Back again for another highly opinionated — some might even say downright cranky — look at some element of the fantasy genre. You’ve been warned!
WHEN DID FANTASY STOP BEING ABOUT SWORDS AND SORCERY?
Whenever I tell people I edit a website devoted to fantasy-themed entertainment, they usually say the same thing: “Oh, wizards and sorcery and quests and stuff like that?”
Usually, I just nod and say, “Yup!”
But if I’m in the mood to give a more complicated answer (and if I think the listener actually wants to hear it!), I say, “Well, swords and sorcery are a part of it. But increasingly, traditional or ‘high’ fantasy is a smaller and smaller part of the genre. These days, it’s much more about contemporary or urban fantasy — anything that involves magic or the paranormal or supernatural in general. These days, most of the creative energy is around shows like Supernatural or vampire-themed projects like True Blood. If anything, swords and sorcery is becoming sort of the bastard stepchild to the genre.”
Let me pause here to say that I love swords and sorcery. It’s what drew me to the genre, and it’s still probably the fantasy sub-genre I love the most (indeed, this site and this column are named after it!).
But the fact is, when was the last time a “traditional” sword-and-sorcery fantasy project took the world, or even the geek world, by storm? Legend of the Seeker? We all know how that story ended up.
Sure, there’s George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice (soon to be an HBO series called A Game of Thrones). But that series’ claim to fame is its post-modern “realistic” bent — and its almost complete lack of magic. Spartacus: Blood and Sand, meanwhile, subverts the traditional genre with its explicit gore and (especially) its sex.
Harry Potter kept the sorcery — but put it in a traditional setting.
True, the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia movie franchises are still going strong, but let’s face it: these projects are fueled, in large part, by nostalgia — by the desire of geeks like me to see their childhood passions finally fully realized on-screen, in a way they couldn’t be pre-CGI.
You can certainly still find high fantasy in fiction and in many video games — Dragon Age: Origins was deservedly a sensation. But you can also find plenty of urban and supernatural contemporary fantasy in both mediums as well.
Still, the swords-and-sorcery backlash became clear to me yet again last week when I was reviewing a new (pretty good) webseries called JourneyQuest. Basically, it’s a satire of all the traditional fantasy conventions, with the wizard, the warrior, and a villain all given modern, ironic sensibilities.
But when I was writing my review, it occurred to me that I’d been seeing this mock-the–traditional-fantasy-conventions premise a lot lately: last year’s Comedy Central series Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire, and a long list of other recent webseries: The Legend of Neil, Doraleous and Associates, A Good Knight’s Quest, The Gamers, and The Guild.
Mocking fantasy conventions really isn’t anything new. I think a big part of the reason why Xena: Warrior Princess became the sensation it did (especially compared to its originator Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) was because of its take-no-prisoners sense of humor (and its female protagonists for a change). There were no sacred fantasy cows on Xena, that’s for sure.
Meanwhile, the next swords-and-sorcery fantasy movie, Your Highness (coming in April 2011), is, of course, a fantasy-comedy, making fun of the genre.
What is it about traditional fantasy that is making people so eager to make fun of it?
Ironically, I kinda blame it on The Lord of the Rings — or at least the authors and fantasy enthusiasts who followed directly in Tolkien’s wake. Sure, the “fantasy” genre existed long before Tolkien, but it was Rings that basically ended up creating the modern fantasy genre: elves, dwarves, an all-powerful magic item, an evil force to be destroyed.
Lord of the Rings cast a long, dark shadow all through the 60s, 70s, and 80s — a shadow that was reinforced by the explosion of the D&D gaming culture where people basically acted out those Tolkien conventions over and over again. Before long, the template Tolkien had popularized almost became something sort of … sacred.
And let’s face it: in the hands of most 70s and 80s fantasy writers, these ossified conventions also became very predictable and very boring. Been there, done that, that’s for sure. Around 1989, I decided if I read about one more humble medieval farm-hand who was destined to save the world from yet another Big Bad, I was going to scream.
In short, the genre was ripe for implosion. Indeed, the genre wasn’t just ripe for implosion, it was actually sort of begging for it.
So cue the rise of fantasy reinventions like A Song of Fire and Ice and Xena: Warrior Princess, and the parodies like JourneyQuest and Krod Mandoon.
None of this is a bad thing. Fantasy is richer and more sophisticated than its ever been (IMHO). But sometimes I do think: wouldn’t it be nice to see another great work of traditional fantasy, without the irony, the parody, or the reinvention?
That’s when I remember: all those favorite fantasy works of my childhood still exist: all I have to do is cue them up on my DVD player or Kindle.
That fact that I don’t do it all that often — that I’d rather watch the latest episode of Supernatural or read the newest Jacqueline Carey book — makes me think: well, maybe I’ve moved on some too.
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- The Tinder Box: Does the World Really Need “Elf” Porn?
- John Rhys-Davies and Ted Raimi to Guest on LEGEND OF THE SEEKER
- Ted Raimi Interview: “We’re Living in a Golden Age of Fantasy Movies and TV”
- John “Gimli” Rhys-Davies Turns Down Dwarf Role in THE HOBBIT
- The Tinder Box: Is TV Sci-Fi Imploding (Even as TV Fantasy Surges)?