In the interview linked to below, China Mieville claims that high fantasy is conservative, and that due to its prominence the fantasy genre in general is judged as conservative by critics. This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, but over at Monsters and Manuals this claim was disputed as a shallow interpretation of Tolkien and of high fantasy generally. It’s not just the 3 people I’ve been arguing with over there, either (hi guys!). Many people try to rescue Tolkien (or their other favourite high fantasy writers) from this claim, because they think that somehow being conservative means they shouldn’t be reading it (or that people think they shouldn’t be). But it doesn’t work. Tolkien’s books are fun but they are politically pretty obnoxious, and the same goes for high fantasy generally. I’m going to expand on Mieville’s throwaway points in that interview, and add in a few of my own, with examples. Then we’ll discuss the core issue of choices. It’s been a while since I read much high fantasy, so I hope my examples aren’t too off beam – and of course when i say “High Fantasy novels say that…” I don’t mean every novel shares every point. Just add a silent “in general” to my phrases. Let’s first look at the characteristics common to most high fantasy novels:
- Racial Essentialism: This is the main criticism of Tolkien, and it’s definitely a strong one. High Fantasy tends to divide the world into races with really clear essential characteristics, both physically and psychologically. The physical characteristics are exaggerated, and the psychological characteristics are really restrictive. Dwarves are stubborn and proud, elves are more intelligent and creative than anyone else, etc. This extends to the evil races too, which are clearly intellectually and socially inferior. The stereotypes of the evil races clearly relate to stereotypes of black people that were extant in the 30s, and in general the evil races also happen to be swarthy and kind of, well, blackish. If the humans ever have any racial diversity, this also follows strict characteristics – the “cruel haradrim”, for example. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the races follow black/white colour lines, because the key conservative point is the essentialism. Races are different, and they shouldn’t mix, and when they do society degenerates. The model for Gondor and the mingling of High and Common Men is a clear reference to racial theory of the 30s. Wriggle as much as you like, but Tolkien is an established eugenicist and his writing doesn’t shy away from that. This trope is repeated in an awful lot of subsequent high fantasy – it’s a struggle to find any that doesn’t contain this idea, and this idea is a cornerstone of 20th century conservatism.
- Racial exclusion: almost all heroes in high fantasy are white. For more information about this – and for some example of what it means and has meant historically for non-white readers – I recommend this article, which I came to from Ursula le Guin’s website. This problem has been discussed extensively as well in the world of literary criticism, and as far as I can tell it’s not up for debate anymore. High Fantasy is white. Now, it may be that the authors only want to write about their own colour, but if that’s the only reason, it’s kind of an unfortunate coincidence that racial exclusionism also happens to be an essential element of much conservative politics.
- The male saviour: Most fantasy stories involve a male saviour rescuing a crumbling nation state from an external threat. The saviour is always male, and of course white. Harry Potter, Belgarath, Frodo (not to mention everyone else in that story), Eragon, the kid in the Robert Jordan series, Druss, Tanis Half-elven, Conan, whatever… they’re all male. When women enter high fantasy they do so as teachers or wise women, or occasionally in support roles.
- External threats and nation states: In LoTR, the world of men was crumbling through racial intermixing, and awaited a racially pure king to resurrect the nation state. In most High Fantasy there is an external threat which only a strong nation state can protect against, and the role of the hero is to uncover their puissance and take power over the nation state, guiding it again to greatness. Although the nation state was not a strong concept in Dragonlance, the external threat was (it was an evil god); but the presence of both together is prevalent throughout the genre. The enemy within is usually a nerdy, anti-war figure who accomodates the enemy out of fear and is used as a spy or traitor. Consider the Wheel of Time, that awful Terry Goodkind stuff, Stephen Donaldson, the Worm Ourouboros, Eragon, the Belgariad, Magician, etc. It’s a very common idea.
- Gender roles: sure, in modern High Fantasy there are sometimes female characters, but the world itself is continually recreated as a world in which women serve and men rule. It’s fantasy, anything goes, but for some reason women always are “goodwives” (shudder) or feisty aunts at best. And the female characters are not acually quite the feminist achievements one might expect – read this review of the Wheel of Time for a good description of how female characters often serve to reiterate classic stereotypes of feminine weakness, intransigence or triviality. Often as well the powerful ones get knocked down a peg or two before the end, and although women in general can’t rule in these worlds, they are often over-represented amongst the bad guys (e.g., there are two female characters in Dragonlance and one is evil). Harry Potter is a good example of this – Hermione is ostensibly a strong female character, but at every climax in the first novels she is knocked unconscious or otherwise unable to be an active participant in the plan she helped formulate, ultimately being rescued by the boys.
- Nuclear family: we know that in the middle ages Nuclear families were not the norm, and that this is a modern invention, as is childhood as a concept. Yet High Fantasy worlds – which are sticklers for the truth when it comes to the role of women in peasant societies – seem to be very good at ignoring the real family structures of their carefully reconstructed societies, and instead populating them with perfect nuclear families. The nuclear family is a touchstone conservative issue, and is reproduced out of time and place in almost all fantasy novels.
- Inherited Wealth: Not necessarily in the form of money, because in fantasy worlds money plays second fiddle to magic, which is usually inherited either as a talent or through attendance at a special school which it is only possible to enter through selection. Even though magic breaks the rules of conservation of matter, and therefore in principle enables High Fantasy worlds to be utopias like The Culture, magic is always hoarded by a powerful class who dispense it amongst their favourites. Harry Potter is a really good example of this – there is an elite world which he is allowed into by dint of his having inherited this form of wealth, and throughout the novels he is given for free things which only the very rich can afford. Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t - a conservative trope, and well reproduced through the medium of magic.
- Heteronormative: do we know of any gay characters anywhere in High Fantasy? How coincidental, in a world of nuclear families…
- Glorification of war: having read the Silmarillion, I find it impossible to comprehend the claim that Tolkien doesn’t glorify war. That’s all his stories are about. I suppose you could excuse it because he’s british, but still… it’s also not the case that “glorifying war” means saying “yay! more people dying”. Literature which glorifies war always talks about the tragedy, the loss of youth, the hardship. It’s part of the admiration of muscular masculinity and discipline which is going on beneath this glorification. It’s a hard life to be a soldiering bloke, but how noble it is, etc. This is prevalent throughout fantasy too – in The Worm Ouroubouros, at the end of the novel the battles are over and they all go back to their homes to plan the next war because life without war is boring. The Sturm side story in Dragonlance is a classic example of this mixed glorification/tragedy complex. High Fantasy stories without war at their centre are rare.
- Genocide is cool: because of the glorification of war and the racial essentialism, it’s inevitable that the bad guys are going to be wiped out to a man. This has been discussed extensively as a criticism of D&D and it’s true – there is an unquestioning acceptance throughout High Fantasy that mass murder is acceptable. It’s worth noting that when the genre began, eugenics had taken over in anti-semitic literature, and extermination as the “final solution” was beginning to become an acceptable notion, because racial essentialism based on biology (rather than culture) demands it. You can read about this link in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (which is otherwise a pretty dodgy book). I don’t think anyone believes Tolkien supported genocide in reality, but the logic of High Fantasy demands it and that is essentially what was planned throughout the novels, by both sides. It has continued to be an acceptable act in subsequent iterations of the genre.
- Libertarian or authoritarian communities: High Fantasy tends to allow the good guys only two types of community. On the one hand we see small rural idylls run on generally libertarian or communitarian grounds, because life is so simple that they can be self-managed, and there is no racial mixing to cause crime; and on the other we see large kingdoms run by strong men, usually inheriting their position but sometimes voted in. The concept of a strong man appointed by popular election was popular in the interwar period, when liberalism and democracy were beginning to look a bit shonky, and it was supported by a much larger segment of the world than just Germany and Italy. In fact most of Europe was under this leadership, and many in England and America beyond Oswald Mosley were looking for the same thing. This is reflected in modern High Fantasy, whose origins lie in that turbulent time. In contrast, the bad guys often have a classless or semi-classless society, run by a strong man or sometimes anarchist, often with strong inter-racial mixing. Sounds a bit like a well-described conflict from that time…
We can’t help that the original stories were written in the interwar period when racial essentialism, nuclear families, eugenics and dictatorship were popular. But we can help the choices we make as modern authors. Why, for example, do modern authors decide to be meticulously careful in their reproduction of mediaeval gender roles for their fantasy society, but completely ignore the family structures of the time? In both cases, the result fits perfectly with a conservative project. Why do they go to great lengths to reproduce the poverty of that time, while sprinkling the world with a series of perpetual motion machines (i.e. magic) which could solve all economic problems overnight? Because they want to reproduce and intensify structures of inherited wealth, and present them as inevitable, objective facts even where the solution is freely available. This is why those early fantasy novels provided the means to ensure free health care to everyone (healing magic) but you never saw it in action – except when the king goes to war, and his soldiers go to the healing tent.
Many authors are no doubt reproducing these tropes without thought, but when you reproduce a conservative worldview without consideration, you are by definition being conservative. That’s what conservatives do. Some authors (such as Goodkind and Tolkien) are more actively using their work as a political screed in favour of conservatism. The beauty of the High Fantasy world is that it is fun, so you can reproduce these things without boring your readers’ socks off. But let’s not pretend that the world couldn’t be just as interesting without a few changes – women and men being equal, for example, or racial intermixing being positive instead of negative. And if you don’t want to do these things, you have to accept the conservative label which this kind of thoughtless reproduction of conservative politics will earn you.