Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

mosque
Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”

An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.

When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.

A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.

A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).

When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.

Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.

anonymity
Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.

Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.

Media and the Other

What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.

When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”

However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.

We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.

pro-immigrant rally
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.

Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?

Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec

This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.

(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).

During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.

This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.

The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s  who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).

two hijabi women talking
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Telling the Right Stories

Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.

The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.

Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.

The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.

The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.

This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.

As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.

Beat the Drums of Peace

Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.

In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:

His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.

How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?

As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.

Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.

When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.

Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.

I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.

Read Part II.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

Part I: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart


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MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part II: Race, Raciness, and the Fifty Shades of Charles Williams

20150802_125245For this post I apologize immediately for the title and would like to state that most (the greater half anyway) of this post will be concerned with how Tolkien treats race in his fiction–not how Charles Williams is racy. The lurid revelations about Charles Williams, ‘The Oddest Inkling,’ that have now come forth were just impossible a) to ignore and b) to avoid association with the infamous erotica novel. I mean, what’s the problem with the world today? First, if you’re Canadian, you have the Gian Ghomeshi scandal, then of course there’s Bill Cosby … now even the lurid deeds of obscure Christian mythopoeic poets are at last coming to light.

Saturday morning was the Scholar Guest of Honour speech. John D. Ratecliff is an Inklings scholar and this MythCon’s Scholar Guest of Honour. With his softspoken Texas accent, he began to lecture on “The Lost Letter.” He discussed the problematic friendship between C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams while contextualizing the textual history of some of Williams’s works in relation to some Modernists, including T.S. Eliot who wrote an incomplete essay on Williams’s drama. He also presented us with a great photo of Williams posing with none other than William Butler Yeats (see below).

Ratecliff during his archival spelunking recovered a typescript of Williams’s thought-to-be-destroyed commentary–a necessary document for the comprehension of William’s work because, of all people, even Eliot, as highly allusive, illusive, and difficult a poet as he is, called Williams’s poetry ‘obscure’! The problem for a long time was that C.S. Lewis was known to have burned away this key commentary, rather brutally altering his friend’s literary legacy.

Williams’s obscure poetry in the Arthuriad is highly mythical and difficult to interpret, although it is fairly evident that his character Taliesin is, more or less, a biographical representation of himself, with other characters occasionally representing people he knew nom-a-clef style. Williams in some ways was like more ‘mainstream’ Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis, in that he wrote about mythic themes from a religious perspective. But Charles was an odd duck: a member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a christianized version of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as practicing ritual magician and an occultist.

He also thought sexual arousal could stimulate poetic inspiration.

Just as Taliesin in one part of Williams’s Arthuriad reaches over the bound, fully naked body of Morgeuse, before sitting down, lyre in hand, to compose great poetry, so did Williams–in actual, real life–have the custom of fondling a woman’s breast before stopping just short of consummation. He could then return to his ink and pad filled with erotic energy to scribble off another verse.

“I made her the victim of Love’s laws,” the poem goes. “The queen of Orkney, the queen Morgeuse!”

Tolkien got his inspiration from ‘the refracted light’ that enters humanity from heaven to make us subcreators within God’s creation. Lewis got inspiration from Christian joy. And now we all know what Williams was up to.

What an exemplary Christian mythopoeic writer! But his dirty mind only gets stranger. Ratecliff also distributed copies of a map of Europe called Williams’s “gynecomorphic map,” showing locations from his Arthuriad. If your Greek is up to snuff, you’ll realize that this map showed Europe as the form of a woman (gynaika)–undressed, naturally. Furthermore her body parts correspond to various cities and culturally-significant locations in Williams’s story. Byzantium is situated at the navel, London at the lips, Rome at the hands. The rest was not PG. Let us say Jerusalem in a mystic, or sorta disgusting, way was located in the crotch area, while Southern France–do I really have to specify?–her breasts (due to the ‘nourishing’ quality of the universities in that part of the world, I’m told), while, rather racistly, Ispahan, an obscure Islamic city below the Caspian Sea, took up the fecal rear. Caucasus made up the rest of the gluteus for some unknown reason.

Oh, yeah, there’s one more thing: the giant swarming tentacles at the woman’s feet do not designate Cthulhu but P’o-lu, the court of a fictitious, headless emperor. Although these appear south of Arabia, P’o-lu is supposedly in Java.

So anyway, the moral is that Williams is unanthologizable, unteachable, and such an obscure cockney that you must read him, like you read Hemingway, in a drunken stupor. And I thought modernist poetry was difficult!

Williams's map from the Arthuriad
Williams’s map from the Arthuriad

Time to leave behind all the other shades of Charles Williams and turn to some other, interesting topics.

Stepanie K. Brownell and Sara D. Rivera gave a wondrous talk on a work I had heard about before, but never really thought about reading, although they totally sold me on it. I’m slowly making my way through the novel right now. Their presentation was “‘Out of Far Harad’: Myth and ‘Mirror’ in The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Knowing nothing of this novel except that it’s title sounded vaguely familiar, I went to the presentation a bit late, but I was blown away by the subject matter. Oscar Wao wants to be the Dominican Tolkien–he’s a black, fat Caribbean nerd boy totally into magna, DND, and genre fiction. He goes on a sort of quest to the Dominican Republic after experiencing a dream vision of a mongoose, where he seeks answers to the fuku (in English, the curse), that has blighted his family and his people ever since the days of slavery and especially since the days of the dictator Trujillo, who the narrator explicitly compares to none other than Sauron himself.

Oscar Wao is the postcolonial/diasporic novel meets geekness, and I had no idea these worlds have ever joined in a single novel until now. I knew Caribbean fantasy/science fiction to be existent, having read a little Nalo Hopkinson and read criticism about her work, but this is about science fiction and fantasy as much as it was about colonialism and race.

The novel offers a postcolonial critique of Tolkien and his project. Tolkien attempted to write a ‘myth for England’ but what about the Dominican Republic, which is much more desperately in need of narration, having been subject to various tyrants and colonizers in its history? As an imperial subject, DR needs narration.

Oscar falls out with his idol, Tolkien, when he cannot reconcile the man he sees in the mirror with the figures represented in LOTR. One passage reads “out of Far Harad, black men like half-trolls…” While Oscar naturally identifies with the Elves and Men and Hobbits of Middle Earth like any other reader, when he comes to this passage he realizes that there is no place for heroism in Middle Earth for those of his skin colour.

Junot Diaz, the author of Oscar Wao, wanted to give readers–especially black readers–a mirror so they can see their own race represented in fiction without feeling that it is a monstrous one. “If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?” (178), he writes.

This novel straddles a grey area between magical realism and fantasy, although as far as I’ve gotten in my reading, it is a quirky but still an essentially realistic story. It’s epigraphs are from Derek Walcott and Stan Lee–a peculiar mix that represents the book’s themes.

While I continue my readings for my MA Thesis, which is partly about analyzing fantasy as a global form, I can’t help but think about this novel and how works of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, are receive and interpreted by readers and other authors in nations such as DR. Does the transference of forms from Europe to the ‘periphery’ and the Third World carry a progressive or a detrimental effect towards local literature and national self-image? This talk raised a whole lot of questions that seem to me vital about getting a full picture of what fantasy is doing worldwide.

Once again the issue of race emerged–and specifically, Tolkien’s ideas of race–with Roger Echo-Hawk’s presentation “Ya Hoi! Tolkien’s Mongol-type Orcs.” Here Echo-Hawk, a Native scholar and author of Tolkien in Pawnee Land, argued that Tolkien borrowed descriptions of Mongoloid skulls when describing his orcs. He related this argument to the discourse of eugenics that was ripe around the time Tolkien was writing–the creation of an ideal human race through selective breeding. I can personally contest to this discourse being ‘in the air’ at the time because I noticed several book ads during my searches through early issues of Canadian Forum during my RAship. Supposedly it was guaranteed that ancestry and genes carried the destiny of a society. There were supposedly four ‘races’ in Europe: Mediterranean, Alpine, Tutonic, and Celtic, with the Negoroid and Mongolian types on other continents.

Although Tolkien was aware of Huxley’s arguments about such racial ideas being unscientific, he still approached race from a Eurocentric sense of mission to the ‘lesser’ races. Tolkien would come to begrudge Hitler’s perversion of the idea of the great Northern racial spirit. In fact, in a 1938 letter Tolkien called such racial theories a “holy pernicious and unscientific doctrine.”

Echo-Hawk continued by referencing an Encyclopaedia Brittanica description of the Mongoloid race and finding close correspondence between its specific description of Mongoloids and Tolkien’s descriptions of the “slant-eyed” orcs. Orcs had “sallow” skin–in other words, the yellow skin corresponding to East/Central Asian ancestry. Furthermore his “squint-eyed Southerner” in the Inn at Bree had nothing to do with Clint Eastwood, but rather invokes the same Mongoloid race as a trait of evil.

Another observant bit of scholarship on Echo-Hawk’s part was proposing that Tolkien was aware of the discovery of a negroid Malay skeleton during the war, which may also have influenced his depiction of orcs. Tolkien kept tabs on the Eastern theater during WWII, a note about a Japanese attack on Malaya having been found behind one of his exam papers. Did he note Malay because he had been paying attention to the discovery? Unfortunately, we may never know. What we do know is that Tolkien’s attitude to race was not entirely straightforward and that his placing of importance on race as a stable entity unfortunately reifies–or stultifies–societies into distinct groups characterized by absolute difference.

To close off the day, I attended a discussion panel on Rudyard Kipling, whose short fiction occasionally ventures into the fantastic, but whose journalistic representations of India still define how people–even Indians themselves–see India today. There were no terribly fascinating theories discussed, but it was an opportunity to hear some things about this complex colonial author. Although his novels like The White Man’s Burden is usually seen as trite, jingoistic, and complicit with imperialism, he presents an honest and surprisingly deep picture of Indian society that frequently find sympathy with the locals instead of representatives of the British government.

The panel mentioned how Kipling’s prose actually scans, like poetry. I almost wanted to quote Ondaatje’s The English Patient, where the patient tells Hana, “Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do.” Another author who writes as carefully as Kipling is Kenneth Morris, whose fantasy short fiction was collected in a volume called The Dragon Path–he even wrote fiction inspired by Beethoven.

Fantasy authors who refer to Kipling and acknowledge their debt to him include Poul Anderson and Tim Powers, whose novel Declare refers to The Great Game. C.S. Lewis in Selected Literary Essays also has an essay on Kipling in which he calls him the “Poet of the Inner Ring,” which is code for male friendship.

And … that’s about all I could pack in to this post. That Saturday was packed full of lectures. In another week, I will be publishing my Sunday notes, including a brief report on my presentation.

Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats
Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats

Demon Hunter Severian: Lady of the Night Gates by Giovanni Anastasi

grafica Demon hunter flat

Milan during the time of Bishop Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius in 394 AD was the new centre of the Roman Empire, a cosmopolitan city home to Christian and pagan alike–the perfect setting for demon hunt.

A young girl and an elderly priest are found dead in their beds under similar circumstances, after a night of restless nightmares. Meanwhile, pagans are brought outside the city walls to be burned at the stake, since the new laws proclaimed by Theodosius make worship of the old gods a crime punishable by death. Milan is undergoing a violent transition from the classical world into the Christian Middle Ages. Embodying that transition in many ways is the hero of this novel by Italian author Giovanni Anastasi.

Aurelius Severian is an ex-Roman soldier turned priest who has now given up both professions to hunt the invisible, incorporeal agents of the devil. His calm, silent demeanor and larger-than-life capability make him a force to contend with. Like his namesake Marcus Aurelius, he is a stoic, perhaps as way to cope with his tortured past. We perceive Severian mostly through the lens of his servant Flavian, a pagan slave boy he saves from the stake. As Christian and pagan, they distrust each other at first, but circumstances force them to adopt a necessary partnership.

Severian and Flavian must race against time to examine the corpse of the slain girl and find out who killed her and why. Meanwhile, a mysterious sorcerer works black magic while watching their every move, calling on the name of the Lady of the Night Gates, the demon whose statue Severian discovers under the girl’s bed.

I was pleasantly surprised by Demon Hunter Severian. It’s a horror mystery/historical fantasy romp through late classical Milan. There were a few typos and some similes and descriptions that didn’t quite work for me, however. The novel at times follows a standard formula for historical action thrillers–I won’t point out what that formula is exactly, but some scenes follow the script gesture by gesture. Which isn’t to say the story didn’t work. It was a fun ride and left me satisfied at the end.

Demon Hunter Severian has the potential of developing into a series revolving around its central character, and if it does, it would be interesting to see whether the secondary characters introduced in this first novel develop any further. The novel’s setting is unconventional, capturing a curious moment in Italian history where pagan and Christian could still live side by side, even though the pagans were starting to be hunted down for their religious differences. It’s a situation of religious intolerance mixed with politics that speaks a lot to the world of today, especially in the Middle East. What I liked about Anastasi’s treatment of good and evil is that neither side is given moral superiority–there are Christians who act good and bad just as there are pagans who act good and bad. These shades of grey enable the novel to pay respect to the hybridity of Milanese culture at the time.

I think Acheron’s mission to publish Italian fantasy and speculative fiction for the English-speaking public is a fine one. Italy has so much history, so many ancient ruins, and so many old, forgotten cities buried underneath the modern ones that the fantastic literature emerging from such its landscape is guaranteed to be rich.

Adriano Barone, the head editor, told me by email, “With Acheron we want to fill a gap we think exists in the fantasy world, that is, Italian settings and Italian folklore. Italy is renowned for its history and art … we think this fascination can extend to speculative fiction too.”

At the Northeast MLA Conference last weekend in Toronto, which I attended, there was a panel in Italian on fantastic literature. This leaves me with the impression that Italian fantastic literature is making inroads at a time when it stands to build bridges between cultures and languages.

Acheron Books is an online ebook publisher of Italian fantasy and speculative fiction authors in English–“Your ferry to the Other Worlds” is their slogan. Giovanni Anastasi is the pen name of Luca Tarenzi, author of two previous novels When the Devil Strokes You and Godbreaker. He won the Premio Italia Fantasy and SF Literature Prize in 2012. The text has been translated from the original Italian by Nigel J. Ross.

Read an excerpt here.

Like it? Then please purchase your copy on the Acheron website.

If you would rather support Amazon.com, which we all know to be a poor perishing retailer, then do so here.

Giovanni Anastasi (aka Luca Tarenzi) author of Demon Hunter Severian
Giovanni Anastasi (aka Luca Tarenzi) author of Demon Hunter Severian

The Inklings Reunited!

We often see separate photos of the Inklings, that band of Christian fantasists who met at a famous Oxford tavern, but not often in a group picture. I have reunited the Inklings for one last meeting at the Eagle and Child–who knows what they might discuss?

The Inklings: Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and J. R. R. Tolkien
The Inklings: Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and J. R. R. Tolkien

Is Fantasy Heresy?

poe_portraitBradbury

“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”

Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.

One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?

“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

Brian Attebery argues that fantasy is heretical in "The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy"
Brian Attebery argues that fantasy is heretical in “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy”

Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.

The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).

Ent

The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s TiganaYsabelvendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.

Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.

Aslan

Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.

Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.

Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.

BrunoImagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.

Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.

helipo versus geoOne of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.

Bruno2Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”

The Spanish Inquisition tortures a suspected heretic.
The Spanish Inquisition tortures a suspected heretic.

Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.

So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.

Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.

DDSome fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.

Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.

Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”

In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.

The creed of the Assassin brotherhood is "Nothing is true; everything is permitted." Screen shot from Assassin's Creed.
The creed of the Assassin brotherhood is “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Screen shot from Assassin’s Creed.

In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?

The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.

Illustration on Title Page of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus
Illustration on Title Page of Christopher Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus. Faustus is an example of a scholar who transcends orthodoxy–but perhaps goes too far by signing a contract with the devil for his soul. (Wait … doesn’t that reinforce the orthodoxy?)

Works Cited:

Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.

Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.

Photo Credits:

Aslan: http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/Aslan

Assassin’s Creed: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Rashid_ad-Din_Sinan

Bradbury: http://www.thecimmerian.com/subpress-publishes-bradburys-martian-chronicles/

Brian Attebery: http://www.isu.edu/english/Faculty/BrianAttebery.htmlEdgar Allan Poe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe

D&D: http://halfblaked.blogspot.ca/2011/07/how-d-made-me-better-storyteller.html

Doctor Faustus: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Theatre/DoctorFaustus?from=Main.DoctorFaustus

Ent: http://genedoucette.me/category/small-children/

Giordano Bruno: http://johns-spot112948.blogspot.ca/2013/02/giordano-bruno.html

Helio vs. Geo: http://www.technologijos.lt/n/mokslas/astronomija_ir_kosmonautika/S-29955

Infinity Bruno: http://www.theharbinger.org/xvi/971111/birx.html

Spanish Inquisition: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/victim-of-the-spanish-inquisition-everett.html

Nietzsche: http://pasolininuc.blogspot.ca/2011/11/friedrich-nietzsche.html

Tigana: http://chachic.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/once-upon-a-time-v-challenge/

Ysabel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ysabel