“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.