Science fiction and fantasy, traditionally viewed with grave suspicion by the supposedly more ‘serious’ of the mainstream fiction genres, have together been a flourishing literary canon for years; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings regularly polls in high places as ‘Most Read,’ whilst writers like China Mieville, Alistair Reynolds and Peter F Hamilton have been patiently carving out successful careers with epic science fiction and fantasy novels for many years.
Perhaps part of the difficulty lies in the boundary-defying nature of some of the novels associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Alistair Reynolds and China Mieville include a luxurious element of the gothic in their novels; Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell offered an alternative history take on fantasy, where magic is commonplace and is used in the Napoleonic Wars. Similary, Mary Gentle’s sprawling Ash: A Secret History follows the same character across centuries. Perhaps it’s simply the scope of the novels that causes them to be dismissed: Peter F Hamilton’s epic space-opera sagas, Michael Moorcock’s long-running Elric or Hawkmoon tales stride across whole volumes.
But with writers such as Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Michael Moorcock all a part of the canon, it’s hard to ignore the impact of science fiction and fantasy literature.
It’s very fashionable these days to deride fantasy fiction. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has spawned thousands of derivatives, everyone is fed up with trolls and orcs: the apocryphal comment “Not another bloody elf!” uttered at one of the meetings of The Inklings, where Tolkien, Lewis and others read extracts from their books to each other, has become legendary, taken up by many.
Fantasy literature is often viewed with suspicion as much as anything: professing a liking for it is tantamount to admitting that your reading tastes have never matured, and you’re still reading what is often regarded as children’s fiction. It’s not Proper or Serious Fiction.
This is a shame, because fantasy literature is quite capable, when done well, with intelligence, of grappling with all the issues that supposedly only serious fiction can take on. Scratch the surface of a fantasy novel, and underneath the same set of values can be found operating: moral issues, ideas about knowledge and learning, or politics. And it has been around for centuries: the gripping drama of Beowulf could have been written as far back as the eighth century.
For Tolkien in particular, magic is inextricably interwoven with knowledge. Unlike pulp fantasy fiction by writers such as James Barclay, where magic is simply employed as a tool with no regard for cause and effect, for learning and wisdom, for Tolkien, this is exactly what magic is. Tolkien also claimed that the original impetus behind the writing of the Lord of the Rings was purely linguistic: he was interested in exploring language, and playing with back-formation to create a hypothetical ancestral language. Tolkien was an expert on Beowulf, and had delivered a seminal lecture on it, The Monsters and the Critics, that is often credited as being the most important piece of scholarship on the poem . He was also interested in creating a mythology for England, something which he felt it culturally lacked.
And fantasy literature is often pastoral in its imagery, which, in an urban age increasingly saturated by technology, reminds readers that there is landscape and nature around them.
Fantasy literature, it is true, is full of derivative pulp novels. But in the hands of someone like George R R Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire sequence of novels has stretched so far across five mammoth books and shows no sign of ending, it can become an engrossing study of the dynamics of political power, and an exploration of moral codes; it’s almost turning into the fantasy equivalent of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Or Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, where the anti-heroic figure of Covenant rejects the fantasy world into which he is plunged and spends the novels fighting against it, a theme fueling the whole series.
Myth-making, linguistic invention, morality, an exploration of the implications of knowledge, political machinations: fantasy literature has the capacity to illuminate the same ideas as other fiction genres. It’s not just swords and sorcery: thankfully.
Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click hereto view his Music Matters blog.