Fantasy fiction: old gods in disguise

When I was about 12, I discovered The Belgariad, perhaps the high point of 1980s fantasy fiction in the po-faced medieval style. David Eddings’ shepherd-boy-discovers-hidden-magic-and-saves-the-world format may seem hackneyed now, but my tween self was entranced: siblings would try and fail to get my attention before shouting “Fire! Death! Mary!” into my ear to wrest me from that world of infinite possibility and high adventure.

Back then, fantasy was a nerd hobby. Today, though, both fantasy and the moral policing of fantasy seems increasingly mainstream. Fantasy novels can be pulled for wrongthink and even wildly successful fantasy authors such as JK Rowling get dogpiled. Not even actors representing fantasy characters are safe: witness the treatment meted out to Mandalorian actress Gina Carano after being judged by the court of social media to be guilty of heresy.

To those uninterested in fantasy “fandoms”, these may seem absurd dramas. After all, when we’re talking about imaginary worlds populated by imaginary people, who cares about the private opinions of those who create the stories, or represent them on TV?

This dismissive attitude is a mistake. The truth is that a culture’s ideals are always delivered via stories, and in most cultures telling and re-telling these has been taken very seriously indeed. It’s only in our modern world that tales of gods and monsters, rather than taking centre stage in our shared cultural life, have been shoved off into a box called “fantasy fiction” and treated as a mezzobrow hobby for the incorrigibly childish.

It should be clear by now that I have a personal stake here: I’m a full-bore fantasy fiction nerd. Whether it’s solemn sword-and-sorcery, the comic adventures of Terry Pratchett, or the weird worlds of China Miéville or Josiah Banks, if it’s even half-decently written and concerns fantastic kingdoms and impossible adventures I’m there. But I’m also, to a modest extent, interested in literary history. And it’s striking how fantasy fiction popped into existence as a Western genre more or less at the exact point where epic poetry in the classical style stopped being taken seriously.

Rewind a few hundred years, and everyone writing in English sprinkled references to the Greek and Roman gods into their stories and poems, while the Homeric myths occupied a place in the Western imagination almost as central as the Bible. It’s difficult to imagine today but figures such as Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, Circe the sorceress and snake-headed Medusa were common cultural reference points for the educated class.

And it wasn’t just the mythic memes of antiquity that larded our literature — it was the forms as well. The hero’s quest, as set out in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and later in Virgil’s Aeneid, formed a template for heroic narrative that continued almost unchanged into the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Countless authors borrowed, imitated, translated and ironically reworked the epic mode, from Spenser’s hallucinatory Faerie Queene (1590) to Milton’s barnstorming retelling of the Christian story, Paradise Lost (1667), to arguably the last effort at epic poetry, Byron’s Don Juan (1819). But it couldn’t last. In Don Juan, Byron captured something sad but unmistakably true: the classical epics were losing their aura, leaving behind only a sense of lost grandeur. As Byron’s hero laments, while trapped on a Greek island (with only a nubile pirate princess for company):

THE isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.

Byron’s 16,000 lines of satire, sex and mourning for the vanished glories of classical antiquity put paid to epic as a usable form for anyone with a desire to be taken seriously as a writer. Or was it science? Imagine a looming form that by candlelight seems a shadowy, terrible monster — then turns out, with the lights switched on, to be just a coat-stand. With scientists explaining away ever more of the world’s mysteries by the light of reason, maybe the old gods just started to look a bit silly.

So a few short decades later, the epic style migrated into the first fantasy novels: George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858), and the children’s adventure The Princess and the Goblin (1871). Even as epic poetry died off, modern fantasy fiction was born.

The high point for our rational world — Peak Reason, if you will — was probably the end of the Cold War, when it seemed all the grand battles between good and evil had been won. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was in the 1980s that the fantasy market went supernova.

Remembering my adolescence in the 1990s, the everyday world seemed flat, dull and stripped of all enchantment. But fantasy blossomed: after my baptism-by-Belgariad, I fell feet-first into the then freshly-published greats of modern fantasy, by now-classic authors such as Robin Hobb, Tad Williams and of course JK Rowling. Epic imagination scaled new heights, even as geopolitics sought perpetual peace under the “liberal international order”, the Communist threat evaporated, and the scope for heroic achievement in the “real” world seemed as vanished as Byron’s vision of classical Greece.

Those who went on dreaming of earth-shattering battles or heroes plucked from obscurity to save the universe have spent the Age of Reason with their heads down. Tolkien’s classic of 20th-century fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, is one of the best-selling books of all time; but one 1955 letter to WH Auden, Tolkien ruefully describes being “scourged with such terms as ‘pubescent’ and ‘infantilism’”. And everyone loves dragging millennials about the Harry Potter thing.

But while science has plenty to say about the “what” and “how” of our world, it has far less to offer on “why”. We may laugh at the tweeness of being a Harry Potter obsessive in your thirties, or someone with a mortgage and two kids cosplaying at a Star Wars convention. But we’re not so different from our fireside-storytelling ancestors, in craving stories that help us get at the dark, strange questions — or the big ones about power, empire, good and evil.

And while mythology seemed temporarily defeated by the End of History, today successive crises of finance, terrorism and pandemic have shown our world to be far more dangerous and unpredictable than we once imagined. So even as history has come roaring back, we shouldn’t be surprised to see gods and monsters doing the same. They might take the form of Baby Yoda memes or emetic Gryffindor avatars, but they’re playing the same role as the Greek and Roman pantheon centuries ago: providing a common narrative language for debates about the big questions.

From this perspective it’s easier to see how quarrels over whether or not an actress thinks you should wear a mask, or what JK Rowling thinks about transgender women, aren’t ludicrous culture war sideshows at all. Rather, they’re border skirmishes over the content of our moral operating system. The woke grasp this fact instinctively, which is why they reserve a special fury for policing heresy in our emerging new mythologies.

But the new would-be guardians of our epic mythologies are likely to find in time that their subject has a habit of escaping their control. The long history of stories that survive and replicate tells us it’s not the morally correct ones that make the cut, but the ones that ring true. No one today reads that classic of 17th-century woke literature, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, unless they absolutely have to. Meanwhile, it’s a testament to the continued power of the old pantheons, that having disappeared from highbrow literature, they’ve since reappeared in (among other things) PlayStation games and the Marvel universe.

And the power of such gods lies partly in their refusal to be domesticated: they’re two-faced, ambivalent, bloody, capricious and awe-inspiring. They’re not at all inclusive. They carry a payload of intuitions about — for example — the persistence of power, violence and hierarchy, the often-untidy dynamics between the sexes, and the obnoxiousness of heroic personalities, that don’t sit comfortably with the sanitised modern imagination. Stories are too unruly to be easily contained by moral correctness.

It was the pursuit of Reason that chased the old gods into the shadows of children’s literature. But today, our faith in Reason is well on its way to collapsing. David Goodhart wrote recently about how, as media control has decentralised in the internet age, what looked like a consensus on “objective” discourse has been upended by a tidal wave of emotionally inflected personal testimony. Even the New York Times, which has for decades styled itself as the objective ‘paper of record’, has been convulsed by civil war over whether it should instead embrace more polemical, politicised stances.

As the lights go out and we see the world by firelight again, expect to discover the old gods striding, full-sized, across our imaginations again. We may find their return a mixed blessing.

Originally published at UnHerd

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