We who love fiction share a mixed appetite for varying levels of drama, conflict, intrigue, mystery, action, etc. But why do some of us love Dark Age Fantasy in particular? I think that on the deepest level we choose the Fantasy genre for a specific reason—to step into the “Otherworld,” a premodern, open world that is radically different from our own world. And it’s not simply to have a “different” world than ours—if that were the case then any other genre would do just as well (especially sci-fi).
Fantasy-lovers want a particular feeling—the feeling of mystical, Dark Age Otherness. The typical pictures are some mixture of King Arthur’s Camelot and Tolkien’s Middle Earth, filled with endless forests, dangerous caverns and mystical glades. We want the magic of that old mythology brought to life over and over in the Fantasy tales we read.
Of course, our reading pallets vary on what triggers distaste, but I also think it’s not completely subjective. Some of us hate spicy foods, some love it, but we all pretty much agree that some foods do not belong together. We may love pizza or peanut-butter or oatmeal, but we don’t throw them together in a blender to consume them. We can at least agree that genres should maintain some boundaries, else the very meaning of ‘genre’ falls apart.
And here is my problem with some (especially contemporary) Fantasy—Modernic contamination.
Dark Age Fantasy is much more than simply a primitive technological status. What turns me off as a reader is a Fantasy tale that feels like the world is filled with a million LARPers/SCA members instead of people and societies of this desired Otherworld. They are (hopefully) lacking guns and cars, but the anachronisms do not stop with tools and toys. Other jarring anachronisms include Fantasy characters who possess our modern psychology and worldview.
Ghosts, spirits, witches, curses and gods should be unquestionably real and dangerous to these people. Fantasy characters should never deconstruct religion or gods; characters in these worlds may be terrified (or even hate) these supernatural elements and creatures, but never sit back in their philosopher’s chair and explain a culture’s “mythological inheritance.” Skepticism (and atheism) should be alien to these worlds. These characters should feel awe and reverence with the creatures of faerie.
A Fantasy world should feel vast, and largely unexplored. Most importantly, it should feel untamed. The world should not be cleanly mapped out, hex-by-hex. Knowing the world in this detail shrinks it, diminishing its mystery and magic.
And speaking of magic… This is a major toothache. Characters in Fantasy worlds should never take magic lightly. Magic should never be equated with science. Magic isn’t just about the effect it brings. A spell that gives light is not just a substitute for a flashlight. A spell that wounds someone is not just the counterpart to a gun. Scrying is not radar detection. The point of a Fantasy setting is to generate this feeling of the Fantasy-Other. Science & modern technology gives us measurements and equations; magic is the tapping into the ineffable—the realm of the faerie. Magic is bound up with mystery and (sometimes) the divine.
So how did these contaminations become common? While it could simply be the passage of time with such a large number of Fantasy authors writing now as opposed to 30 years ago, I think that a huge Fantasy-breaking influence has come from RPGs (and CRPGs) where there is no attempt at generating/preserving the feeling of the Fanasty Otherworld. [This is also a loss to the Fantasy RPG community, who, albeit to a lesser degree than in literature, could pursue this Otherworld-feeling in their gaming sessions.] Some Fantasy writers (and the readers who buy their books) grew up playing C/RPGs, and do not feel the pull of the old otherworldliness. In fact, they may have no idea what this entire post is about.
Perhaps, as King wrote, “the world has moved on,” and the days of this “true Fantasy” are ending. I hope not. I know that trends move all over the spectrum. But I think it would be an incredibly large loss if the spirit of Fantasy was lost in the morass of modernity.