in most fantasy stories—and quite repetitively too, with little real variation. Try and subvert them—to increase diversity—and instead of broadening fantasy we end up splintering it, most prominently into those genres that ratchet the chronometer forward: gothic or horror fantasy, gaslamp fantasy and Victorian fantasy, and urban fantasy. The underlying problem of unused storytelling space—or, as seen more properly from the other side, the problem of the preponderance of formulaic, predictable stories that mimic each other degenerately—isn't actually tackled, except inasmuch as these genres' innovations depart from the iconic fantasy tropes altogether. In simpler words, there's not enough fantasy that utilizes the medievalist theme but avoids the stereotypes.
(* You'll note I'm leaving out genres like steampunk and space opera. For today I am setting aside the controversial relationship between "fantasy" and "science fiction," in an effort to prevent distractions from my thesis on charges of "That's sci-fi, not fantasy.")
The second flaw is significantly more abstract, but also more important to the central problem: These major tropes, these stereotypes in fantasy, are so broadly inapplicable across the spectrum of our imaginations and our cultural exposures in real life, that at some point we must recognize that fantasy's unimaginative homogeneity is due to the fact that it's so fake. Culturally, we have no personal reference or connection to the medievalist world, and so, like Disneyland or Las Vegas, we create a very particular, stupendously artificial image in our collective cultural psyche (much of it simply wrong), and our labors of new fantasy storytelling are bent toward honoring this image—fulfilling everybody's expectations—as opposed to exploring the true (and vast!) storytelling space offered even by the medievalist theme, let alone the full domain of supernatural forces and transformations of civilization.
The Curious Tale, which does largely utilize a medievalist setting, is a very unusual work in its class—highly original inasmuch as it is minimally derivative or imitative with respect to earlier fantasy works, is not beholden to the artificial image of medievalist fantasy and all the stereotypes entailed thereby, and indeed takes care to contemplate "how it really was" in the societies it depicts. Yet neither is it a work that purposely avoids fantasy stereotypes altogether. Far from it, in fact! Today, and next week, I'll be talking about The Curious Tale's complicated relationships with these classic fantasy stereotypes.
What Today's Article Isn't
My purpose today is not to indict fantasy, even though I'll necessarily be doing some of that (and have already done) along the way. Let me be clear, that, like a city, fantasy has some neighborhoods that are vibrant or progressive and others that are stagnant or degenerate, and even within the various "neighborhoods" there is still greater variety at the level of individual "houses," i.e. individual tales. There's a lot of good fantasy storytelling happening today, probably more so now than twenty years ago. Not only do I readily acknowledge this; I'm grateful for it too, because it relieves pressure on the cultural need for my own work and helps prepare people's mindsets for my work to thrive in.
Something else I need to clarify is what I mean by "fantasy." Longtime readers of mine will know that I've spilled some ink over the years constructing my own conceptual framework for fantasy—a continuing project, to be sure. I see fantasy as a transgenre—not even a supergenre, but a non-hierarchical federation of related genres and their subgenres, including the supergenre of "traditional" fantasy (typified by Tolkien), bound together by conceptual geography more than anything else. Like a nation, fantasy defies any truly comprehensive definition that accounts for every story, just as you could never set a definition of "American" that would include every American. Any attempt to define fantasy by substantive parameters alone will have exceptions, often whole subgenres of exceptions, that complicate the analysis of fantasy's central problem. The common link and most important hallmark of fantasy, then, is ultimately the claim of affiliation: That which claims to be fantasy, and isn't evidently not fantasy, is fantasy. That's what I mean by "conceptual geography," and "transgenre."
Therefore, another thing that today's article isn't, is an attempt to advance the scholarship of conceptualizing fantasy more thoroughly and accurately. Today I am going to largely ignore fantasy-as-a-transgenre and go straight to that supergenre of traditional fantasy with which fantasy itself is often conflated. Specifically, I will be discussing epic fantasy, whose own definition I will address later. And, even more specifically than that, I'm going to focus heavily on the stereotypes: the knight in shining armor, the wizard in the tall tower, and so on.
It should lastly be said that these stereotypes are a long list, where each item contains numerous variations. When I speak of the knight in shining armor, for instance, I'm not speaking narrowly of exactly that image. I'm speaking of the notion of medievalist-themed armed conflict, power-glorification modes, and the cultural contexts that give these conflicts their shape—best conveyed, perhaps, by familiar notions like chivalry and feudalism, but by no means limited to them. It is important you appreciate that I invoke these stereotypical images for convenience and brevity, and that in fact they stand in for a great deal more.
The Four Central Apprehensions of Fantasy
Fantasy has at least four major preoccupations. From most important to least they are: wish-fulfillment, philosophy (especially but not limited to social commentary), entertainment (including escapism), and reaction to (including mimicry of) existing stories. Not every work of fantasy serves all four purposes, but at least one and usually several of these are always present.
They will come up in the course of my analysis, so I am introducing them now.
Unreactionary Writing: Independence Over Sociability
Let's look first under the lid of the least of those apprehensions: reacting to existing fantasy stories, and more especially to their conventions.
Epic fantasy is one of the most hemmed in genres in fiction, drawn onto a narrow path by the gravity of its extraordinary exemplar, The Lord of the Rings, and further coerced to remain on that path by the pressure to meet popular expectations thereafter, which adds to the gravity by establishing custom. Though no subsequent writer ever rose to his level, most were keen—and many in epic fantasy still are—to imitate Tolkien's creations—of humble heroes, magical elves, ancient kingdoms, and world-devouring evils—and even those writers who have taken a different path often have done so in opposition to or subversion of Tolkien, thus reinforcing all the more the lasting dominance of his exemplar. It's a self-enclosed lock of stagnation and, because of it, epic fantasy has become horribly degenerate over the decades, repeating the same plots and characters and settings and themes and ideas over and over again—lacking the creativity that would freshen the genre, or the verve and wit of truly masterful storytellers who can make anything interesting but are few and far between, or the appeal to familiarity with the audience—which is impossible due to the medievalist environment, to which today's cultures do not relate. By far this degeneracy is worst on the mainstream tier, where publishers and many authors, filmmakers, and game developers have an absurdly narrow idea of what fantasy stories are supposed to be, but indie fantasy has its own albatrosses and shibboleths, often premised upon the subversion of the mainstream norms—an irony, since it makes many indie storytellers into something they're reacting against: predictable, uninventive, and bland. I wonder what some of the snappier writers would write, if they didn't ever labor to create more simulacra.
It is a mistake to think that defiance and subversion are the only way to render a rigidified genre supple again. Conjuring the antithesis of a thing is seldom a true departure from that thing. It isn't enough to look at fantasy and say "I want a knight in dingy armor instead of shining; that'll be fresh!"* No, to depart from stereotypes you have to do something much riskier than stand against them: You have to nullify the gravity that pulls you to those ideas at all.
(* I won't keep spelling it out, but, to get back to what I said earlier, these symbols stand for a lot more. Here, for instance, I am also criticizing contemporary "gray morality" fantasy storytelling that dispenses with conventional notions of good and evil but doesn't actually escape the narrow confines of conventional morality.)
I understand where the reactionary impulse comes from. It's intuitive to think we can fix a problem through counterbalance. It's also gratifying to be in rebellion—it just is. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a whole lot easier to make liberal use of tropes, conventions, and fixtures that have already been prepared for you, than it is to leave all that behind and tap into the true sources of fantasy from scratch.
On the particular point of being in rebellion, when I conceived ATH the RPG, the form it took was greatly shaped by my aversion to the stereotypes that I had come to recognize were drowning epic fantasy. As a younger teenager I couldn't get enough fantasy, but there a came a point when I the books started to bore me. They were repetitive. Different authors, but same cheap plots, same superficial characters. That deeply dissatisfied me, and my act of rebellion is emblazoned for all time in the name of my central work: After The Hero. I wanted to tell a story whose very beginning premise was to nullify the most central stereotype of its genre: the dull, reactionary, unimaginative, unassuming, unreasonably goody-two-shoes hero. Far more interesting, thought I, to take the villain and filter out all the equally garbage stuff about cruelty, pettiness, vanity, and so forth, leaving behind only someone dynamic, ambitious, proactive, deliberate, resourceful, competent, and wise.
What's interesting is that while my work's origins are rebellious in this respect, its contents are not. If you've read the Prelude to After The Hero then you probably understand what I mean: The story doesn't dwell at all on the fact that the traditional hero/villain dichotomy is subverted. The title intimates as much, but the actual story isn't about heroism and villainy. It reads more like a simple accounting of events; some have compared it—in a good way!—to C-SPAN. The actual contents of the story do not preoccupy themselves virtually at all with situating the story, for the reader's benefit, with respect to popular notions of what the genre says should be happening, both in-world and at the meta level. In satellite works like The Great Galavar and especially Mate of Song, this indifference is even more pronounced. Simply put, if you're expecting something particular from these stories purely because you're familiar with fantasy's tropes, then be prepared to have your expectations disappointed, for better or worse. There are exceptions, but they are modest and few.
(It must be addressed that my own plane of interacting with fantasy is different from most people's. Formulaic fantasy sells. There is evidently a good market for it. People gobble up tales of elves and wizards. They expect those things. The criticisms I am offering do not attempt to speak to the fact that plenty of people like their fantasy in its degenerate state, just as when they go to Las Vegas most folks are expecting to have a certain, iconic kind of experience. More relevantly, I am not attacking people who like different things from fantasy than I do. The fact of fantasy's degenerate state is a problem for me only in that it crimps exploration outside those narrow bounds and renders much of the repertoire uninteresting to me. That's one of the biggest reasons I write my own. By all means people should embrace what they like. Just because I largely outgrew most of the stereotypes of fantasy doesn't mean that any attribute of childishness can be imputed to those who still enjoy such things or find novelty and excitement in them; our individual differences render such comparisons inoperative. Though tangential to this essay, and thus enclosed in parentheses, it is an important point that I am glad to make, because it often gets lost in criticisms of popular things that one's own preferences don't generally say much about the quality of other people.)
There's so much variety in the human mind and in the world we inhabit that it's impossible for the Prelude, in the mind of any given reader, not to be reminiscent of something, but there are no obvious close parallels, no invocations. Certainly, there are none deliberate. That is the power of leaving behind the conventions of the genre. (And, if I may indulge myself, it is a remark upon my emphasis on a certain style of storytelling.) One of my favorite compliments from the Prelude was from a reader who said that Silence Terlais didn't remind them of any other character or character archetype. I do of course readily draw stylistic inspiration from other fantasy storytellers—especially Tolkien and Miyazaki—but never citationally, never to be seen to invoke others. In that sense you could even call my work antisocial. My artistic creativity is deeply personal; it is a self-absorbed, internal process of exploring my own imagination. I have no interest at all in the social dance of validating others with my acknowledgment, and it is fascinating to me how much of a driving motive this is for so many others—to the point where comparison with other stories and storytellers is often the principle mode of reaction or critique to a given work!
Here, then, we have my first reply to the title of this essay: the ways in which The Curious Tale avoids (and sometimes doesn't avoid) fantasy stereotypes: I am keenly aware that these stereotypes exist, but my writing does not especially warp to react to them—not to affirm, not to subvert, not to rebel against. I'm not above writing the knight in shining armor, or the wizard's tall tower. I'm neither beholden to those tropes nor beholden to avoiding or upending them. Simply put, my writing is not reactionary to the stereotypes of fantasy (or in general). It is off doing its own thing; sometimes it does come across more familiar turf, but always in its own, eccentric context. The writing is independent, and this gives it a fresh quality, because it is so unreminiscent of (most) things you've already read.
Epic Fantasy in Detail
Next I should dwell on the matter of why I'm targeting "epic fantasy" in particular for my analysis. There are many genres of fantasy within the traditional supergenre, and many subgenres within some of those genres, and a lot of the time people don't pay much heed to the distinctions, using terminology interchangeably. I find that a preponderance of highly specific yet interchangeable adjectives, when used of a system, indicate lack of understanding of that system. I don't think most people give much thought to what the various genre framework of fantasy is or why it matters to organize it so. When I tell people in person that I write fantasy, I don't bother to qualify what kind of fantasy. It's "swords and sorcery" as far as they're concerned; they get it; and they don't need to know and aren't likely interested in knowing that, more specifically, I write "romantic epic high fantasy."
"Romance" stands for pomp and marvels, emotional intensity, and idealism. "High" simply means that it's set on a world other than the "real" world. And "fantasy" we've covered.
But what about "epic"?
Tolkien didn't give us something truly new, any more than Augustus with his Roman Empire was giving the world Rome for the first time. What Tolkien did, more successfully than almost anyone before or after him, was to create a bridge for old myths to capture the fancy of a new era. Elves and dwarves and "Middle-Earth" were not new concepts, nor were his models of heroic integrity and world-devouring evil. The actual performances of magic in his magnum opus—seeing stones, marshalling the weather, cursed blades—all had vast precedent in folklore. What he did was not to create novelty, but to create relatability. He wrote a story that captured the imaginations of the mid-twentieth-century West.
This speaks to the purpose of epic fantasy. Epics, as you perhaps know, were once an oral tradition of history. The great examples were structured in verse—they were poems, or, if you will, songs. Even though they were not necessarily "sung," they used an elevated language and tone that taught succeeding generations a (rather unreliable version of a) culture's history through tales of the transformation of civilization. So it had to be, in a time where no electronic records existed and very few people could read. Oral histories were the only game in town for preserving a sense of cultural distinctiveness, and the epic is one of the forms of oral history that succeeded best, thriving in the imaginations of peoples not only to whom the stories were first recounted, but, in the case of the great epics, thriving still in the world today.
In the epics of old, empires are forged or toppled, peoples rise and fall, wars that shape the history of a continent are retold, gods are slaughtered. But this is only half the story. The other half is that you are a part of all this. Your history, your legacy. This is stuff you should care about because it's your story. Who among us fantasy fans cannot say we don't feel a connection of some kind to the medievalist world? Never mind, for the moment, that our perception of it is mostly wrong and woefully incomplete. That image beckons to us, perhaps instinctually, because it sings of a world we romanticize: nature, simplicity, community, even a little magic. It's a world, I notice, closer to the wilds whence our species arose, and to the pre-modern societies whence many of our cultural articles are provenanced.
The "epics" of today, and our more popular use of the word epic, focus entirely on the largeness of degree, but the word itself—the actual etymology—means "speech, tale, song," and is a cognate to the Latin vox, "voice." Epic fantasy, then, strives toward the grandeur of these historical epics, tales of sweeping change and transformation, packaged into capsules of present-day cultural relevance. Cheap attempts at fantasy never realized this at all; were interested only in the settings and not the contexts. Noble attempts attempt what Tolkien attempted: "Here are all these old stories, in a new form, a form that speaks to you, so that you can be enthralled by them. Here are your stories." It is a kind of wish-fulfillment that people often didn't know they wanted.
Many of the stereotypes that plague fantasy are amplified by storytellers' attempts at epic grandeur. There is a broad paucity of insight among storytellers as to how societies might be transformed through means other than war and existential threats to the world, nor is much consideration given to the implicit assumption that these transformations are usually posited as good versus evil, with the transformation itself usually being denoted as bad on grounds that it's a villain trying to do it. It is important to talk about epic fantasy in particular because many of the worst-offending stereotypes are themselves epic.
For example, you're never going to beat Sauron; you can't do it. You're never going to execute a better angel of darkness who corrupts the noble, saps hope from the world, and threatens civilization itself all without ever appearing in person. Yet storytellers try; they never stop trying. They want to emulate. In their minds, they want to recapture the relish of experiencing the original, which requires, like an addiction, outdoing the original. This seldom works out. (Some storytellers don't even realize the need for outdoing and simply opt for wholesale emulation of a prior conflict; many a sequel falls into this trap.) And, so, dark lords are now a stereotype.
The Curious Tale is an epic more strongly than it is anything else. The blurb at the beginning of the Prelude says it all: "Here told is the tale of the night the Hero fell, the night that Galavar and his Guard set in motion the fate of the world." That world whose fate then proceeds to play out encompasses everything—all the corners of Relance, all its peoples and creatures. The Prelude occupies a single evening in time, yet in those pages there are wars and magic and Gods. Just imagine what lies beyond. It is stated and implied numerously throughout the text that vast transformations are in store.
What, then, of the epic stereotypes?
Well, there is war, yes. Multiple wars! The story is guilty of that stereotype, inasmuch as it is a stereotype of unimaginativeness. And sometimes the engagements of these wars will even appear on the proverbial screen. But for the most part The Curious Tale is not about battles or the militaries that wage them. This is purposely alluded to by the fact that, although the setting and mood of the Prelude are dominated by a massive battle that has just occurred, the battle itself is not depicted at all except after the fact, and through its conclusion in the duel between Rennem and Galavar. So, it's a tale where war is everywhere...but where the focus is not on war. When we go into Chapter 1 of After The Hero, the same thing is going to apply: The whole conceit of the chapter is a massive invasion of Soda Fountain by Gala, yet the scenes directly depicting this are quite few. Mostly the chapter is devoted—as the entire Tale is devoted—to depicting what Relance is and who its key transformational agents are. Another way of looking at it is that Lilit DeLatia is the Guard of Galavar in command of the Galan army, and she is not the main character of the story. I don't want to undersell the warring that does occur throughout the full length of The Curious Tale, but I also cannot classify it as a war story.
What of other epic stereotypes? The Dark Lord stereotype that I mentioned, perhaps? There is no such character in the whole thing. Some characters, like Thanatos, aspire to that basic color palette, and others, like Laogorn, come close to some of its facets (like malevolence), but when you consider that the dark lord trope in fantasy always situates the dark lord as the most dynamic, world-shaping agent and usually the primary antagonist, there is nothing like that in The Curious Tale. Galavar himself, or perhaps Silence, would be the Dark Lord, and they aren't.
If not a Dark Lord, then what about a Chosen One? That's perhaps the most emblematic epic fantasy trope of them all, despite the fact that it wasn't strongly precedented in Tolkien. Well, it's obviously not the Hero, because he dies in the first couple pages. Galavar could be thought of as the Chosen One, inasmuch as he's in the business of making his vision come true—essentially becoming the person who gets to choose the Chosen One, and choosing himself. There's an even stronger case for calling Silence the Chosen One; she's certainly the Chosen One as chosen by me. And on the other side of the fence, which would be more in fitting with fantasy stereotypes, there are a number of people drawn up in opposition to Galavar who might qualify. On the whole, I think this is one of those areas where The Curious Tale actually doesn't avoid a trope, but rather engages with it in a way that isn't stereotypical. I don't think of the "Chosen One" when writing the Tale, and didn't even remember this trope existed till I looked up a list of fantasy stereotypes in the course of my research for this essay. In the stereotypes, the Chosen One usually possesses some combination of superlative luck, persuasiveness, charisma, nobility, honor, and so forth, often leading to developments where the outcomes are unrealistic and would very likely not have turned out that way were it not for the needs of the Chosen One trope with respect to the storyline. This doesn't happen in The Curious Tale, as you're going to see quite viscerally, in due time. No character is allowed to warp the story flow like that. Central characters like Silence, when they need a given event to develop a certain way, are accommodated well in advance, so that things look natural as they progress. Even beyond Silence's prominent appearance in the Prelude, for instance, that text does a lot of work to set up future developments for her character, so that those developments do not strike readers as unreasonable or arbitrary. For example, never resolved in the Prelude is the question of what it is that Sourros had once told Silence that led her to angrily say to Galavar, after the invasion, that Sourros had never intended that Gala should succeed. The answer to that question belongs to another day, and it's a lot more important of a question than it seems. By setting it up from the very beginning, it will have plenty of time to soak in readers' minds, lubricating the dramatic revelations that come later.
Is there a cosmic keystone? Some relic of power whose wielder will hold the balance of the world in their hands, like the Holy Grail, or the Triforce? Well, kinda sorta maybe not really! There are the Powers of Junction, and inherent in them is the power to reshape the world through what I will (for brevity and convenience) call "magic." And there is the myth of the Swayfire of course, specifically inspired by (among other things) the Triforce. In both cases there is definitely some overlap with the cosmic keystone trope in fantasy. My purpose, however, is not to tell a story where artificial means of transformation like these are the central facilitators of story progress. The Swayfire is more a part of the setting of the story—part of Relance—than part of the plot. This is particularly prominent in Mate of Song and in regions of Relance outside the great nations. And the Powers of Junction, though greatly important to the master plot, are routinely expressed as facets, not acquisitions, of the characters who wield them. Galavar's mindwashing of Davoranj, for instance, occurs early in the story, and Silence's invention of the Sineish Dsagan occurs not long after that, and both of these characters are only able to accomplish such things because of their underlying talents and other natural factors. It is the development of characters and the world at large, and not the hurling of magic beams, that to me constitutes the nucleus of the story.
I can hardly go through and address every epic fantasy stereotype. The point here is to show, for the first time in this essay, that, as I said earlier, avoiding the tropes is not my purpose. I don't mind their occurrence in the story. My focus is not to cause or prevent them, but to tell a story outside the larger stereotypical framework of traditional fantasy—to be unbeholden to the story-warping gravity of stereotypes, rather than their images per se.
Tune in Next Week for the Season Finale!
That's all for this week. As ever, comments are warmly invited!
Next week will be the conclusion of this article, and the end of Season 3 of the Regular Features! Because there were so many interruptions in production in the past year, there will be no interim: Season 4 will begin the following week. But, still, it's nice to remark upon the passage of time. July is the anniversary of ATH the RPG, and has also since become the annual marker of these Features.
Until next time, may your feed trod wherever they like.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!