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Posts Tagged ‘heroic fantasy’

The Eternal Epic

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I just read a great post on Black Gate today by Fletcher Vredenburgh about being an older reader of science fiction and fantasy in a world where the genre has expanded and diversified into a dizzying array of choices, leaving many of the once-classic works sitting on the wayside, unread, displaced by flashy newcomers in the field. I have a huge soft spot for heroic fantasy from the first half of the twentieth century, so it struck a chord with me–especially the idea that these works are still worthwhile even when the world has seemingly moved on from the very specific context in which they were written. The values of someone from a hundred years ago in our own country can be just as alien as when we cross the border elsewhere. But has everything mutated to the degree where the literature of yesteryear can seem unapproachable, where age is such a turnoff due to dissonance?

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Knowing a bit of pre-colonial African history (and yes, Africa has a history, thank you very much Mr. Hegel), I’m often a bit let down by how under-represented African cultures are in the fantasy genre.  The Empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, the city-states of the Swahili Coast, the Kingdom of Kongo, the Kingdom of Ethiopia, Great Zimbabwe, the Massai and the Zulu, all have histories and oral traditions just as rich and fascinating as anything in classical and medieval Europe that a fantasy writer can look to for inspiration.  The Sundiata epic has enough heroics, battles, and magic to put Beowulf to shame, but we’re more likely to find works influenced by the latter than the former.  Fair enough, all things considered; if most fantasy started out from the pens of white Europeans (or those of European descent), we’re more likely to find those traditions propagated by fantasy thanks to familiarity.  For the longest time, writers simply didn’t consider Africa as a place to draw traditions from: western historians believed Africa didn’t even have a history; scientific racism, helped along by a good dose of Joseph Conrad, painted sub-Saharan Africa as an uncivilized land filled with bestial savagery.  What little civilization there was got attributed to outside sources: Arabs, or, in the case of Great Zimbabwe, Phoenicians.  Now, however, the historical field has broken from these long-standing biases and recognizes African achievements.  Thus, while I might feel let down by how few African-themed fantasy cultures are out there, I’m willing to let it pass on the grounds of either ignorance, disinterest, or concern for misrepresenting the cultures in question; I’m a bit more worried when those same nineteenth century attitudes towards Africa pop up in relatively recent works.

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My good friend Cory Tokay pointed out an issue I left out of “Spacesuit, Blaster and Science(!)”, namely that the same elitism towards fantasy displayed in science fiction criticism also occurs in fantasy criticism towards the much-maligned subgenre of sword and sorcery:

I think you’re missing a point about sword and sorcery. Something I’ve noticed, which I think is a load of crap as well as hypocritical, is that the second a piece of fantasy gains recognition it stops being sword and sorcery. Just as their is literary sci fi vs. non literary (another foolish and hypocritical distinction) there is literary fantasy and sword and sorcery. Both those who attack and defend the genre often seem to make this distinction as a way of distancing so called “good” fantasy from the “garbage” of sword and sorcery. It doesn’t even matter if the “good” works follow sword and sorcery conventions, the second they gain recognition they cease to be part of this genre.

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I dedicate the following post to Robert E. Howard scholar Rusty Burke, who back in February, 2010 wrote this response to one of my posts on the REH Forum: “I wonder if it might be worthwhile for someone — you, Taran? — to specifically tackle Alpers’ essay and the seeming effect it had on attention to heroic fantasy in SFS, in an essay for SFS or, if they aren’t interested, some other journal, or even a website?” (To clarify, I post under the name “Taran” on public forums)

Spacesuit, Blaster and Science(!):

Confronting the Uneasy Relationship between Science Fiction and Heroic Fantasy

by Michal Wojcik

 But fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn’t really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another. (Charlie Stross, Genre Neuroses 101)

The above thought is neither new nor shocking.  A significant number of science fiction authors have denigrated fantasy for years.  What is surprising, and to my mind slightly disturbing, is the bleed of genre superiority into academia.  Imaginative fiction has only recently found acceptance in universities; but even the mass of literary criticism available on J.R.R. Tolkien or Philip K. Dick cannot convince some that science fiction or fantasy deserve any serious study.  Yet, in the work done on imaginative literature, it seems as if those studying science fiction have to legitimate their academic interest by taking the accusations of escapism, adolescent wish fulfillment, sexism, or just plain silliness and shifting those long-held prejudices to fantasy.  We’re not like them, they seem to scream, what we study is serious.  The relationship becomes oppositional, and nowhere do we see this more often than the general dismissal of one subset of fantasy in particular: heroic fantasy, or as some may know it, sword & sorcery. (more…)

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