Fantasy Past and Present

Over a Tor.com, I’ve been really enjoying the series “Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons.” Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode are busy reading and blogging their way through the books in Appendix N to the original D&D, designer Garry Gygax’s list of fantasy and science fiction inspirations for the game. So far they’ve covered many of fantasy’s founding luminaries (Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock), sadly neglected hidden gems (Manly Wade Wellman, Stanley G. Weinbaum), and midlist classics that should have stayed buried (Fletcher Pratt, L. Sprague de Camp).

It’s a fascinating conversation (with a surprisingly good, and civil, comment thread) that shows just how eclectic and gonzo fantasy’s post-Tolkein years were, mixing science fiction, fantasy, and a whole whack of other genre inspirations together in a way that’s a little less obvious today – at least partly, I suspect, due to the influence of D&D’s, blandest, most generic aspects. The bits that every sixteen-year old D&D player (myself included) took away first.

That said, we’re definitely in a renaissance for fantasy today, and not just because of the influence of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels and their fairly faithful TV adaptation.*

Martin is probably the most prominent example of gritty, unflinchingly dirt-ridden fantasy, but I think the real cream of the crop these days is a more urban, cosmopolitan sort of fantasy represented by Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles and Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards sequence. These are books that are responding not just to our reflections on medieval Europe but to a wide range of contemporary qualms about our city-dwelling, corporate-connected, globally affected lives.

I’m not sure, though, that the fantasy renaissance is necessarily a good sign for the future. If science fiction is the quintessentially modern genre, convinced that science and technology are the bedrock of an ordered, knowable universe, fantasy is channeling a much more chaotic, fractious, disordered world that may simply be beyond human comprehension, let alone control (that, after all, is what lets us post facto differentiate between science and magic).

I recently read The Sword and Sorcery Anthology, edited by David G. Hartwell and Jacob Weisman. It’s a wide-ranging collection, with both classic and modern stories, and I was struck by just how many of them diverged from the classic tropes of “heroic hero overcomes dastardly villain.” The stories weren’t straightforward parodies or inversions. They just came at the issue from different directions. Heroes aren’t always heroic, villains not obviously villainous, and victory hardly obvious or without consequences. As a reader, it was an enjoyable selection. But I’ve got to say, if believe you can read into literature as a guide to the tone of an era, I’m not entirely optimistic about the times in which we live.

* I’m only at the end of season two, but I’ve mostly been impressed by how the show handles, and adds to, the novels. Giving up Martin’s strict first-person perspective has added depth in a number of places, letting Sansa and Cersei shine in a way that they don’t in the book until they become perspective characters, and giving smaller parts like Bronn and Shae greater opportunities. In fact, I would say that some of the material written purely for the show (the talks between Cersei and Robert, the Arya-Tywin relationship at Harrenhall, Tywin and Pycelle fishing at King’s Landing) is actually the best material in the show.

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