The mask and the mirror: Otherness and fantasy literature

"And my axe!"

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.

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14 Comments on “The mask and the mirror: Otherness and fantasy literature

  1. Yes, but this is where I truly think you succeed with the Sibs in Aldersgate. They are enough like us, and enough unlike us. The imagination of the reader decides whether or not they are monsters or the ideal race. They are fantastic, unexpected, and yet, their existence logical. Far better than even the most realized elves.

  2. @Jenn Wow, thanks Jenn. Haha, I don’t think I was thinking so much about what I write, as what other write, but it’s a good point. Nothing I have written as an adult has Elves or even dwarves in it; perhaps I’ve avoided it because I don’t like it. However, it’s not to say it can’t be done well. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon on that count. It’s just that it’s so often done badly!

  3. I have to agree that mainstream fantasy has become way too formulaic. Like you, I have been keeping an eye out for something that goes back to the oldest traditions of fantasy, long before Tolkien popularized it.

    In my experience, there are two kinds of fantasy readers. First are the ones (like us) who really invest their imaginations into it, and care about it enough to accept the kinds of things we are looking for. We like the idea of exploring new concepts in the fantasy genre, and are easily bored with repetition.

    The other fantasy readers are the one a day readers, who burn through fantasy novels like some go through romance novels. They’re not really investing themselves into it, and get very little out of it in return. However, they do have expectations for it, and that old familiar ground established by Tolkien is one of them. This group is also probably the largest, making up the “mainstream” audience that fantasy has. Since they are the largest target audience, publishers will cater to them, which is why the formula for fantasy has endured for so long.

    Unfortunately, the kind of fantasy we’re looking for exists in extremely short quantities, tucked away into hidden corners. They get drowned out in a sea of cookie-cutter fantasy stories, and a lot of authors I’ve read either don’t have the skill or the courage to “go the other way”

    • @Erik Exactly. I concur 100% with the dual readers of fantasy literature. I think a good deal of writers (myself included) worry about not adhering to the norms of fantasy literature; and even some of the best writers I’ve read recently are, like you mention, consigned to the shadows. Unfortunately, I don’t see the average reader getting any smarter these days… alas. Still, tally ho. We keep going.

  4. What I neglected to mention in my earlier comment was that the first author that comes to mind who successfully bucked the formula trend was the late Robert Jordan with his “Wheel of Time” series. That series ranks very high on my top ten list of favorite fantasy series of all time, and nary an elf in sight…

    However, something tells me you have already read it, so I’ll keep looking… 😉

  5. @Erik Actually… I haven’t read it yet. I’ve purposely saved a few series and books not to read to I have something to read later. It’s weird; a kind of novel rationing. But I don’t want to blast through everything and have nothing. 🙂

  6. I understand that well, speaking as someone who perpetually is looking for something worthwhile to read…

    However, so far, Wheel is about 11 books, at an average of 900 pages per. the 12th book is being split into 3 due to it’s size. Suffice to say, it would take a while to blast through it…

  7. I’m about a month away from finishing the dissertation, and then I’m looking forward to checking out Aldersgate.

    I tend to shy away from anything with elves & such in it. Tolkein, of course, wrote with a great knowledge of Norse & Anglo-Saxon literature and folklore, which grounded his stuff to a certain degree. Vampires are different, for me at least — I’m a sucker for them (no pun intended). It seems that their “otherness” is something great to play with. Anne Rice turned the tables and made them the normative and mortals the “others”. Joss Whedon made vampires complete others, evil demons, but then twisted the expectations by throwing in the characters of Angel and Spike.

    I’m really getting into steampunk right now, but it seems that a lot of it — perhaps more the fashion/subculture than the literature is a bit too uncritically Anglophile, without taking into account the colonialism that kept the British Empire running in the 19th century. I am Irish-American and my wife is West African (we refer to ourselves as the “Irish Mandingos”), and I think I would like to write a steampunk story sometime from the point of view of the colonized.

    Anyway, great sites and I’ve been enjoying your tweets.

    • @Liam Absolutely. I was very close to being a professional medievalist myself, so your Twitter account was of immediate interest! And I totally agree with the issues in steampunk. I’ve had a lot of trepidation myself with the “culture” as of late, with the majority of people far more interested in the clothing than the meaning behind it. And there’s little interest in the literature, from what I’ve seen, comparatively. Not that it doesn’t have its merits–the maker culture in particular is amazing. But the working man and the colonized individual’s plights are often undermined for the refined and sometimes overly romanticized upperclass… As Jenn points out, I do explore it a bit in the story–much of it has not only to do with Otherness, but also the struggle of people living within a strict caste system.

      Thanks for coming by. And I love your name. My two year old is also a Liam. 🙂

  8. You might enjoy China Miéville if you haven’t read his stuff already. Perdido Street Station did some interesting things with non-human characters, and the world is believably old and vast.
    (re-posted to the right entry)

  9. What turns me off about most modern, fantasy novels is how predictable they are (dragons, elves, castles etc.) and that’s sad because, in theory, you can do more with fantasy than you can with science fiction. Fantasy stimulates the imagination like no other genre can, followed closely by her sister genre science fiction. I don’t understand why fantasy novels are always based on medieval European culture/mythology and why so many fantasy authors are obsessed with the past. Write stories that have to do with Native American mythology, African mythology, Japanese mythology or an entirely new set of mythological creatures and themes that have never been done before. Write more stories that take place in the present or the future. The stories I write are almost exclusively fantasy (I love aliens and articial intelligence) but as far as reading goes, in theory, fantasy is my favorite genre but, in practice, science fiction tends to be more diverse and creative. I’m starting to read more fantasy though so maybe my mind will change.

    I’d like to read more fantasy novels that have to do with shapeshifters, gods, magic in our contemporary universe etc. and less with castles and Shakespearan like dialect.

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