Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The expansion of global information, wars, and the "decline" of epic fantasy

Over the last few days I've been watching the discussion of modern fantasy which began with Leo Grin's dramatic decrying of the state of the genre these days, continued with a response by Joe Abercrombie (whose work Grin roundly criticized in his article), and many comments from others (summarized here at Black Gate).

To summarize quite briefly, the idea put forward by Grin was that Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Howard (Conan the Barbarian) wrote works of genius that upheld a sort of superior morality, and that modern fantasists who subvert visions of good versus evil and clear-cut morality are a sign of the decline of modern Western civilization.

"Post-modern deconstructionism," a concept that came up in this discussion, is not an unfamiliar term to me. As someone who has spent time immersed in academic discussions of the history of Anthropology, Discourse (a la James Gee), Cultural Capital (Bourdieu), and how to define Literacy, I feel rather as though I've witnessed the fighting on the front lines of this discussion. The arguments on both sides of this sound very familiar to me, but filtered through the lens of fantasy fiction.

I was most intrigued, I think, by the following quote from the response of Philip Athans:
If fantasy has evolved to take on a darker tone, matured to address adult themes, isn’t that more likely a response to the world around us now—that the myths of the early 21st century will be different in some way from the myths of the mid-20th century—than that there’s some kind of conspiracy to pervert a genre that apparently not only peaked but effectively stopped with Tolkien and Howard?

The force at work here, as I see it, is the general change in what we call "Western" culture, much of it driven by the expansion of information transfer on a global scale. Tolkien and Howard did their work in the 1930s and 1940s, subsequently to the first world war and during the second. This was a world culturally very different from our own - one where feminism was just beginning, and one which had yet to feel the influence of cultural relativism. Several of the commenters in the debate have mentioned that they don't feel Tolkien and Howard's work are quite as pure as they have been portrayed, and I feel this also. Certainly I recognize the mournfulness of The Lord of the Rings (which is brilliant, but I could never really enjoy until I was an adult). I have read articles arguing that The Lord of the Rings was some kind of allegory of the world wars, and counterarguments to that position. My sense is that even if Tolkien was not deliberately referencing historical events, those events had an enormous influence on the cultural ambiance of the time, and that can be seen in his work.

As culture has changed, so have wars. World War I was "The Great War"; in a sense, World War II was the last "great war." In both of those conflicts, there was a sense of good and evil - a kind of clarity which had changed drastically if not entirely disappeared by the time of the Vietnam war. For better or worse, wars have changed. Perhaps it's because the motivations behind our entry into conflict are more widely debated and better understood by the general populace (something I relate at least in part to the expansion of global information). In any case, the earlier wars referenced a very clean and clear-cut morality, while more modern ones are commonly questioned, and their morality seldom is reducible to good-versus-evil. I believe this march of history runs parallel to the developments in fantasy fiction.

I don't really see this as a cultural decline - it is a cultural change. More voices are heard these days than in the past, from more people of different cultures. Morality seen from the viewpoint of several involved parties looks a bit different from what it was when we used only one lens. We're starting to hear women's voices, and the voices of those traditionally ignored or considered "other." To me this is a welcome change. I'm sure some feel threatened by it, but on the other hand, I've never felt that cultural capital was something finite. Giving voice to groups who have previously had none doesn't mean we don't hear the voices we always have. It just means that those voices will ring differently.

Fantasy reflects history, and it reflects reality. Neither heroes nor anti-heroes are new. Hercules himself was a hero who happened to cause terrible collateral damage. I happen to be someone who welcomes the idea of questioning cultural assumptions, and though I've read books where the attempted "realism" in terms of bodily injury etc. is too much for me, I'm glad those books are out there.

Books open our minds and make us think; their compass helps us better understand our own.


  1. I have nothing to add, I just wanted to say that this is a really thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing, Juliette.
    - Sophia.

  2. Got me thinking too. It's scary to think about where we are heading, but it will be an adventure to get there.

  3. Sophia, thanks so much for commenting.

    E. Arroyo, thanks. I get scared sometimes too, but boy, it's interesting.

  4. Thanks for discussing this. I think for any aspect of our culture there are those who talk about "the good ole days" and those who actively seek out those who are pushing boundaries and making something new. I wonder how much of this fantasy debate is a factor of age -- those who were born and raised on Tolkein etc. and are able to chart changes in the genre over time but are invariably tied to those seminal works because it was their first introduction to fantasy...

  5. You're absolutely welcome, Bluestocking. I'm not sure age has too much to do with it, as I've seen people of various ages engaged in the debate (Grin himself appears to be relatively young, for example). Personal philosophy and religion seem to be involved for many of those contributing to the debate. I was having my own strong feelings and not seeing this point of view represented, so I wrote about it. I'm glad you found it valuable.

  6. I really like the way you've examined these articles. It's great to read an article and agree absolutely. It's interesting how current art is often negatively contrasted with past art.

    It's also interesting how a few paragons of an art form, or the creators of said form, are held up as examples for why the art form was better then what it is now. They often pick the best of, say in this case, the 1930 - 1950 period, and then compare it to works written in the past few years. The time gap alone makes it an unfair comparison!

  7. I've been following the epic fantasy debate for the past few days and this is my favourite take on the issue so far.

    I hope it finds a wide audience.

  8. Shannon, thanks for commenting. I also find it interesting how often cultural change is called "decline." Works of art are culturally situated, temporally as well as by location.

    Cora, thank you. It means a lot.

  9. I think that the cultural change argument is a powerful one, and I'm glad to see someone bring it up. I think the parallels you bring up may be more complex than is explicit here, but the dynamism of literature (both in its creation and reception) is important to foreground.

    I also like the implication that interpretation is not reducible to a single perspective.

  10. Erudite Ogre,
    I'm certain the parallels are more complex than I can touch on in a single blog post! I just felt this area of thought had been completely missed by the portions of the discussion I'd seen. I really like how you put this in terms of the dynamism of literature and the diversity of interpretation. Thanks for the comment.

  11. It is very complicated. People tend to resist change. Change can also be unsettling, and painful. Perhaps that's why some people perceive it as decline, rather than something natural, and inevitable?

    I also think this is one of the best pieces I've read on the debate. Thank you for sharing this, Juliette :)

  12. Thank you for commenting, T.S. Bazelli. I appreciate you coming to the blog. I agree that change can be unsettling. It's also one of the constants of our existence.

  13. "I don't really see this as a cultural decline - it is a cultural change."

    Yes! You've articulated some of my own feelings on the debate, which I've had difficulty putting into words. There seem to be those who feel that there's a zero sum approach to cultural capital, that some gain voice only at others expense. I think the reality is much more complex than that.

  14. Complex - yes, I entirely agree. Thanks for your comment, John.

  15. I agree with some of this post, but feel moved to point out its historical myopia. World War I was most decidedly not a conflict in which the participants saw a clear cut division between good and evil or even a clear purpose. It's called the Great War because of the size of the theater and the carnage it caused. An entire generation of Europe's young men were laid waste for no compelling reason, and this precipitated a crisis of faith in European civilization, one result of which was the artistic movement known as Modernism. Just because our generation has seen the toppling of long-held beliefs and certainties does not mean it is the ONLY generation to do so.

  16. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous! It is indeed difficult to capture the scope and complexity of history in such a short blog post. You raise an excellent point about World War I, and the toppling of beliefs certainly has occurred time and time again throughout history. Indeed, the fighting in World War I was also seen differently by the different nations involved, and the sense of disillusionment that arose from it was instrumental in Australia's distancing itself further from England, for example. Thanks for deepening the discussion.