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Thread: Fantasy and Domain-level themes
10-20-2006, 05:02 PM #1
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Fantasy and Domain-level themes
While I think this post may interest Birthright players, especially
Birthright GMs and designers, it is not technically a Birthright article and
I apologize to all those who might be offended of me "spamming" this here.
It is an article from the Gaming Philosopher blog, one of numerous indie RPG
blogs I`ve become interested in over the last several months.
I think this article may interest many of you here. I post it here, feeling
that many of you might have more opinions to discuss on this article than
might otherwise be found at its original source. It was not written by me,
and I`m not sure I agree with it, but I think the opinion itself is worth
considering and discussing.
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
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
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
truththat is expressed by Jordan`s scene; and fantasy is its proper
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.)
10-21-2006, 11:58 AM #2
I think the author's reasoning is flawed. While I agree that Jordan's colossal series is mind-numbingly boring, I don't feel it's because it's realism in disguise (but rather the aformentioned lack of pace and poor characterisation). Also, by the article author's very own reasoning, George Martin's work would indeed be fantasy despite the rarity of traditional fantasy elements precisely because of the primacy of danger. Yet the end of the article seems to imply otherwise. The difference in Martin's work is that the dangers arise from other humans, instead of "monsters". It seems to me the author of the article is saying that despite the previously stated "typical trope of fantastic literature" being primacy of danger, if the danger stems from mundane sources (like politics), it's no longer the "typical trope of fantastic literature", and becomes realism in disguise. If so, does that mean all other "typical" tropes of fantasy literature must follow the same rules? So realism can never be included in "true" fantastic literature? I feel that some realism, in the midst of fantastic stories, allows the reader to more easily identify with characters and provides a greater suspension of disbelief. I admit I have not yet read "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", but the article talks about Le Guin as if the author approves of Le Guin's take on fantasy. However, it seems to me "Wizard of Earthsea" is about arrogance, regret, friendship, and the gaining of wisdom through experience, all set in a school. All these things seem like quite realistic and mundane elements to me, indeed the entire book could have been set in a completely modern and mundane world and not altered the core of the story one bit. So what elements of the story can be mundane without making the story "pure escapism"? The article's apparent disdain for escapism and general tone smacks of elitism, which will garner no sympathy from me.
10-21-2006, 04:20 PM #3
An interesting character has to have realism, or you don't care about them. Thats why a well written book (of any genre) will show a villain with a human side, and a hero with flaws. A hero of complete purity is boring, a villian who is nothing but villainous is just a monster - and ultimately monsters are one-dimensional things that are there so the hero can keep their sword-arm exercised.
I'll change the tack of this "camping trip" idea with words from another writer, Alan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc, etc.)
"What is important is that the writer should have a clear picture of the imagined world in all its details inside his or her head at all times."
So I guess in his mind, a good writer knows whats behind a door in their story, even if the door is never opened in the narrative.
I think some writers don't do this - they come at the idea with one situation in mind, and they don't think about the whys and the wherefores of the world that surrounds that situation. That means they forced to plaster over the cracks by just throwing in what they've seen in their own culture.
Don't get me wrong, thats not always a bad thing, it can make for some very approachable writing, if rather pulp fantasy by and large. What's wrong with that? - I can enjoy pulp fantasy and still like better written work as well. It doesn't make you a dolt, or even a fan of "impure fantasy" to enjoy something that plays with the formula a bit.
I've enjoyed the incredibly interwoven plots of Steven Erikson, just as I've enjoyed reading "fluff fantasy" such as Magic Kingdom for Sale by Terry Brooks. Fantasy is a very broad church, and even one reader can enjoy things from widely different sections. I don't think its fair to say there are "rules" on what constitutes proper fantasy, or what its purpose is.
For instance, for me, Tolkien is an unbelievably boring writer - I find his prose just completely dull (and for those that disagree, answer me this - why does nobody write in Tolkien's style now, if its so good?) But he had great ideas, and he knew how they fitted together in exquisite detail, and his passion for the subject shines through, even when Tom Bombadil (a-ding-dillo) and his stuffy writing style threatens to send me to sleep.
I've not read Le Guin's work, although I've heard the name, but I might try now, just to see if her rather pompous sounding opinions are warranted."As soon as war is declared, it will be impossible to hold the poets back. Rhyme is still the most effective drum."
10-21-2006, 06:17 PM #4
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Good points above, but it seems to also ignore the distinctions between what is classified as Low and High Fantasy literature.
Both are Fantasy, but approach the story from different perspectives, and indeed, with different objectives.
That being said, at what point is a book relegated to being away from the familiar and into Elfland? I mean, the amount of people that see the "familiar" in Tolkien's works by analogizing LOTR and the World Wars, regardless of how the professor said he hated analogies, seems to indicate that even that work of Fantasy doesn't make the successful journey to Elfland. Instead, it has elements of the familiar taken with it.
Another example would be Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series - while fantastic in element, the underlying philosophy that is being HAMMERED at the reader is something familiar.
Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is yet another, drawing from historical references and making this low magic world seem somehow familiar.
Perhaps one of the only Fantasy authors that truly breaks away completely from the mold is Steven Erikson, but even there, many of the non-humans are quite human in their outlook - other than the T'lan Imass (they are just perfect though!!!). The Tiste aren't too dissimilar at least, and neither are many of the T'lan descendants. And many people I have spoken to compare the Malazan Empire to the rise of Rome (although I don't).
The element of the familiar can nearly always be found in any work of fantasy. Or any genre, for that matter. Especially if you look hard enough for it. Ergo, we define those stories that have "fantastic" (that is to say, magic or otherworldly races) elements as being fantasy. Period. Meanwhile, those that have sci-fi elements due to space travel or space battles, or even advanced tech beyond our current level, to be sci-fi.
To say that something only having fantasy elements in it but not specific points that make the journey to Elfland is not Fantasy sounds rather pompous indeed. Furthermore, it smacks of classifications that I disagree with most fervently as is. Earlier, I spoke of Low and High Fantasy - but I hate classifying works like this. By lumping literature into genres like that, we rob ourselves sometimes, because then certain ideas that had real potential never see the treatment they deserve because it doesn't fit classification - Joss Whedon's Firefly springs to mind - a Western Sci-fi. Another, perhaps more successful endeavour was King's Gunslinger Cycle - mixing Western, Sci-fi, Horror and Fantasy all in one blender.
Successful Fantasy transports the reader away - I won't argue that. But the element of the familiar will always be found.
10-22-2006, 07:41 PM #5
Someone puts forth an aesthetic statement: "realism undermines fantasy." Epicsoul replies with an attack on all catagories? Then he proceeds to employ catagories in abundance? Aside from the absurdity of attacking an esthetic judgement with ontology, the ontology doesn't stand up within a single post.
Catagories are neccesary, useful, and desirable. What is not desireable or useful are catagories that are too broad or too narrow. But this is not the problem here. Any aesthetic claim has to carry its own catagories. If I claim to like spicy pizza, and you deny that "spicy" is not a legitimate catagory for pizza then we're just talking past one another.
The Gaming Philosopher (the blog of the original set of claims) sets forth two kinds of fantasy, that he likes and that he criticizes. His criticism is based on two much emphasis on realism, which he describes as things which are normal to our world regardless of being dressed up in fantastic clothing. I begin almost immediatly from a state of disagreement, because I think realism is a good thing. I would apply the lable "whimsy" to things that are entirely fantasy and lack any grounding in realism. Tennyson's Idylls of the King is very realistic by the author's reading, because King Arthur's life and rule are described in very normal terms. For example, rather than having Merlin polymorph Uther into the image of Gorlois, Duke of Tintagel, Tennysen describes Igraine, having lost the protection of Gorlois in the breach, she now seeks the protection of the victor, Uther. No magic, no illusions, no shape changing. The Gaming Philosopher may well have no use for Tennyson's Idylls, but obviously that is no more than an aesthetic judgement.
Even so, given his catagories and his definitions, I can usefully predict which kinds of fantasy,or what adventures I have brewing, which he might like or reject. Of course I will probabaly never see this individual, so the excercise is simply conjectural. Still, players will often have different aesthetic preferences from their fellows at the gaming table, including the DM. I will be much better at satisfying a player if I accept his catagories and his judgements, even when they are not mine, than I will rejecting his catagories and making his judgements meaningless.
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