Back again for another highly opinionated — some might even say downright cranky — look at some element of the fantasy genre. You’ve been warned!
DOES LOVING FANTASY MEAN I HAVE TO ROMANTICIZE THE PAST?
Can I make a confession? As much as I love fantasy, one part of the genre has always kind of bugged me:
The romanticization of the past.
I mean, I’m fine with romanticizing the past as, well, fantasy. In our era of media assault and cultural crudeness, who doesn’t smile at the idea of a simpler time, with sausages sizzling in the marketplace and a little stone cottage at the edge of a babbling brook with a pot of stew simmering over a roaring fire?
But, of course, that “past” never existed.
That’s pure fantasy. The reality is that, until just the last century and excepting for a lucky few — like royalty and people who lived in places of lush bounty like Pacific Islanders — human life has been a pretty miserable existence, at least by modern standards. The “past” had almost no safeguards or safety nets and, as a result, depended entirely on everything going absolutely right. Because if there was a famine or a war or an outbreak of disease — which happened a lot — things got really ugly really fast.
And even when times were good? The past was rife with ugly superstition, overwhelming bigotry, and plain old human ignorance. Who’s talking cultural crudeness now? And as for assaults, I’ll take a media assault over an actual one any day of the week.
I’m not saying anything particularly radical or extraordinary here. Talk to any historian, and he or she say exactly the same thing: for the vast majority of people in the vast majority of places, life was short and not-all-that sweet.
For the most part, I’m fine with pretending this isn’t true, or even simply agreeing to concentrate mostly on the positive aspects of the past — the stronger sense of community and, as a result, the accountability; the appreciation of tradition and cultural continuity; and the recognition that old people are not worthless and sometimes possess great wisdom and understanding.
But, of course, even here, all these “positive” aspects of the past had serious downsides as well: namely, a resistance to change and a lack of nimbleness, even in the face of obviously changing times. What if you want to argue that slavery is immoral, or that a women shouldn’t be consigned only to child-rearing and housework, or that gay people shouldn’t be burned at the stake?
Um, good luck with that.
But a lot of fantasy writers take it a step further even than this romantization of the past, and seem to be arguing that, with regard to human knowledge and understanding, the past was better too — that there is some great “wisdom of the ancients” or a “time of fairies” that has been lost, and that our current knowledge and understanding of the world just pales in comparison.
I’m so not down with this.
Okay, sure, I acknowledge that there is definitely some great wisdom in the past — especially in “advanced” cultures like the Ancient Greeks, the Chinese, the Islamic Golden Age, and the like.
And there is surely some “forgotten” wisdom too, perhaps in pagan peace-loving cultures that were tragically destroyed and suppressed by more war-inclined ones.
But superior to the modern world?
As bad as the present is — and I’m semi-convinced that corporations will ultimately be the death of us all — I still prefer it over the past.
It’s not even close.
Yes, there were surely some wise sages back then — but there are wise sages now. Read any Ursula Le Guin lately? And if we’re going to compare the “best” cultures of the past, isn’t it only fair to compare them to the “best” cultures of the present? Been to any Scandinavian countries lately? I defy you not to be impressed by their ingenuity, egalitarianism, and, well, civilization.
The past, meanwhile, was mostly an endless slog against superstition and ignorance.
Is it possible that there was a true “golden” age that existed before known civilization? A time of faeries?
Eh, maybe. But we haven’t found much evidence of it, and based on what we do know about the past, and about our species, it doesn’t seem very likely.
You know, I get that this isn’t necessarily a “literal” belief, that it’s all basically a wish, a metaphor for a particular world-view — the idea that “now,” that the modern world, is failing us all, morally and spiritually.
But I think it’s the metaphor that I’m most objecting to. When I look at human history, I see plenty to disgust and outrage me — just as when I look at the modern world.
But you know what? I also see a mostly steady, upward trajectory for our species: from blind superstition and ignorance, to increasing understanding and reason. From ignorance to enlightenment.
I know this is (very generally) the world-view of the science fiction genre, while fantasy tends to be much more critical of the present and suspicious of the future. Optimism in humanity and the future versus pessimism and a worship of the past.
And that kinda bums me out: I love fantasy, but my particular world-view seems to coincide more with sci-fi.
Is there a way to reconcile my two passions?
There is, but it’ll have to be the subject of another essay.
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- The Tinder Box (This Fantastic Week, Jan. 15, 2010)
- The Tinder Box: What Ever Happened to Swords and Sorcery?
- The Tinder Box: Does the World Really Need “Elf” Porn?
- The Tinder Box: Two Fantasy Movies Deserve “Best Picture” Nominations This Year
- The Tinder Box (Feb. 5, 2010): Of COURSE There’s a Bias Against Genre Films at the Oscars! So What?