A Dragon Among Dragons: The Decay Of Fantasy

“The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.”

G K Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I think that Fantasy, as a genre, has undergone a shift in point of view during the last few decades. It is not a complete change, more of a general tendency, and it is subtle enough that I hadn’t really noticed it until I started looking into the type of protagonists in modern Fantasy fiction.

My language in this essay will be unfortunately vaguer  than I prefer to employ because the concepts I am working with are vague in my own mind. It is to be hoped that writing these thoughts down will help to clarify them.

But it has to do with what Chesterton above refers to as Normal and Abnormal.

Nearly all Fantastic stories (and I include all forms of speculative fiction, SF, Fantasy, Horror, Weird Tales) prior to the middle of the last century–say, 1960 or so–recognized the Preservation of the Normal against the encroachment of the Abnormal as an axiomatic imperative.

I am not talking about Good and Evil here, but more what Dungeons & Dragons refers to as Law and Chaos. Not human law, statutes decided upon and enforced by human beings, but Natural Law.  The essential sanity of the universe, being able to count on fire burning and water refreshing and water nourishing and the sun, after his sojourn in the underearth, returning to brighten the world at dawn.

That is what I am calling Normal. The Abnormal is metaphysical anarchy, uncertainty, a universe in which anything could happen. It’s what Rod Serling called The Twilight Zone and I tend to refer to as the Edge of The Wild.

Now there are several assumptions that I have to go and unpack in the preceding paragraphs, assumptions that I believe underlay Fantastic stories in general until relatively recently (historically speaking).

The first of these is the friability of Natural Law.  The Normal in this sense refers not to how things must go, but how they should go.  There are Things That Should Not Be, but, nonetheless, Are.

The violated imperative above deserves amplification. It runs counter to the persuasive assumption of clockwork determinism in modern fiction. Natural Law is, we are told, That Which Cannot Be Violated. Human Law, on the other hand, is just our personal preferences, which are both arbitrary and, in a universal sense, unenforceable.

There is no room in a determinist universe for what Chesterton calls the Abnormal. If something exists, then it was meant to be. That assumption of the indurate nature of reality, even in Fantastic stories, robs them of both primal wonder and primal terror. One can be impressed by an automaton, but never truly awed.

Awe requires the Abnormal.

The obverse side of the violability of Natural Law is the Transcendent Imperative of Obedience. Again, it is important to stress that this is not a human law, but a fundamental law of the universe. When we speak of Things That Should Not Be or Things That Man Was Not Meant To Know, we are not talking about things that offend mere humanity.

And yet there is a further critical element. The Preservation of the Normal–while not of human making–is nonetheless the responsibility of humanity. Human beings, though, have free will and may choose to abdicate their responsibility.

And therein lies the Decay of the Fantastic, in the denial of the moral dimension of Natural Law. Which brings us to the place where I began my musings, the change in the nature of the protagonists of Fantastic fiction.

In the Fantastic stories of old, the protagonist was a boy among dragons. That is to say that the hero was allied with the Normal against the Abnormal.

The moral dimension of the Fantastic was inescapable.  For a human being to cast in his lot with the Abnormal could not be morally neutral–it was wrong in a transcendent sense. Wizards, while they might be beneficial, on a very deep level betrayed the relationship of the human with the absolute. Humans who had the Taint of the Wild–vampires, werewolves, deep ones–were by their very nature unlawful.

Abnormal. And even if they showed admirable qualities, were virtuous and said their prayers at nightfall, their very existence was a sin. They were Things That Should Not Be.

Modern Fantasy has lost that sense of the Abnormal, and I think is weaker for it. Magic is not a corrupting force that tempts the weak of spirit, it is simply another kind of technology. There is no virtue in struggling against one’s darker nature if there is no darkness or light. Vampires become nothing more than old people with night jobs, and werewolves are just hardcore furries.

The only horrors that can be shown to the reader are the mundane ones of death and dismemberment, paltry shadow plays when compared with the bone-chilling terror of that which is truly unnatural.

Nor is there any uplifting of the human spirit. For the message of the Fantastic is not that strange things exist–a glance through any microscope can give that–but that Abnormal things, things that violate the Laws of Nature, exist and that a human being, armed with no more than human virtues, can stand against the tide of madness and stem it.

 

 

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
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6 Responses to A Dragon Among Dragons: The Decay Of Fantasy

  1. herbn says:

    My language in this essay will be unfortunately vaguer than I prefer to employ because the concepts I am working with are vague in my own mind. It is to be hoped that writing these thoughts down will help to clarify them.

    I writing in this manner you are following in the footsteps of de Montaigne and his attempts to assay his thoughts.

    There is no room in a determinist universe for what Chesterton calls the Abnormal. If something exists, then it was meant to be.

    I am going to disagree. In a dterminist universe there is no “meant”. Determinism removes intention unless you assume a first cause, i.e. God in some form.

    Most of the champions of a completely determinist universe also reject the idea of a first cause, at least vocally, yet still use terms like “meant”. I suspect it is because their believe is not as deep as they proclaim.

    And yet there is a further critical element. The Preservation of the Normal–while not of human making–is nonetheless the responsibility of humanity. Human beings, though, have free will and may choose to abdicate their responsibility.

    It is not just human responsibility, but a key component of human survival. This is why the corruption of wizards and sorcerers in older fiction is not just a moral abstraction, but a physical deforming effect. It is why vampires must live on blood and shun the sun. They have, by embracing the abnormal, betrayed their humanity, not just humanity as a whole.

    In all, a good essay. I need to look over some of my ideas now and ask some questions. I’ll also be linking to this on Sunday when I do my weekly (well, mostly weekly) links post.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    Thank you.

    You’re right about determinism–that’s not really the word I want, but I’m not sure if there is a word that fits the mood I see, I guess it could be summed up with the vacuous and oft-repeated phrase “it’s all good.”

    It’s less of a clockwork universe and more of a “child-proofed” universe, where everything that exists is natural and what is natural is always good. Candideism?

    And that’s an excellent point about the externalizing of a loss of humanity by visible signs of degradation.

    I almost never know what I’m talking about when I start one of these essays. If I’m lucky, I have some idea by the time I’m done. I can’t seem to think without putting ideas into text.

    • Mary says:

      That’s why they call ’em essays: that is, attempts.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool says:

      Perhaps it is the Sunday school version of the cosmology of what I call the State Cult of the Soviet Union.

      I think the older version of Fantasy you describe might be a distillation of Augustinian Christianity. The equivalent distillation for the SCotSU might be “there is a moral arc to the universe, away from what is now normal, towards a condition of abnormality, by virtuously behaving abnormally, we bring forth that sacred state of abnormality”.

      What the characters in this flavor of fiction might be articulating is ‘by being blessed with inherent abnormality, one follows the easiest path and thereby creates the abnormal New Jerusalem’.

  3. BobtheRegisterredFool says:

    I came to this today because I wanted to look up some of your older essays on writing for my current project.

    Earlier today, I was reading some abnormal protagonist in a fantasy setting stories that both do not match the older fantasy sense you describe, and do not fit this other newer sense that I described in my other comment.

    One writer might be summarized as ‘different can still make hard choices, function in a society, and serve the interests of civilization’.

    Another writer works heavily in the Isekai genre, and has stories that are very much influenced by Asian light fantasy genres and stories. These days, people from most cultures are going to have to cope with people from at least one alien culture. Isekai is pretty much tailor made for safe exploration of these stresses, because the interaction with a fantasy world culture is more distant than the interaction of two real world cultures. Some Asian cultures have a very big focus on conformity with the established culture, which makes lack of conformity or interaction with other cultures have stresses that are interesting to write about.

    I guess I’m saying that expressions of a genre have a cultural and religious context, and we will have problems classifying the complete body of work if we ignore these contexts. Also, by being aware of these cultural contexts, we can absolutely choose them as part of the assumptions framing this or that work that we write.

    Despite my frequent condemnation of moderns, we are them. We can choose a modern context to write in, or an older one. (My current project, I think requires a more modern sort of framework.)

  4. Pingback: Sunday Reading – Herbert Nowell

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