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Fantastically Disturbing Implications

This is more musing on my part than an educational – or ranting – essay.

 

Fantasy, as a genre, has become a tree of many different sub-genres and trends – all sprouting, according to most, from Tolkien’s magnum opus. Tolkien, however, based his work heavily on myths, epics, and sagas of real world cultures. In this way, it was inevitable that the genre would have a long history and a deep fascination with heroes and royals and, eventually, knights.

The strange thing, however, is that while most of fantasy has adapted to new, modern, ideas – which has given us all sorts of modern settings – fantasy in general has not parted with the morality to which that focus on heroes, royalty and knights belongs. In this way, we have “modern” stories set in medieval worlds where the female protagonists display cliché, shallow, and period inappropriate feminist ideas, but she almost always turns out to be a princess. That, however, is just one of many, many, examples of residual classism and racism in fantasy.

But the funny thing is, it’s more often the fans than the authors whose ideas display a backwards, classist, belief – one which, I suspect, they don’t even realise they are favouring. Here’re some examples.

In the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fandom, the most popular type of theory is the Character X is secretly a House/Noble Character Z. And that’s the thing, it’s always that they have secret noble (or nobler, in terms of going from one house to another) blood.

The High Sparrow – commoner leading a commoner anti-nobility religious movement? Must secretly be Lord Howland Reed advancing his liege lord’s family’s political goals. He can’t possibly be a lower-class person taking up arms because he’s sick of the nobility butchering the lower classes while they fight over a stupid pointy chair. No way.

The King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder: a wildling raised as a soldier by his people’s enemies, returned to his people to lead them to give said enemies a massive headache? Nah, he can’t possibly really be a savage/Pict wilding. He has to secretly be a white Westerosi nobleman. It can’t just be that he is one of many characters who parallel each other – which is a grand literary tradition – because that would mean the northern savages managed to get their act together and pose a real threat without a Mighty Whitey Westerosi to carry the white Westerosi man’s burden and help them. Oh, he is an almost perfect copy-paste-from-history of King Alaric of the Goths – who was once a Roman soldier – and the German national hero Arminius (who also was raised by Romans and proceeded to kick Roman arse)? And in a setting which is basically The War of the Roses + Magic + Sex? Nah, he’s still got to secretly be Prince Rhaegar or Ser Arthur of House Dayne. Otherwise the savages wildlings might not only be competent, but have elected a competent leader where all the noble blooded characters who inherit their power just keep fucking things up.

Likewise, Heroic Bastard Jon Snow can’t possibly really be a bastard. He must secretly have been legitimate (despite the legal impossibility of his father taking a second wife) or legitimised (but preferably legitimate). It’s not like real history has bastards becoming king. It’s not like people call William the Conqueror “William the Bastard” for a reason. Or like King Arthur Pendragon was the bastard of King Ulthor’s rape-by-deception of a foreign queen. Or like Martin’s own fictional history has bastard kings like the one who founded House Justman or bastards of kings who manage to incite half the realm into trying to crown them despite being bastards with legitimate half-brothers like Daemon Blackfyre. After all, he absolutely has to become king in the end, because it’s not like his entire plot line is about how the fight for the spikey chair is irrelevant or how bastards can be just as good as other people…

I think I need to turn the sarcasm off now, before we all drown in it, but I think you get the point.

And sure, you could argue that ASOIAF/GOT is focused on the nobility and has a major character revealed as secretly royalty (or, more correctly, a royal bastard) so it’s only natural that the fans would assume that everyone who has anything important to do – any real effect on the plot – must secretly have noble blood, but it’s not just ASOIAF/GOT fans.

After romance/porn, the second most common plot in Harry Potter fanfics was that Harry/Hermione/other discovers s/he’s secretly the heir of [Ancient Powerful Wizard/Family] or his mother was secretly not muggleborn/she’s adopted and that s/he’s therefore a pureblood… This, I might remind you, was a canon story where the pureblood elitists were the bad guys.

This trend – of justifying how awesome characters are by ‘revealing’ them as having some ancestry of rank and privilege – is disturbing. It’s also prevalent in just about every fantasy fandom (except the children’s fantasy of My Little Pony, where being a Princess is something you explicitly earn by being awesome at friendship).

 

Fantasy is the genre we run to when we want to escape from our world – where luck is a major factor in whether or not you succeed – and go to a place where the world values us based on what we think it ought to value. What does it say about us, as a society, that our escapist fantasy is not about succeeding because you are talented, or worked hard, or were kind, but where you succeed if you are born of the right – elite and wealthy – bloodline?

How is it that we, as fandoms – as a society – talk of equality and inner value, but our fantasies still support the idea that if you don’t have the right blood you aren’t really worth anything?

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Posted by on July 4, 2017 in On Folklore, On Writing

 

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Folklore Is Not Static

Only a short post today because I’m ill and struggling to concentrate. Just a brief list of misconceptions about folklore that really piss me off, those being that: the oldest form of a folktale is the “right” one, that folklore is somehow accurate to political correctness and other things the folk didn’t know about, and that innovation in writing about folklore by exploring its limitations and changing thins is somehow “Wrong”. Dear people who think these things: [redacted due to excessive vulgarity in vulgar Latin].

 

1) There is no one “true” or “purest” version of any folklore. Just because you’ve gone back to the earliest form of a folktale or the earliest description of a creature that we know of does not make that version any more “accurate” or “real” than any later version, okay? The Strigoi Mort, for example, is no more real folklore than the Stokerian vampire or the, loath as I am to have to include them, sparklepires of Twilight and its ilk. They are different pieces of folklore from folk who differ in both location and era, but they are all folklore. One can argue whether the latest still deserve to be called vampires instead of some new name, but the same was indubitably true when the Stokerian vampire first immerged from literary origin and became folklore. If, say, you had one person fall ill from iron deficiency or TB in one town and the story of their illness or death spread sideways to the two neighbouring towns – one of which recently had things knocked off tables by a minor earthquake in the night and one which had an albino merchant travel through it recently, within no time you’re going to have three completely different sets of vampire folklore (one without attachment to other issues, one implying vampires are also nocturnally poltergeists, and one laying blame on the poor innocent albino person who happened to pass through the week before). None of those is any less folklore than the others. Nor are the inevitable versions that form as time goes by, but which were based on those, any less true folklore than the earlier forms. I don’t say “original” because, frankly, although we can tell where certain traits originate from, all these ideas have to come from somewhere before and so there can be no true “origin” of any folklore.

2) Folklore is the lore of the lowest common denominator: that means it’s every –IST and –ISM in the book and then some. As a collective, humans are pretty stupid. And when they’re not stupid they’re still prejudiced – especially in groups. Folklore, as the name suggests, is the lore of the folk – that is, of the least educated group. Folklore, essentially, is ruled by the lowest common denominator amongst the social group it originated in. This means that it’s racist as hell. It’s sexist as hell. It’s sexualist (also called homophobic, but that’s narrower) as hell. It’s ableist as hell. It’s classist as hell. It’s religiously intolerant as hell. And it’s every other –ist and –ism which I’ve failed to mention as hell. Somewhere, I believe (it’s been a while since I read them) in one of the Eddas there’s a line about how Odin could seduce any pale wristed woman in the world. To the people who came up with that it probably was just a pretty way of saying “all the women in the world”, but to the modern lowest common denominator it begs the question “so what about women who aren’t white?”. The Sirens of Greek myth were said to be able to seduce any sailor (into crashing or drowning) with their beautiful singing… until one day someone pointed out that deaf people are a thing. Western European fairy tales, or rather: the majority of those fairy tales, have taught children for centuries that women are a passive reward for a heroes actions and only recently are fairy tales beginning to be retold without love interests or with more active female characters. Many traditional Scandinavian mythical creatures were said to be able to seduce (a word now almost exclusively attached to sexual seduction, although it originally also included leading astray and winning someone over to the other side – something vaguely remembered by “seduced to the Dark Side” although there tends to still be the evil=sexy implication) both men and women, both gay and straight – probably because Scandinavian countries have had a somewhat healthier mindset toward homosexuality and bisexuality. However, this does not account for asexuals, for whom there was no term until 1940 and before that either had to put up with almost definitely having to marry a sexual person who wouldn’t understand or taking a vow of chastity. (This is why it is hard to find “proof” of asexuality in the past. Also, my pet theory is that the concept of chastity – choosing to not have sex for religious reasons – cam about one day in prehistory when one quick witted repulsed Ace, who either didn’t want kids or couldn’t put up with sex to have them, was reminded that the way things are is that when you grow up you get married and have kids and that Ace went “NOPE! …because …um, religion! Yeah, I promised [vaguely appropriate deity of choice] that I’d dedicate my life to them specifically and that means ix-nay on the sex and babies thing, okay?” – and then it got dogmatised and lots of people who weren’t asexual and weren’t going to be okay with a vow of no-acting-on-pantsfeels got pressured into it, leading to all the disturbing jokes about “favourite” altar boys.) In all of these cases the common people – the folk – give absolutes which may make sense to them at the time because they don’t know that people aren’t all like that, but which are horribly restrictive and offensive when viewed through the critical eye of a different culture or era. All of which leads me to point 3:

3) Folklore adapts and changes as the L.C.D. changes and there’s no point clinging to the past. The nature of folklore is change. The beauty of folklore is change. Folklore shifts, like sand dunes in a desert – slowly to the human who stands there for a time but shockingly fast to the human who sees, leaves, and returns to see again. This shifting is a detailed record of how the lowest common denominator – how the general population or common folk – viewed the world. Both what is included and what is not excluded but simply not considered tell us far more about how people viewed the world and how those cultures changed (I won’t say evolved because people tend to mistakenly believe evolution is a linear progression to some betterment rather than just adapting to different circumstances). Folklore does include traditions, it is true, but to say “you shouldn’t change [X] or consider how [Y that the folk the lore originated from didn’t know about] and must take those absolutes they told for granted despite their lack of universal applicability because IT’STRADITIONAL” is bullshit. Folklore includes traditions, but is not confined by them. Folklore is about the ebb and flow of traditions, the path they take from when the idea was first formed to when it becomes defunct and forgotten. Folklore is about change. Without that person history has made anonymous who first pointed out that “uhhh, guys, deaf people can’t be seduced by Siren-song because they can’t hear”, we would never have had the story – so much a part of folklore for thousands of years now – of Odysseus being tied to the mast while his crew sail them safely past with wax blocking their ears. There is no reason, for instance, that the “common knowledge” (the folklore) that a creature can seduce any gender should not eventually amend itself to “can seduce any person who is interested in sex” and that new Western European fairy tales and new telling of old ones should not slowly change to reflect the fact that women are people too.

Sure, sometime writers and other artists will try to do a new take on a piece of folklore (by examining the changes between what the originators of the folklore believed was normal and what the modern folk believe is normal) only to have it be quickly forgotten because the older form of the folklore still holds strong and the new idea was not adopted by the folk, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Folklore is like a wild and thorny, but beautiful, plant: you can’t control it; you can only offer it things to support itself with and stand back in awe.

 

…This was supposed to be short.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2016 in On Folklore

 

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