I’m not much of a Tolkien fan – not since I was about twelve or fourteen anyway (which, it strikes me, is about the right age to read and enjoy his stuff). […] I only wonder why on earth anyone (adult) would want to read something like that. (Richard Morgan, The Real Fantastic Stuff)
Fantasy is not The Lord of the Rings alone—to say so is foolish—but the tendency of authors to downplay Tolkien or other fantasy writers from the mid-twentieth century seems rampant today in the world of “gritty” fantasy, or even young adult fantasy with Philip Pullman’s dismissal of Tolkien as trivial, childish, and ultimately unworthy of critical examination. One of the early examples is Michael Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh”, which seems to be a starting point for much dismissal. Both Morgan’s article and Moorock’s essay have generated considerable heated debate, the latter for over twenty years, and I don’t have much to add.
Instead, I’d like to consider what, exactly, makes fantasy “adult.”
…although many readers start with Tolkien, they grow up and move on, and they want fantasy that has grown up and moved on as well. […] The adult readers wanted fantasy they could relate to, not the stuff of childish imaginations. (Sara Douglass, The Modern Epic Romance)
Once again, yes, I’m being a little unfair. I’ve already staked Sara Douglass in “The Fantasy Fallacy” for something quite different in relation to the same essay, but it’s not often that I find these positions summed up so nicely. Both Douglass and Morgan think we all “grow out” of Tolkien and his supposed imitators, or at least should. The same sort of thought-process follows when some literary critics think readers should, eventually, grow out of fantasy and read real books. However, Morgan and Douglass believe fantasy has been misused and mislabelled, and a revolution is at hand. Douglass goes on to tell us what we need to replace such childlike fantasies with:
Books that addressed real issues, books that had flawed heroes of over 25, books that had grit. Where pain was pain, and people endured large amounts of it. Where sometimes the good guy died and evil won. Fantasy over the past few years has become increasingly darker, and I don’t think that has any other reason for it than the fact that the market was over-stocked with the cute-Tolkien would-bes.
Very well then, I too think good fantasy addresses such issues. In fact, The Lord of the Rings fulfills all the above criteria, from the older heroes to feelings of pain to considerations of death and the nature of evil. These aren’t really the criteria, I think, that Douglass addresses in her own books. What I’ve found is that the realism we need involves a good deal of swearing, sex, and overwrought violence. These are the tenants of the new adult fantasy.
Take a choice passage from Morgan’s The Steel Remains:
Fuck it, I was on my sky-fisted way to your fucking yurt when I passed him. And, like I said, he just fucking shoves right past me. Face fucking screwed up like he’s pissed off about something. (152)
I’ll hang my head in shame—yes, I often use curses when I write fantasy, and don’t have anything against them. However, my problem with these “new takes” on the genre is that they don’t, actually, do anything new. Strip away the swears and the sex and you’re left with works not much different from their predecessors. Yes, there may be moral ambiguity, but Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith also wrote amoral worlds. Sara Douglass has much less depth than Morgan; ignore the strange creature sex and the novels don’t much reflect the lofty themes she urges writers to pursue. We are told to strive for realism in our fantasy, yet I don’t see much inherently realistic in the word “fuck.”
The only thing that makes these books adult is that we, adults, try to bar children from reading them. We often fail. Writing sex doesn’t make your book mature unless you do something with it. I used to sneak my mother’s romance novels when I was ten to skip to the dirty bits: it’s not, in itself, a particularly adult thing to write about, or even talk about. Head into any schoolyard and you’ll hear language that would make even, I warrant, Ms. Douglass blush.
It does, however, give a false sense of legitimacy to a work. Because we don’t want children reading them, we can automatically label such books “adult.” No longer need we piddle around in a sanitized Middle Earth where no orc would dare say “shit” even if he really wants to; we can be depraved as we like.
Only such measures don’t have much force when they seem injected, unnaturally, into a text. It’s one thing for such actions to naturally flow from the narrative and the context in which the narrative takes place; quite another when those actions are overused, merely there to draw attention to themselves. Especially annoying, to me, to see language and “adult” themes introduced while the writer chooses to maintain a preindustrial world with characters unaffected by time and place. It’s probably my training in history that makes me keenly aware of cultural dissonance: modern values (or lack of them) transplanted to a world where they couldn’t really exist.
But this makes fantasy relevant, after all. By adult we mean the adult of today, with our own specific concerns shaped by historical and social circumstance, and our own realistic tradition of literature (which came relatively late). As David Langford so brilliantly puts it in “Back to the Roots”:
By now there was an interesting subdivision of mainstream fantasy which came to be known as the realistic novel. Stories and characters were still made up, but the action mysteriously confined itself to the mundane world and its laws. No harm in that – except that followers of the new fashion were fatally tempted to sneer at older tradition.
Langford talks about fantasy in general in the article, I apply the same “fatal temptation” to our self-styled revolutionary fantasy authors who decry a lack of realism in fantasy (a very odd thing to say, if you say it out loud). Fantasy continues from a long, long tradition, yet the pursuit of adult fantasy seems to mean placing all fantasy works within our own narrow historical frame of thought.
One work that comes to mind which does consider the context of society, history, language, geography and literature is, well, The Lord of the Rings. As many have successfully argued, Tolkien consciously wrote in the style of an Anglo-Saxon epic, and his characters act accordingly. The only twentieth-century intrusion are the hobbits, the characters most like modern humans, but they live in a society which is also distinctly modern in comparison to the feudal societies around them. Tolkien succeeds in recreating an older style of literature; he also succeeds in reshaping it for our own time.
These are tales that adults listened to around fires a over thousand years ago. Yet, we are to believe, those same tales are childish today. Our world has moved on. Their issues aren’t ours. It’s a comforting thought.
However, the issues considered in “childish” fantasies such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. LeGuin’s are often very relevant today. Our context mirrored back from another one. It’s not a comforting fantasy—it’s a vaguely unsettling one:
Surely, anyone trying to “escape” through the magic portal of “fantasy” would not insist, in volume after volume, tale after tale, on the incalculable devastation and annihilation faced by the denizens of Middle-earth from Feanor to Frodo. Similarly, it is hard to imagine that anyone seeking to hang onto the past-whether it be the Edenic period of the First Age or the Edwardian era of Tolkien’s own early life-would persist in chronicling, often in passages redolent of the bleakest of Norse fatalism, such appalling destruction across the mythic ages. (W. A. Senior, “Loss Eternal in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth”)
We’d rather not reflect on such complex literary reflections of our past. Better to ignore it altogether. Better to do what Morgan would do to The Lord of the Rings:
Denethor retains most of his disagreeable characteristics but is a handy motherfucker with a battle axe …Theoden rides to Minas Tirith not because it’s The Right Thing to Do, but because he reckons there’s a chance he can lay his hands on Gondor’s levers of power in the aftermath…Faramir dies, Boromir lives…The hardiest fighters at the siege of Minas Tirith are a company of renegade orcs…The most terrifying asset in Sauron’s forces is a mercenary army of elves out of Mirkwood…An orc family provide Frodo and Sam with shelter as they cross the wastes… (Comment by Richard Morgan on “The Real Fantastic Stuff”)
One of the main tenants of criticism is not chastising a work for failing to do something the author never intended. The world above fits the political machinations of a post-industrial Europe; it doesn’t fit so well in the confines of an Anglo-Saxon epic. Were that so, I’m sure Grendel would be a lovely chap treated unfairly by the Danes. What really strikes me, though, is that these changes would make The Lord of the Rings not the lasting work that it is, but yet another example of the many washed-away “realist” fantasies on our shelves. It sounds like Joe Abercrombie by way of hobbits. It sounds like a topical story that passes away with the issues it tries to address.
I’m not one for universals. But I’m also not one for shallow work toted as revolution. With the “new” fantasy, I see what should be a very unique form of literature absorbed into the realistic novel. I see, not a flowering of creativity, but quite the opposite: fantasy as spy thriller, fantasy as modern political drama, fantasy as mere window dressing for a different form of literature entirely.
Yes, fantasy authors run the risk of not being taken seriously because they’ve diverged from the realist novel and gone off the other end, towards the fantastic once more. But if they don’t move towards the fantastic, they cease writing fantasy altogether. A true revolution: the wheel winding back to the very thing today’s fantasy came to protest, all in the name of some meaningless cultural distinctions between adulthood and childhood.
Postscript: For a better idea of what I meant about context, character, and writing style, see this review by Adam Roberts. “The irony is that the readers who read Fantasy because they want the uplift of a heroism with which they can identify—and who believe that heroism has no place in the modern world—are actually reading about precisely modern heroes.”
“‘Adult’ Fantasy” by Michal Wojcik is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.