The mask and the mirror: Otherness and fantasy literature
Take some elves, dragons, dwarves, hobgoblins, orcs, fairies, gnomes… (ad nauseum; lather, rinse, repeat) and add a protagonist, a wizard, and a magic weapon then voila: you have a fantasy novel.
Other races, other peoples–especially those living in other worlds–typify, for many readers anyway, the very heart of fantasy literature. We want maps, cultures, civilizations, religions, and the oh-so-obvious dichotomies of good and evil. It’s comfortable, from a reader’s perspective, to fall into a world that is familiarly different–not uncomfortably so. The best-selling fantasy series of all time most often adhere into this very pattern.
While some “classic” fantasy has fallen out of fashion as far as working writers are concerned, plenty continues to sell–and much stays within this comfortable territory. Dwarves are curmudgeons with big hearts, Elves are haughty but noble, gnomes are diminutive and curious, and of course, orcs are bad. While many writers these days are working to debunk these stereotypes, what has always struck me about these races is how undeniably human they are.
Where do we get ideas like these? Well, ourselves, of course. Humanity is fascinated with the Other, with the ill-formed, with the unusual. You need look no further than a sideshow to see that we make freaks, monsters, and maniacs out of perfectly normal–if not a little scaly, hirsute, or blubbery–individuals. Fantasy literature takes a varation on this theme, and stretches the frame of humanity, changing the boundaries, and calling it something else entirely: taller and fairer, the elves; shorter and angrier, the dwarves; toothier and beefier, the orcs. The names are as old as the cultures that spawned their mythologies, and still we return again and again.
Maybe it’s because I see it this way, but the idea of writing Elves or dwarves into anything I do just rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I’m getting jaded. Hell, maybe I’m jaded already! I just have problems, problems, oodles of problems, whenever I see Elves and dwarves and hobgoblins in print. I want it to be believable, I want the depth and the sorrow and the complications that come from these cultures and races, but it is so often left unearthed. Writers just skirt the issues, and we’re left with husks of races that do nothing but fill up space.
And it’s extended to monsters, too. I mean, consider the state of urban fantasy these days, and the place of the vampire. Vampires are just undead necrophiliacs (or sometimes abstinent necrophiliacs)–they give in to their urges to kill and to hump, and voila! Teenage girls and soccer moms everywhere swoon, because these are the guys you’re supposed to stay away from. It’s just an other Other. Just another mask in a mirror.
It could be that I just don’t read enough, but I’m really thirsting for something that blows my socks off in respect to Otherness, fantasy races, etc. As of late, most of what I read is completely bereft of fantasy races, or urban fantasy takes on races in our own world (which… has gotten old, fast, for me). I just feel that fantasy literature, as a whole, is perhaps one of the eldest children of Story (as mythology, to me, is just a more ancient version of fantasy), and is always striving to separate from reality, yet never able. Because it grew up out of real soil, breathes real air, and can never disentangle itself from the branches of that World Tree.
Okay, that’s a little more metaphorical than I meant this post to be. I guess I’m saying I want fantastic fantasy literature, and I’m damn sick of Elves.
Suggestions are, as always, appreciated.