Recently I picked up the Eye of the World at the local library -- this is the first novel, published in 1990, of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. It's 688 pages, which is about average for a contemporary fantasy epic. I've had it for weeks now and can't make it past page 20. This isn't unusual for me when it comes to fantasy these days. The same thing happened with Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven. I think George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones is the last fantasy novel I've completed, and I thought it was terrible.
It's a weird feeling, realizing that I'm not an active fantasy fan anymore. What happened?
The purpose of story-telling is to experience without experiencing. The picture that comes to my mind is our hunter-gatherer ancestors sitting around the fire, learning better ways to avoid a tiger without actually having to try them, because Urg the daredevil is also a master story teller.
It's not much harder to imagine the origin of myth. Why expect that the most effective way to teach something is to tell a true story? Maybe Urg is telling us what he should have done to get away more safely. Or maybe he's imperfectly remembering a helpful story is grandfather told him. Not all religions can be completely factually true, but all the different stories they use ultimately teach the same universal moral truths. Aesop's fables feature talking animals, but they've survived for thousands of years because they're not only helpful but concise and easy to remember.
We should not be surprised that humans, who have been telling stories for maybe 100,000 years, have developed an inborn taste for good stories. All of fiction is developed, at least in part, to satisfy this taste.
And it makes sense for taste to vary and also have certain constants, like anything else inherited.
Really old stories have a magic about them, probably because stories without that magic die away. What makes really old stories interesting is that literal truth tends to be scant, especially if they were passed down orally for a while, as with folk tales, myths, and medieval romances. These old stories are distinctive in just these ways: (1) they have a strange, unearthly beauty, and (2) tend not to make literal sense. Certain readers and writers have developed a taste for such mythic stories, and an entire literary genre has arisen in an attempt to emulate it -- fantasy. If you look at the earliest fantasy authors in the Western tradition, such as Novalis, William Morris, George MacDonald, or even later ones like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, they were all inspired by medieval literature, especially medieval romances -- Arthur, etc. -- which originated as folk tales.
Most of these authors have had a moral purpose in mind with their work, attempting to illustrate with allegory certain values they thought important. Others, like Lewis Carrol, were looking primarily to entertain, but for such books to be interesting they've generally had to be really weird, and yet comprehensible at the same time, serving the useful function of stretching people's imaginations.
I wonder if modern fantasy has lost sight of this original purpose, merely spinning attractive or scandalous tales for their own sake.
Martin is a good example of this. His work is unrelentingly cynical. In an attempt to portray, I guess, how dark the dark ages were (or could be?), Martin has created a fantasy where unbridled violence and evil tyrants continually dominate. His world is supposedly based on the history of England's War of the Roses (1455-1485), the same period dwelt on in Shakespeare's tragedies. But I think Shakespeare's plays, despite having their own elements of fantasy, provide a more accurate portrayal of how tyrants tended to fall in those times. Martin's work is sensationalist, bloody, and glories in how brutally evil men can murder those who stand up for what is right. Shakespeare's work acknowledges the existence of evil but shows how it tends toward self-destruction.
It is fashionable these days to criticize morally satisfying endings, whether tragic or happy, as being "unrealistic." The view implicit here is absurd, even applied to the Middle Ages. (For a second to this opinion, see this article by Daniel Abraham.) Continual rule by tyrannical kings and nobles, without any victory for justice, would have led to a collapse of all government. Today, we may not consider medieval law to be particularly just, but that is no excuse for pretending that there was no law, nor any capable defenders of that law at the time.
The sort of dialectic I've just gone through will strike many modern critics as old-fashioned, focusing on dry moral or political issues. The point of the Game of Thrones series, they would like to tell me, is that it parodies (mercilessly!) the unjustness of patriarchal hierarchies (see for example, the New Yorker review of the HBO series.). Women, bastards, and cripples were unfairly treated in the middle ages, and in Martin's series we see just how badly treated they were (or might have been in another world?) and fantasize about how they might take revenge for it in the goriest way possible.
I don't buy it. A satire is supposed to be funny, or better: unbearably painful. The last thing you're supposed to want to do with a satire is make it into a several-season TV show that sensationalizes all the sorts of behaviors you were supposed to be criticizing. If you did the same with Voltaire's *Candide* it would be outright obscene. If Martin's series is satire it's a poor, overwrought, obscure one. As Daniel Abraham points out, Martin fares best when judged by the standards of the horror genre, but even then does not hold up well.
Perhaps it was naive of me to expect better from Guy Gavriel Kay, who is as popular these days among critics as Martin is among the general reading public. To his credit, he is less gory and a little more historically faithful than Martin, and he writes about non-Western fantasy civilizations such as Kitai, which is based on ancient China (Kay is Canadian). Also to his credit, I made it almost 60 pages in, pulled in by his elegant and poetic prose. The story opens with a self-exiled prince, living as a hermit, burying the dead from a long-ago battle to put their souls at rest. I loved this potrait, at first.
Then the poor ghosts started wailing audibly, their ghostly forms floating visibly like transparent Caspers. Come on. And then the sexy assassin female warriors showed up and there were kung fu sword fights and countless prostitutes referred to as "courtesans with perfumed hair" and I said forget it.
Kay's got a less violent style than Martin. He's got very poetic prose, I'll give you that, and some intriguing political intrigue inspired by true historical events. But none of this is the point of fantasy.
So what is the points of fantasy?
Let's get back to the fundamentals. It's a kind of storytelling; it should edify us. It expands our minds as teenagers, refines our sense of ethics as adults. What gives it potency is that it is unhindered by scientific facts, letting us explore new imaginary worlds without having to work out all the mathematical details. I'm not sure you can get much more specific than this -- our brains are incredibly complex, so I'm sure much of what literature does for us is subconscious and varied.
The fantasy series that has influenced me most is Lord of the Rings. I'm sure it has something do with how detailed and rich its world is, how it shows normal people making extraordinary choices, how it is permeated with a love of the Good and the Beautiful. Uncovering all the subconscious reasons for its importance for me and others would be an entire project in itself.
The most common critique I hear of Lord of the Rings is that it shows a sharp and comforting division between good and evil. (See Moorcock's famous essay, "Epic Pooh".). This objection is fairly easy to answer if you've actually read the series (e.g. "Knocking some stuffing out of Moorcock".) ). Suffice it to list a few characters that display characteristics of both good and evil: Gollum, Saruman, Boromir, Faramir, most of the riders of Rohan, the entire race of elves (who remain largely neutral during the war), the dwarves (who hate the elves as a race), and everyone who is ever bribed or seduced by Lord Sauron. That's almost everybody.
I won't deny that there is something weird about the way the two sides of the War of the Rings are lined up. Sauron's side is obviously evil and includes many grotesque monsters. Gandalf's side is obviously good and his allies are usually beautiful. But if you think about it, WWII wasn't a heck of a lot different. Sure, we were allied with Stalin, but doesn't Aragorn recruit an entire army of cursed undead to help him out?
Enough of this. I haven't even gotten to science fiction yet, which is my primary interest. But I'm sick-and-tired-enough of all of these poor modern attempts to imitate or outdo Tolkien to present my own desiderata for good fantasy. If you know of anything recent that satisfies these requirements, let me know, because I'd love to read it:
(1) As with anything you write, have something to say. I think every writer should spend several years thinking about the meaning life and the nature of human values before writing a single word. The number one thing that destroys literature is the writer who writes to shock people, to make money, to become famous, or simply to become a writer. If you don't have a better reason for writing fantasy, you will only help make the genre (and our entire culture) shallower.
(2) Fantasy must transport you somewhere completely new. All creatures and magic should either come directly from mythology or be original with the author. Elves and dwarves are great, but they're Tolkien. Vampires and zombies should be abolished. The point is to experience something strange enough to border on the mystical, not to feel like you're watching a cartoon or playing Dungeons and Dragons. George MacDonald, the originator of the genre, is the exemplar here. His fantasy novels were spiritual meditations on the meaning of life. Mystical is always more powerful than magical.
(3) Hold yourself to the same standards that any other literary writer does. MacDonald wrote 51 books and only 7 of those were fantasy and only 2 of these fantasy novels were for adults. Don't depend on having an original idea -- actually take the time to hone your craft and become a good writer. Having good ideas is not enough. You've got to be able to express them clearly, or they'll die on the page, even if you've written a bestseller. And it's the ideas that are important, not the sale.
(4) Make it beautiful. Fantasy doesn't have truth to rely on, so it must rely on goodness and beauty instead. By shirking realism, fantasy allows itself to explore ethics and aesthetics in more depth than any other kind fiction. If you're not making use of this freedom to create something beautiful and good, you're missing the point.
(5) Everything I've said here holds equally well for magical realism, soft science fiction, and horror.
That's it. If a book breaks with scientific fact at all, it must be beautiful, well-crafted, creatively new, and possess purpose and meaning.
If you find such a book, tell me. If you can imagine such a book, write it. Meanwhile I've got better things to do than read an 8,000-page series of meaning-whitewashed epic violence.