At the World Fantasy Convention last October there was a panel discussion on whether there were any new ideas still coming out of genre writing. I didn’t even go to that session – the idea that writers are all out of ideas was actually offensive to me. Even if Mark Twain is right and there are no completely new ideas, the skill of the writer is to present old ones in fresh clothes in such a way that the audience is still entranced.
But genres – and readers – evolve. The ground-breaking stuff of original fantasy is now, by its very nature, clichéd. Goblin raiders and elven archers became the norm. Quests to find/destroy the holy or magical artefact became so common they might as well have written a Tourist Guide to Questing – in fact, Dianna Wynne Jones pretty much did. Readers were entirely on board with the idea of good vs evil, and wanted more social commentary. And this, I think, is the key to the evolution of fantasy.
Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. ~ G.K. Chesterton
People will always need escapism, and fantasy/sci-fi is a pretty exemplary form of it. But running away doesn’t solve your problems. If your escapism lets you come back with answers, it instantly becomes more valuable. Fantasy is an excellent way to explore social issues in a safe environment that is sufficiently abstracted from reality that you can do so without upsetting people or (hopefully) letting them be blinded by their prejudices. This isn’t a new idea but it’s an important one. I actually think it’s a major factor behind the rise in urban fantasy over the last couple of years – things like Mortal Instruments, the Dresden Files, the Matthew Swift series, Rivers of London, etc. They all bring the world of fantasy to meet our world, and explore problems in a safe but more relatable environment.
There’s nothing wrong with goblin barbarians and elven archers. They were the tools of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. But they need to change as the reader has changed, and reflect what the audience needs. An elven archer suffering from RSI and is living on benefits; a goblin barbarian who has to deal with racism. Extreme examples, maybe, but you get the gist. The timeless stories are timeless because of the people, and the issues those people are facing. Not because of dragons.
I want to end with the poem that largely inspired this post. We live in an age where there are no dragons or magic rings. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need heroes – we have our own problems, and they are many. Genre literature is an excellent way of remembering, and providing the tools to deal with, that.
The Times Are Tidy – Sylvia Plath
Unlucky the hero born
In this province of the stuck record
Where the most watchful cooks go jobless
And the mayor’s rôtisserie turns
Round of its own accord.
There’s no career in the venture
Of riding against the lizard,
Himself withered these latter-days
To leaf-size from lack of action:
History’s beaten the hazard.
The last crone got burnt up
More than eight decades back
With the love-hot herb, the talking cat,
But the children are better for it,
The cow milks cream an inch thick.