Monday 12 September 2011

L is for Low Fantasy

If High Fantasy is the flavour of fantastic literature reinvented for the modern era by Tolkien and now the staple of most multi-volume epics, then Low Fantasy is its bastard child, its escaped slave, its sick and ignored beggar, its crucified thief or flogged adulterer. Where the heroes of high fantasy (henceforth HF) are kings, princes, generals, diplomats, warrior-priests, ivory-tower (or semi-divine) wizards, noble savages or maverick dilettantes, usually fighting to save the world (or their kingdom) alongside pale, noble elves, pseudo-Norse/Scottish dwarves, and usually some loyal peasant races, the protagonists or antiheroes of low fantasy (LF) are the poor, the foreign, the disenfranchised, the sick, the lonely, the rebel, the terrorist, the outcast, the abused, beggars, thieves, women of ill-repute, the lowest of the low and others the HF heroes don’t even know exist. And they’re mostly not saving the world (although they might, once in a while, be fighting the powers that be).

HF, as my exaggerated characterization above implies, reinforces the insidious prejudice that the noble, the rich, the powerful and the privileged are that for a reason: they are better, more deserving and morally superior to the common folk. This is especially true in those stories where the villains are lower-class people, often foreign or transgressive (users of forbidden magic, crossbreeds, underworld dwellers or travelers), with regional accents and dark skins. Even more sinister is the presence, again exemplified in Tolkien, of monstrous races who are by nature evil, cruel, and/or stupid; a world in which orcs, gobins, ogres and other ugly species are essentially and without exception bad creatures, antagonists, is in no uncertain terms a racist world. The mind that can invent an evil sapient species will have no trouble swallowing the idea of wicked, heathen, mentally inferior, bestialized people of non-European races.

Not all HF is this obviously terrible: some writers such as David Gemmell wrote much more human and thoughtful fantasy epics, for example. But the idealization of the nobility (and therefore the concomitant demonization of the poor) is endemic in the genre.

In LF, therefore, we have the opportunity to hear the story from the point of view of a protagonist who was born without a silver spoon in her or his mouth. Frankly I don’t care which branch of a royal family or religious hierarchy gets to inherit a throne, or which empire gets to exploit the peasantry of this fertile river valley, and nor do the peasants who live there. Common folk in LF have concerns including where their next meal is going to come from, whether the local government is going to protect them from exploitative industry or not, whether war means their young men will be press-ganged and probably die on a foreign field, or whether soldiers will ravage their fields and rape their civilians. A feud between two families is potentially as dramatic, as important, and as complex in terms of good and evil as any war between two mighty nations. And the protagonists are likely to be easier to relate to than the congenitally pampered kings and ruthless generals of HF.

LF often recognises that magic-users and monsters do not themselves work for good or for evil; they have their own uses and/or intentions. Dwarves and goblins alike, like any other group of people or creatures, can be kind or cruel, have your interests at heart or want to exploit you, depending on a mix of personalities, socio-economic circumstances, and religious or political positions. Magic is no more intrinsically evil than is a sword; an ogre is no more intrinsically cruel than is an elf.

Stories that take an LF position on issues of good and evil and the worth of humans and other creatures (regardless of whether their world is mediaeval or contemporary, populated by mythical or clichéd monsters or more original fantastic elements) are able to address issues that are regularly glossed in HF narratives. Commoner protagonists can enable the author to address issues of class, poverty, health, crime and politics (a rich baron who steals is clearly a bad person; a poor farmer who does so may have more complex moral status). Among other inequalities, LF can address patriotism and racism (the kidnapped foreign slave Gavir in Le Guin’s Powers), gender equality and sexism (Miéville’s appellation in Iron Council of revolutionaries of both sexes as “Sister”), the treatment of trans and queer people (two out of three protagonists queer in Morgan’s The Steel Remains), the disabled, victims of crime and corruption (‘Nasmina’s Black Box’), the abuse of the young and the neglect of the old, civil rights and political engagement (slavery issues in McDougall’s Romanitas, despite the imperial heir as co-protagonist with two escaped slaves). It is not that HF is incapable of addressing such issues, just that it very seldom does. (It is too busy sending our strapping hero and his loyal peasant sidekick in to the heart of enemy territory to retrieve a powerful magic item, testing their mettle and their faith and their congenital virtues.)

So although The Future Fire has only very rarely published sword and sorcery stories, we would be happy to see more of these among our submissions, so long as you don’t send us stories which reinforce the classist and racist attitudes of Tolkien and his ilk, the reactionary and moralist assumptions of much HF, the default sexism, ableism, cis-heteronormativity and ageism that we see everywhere else. Write a beautiful story. Astonish us with the creativity of your fantasy world. Impress us with the magic and the heroism of your setting and characters. But use this amazing story and the poetry of your language to do something useful: challenge the lazy expectations of the HF reader, shake the privileged nobles from their cushioned seats and let’s see what the rest of us can do with this escapist world.


Regina said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking post. I haven't read High Fantasy in years and this is precisely why.

alex b. said...

I feel the same way. I start a book and it starts droning on about kings and emperors and princesses and my eyes just glaze over. Mieville's the first I think of. It might also be worth checking out Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife books.

Markhaa said...

I'd not come across this genre term before. It's really useful. And quite inspiring.

Djibril said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I've not read any Bujold, but people have been telling me for years that I should, so maybe I'm going to have to eventually...

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. I think you sum up the issues I've had with High Fantasy very succinctly. I've always had trouble with the crypto-racism and class-war subtexts in Tolkein's brand of nonsense, and I do struggle with the same aspects of other branches of the speculative. It does make me wonder whether the genre contract implicit in some forms are irreparably reactionary.