by David Lamb
The fantasy genre is suffering from a crisis of imagination. Despite the panoply of mythical languages, ancient beings and dark continents, fantasy is somehow stuck, mired in its conservative vision of a world slipping into ruin, longing for its past.
East of Gondor
In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, arguably the most popular work of fantasy to date, we find a world struggling to un-invent industry and return to its former pastoral simplicity. The suspiciously Aryan elves preside over a millennia-old racial hierarchy, in which class and social mobility are firmly fixed into a rigid, caste-like system of ethnic segregation. The hobbits are free to carve out a simple, rural existence, entirely ignored by the wider world. The dwarves are largely tolerated but disdained, (their greed, stubbornness and large noses an egregiously anti-Semitic trope). While the conveniently demonic-looking orcs are simply dismissed as subhuman, murdered with impunity, and banished to a volcanic hellscape to the east.
It is the latter group who, presumably unsatisfied with their lot, rise up and threaten to upset the supremacy of men, elves and old wizards. The eponymous ring is a metaphor for technology itself, an object imbued with vague yet highly potent transformative powers, nearly impossible to unmake. Created by Sauron, who attempts to use it to emancipate marginalized peoples of Mordor, to redress the horrific imbalances of the old world through industrial progress. Alas, in the end, the ring is unmade and the fellowship are welcomed home as heroes, but we know not what happened to the orcs.
The Lord of the Rings fights against progress in every form, whether it be racial equality or the concept of technology and industry itself. Middle-earth is triumphantly and violently delivered back into its past, unchanging and unchanged. This it shares with all the most popular works of fantasy: that things were once better, that we have lost some former glory worth reclaiming at any cost, presenting us with a fetishization of history in its most explicit form.
The glorification of the past is particularly egregious in George RR Martin’s vision of Westeros, whose lingeringly indulgent depictions of sexual violence and subjugation reveal a starkly regressive core beneath its gratuitously liberal veneer. To the east we find Daenerys Stormborn, the exiled heir to the much feared Targaryen dynasty; a line of incestuous monarchs that ruled over a bygone age of opulence and splendour, when dragons circled the skies and melted the castle turrets of enemies like wax candles.
Daenerys is a queen by right of birth, and so she sets about conquering an entire continent of darker-skinned peoples while in exile overseas, ostensibly freeing them from their brutal slave masters and traffickers. However, when all the grand speeches about liberation and new eras are over, it becomes quickly apparent that the recently liberated have really all been enlisted into Daenerys’ war for the seven kingdoms. They will bear the brunt of the violence necessary to reinstall her on the iron throne and return Westeros to its past glory. In a scene that was inexplicably chosen to feature in an HBO trailer for the show, we see Daenerys, silver-haired, blue-eyed and light-skinned, literally surfing on a wave of her dark-complexioned subjects.
As this scene and countless others demonstrate, People of Colour are not imbued with agency in Game of Thrones. Instead, they are presented as pawns to be moved across the chess board, as bodies on which violence is enacted, to be sacrificed for the reclamation of a Targaryen rule. The Dothraki horse lords are presented to us as simple savages who fight for whomever they think strongest, which conveniently happens to be the dragon queen herself. Her other fighting force, the eunuchs of the Unsullied, are former warrior-slaves whom she freed from their brutal masters. Incredibly, they immediately and willingly re-enter their bondage and pledge to fight and die for her instead.
Freedom, for Daenerys, is just slavery by any other name. She frequently introduces herself as the breaker of chains, espousing a liberal egalitarian philosophy that, on closer inspection, is merely ruthless exploitation in the pursuit of power. Her reluctance to use her dragons to blitz King’s Landing, the city she must ultimately claim to win the war, is at one moment presented as evidence of her progressiveness. This is later undermined when she elects to flay an entire battalion of Lannister men alive, instructing her dragon to devour any man who refuses to bow down to her in the aftermath. The much-ridiculed liberal comparisons between Hillary Clinton and Daenerys Targaryen in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election are rather apt, then; they share an aesthetic of liberation that conceals a war-mongering belief in one’s own manifest destiny.
Meanwhile, in the barren ice fields of the north, an army of white walkers marches inexorably southward. As with Tolkien’s armies of Mordor, their intentions remain completely opaque. The little we know about marginalized peoples in fantasy is relayed by those who already consider them subhuman. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf, our sole source of knowledge about the orcs, is a propagandist if ever there was one. In Game of Thrones, the ambiguously omniscient Bran fulfils a similar role. Both Bran and Gandalf provide the protagonists with special insight into their coming destruction, but this prophetic insight is merely a base fear masquerading as knowledge, a closing of ranks against the other.
The Other at the Gates
This other, the foreign power, is the most common fantasy trope of all. Imbued with some ambiguously destructive yet obscure purpose - perennially bracketed away by their apparent barbarism and thus rendered immaterial - it is the mere fact of their otherness that warrants their destruction.
Indeed, the heroes of fantasy are heroes precisely because they repel this threat. The function of these heroes is to re-establish the old order, against the degeneration of culture and tradition, forcing the arc of history to bend back round to where it began. The narrative structure is a perfect circle, arriving circuitously back at the same conditions as in the beginning. This is often expressed in the idea that magic is decreasing as a function of time, common to most works of fantasy: that we are arrived at some critical point of no return where magic can either be reclaimed or lost forever. If you substitute the word magic there for ‘culture’ or ‘decency’, you have the archetypal conservative narrative of history itself, which we see emblazoned on the front page of every right-wing publication each and every morning.
It can be argued that conservatism is not necessarily inherent to the fantasy genre, and there are indeed many fantasy authors who have been able to subvert these tropes convincingly. From Ursula Le Guin to N. K. Jemisin, there is no shortage of progressive works of world-building, and in fact the 2017 Hugo awards (the Oscars of fantasy writing) were swept by brilliantly inventive female and PoC voices. Of course, these works have failed to capture the public imagination with the same force as their conservative counterparts. The big-budget adaptations are always awarded to the same types of fantasy, and with Amazon announcing the release of a new serialised adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, this seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
From Fantasy to the Front Page
Conservatism, like the most popular works of fantasy, has no true power of imagination. It endlessly reinvents the same enemy, re-presenting and repackaging the same existential crises over and over, trying in vain to force the world back into its past: to a time before the European Union by enacting Brexit, before the Obama administration by electing Trump, before the refugees came by embracing Islamophobia. But this is a futile effort; despite what conservatism believes, there is no golden past worth returning to, no magic or culture worth reclaiming. Culture, it transpires, is never on the wane, like energy it’s a constant, never created nor destroyed but simply changed. Popular fantasy is little more than the right-wing idea that society is actively degenerating, dressed up in the trappings of medieval European legend.
Asking whether our obsession with this type of fantasy informs our politics, or vice versa, misses the point. The two emerge simultaneously, twins in the womb of our collective fears, inextricably bound to each other in some embryonic sense. These twin worlds overlap in our collective consciousness, where both the imaginary and the real intersect. Tales that appeal to vague notions of western cultural superiority and historical ascendency will always resonate more strongly with the white, western public, where well-meaning liberals can indulge their fears—reflected back at them in a more palatable form—and those on the right can see them plainly and explicitly depicted, celebrated for what they are.
By contrast, the greatest promise of socialism is that the future is ours to invent, ours to imagine and reify, untethered from the past and unshackled from cultural imperialism. To this end we are all authors, inscribing a plurality of cultures into the world itself, writing it into existence.
Photo: Ulrich Lange
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