The Revitalization of Heroic Fantasy

A week or so ago, I read a blog post about how epic fantasy is a big waste of time. The author of Pop-Verse argues, somewhat convincingly that 1) “The motherfuckers are too long,” 2) “They are … stylistically similar/identical,” and 3) “They don’t really say anything.” He has a point. After having recently stayed up late to watch the incredibly disappointing, low-budget fantasy picture Deathstalker (1983), a Barbie Benton vehicle with only a few giggling breasts and taut frolicking buttocks to (almost) redeem it from the cinematic dustbin, I’m tempted to agree. Maybe heroic fantasy truly is inherently lame.

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The tropes of arrogant adventurers, wily wizards, and damsels in distress were already tired by the time they found themselves being recycled into Victorian retellings of dragons and heraldry and deeds of daring-do, and they grew little less tedious even when spilling forth from the pens of literary giants like Tolkien and Eddison and Branch Cabell. Their novels are readable, even admirable, but these days their magic is accomplished primarily through a deliberate leap of faith, a willing suspension of contemporary expectations for rousing storytelling. The novels ultimately seem quaint and charming rather the compelling and vital.

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After a brief infusion of surging hot blood provided by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories during the 1930’s, these well-worn romances grew even more wearisome in the hands of rank imitators sucking their way through the insufferable 70’s. Writers like Brooks and Donaldson churned out trilogy after trilogy and could find nothing new to bring to the genre. Indeed, even in the hands of relative innovators like Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny, or under the marvelous ministrations of self-conscious prose stylists like Fritz Leiber and Avram Davidson, the fantasy tale continued to wane inexorably through the closing decades of the twentieth century. Personally, I enjoyed the familiar terrain of David Gemmell’s Deathwalker novels and the titillating arabesques of Cole and Bunch’s Far Kingdoms, but neither could finally breath fresh life into the corpse of heroic fantasy.

The genre might have been gracefully buried there. We might have happily reread Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Alexander Dumas’s musketeer novels and been spared the misery of reading any more such lackluster modern recountings of ersatz Arthurs, leftover Lancelots, and make-believe Merlins. Worse things could have happened. But fantasy wasn’t dead. Dungeons & Dragons had inspired the imagination of a new generation. And the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering left a generation poised for the young adult fantasies of Harry Potter and Eragon. The message to other writers was clear… there may be a dragon slumbering on the top of it, but there’s gold in them there hills.

Then along came the new century, and along with it there emerged some truly powerful new voices in heroic fantasy. George R.R. Martin, despite is overly allusive middle initials, proved himself a powerhouse of fresh ideas in fantasy. He dispensed with Victorian pieties, brought Machiavellianism to Middle Earth, and put sex and violence back where it belongs as central to the genre. Has there even been a more wonderfully complex character than Tyrion Bannister this side of the Bard himself?

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The HBO adaptations of Martin’s Westeros leave me a bit over-heated. Not that I mind attractive flesh bouncing bountifully for my viewing pleasure, but it’s a bit distracting from the considerable storytelling virtues I found when reading Martin’s novels. I loved the shifting perspectives, the fully imagined world with serious interpersonal struggles and deadly political challenges. The series still has those elements, to be sure, but it also devotes a fair number of scenes to bawdy spectacle. Far be it from me to complain. The series is a thoroughly enjoyable hit, and it has TV junkies plowing their way through massive novels they might never have attempted. I’m just saying, the novels are better than the series. And we can leave it at that. The problem with porn, even of the soft-core variety, is that once a sex scene is over you have a hard time finding your way back to the main story. The intrusion of one’s own physical desires creates a barrier to the continued suspension of disbelief and the object of entertainment risks becoming ridiculous. Or worse, tedious.

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The other contemporary fantasy writer that has me very excited about the resurgence of the genre is Joe Abercrombie. While he has not (yet) been graced with a television series (or even a film) to launch him into the mass-media stratosphere, his novels bring to high fantasy the same sort of gritty realism that Martin’s do. But there’s even something extra to Abercrombie. Much as I love Martin’s epic scope and wonderful way with characterization, he never quite captures the perverse gallows humor of the genre in quite the way Abercrombie manages. After all, there’s a lot of blood and shit to be spilt on the way to slaying dragons and topping fairy kingdoms. Abercrombie shows how it’s done.

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Do yourself a favor and start with Abercrombie’s 2007 debut The Blade Itself, a title taken from the Homer quotation, “The blade itself incites deeds of violence.” You’ll never feel yourself in more sympathy with a crippled turned government torturer. These are fantasy novels that push the limits of the genre and reveal again the hidden depths of social significance that first made Malory and Tennyson meaningful.

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