Friday, October 22, 2010

Fantasy Societies and Our Modern World View

Now that I can see again, and read without eye-strain headaches I'm plunging back into reading.

glasses Pictures, Images and Photos

A month ago I had a post about my guy reading a series that I read about 13/14 years ago. And I've currently been reading Masques by Patricia Briggs. Which is awesome, because I have followed Briggs since her second novel came out. But I never could find the first :P so I was excited about the re-release.

But reading this novel and talking to my guy about his reading material has me thinking about the changes in depictions of society and how that (may) represent a shifting world view.

How so?

The Sword and Sorcery books of the 90's depicted watered-down quests, magical implements, and political intrigue. When characters traveled, they passed through any number of realms with various peoples. Think about Garion, from David Eddings' wonderful High Fantasy series The Belgariad and the Mallorean. Or Mercedes Lackey's uber-popular Valdemar books.

Garion starts out a farm boy, is hauled around by his magically gifted family from one country to another. The only time they encounter non-native people in any one realm these people are a) the enemy or b) allies looking for the wayward wizard and his awkward-but-special nephew.

While the Valdemar books carry a little more social complexity (Thalia and the Queen's Arrows Trilogy) depicts class relations, and a backwoods society that is of Valdemar, but estranged--Thalia still has to shed that connection to become a Herald of Valdemar. Karal, the outsider-who-gets-a-Companion in the Mage Storm Trilogy, is the closest the series walks toward acknowledging socio-cultural identities unrelated to national ones.

Now, I loved these books, but that quality never felt real. People don't acknowledge borders. I mean, really...there are American military bases everywhere except well, North Korea. So there are Americans working and living abroad. There are Mexican people, and Canadians, with work visas. The United States "owns" Guam and Costa Rica, so people living in those places are technically American and speak English + Spanish (and one of the few different languages spoken in Guam, if I recall correctly).

Nor is this merely because of the world we live in. Look at history.

Rome conquered Europe. The descendants of the kings who payed the Romans tithes and were part of the empire, ended up producing Charlemagne. The Carolingian Renaissance produced the early medieval artistry ...and the Holy Roman Empire. All of Europe was Christiandom, and Rome. There was such a difference of opinion about this that the Roman Pope and Eastern Patriarch ex-communicated each other (thank you Art History!:P ) but this means that all of Europe united under Charlemagne considered themselves Roman. (I have read a lot on this subject, an am forgetting the exact source but I *think* it is from Lyon's "The Origin of the Middle Ages," granted, this book is from Norton's Historical Controversies series)

The Renaissance's universal prestige of all things Greco-Roman conveyed a different perspective on the same inherited Roman-ness. That is to say, all of the European Realms, despite internal feuding, saw themselves as more similar than different. The exotic Africans and Orientals from Turkey--that was different. That was "not Christan." While ideology defined cultural connection, this doesn't mean all of Europe was "the same." Clearly different colloquial languages were spoken, even if the educated and the priests and monks/nuns all spoke Latin. There were different "takes" on art and architecture, on dress, etc. There was variation. Not to mention even smaller ethnic groups: Bretons, Basque, Jews, "gypsies," and so forth. There were Vikings in Ireland. There were the Manx, the Picts, the Scots, the Welsh--and that was on one tiny Island chain, that slowly became modern Brittain, centered in England where the invading-Angles had settled in the early Medieval period.

When the nation state idea emerged post-Renaissance, it was based on a different organizational system. One that failed to account for variety in culture, or our human unwillingness to maintain the imaginary-borders we continually create.

The 1990's saw the nation-state ideology begin to break down in the United States. With the dissolution of the USSR, the US stood as the lone super power. And, our nation, like it always does, responds to the situation--good or bad--by throwing money at it. Back then, we had lots of money.

And that was when the warlords-ethnic and ideological minorities from diverse backgrounds, which we had armed against the USSR in our desperation to stem the Red Tide-turned on us. Stateless peoples.

Movies of the 90's and now still depict "terrorists" as the bad guys. People without borders, who can go anywhere, and often have access to old Soviet tech.

Globe Pictures, Images and Photos

Meanwhile, the American school system also saw an influx of "minorities." So any white girl, like myself, attending an inner city school, was a minority. A real minority. In my 7th grade history and language arts class, I was one of 5 white kids. Here, the teacher spoke of American society and white society as synonymous, but from where I sat I was surrounded by representation of the ethnic communities my great-and-powerful Franco-German-Anglo-Saxon ancestors royally screwed. And in our multicultural classroom, we got to learn about all the amazing African, Asian, American, and Middle Eastern societies...Europe we never got to...

To me going forward, America was a diverse tapestry of subcultures influenced by a breathtaking array of ethnic inheritances. One national identity just didn't make sense.

But I loved my fantasy books. I thought, "That's what it would've been like in the past." But studying history independently, and pursuing anthropology in college taught me that the world was never that simple.

I think the love of vampires, werewolves, fae and the like in modern urban fantasy fill this change in our world view. They are the "others" next door, but also our family, our dearest friends, our enemies and our lovers. The magically diverse world can give us an exaggerated playground for a discussion of modern identity construction and differentiation. We are like these Others and we are not. All at once. The recurring questions in many of these novels (some of which I am greatly enjoying)is whether or not we can live with these recently-outed others.

Can we handle the global society that has led us to find so many friends--even fictitious family--with dramatically different religious/economic/cultural and sexual orientations than our selves?

I like to think so. But whatever the case, I think these are some of the issues reflected in modern literature. Subconsciously, of course :P

What are your thoughts?


  1. What a thoughtful piece! You make me think that I should re-think my WIP a bit during this next phase of rewrites. Thank you so much!

  2. Wow, your anthropology degree is really being utilized! Very interesting point of view on the genre.

  3. lol, I can't help it >.< ! I took the courses for love of the subject, and because I felt more knowledge of culture/society/etc could help me better develop fantasy ones. Now I'm doomed...I look at everything as an expression of culture...which it *is* and is fun to talk about, if it starts to make things look a little academic ... glad you two liked it :)

  4. Fantastic.

    This concept reminds me of the scifi/fantasy class we took. It seems that as the world changes the fantasy is going to adapt, and things that were popular some time ago have less relevance now. The best example of this concept that comes to mind-- people stopped writing about the basically "magical" effects of an atomic explosion after Hiroshima and Nagasaki because then we realized it didn't actually give people super powers.

    I am part of a fairy discussion group and recently we discussed how "fae" literally shrink in size from their ancestors. Modern ideas of fairies is the "Tinkerbell" tiny fairy that can fit in the palm of your hand. Back in the day, the fairies were just as big as humans. As mankind leans towards the scientific, fairies literally have been shrinking in size in art and lore. Additionally I noticed that fantasy in general is shrinking in modern fantasy books. Fantastical magic is replaced with more subtle "concepts" of magic, alternate worlds where adventuring heroes trek across grasslands are replaced with a hero maneuvering socio-political structures and warring factions, and usually going unloved by everyone around him.

    "Borders" in general is an extremely interesting topic for fantasy to tackle, as language barriers are counter-productive for advancing a plot line that doesn't specifically relate to the issue.

    I second Mary Anne Gruen, that it gives me some ideas for some new, interesting elements to add to my own WIP.

  5. Thank you Lydia! On your note about shrinking fairy's did you see the latest "Merlin" episode--it's a kids show out of the UK--and the size of the shidhe was one of my largest complaints. Wings? Tiny? WTH? In the mythology, that isn't accurate. Nor is the ungraceful, crude (Shrek-like) attitude of the supposed fae. Fairies *do* make an appearance in the Arthurian legend (<3 Le Morte d'Artur) but they are consistent with the Celtic mythology. Gorgeous, fully proportionate, seductresses that steal warrior men (or bards) off to another realm with no hope of return...

    Though I do enjoy "Merlin," despite.

    Shrinking magic? Interesting, especially since I see more discussion of shamanic magic and non-Western mythology popping up in urban fantasy. The sword and sorcery and epic fantasy *is* still out there...but its lack of visibility is due (I think) to publishers and marketing preference. I do think the pendulum will swing back the other way...but when it does, I have a feeling our fantastical societies won't look exactly the same as they did when the dominance of the nation-state determined our socio-cultural identity.

    I'm certainly not gonna abandon my Epic Fantasy piece, just because I'm dipping my toes in YA Urban Fantasy! :D