Thursday, August 27, 2015

On Fantasy

As I see it, there are two main strands of speculative fiction: that in which there is some degree of pretence that things certain historical peoples were deluded about were actually true, and that in which wholly speculative propositions are made that nobody has ever believed were true. This distinction can usefully be applied to differentiate science fiction from fantasy but there are obviously differing degrees to which individual texts are bound by these categories. Fantasy is predominantly a projection back into a historical-credulity-space in which belief in gods, magicians, fairies and demons are taken to be truth, whereas sci-fi mines a futuristic-speculation-space in which the assumed position is that certain predictions made about the future have come to pass. There is a tendency for fantasy to be less concerned with working out the possible ramifications of the fantastic elements than science fiction is with its speculative elements but that broad generalisation is subject to innumerable specific variations.

It is fantasy that I am most interested in, and for reasons which may be different than most. In his essay Epic Pooh, Michael Moorcock offers a criticism of elements of Tolkienesque epic fantasy as inherently conservative and reactionary, a means of mollycoddling the bourgeoisie with comfortable lies about the world. While Moorcock was primarily concerned with the political and social, rather than the ontological, an argument can be made that fantasy represents a kind of atavistic reality, one in which modern systems of categorisation are discarded in favour of something altogether more archaic. As an avowedly sceptical atheist I find the idea of actually believing the things mediaeval humanity believed to be distasteful, but at the same time find the fact that they actually did believe them fascinating. Adopting the everything-they-believed-was-true approach allows me to take the much-maligned role of the cultural coloniser, patronisingly aping the attitudes of a non-privileged other with an aplomb granted by the fact that the patronised, culturally-colonised other is largely extinct. This fact of their extinction also allows me to venture, unmolested by judgment, into scathing criticism and parody of the abhorrent attitudes mediaeval people held with regards to women, sexual servitude, torture, violence as entertainment, racism, abject thraldom to monolithic religion, cruelty to almost everything and intolerance of everything else. Of course, the everything-they-believed-was-true approach also falls foul of inherent contradictions when the heterogeneous nature of real historical cultures and their beliefs is taken into account. It can’t all be true.

My view of mediaeval people as predominantly ignorant creates an interesting paradox in terms of my attitude to the fantasy genre. If fantasy is to be believed, mediaeval people were not mistaken in their positions with regards to fairies and wizards. A rarely asked but very interesting question arises. If, in the context of the narrative, they are right about wizards, what else are they right about? The answer offered by lazy fantasy writers - the least interesting answer - is that the people of the fantasy world are indistinguishable from modern rational sceptics in Ren Faire costumes. These people understand their world in much the same way educated westerners of the late 20th to early 21st century understand it. Their belief in the existence of magic is supported by empirical observation. They believe in deities whose powers are demonstrably real. They believe in supernatural monsters who exist in an ecology alongside conventional creatures and whose supernatural powers are naturally occurring phenomena. Within this understanding of the fantasy world superstition is fact and therefore does not exist. All of which makes their world more rational than the real world. Which robs it of some of its wonder, to be sure, and also robs it of much of its perilous strangeness, which simply won’t do.

There are varying levels to which it is possible to take the apocryphal claims of mediaeval people as fact. I would argue that the further you allow yourself to travel down the rabbit hole of the mediaeval paradigm, the weirder the world becomes and the weirder the people themselves become. In comparison Legolas Greenleaf, say, who is an immortal scion of a line whose ancestors lived  before the first rising of the sun, is less weird than a mediaeval Englishman who believed that geese grew on trees, intellectually disabled children are fairy changelings and that burning cats alive is hilarious. The problem remains, and is even compounded, if you grant all the claims made by mediaeval people as true. Take for granted, for example, that the claims made in mediaeval bestiaries, wherein the intrusive ubiquity of religious parable and a general off-the-wall silliness usurps all observational naturalism, and you have a world in which the camel and the leopard can breed and that is where giraffes come from, where panthers breathe an intoxicating sweet fragrance, where mice are spontaneously generated by the soil and many stranger things are true - the world is almost unrecognisable. There is an approach that is sometimes taken which is to have a bet each way, to allow that some of the irrational claims made by historical people are true in the context of the narrative but disallow others, or relegate them to a shrunken category of mere superstitions. This feels like compromise.

There was apparently a belief that beavers self-castrated to escape from hunters

One of the aspects of working within a mediaeval fantasy paradigm that I find as powerful as it is underutilised is what TV Tropes calls deliberate values dissonance. This is what is being employed when the writers of Mad Men make Don Draper, obviously a protagonist and therefore relatable, prone to historically consistent lapses into chauvinism and insensitivity, which make him more fully realised as a character, more matriculated into the internally-consistent structure of the milieux. In much the same way, it would ring false to me to write an urbane roguish swashbuckler in an Elizabethan London who eschewed the bear garden, had no scorn for the lower classes nor festering racism in his heart. There is no reason why ideologies cannot be critiqued without resorting to artificial constructs. The beauty of described worlds, like the beauty in all of art, exists independently of moral judgments. The entity to which one writes is a human first, and it is invariably insulting to that humanity to tell comforting lies about the nature of the world. This is essentially what Moorcock was driving at in his essay, though I do disagree with him about Tolkien I concur with the general thrust: fantasy need not be meek. To my mind, in order that those who people the world be in some way historically concordant with the beliefs that they held, beliefs which the author utilises in constructing the reality in which they are embedded, some degree of estrangement from contemporary morality needs to be in place. To live in a demon-haunted world is to be haunted by demons.

M. John Harrison, whose work I have only recently made happy acquaintance with, is renowned for the scorn he has for world-building. In his essay, Whatit might be like to live in Viriconium, Harrison describes how the role of the invented world is not to provide a consistently intelligible reality outside the parameters of the narrative. Of his invented city, Viriconium he writes; “it is not a place. It is an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological”. While he explicitly states that the purpose and function of invented worlds in gaming contexts is different from those in which fictional narratives are based I am going to conveniently ignore this fact, or at least pretend I am writing fiction, and allow some of the constraints to fall away. It does not matter, in the context of the narrative the structure of reality can fluctuate according to the needs of the narrative. Acknowledging the potential for the role of constraints in honing creativity, I can at the same time reject the constraints when rejection is necessary. Harrison does this effortlessly, Viriconium fluctuates according to the needs of the narrative. Whatever is on the bill of goods that needs animating, the city can be rewritten around those ideas the better to bear them along.

This attitude towards world-building is liberating. There is a quality to any exhaustively detailed world that is tiresome and false. No world can possibly be as detailed as Earth (literally, because all invented worlds are contained within Earth). There are always ragged boundaries at the end of the author’s endurance where things referred to are obviously just names with no substance behind them and no more narrative to make them resonant. Tolkien’s primary criticisms of invented languages like Volapük and Esperanto is that they had no legends to make them real. The entire corpus of Middle-Earth writings exist ostensibly so that Tolkien’s invented languages would feel more alive. I take the approach that because invented languages are difficult to animate with invented history and difficult also to construct with any degree of verisimilitude without considerable philological expertise and painstaking effort, I do not ever use invented words. The words I do use are very often obsolete dialect terms, and often applied to obscure folkloric concepts drawn from the well of things benighted people once believed. This constraint serves a number of purposes; I do not have to construct a language and the history of that language, I can avail myself of the robust interconnectedness and developed sound symbolism of existing language to embed the concept more fully into the world, I can encode extra layers of meaning into the names, and I can create refugia where otherwise extinct words can survive, however briefly, and be repurposed. The employment of obsolete obscurities is also part of a strategy of estrangement wherein I can subvert expectations about familiar things the better to lead toward the mystery I am trying to reveal.

That there is a persistent vocabulary that can be used to refer to things nobody still believes in is endlessly fascinating to me. The things people believed to be true seem to be epiphenomena deriving from our limited and biased perceptions of the world and our capacity for confabulation and exaggeration. That nobody ever saw a fairy is beyond doubt, the fact that people from innumerable cultures independently held firm convictions that there was an invisible race of others with potentially malign powers bears powerful testimony to the fact that, as concepts, as delusions and as components of language, fairies were (are) real. This list of legendary creatures from a compilation of British folkloric material known as the Denham Tracts, incidentally a source of speculation about origin of the word hobbit, testifies to the proliferation of terminology used to refer to things that never existed;
"What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, Bloody Bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!”
In spite of my scorn for the barbarisms committed by historical people I find the things they imagined to be true fascinating precisely because I am one of them. The archetypes of mythology exist as archetypes because they fulfil some primordial niche in the human imagination. It is for this reason that they persist. I am in the habit of engaging in recreational reductionism in a lot of contexts and I am especially fond of mocking humanity in its hubris. I think there is a perspective from which we can view the latent human need to confabulate that is simultaneously humbling and ennobling, and one that need not resort to magical thinking. Human beings are composed of matter and energy, we are not merely embedded within cosmology, we are ourselves components of cosmological processes and part of the universe-in-motion. The mythic archetypes that so easily delude human beings are as much the product of naturalistic processes as anything else and it is precisely because they are part of the naturalistic process that they have such traction. They are ancient, primordial relics of our animal heritage. Magicians, fairies, monsters and otherworlds seem to lurk in the essential structure of our shared humanity. If they did not exist it would be necessary to invent them.

So when I think of the things I like to write about - the bill of goods – I keep returning to the same things; the nature of the world as imagined by the ignorant, how this crudely imagined representation of things can be described in a consistent way and whether there is any value in consistency, how there is a necessity to reserve some moral judgment with regards to those that people the narrative and even to embrace their immorality as a form of integrity, how everything seems to be extruded by the idiotic machinery of spacetime. For all these things I keep returning to fantasy. It would be interesting to imagine a future world that based a genre upon the delusions contemporary humanity holds, a kind of pseudoscience fiction, complete with messianically-empowered reptoid televangelists and anti-vax sasquatch CIA-insiders flying planes into buildings to foil Illuminati plans to control humanity with chemtrails. Discovering M. John Harrison has assisted me in debunking some of my own delusions: the Laighlands (Lowlands, Lawlands, Meagrish Realm) is not a place (it is actually Doggerland) and exists only as a means to convey ideas and emotional impressions into the brains of other primates. That is plenty.

I leave you with Ruskin, from Seven Lamps of Architecture, 

...the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess.


  1. This dovetails nicely with the notion that fantasy-fiction, particularly secondary world fiction, is essentially parasitic in nature. Anything that is not redefined by the author (or in the case of a roleplaying game, the worldbuilder) must necessarily be assumed to be "just like" its equivalent in the modern world.

    This strains the powers of the creator, while also providing an easy fallback. Too easy, I think, since any serious historian would point out that things decidedly WERE NOT like the modern world in a truly medieval setting. Thus, great care must be taken to Other the world and make it strange. That's one of the things I strive to do with my own setting, which is one of the reasons I use a bevy of made-up words and languages. The stranger the setting is, the less parasitic it will seem as players are forced to grapple with completely alien histories and mindsets.

    Of course, this is draining in the extreme, both in the planning and execution phases. First you must design the other world with an eye toward reducing its inherent parasitism (not eliminating, for that would be impossible, but confining it to the most mundane) and second you must embody that otherness each time you play, remind the players of social mores that they don't understand or find repulsive, and remember the strange medieval motivations of yours NPCs.

    It's a challenging, but often rewarding, game.

    1. You're right, it is draining. I have been trying to do a somewhat similar thing with the fiend folio as the base, where everything is different except the landscape. Everything has renamed with as deliberately guttural and weird phonemes as I can muster but it is set in the landscape around me, only with the poles flipped and the Earth spinning backwards and insane post-singularity headfuck stuff. The morality and worldview I have been trying to derive from Bronze Age sources like:

      "I erected a wall in front of the great gate of the city. I flayed the chiefs and covered this wall with their skins. Some of them were walled in alive in the masonry; others were impaled along the wall. I flayed a great number of them in my presence, and I clothed the wall with their skins. I collected their heads in the form of crowns, and their corpses I pierced in the shape of garlands..My figure blooms on the ruins; in the glutting of my rage I find my content" -Neo-Assyrian inscription for Ashurnasipal I

      I think that murderhoboes gravitate towards an otherness of their own accord. I recently read Pizarro's conquest of Peru and was startled at the similarities. That event was amazing amoral and it was obvious that they were in it for the XP

  2. Very nice - you don't do stuff by halves. Will have to reread and contemplate before maybe adding a longer response.

    1. Thanks, Gus. It is my intention to eventually do something wholeheartedly, I do hope that writing will be that thing.