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Genre as Argument: Fantasy


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If science fiction looks toward a technological utopia then fantasy appeals to an agrarian golden age. Fantasy as an identified genre is relatively new, newer than sci-fi, but as storytelling theme it has been around since the beginning of time. This theme can be divided into four parts:

  1. The past was better than the present,
  2. Man is inherently good (although not perfect),
  3. Corruption of man comes from without,
  4. A singular hero can alter the course of history (for better or for worse).

The past described from creation mythology to heroic sagas and European Romances have all the elements that make the past better than the present: greater than life heroes, giants, magic, dragons and peaceful agrarian communities. Thus we have the concept of the Golden Age, where everything was perfect or at least better than it is today. At such time men were immortal or nearly so, knew nothing of disease or hunger and lived in perfect harmony with the natural order.  Then corruption enters the mix, like the serpent in the garden and the idyllic past is shattered. Finally it is up to the hero to restore the order of things.

Although magic and supernatural forces abound, these stories tend to be very human centric. It is true that the human in question, the heroes, are endowed with tools or abilities beyond that of mere mortals, but they are flawed in some way and it is they and not the gods or otherworldly powers that engender change. It is Man who is at the center of the action, his success or failures determine the fate of the universe.

Good and Evil are also externalized in fantasy. Men, while flawed and susceptible to corruption, are generally good, while monsters (or monster races) are evil incarnate. Evil exists outside of Man and the mark of a true hero is how successful is he in fighting the Evil Without. A few examples can be found in Genesis (the Serpent), the Labors of Herakles (Hera driving the hero to madness plus many of the monsters he slays), and Tolkien (Sauron and the Orcs). Corruption also is connected to knowledge. It was from the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve ate, not the Tree of Life. It was the secret of forging the rings that convince Men and Dwarfs to side with Sauron and it was curiosity that drove Pandora to open the box. For Arcadia to survive, Man must remain blissfully ignorant of the dark secrets that will drive him to question their place in the universe. Most modern stories forgo this aspect of Knowledge as Evil since it clashes with our modern understanding of learning and simply externalize Evil as a horde of monsters to be exterminated while ignoring the idolization of agrarian based hierarchy which necessitates feudal or classical stasis so common in these stories.

Thus fantasy as a genre argues that the idyllic past is better than the present, but as always, counter arguments from within the genre exists as well.

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4 comments on “Genre as Argument: Fantasy

  1. I must agree with you on some level, but I’m curious to know what you think of the idea of a work of Fantasy being written as follows: men are the big bad force attempting to wipe what they deem “evil beings” from the land when in fact the so-called evil ones have been inhabiting and dominating the lands for millennia. In the eyes of the demons, or whatever one prefers to call them, men are the true evil. Incidentally, this is what my current WIP is based on. Curious to hear your thoughts!

    • I would say that is more of a counter argument. In fantasy Evil comes from without, an outer world, an invading horde, while Man lives in a nearly idyllic state with Nature. Or in the case of the Ring of the Nibelung, Man exits the know world and brings back the corruption with him. That is not to say that any genre can’t have counter arguments, they practically create them as they expand.

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