[Fantasy] Elfland, Poughkeepsie, Hogwarts and the Game of Houses

This post is not about roleplaying or interactive fiction, but about fantasy literature. I suspect that there will be more posts like that in the future, so my apologies if you do not care for the subject. The [Fantasy]-tag will help you recognise and avoid them.

I am currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in which she discusses writing styles appropriate to fantasy. But more interesting than her comments on style (which, though true, are not especially insightful) is the framework of her discussion; the insight in fantasy that allows her to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate styles.

Her metaphor is that of a big national park, which people should go to in order to experience something they normally do not (wilderness, nature), but which some people do go to "in a trailer with a motorbike on the back and a motorboat on top and a butane stove, five aluminium folding chairs, and a transistor radio on the inside. They arrive in a totally encapsulated reality." Some writers of fantasy, Le Guin goes on to argue, do the same: they toss in some faeries or dragons or magicians, but they never take their readers away to Elfland, never make them feel the essential strangeness and difference of that place. "[T]he point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different."

Today, you might want to substitute 'Hogwarts' for 'Poughkeepsie', as John Pennington does in his - basically right if not always convincing - From Elfland to Hogwarts, or the Aesthetic Trouble with Harry Potter.

It seems to me that Le Guin is right: fantasy, as a kind of literature, must be distancing, must always be about something Else. Having flying brooms is not enough, not if you use them to play a kind of football. Such literature may be whimsical, but is not fantastic - and it has a much greater danger of being pure escapism. (As Harry Potter, from what I've read of it, undoubtedly is. Why it is so widely praised is beyond me.)

What I want to suggest is that Robert Jordan, writer of that interminable sequence The Wheel of Time, has fallen prey to the same thing in his later books. Jordan is of course merely a token representing many of his colleagues. I do not suggest that this is the main flaw of Jordan's books; their lack of pace, bad style and bad characterisation also come to mind - but it is perhaps the most interesting. It may explain why so many people I have spoken to have become disenchanted with the series as it ran on: the series itself became disenchanted, in a very literal way.

One of the first scenes of Jordan's first book, The Eye of the World, features Rand al'Thor, the protagonist, as his father's farm is being attacked by a group of monstrous creatures intent on killing him. This does not win Jorden a prize for originality, of course, but it does make his book proper fantasy. The world we are transported to is dangerous; these dangers are real and present; and people accept them as dangers they simply have to face, and have to cope with.

This primacy of danger is a typical trope of fantastic literature. It is alien to our common conception of the world we live in: if our house were to be attacked by anyone, we would expect the police to come to our aid, or at least attempt to punish the attackers afterwards. In our common conception of our world, danger has no primacy, but must submit to law and order, to rights, to insurances.

We all know (though we are not often aware of it) that danger will not really submit to our all-too-human systems of protection. This is the truth that is expressed by Jordan's scene; and fantasy is its proper form of expression, because it allows the writer to immediately dispense with a whole complex of real institutions that stand between us and the perception of this truth.

Suppose that Jordan had followed up the scene with others in which the royal "Red Mages" had come to investigate the killing; had gone on a quest to kill the monstrous beings and imprison the elf that led them; and had sentenced the elf to pay for all the reconstruction work in the village he had his minions attack - than, no matter the monsters and the mages and the elf, we would not have had a fantasy. We would have had a basically realistic novel dressed up in whimsical (if somewhat overused) invention. The fantastic would have detracted from, instead of added to, the message.

In the later books of the Wheel of Time cycle, Rand al'Thor has become the king of many lands and peoples. Most of the books are now concerned with his attempts to keep all these people together; to overcome their natural prejudices and fears; and with the many, many power struggles among the various groups. Jordan calls it 'The Game of Houses'.

All of this could have happened in Poughkeepsie as well as in Elfland.

But even that is not really true; it really could not have happened in Elfland. It is too comfortable, too well-known - we see it around us every day. It is just politics. As Jordan changes his focus towards political power games, the fantasy loses its aspect of being a fantasy. As the magic becomes a political tool and concern, it ceases to be magic. We find ourselves in Poughkeepsie, sitting on an aluminium folding chair and wondering why we went through the trouble of imagining such a vast, diverse and in the end curiously bland alternative reality.

(This, I suppose, is where George R. R. Martin comes onto the stage and says, with a sly smile: "Well, but if one is a realist in disguise, one should have the courage to be a
realist in disguise!" And goes on to write a political 'fantasy' called A Song of Ice and Fire which invokes the illustrations not of Royo, but of Goya.)


  1. This post is both very thought-provoking and timely for me, as the issue of real *fantasy* is something relevent to the design work I'm doing right now. It's a post I'll have to consider for a bit.

    The thing I love about fantasy (and to a certain extent scfi) is the ability of fantasy to externalize and give symbolic form to internal struggles, emotions, and conflicts in a way that a literal reality can't. This is why I think fantasy is very often about physical danger or violence. It gives literal form to our internal fears, anxieties, and daily struggles.

    I have to think about the strangeness or otherness of fantasy... If I were to phrase it in my own words, I would say that good fantasy often has a certain sense of "awe"... The idea that there are mysteries we don't understand and things greater than we are... I think "awe" usually has a sense of otherness about it... I think there's something about the awe-ful things in fantasy that tap into our nonrational emotions and subconscious. I think awe is something Amercan culture has largely lost, and that's why American writers have such difficulty with fantasy. I see alot more awe and wonderment coming from Japanese anime...

    Anyway, I'm rambling. Good topic.

  2. This makes me want to run to my shelf and reread Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller." He clearly isn't focusing on a fantasy genre (heck, it really didn't exist in its codified form when he was writing), but his lesson is the same: we need distance, we need the story to have an aura of mystery.

    The story needs to *invite* our consideration, our interpretation, without handing us an interpretation pre-formed. Which makes me wonder if it is the emergence of fantasy as a genre that really stifled it.

    It lost its freedom from 'reality' (this is a dream, this happens in a faraway place where things are different than here) to its own emerging genre rules.

    This stacks with what Tim said--the U.S. is a little like a hall of mirrors in terms of culture. Our media tends to surround us with images of the 'U.S.' way of life, which makes it seem more and more 'natural' even as it becomes more and more exceptional. Which means we don't get a lot of invitations in popular culture--more permutations on a type.

  3. Tim: I absolutely agree with what you write. A useful illustration are the Lord of the Rings movies, I think. If I had to ifentify the overarching theme of the book, I would say that it's the mortality of all beauty, the necessity of everything good to pass away. That's why there has to be such a huge historical backdrop, giving us a sense of the abyss of time; and why the whole book is pervaded by a sense of melancholy.

    This theme is wholly lost in its early 21st century Hollywood retelling. The overarching theme of the movie is the fight between good and evil, where evil is an Other, but not an Other to be in 'awe' of - exactly mirroring the spirit exemplified by the "a nation of Good fighting a war against Evil"-rhetoric of Bush.


    Well, indeed! When I read Der Erzähler (presumably the original version of The Storyteller), I wanted to write about it; but I didn't have this blog yet, and I felt it wouldn;t be appreciated on The Forge.

    Let's both reread the essay. :)

    And yes, the emergence of fantasy as a genre was, in one sense, unfortunate: it made possible the heaps of derivate, bad, been-there-done-that fantasy that fill our bookstores.

    On the other hand, it also created a stage for writers like John Crowley and M. John Harrison to emerge on. Who can tell which way the balance tips? :)


  4. It is true that Robert Jordan(may his soul rest in peace) succeeded in creating an alternative reality, which is actually the entire point of fantasy and its popularity in mature, adult readers i.e escapism. However to call it bland and comparable to the reality would be an understatement way beyond what can be measured. Critics, when they read literature, are very constipated and bull-headed. Read from a layman's POV sir! You'll find it neither bland nor remotely near to a real world socio-political architecture.


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