Not another elf! The status of 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.

Beowulf (trans. Heaney)

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.

A Game of Thrones
A Game of Thrones

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.

Lord Foul's Bane
Lord Foul's Bane

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 here to view his Music Matters blog.