My plea for philological Fantasy

by Jeff

I have to admit that in recent weeks, thanks in part to a discussion with a fellow Fantasy enthusiast, aspiring author and blogger, my view of my view of Fantasy has somewhat evolved. I have always been careful not to needlessly disregard the various incarnations of the genre that I dislike. However, after starting to understand better what I want, need and wish for, I find it increasingly difficult not to criticize. There is this criterion by which I judge the genre that I cannot let go. It is part of what I am. It was what moves me. It represents everything I believe Fantasy should stand for. Its very soul, I say. I cannot ignore its neglect in any form any longer, for better or worse. I would say the worse, as nobody is making friends by being judgmental.

I found the key to the clear expression of my mind in this post by fellow blogger Stephen A. Watkins, mentioned earlier. Fantasy as window dressing. I should have thought of that term sooner, but then again, as English is not my mother tongue, my mind gets inevitably warped into a mess of entangled vocabulary and gaping holes left open by half-remembered idioms.

If one looks at the header of this blog, that little tagline On the use of the past to explain the present (a silly pastiche of a seminal paper by an American sociolinguist) encapsulates this fundamental notion that the purpose of Fantasy cannot just be window dressing. Well, it can be, but to my mind this cheapens the genre. There, I said it.

When I was about 15 years old, I had this striking epiphany. I was reading this wonderful book of Arthurian tales, featuring 15 translations of original texts (some still popular today, some forgotten). More academic than outright literary, this 1200-page collective epic taught me so much that I referred to it as my Bible for a while. In fact, the Old French snippets eventually steered me onto the path of the professional linguist, and at around the same time Tolkien’s life and, might I say, his philological spirit began to outgrow my interest in his fiction.

Three related realizations stood out while I was enjoying this amazing book for the first time.

Firstly, upon reading that knights do matter-of-factly enter castles still sitting astride their horse, I asked myself why I had never seen this before in any vanilla Fantasy setting of my time that I knew of. I thought this was too cool to pass up, because it felt different. It then struck me that, assuredly, this was because we never enter our own houses with our cars, we park them outside first. To this day, I remain convinced of the essentials of this explanation.

Secondly, as I learned that Glastonbury is believed by some to be the site of Avalon, and that ‘isle’ in Old French can also refer to an isolated yet inland location (the very alive Île-de-France to designate the greater Paris area today shines quite differently under this light), I started to feel as if I had opened that famous closet door, only to find something much better than Narnia. Through mere words, the past had never felt more concrete.

Thirdly, when I discovered that Gawain and Arthur could enjoy taking long walks together to tell their adventures while holding hands, this was the final straw. Seeing how, roughly 50 years after the publication of The Lord of The Rings today, too many halfwits afflicted with machismo still cannot see the relationship between Frodo and Samwise as anything else than homoerotic, I almost had to laugh. I could not believe that a contemporary mass-market Fantasy effort could ever manage to pull off that Gawain and Arthur scene without homosexual overtones. I still do not, though I would be tempted to try, for provocation’s sake.

In any case, what this all means is that the Medieval era, or any other ancient time, was a different world than ours, and it is interesting for that reason, and we should strive to exploit this, to reflect upon ourselves through the lens of the past as much as we can.

No modern work of Fantasy can recreate a perfect and coherent historical environment. Be that as it may, Fantasy as pure window dressing is not the necessary correlate. Fantasy must be a choice for a reason, and I see no other than what I would call the philological point of view: using the differences of the past to explain our own lives, our feelings, wishes and fears, in a circumscribed and incomplete framework, to be sure, but still a deliberate one. In this context, the material aspect of the fictional setting is of quite limited potential. It must rather involve people, ideas, concepts and of course language. On this last aspect, this article nails my point eloquently. The TV show Mad Men is praised for its tireless and thorough reconstruction of the 60’s. As it turns out, the producers forgot to take into account the business language of the time, and thus they fail in an admittedly crucial aspect of any reenactment endeavor. If never underestimating the power — and risks — of philological reality should be a rule of proper writing, then Fantasy has to be its natural playing field.

If I were forced to pick a winner between an outstanding narrative wrapped in cheap Fantasy and a barely average story framed within a carefully crafted environment, I would still go with the former. I am not forgetting the primeval purpose of simply telling a good story. And yet, by reading this post on the Fabulous Realms blog (which is itself deserving of the same epithet, by the way), I do not know that I will ever feel an inkling of interest in reading Brandon Sanderson. Fantasy is not an easy vehicle to choose. I reject Fantasy as just another pretty gimmick.