Wednesday, August 13, 2014

An Exploration in Fantasy -- Part Four: The Darkest Hour

Along our fantastic fantasy journey, so far, we've learned that we're special and could be the prophesied one, among other things. We've met a mentor and found some friends. We've also gone on a journey, probably in search of something. Hopefully, it's a been a learning experience, and we're fully prepared to meet the final challenge. It's a dark time for the rebellion, after all.

From the initial list I made (which you can see here), we need to cover three more points:
8. There is some kind of descent
9. There is some sort of "dark lord" who can only be defeated by the hero.
10. There's an absence of technology.

We'll start with #10 since it has less to do with plot than the rest of the list and, actually, almost fits alongside fantasy needing races of fantastic creatures or beings. Except that I don't think fantasy needs those creatures, I think we just like those creatures. There are plenty of fantasy stories out there that do not include elves and leprechauns. However, the technology thing is important and much more... mercurial. See, sometimes, the technology is the magic, which can make it difficult to distinguish. But let's go down the list of characters (go and see that same post for that last) and see where where and how the absence of technology applies.

1. Harry Potter -- Potter is set in the modern world, but technology doesn't really exist in the wizarding world. It was a neat trick by Rowling to set it present day but still give it that Medieval feel that everyone seems to want their fantasy to have.
2. Luke Skywalker -- The absence of technology thing may seem to not apply to a science fiction piece, BUT the idea in Star Wars, at least for the Jedi, is to eschew technology. Technology, even a technological monstrosity like the Death Star, is nothing when compared to the power of the Force. It's a hearkening back to a mystical (magical) power source. So, although there is technology in the story, the focus for the hero is to not rely on that technology but to trust his "magic."
3-5. Garion, Rand, Richard -- There is no technology.
6-8. Batman, Spider-Man, Superman -- Often in super hero stories, the technology is the magic. The best example of this (right now, anyway) is probably Iron Man, but it applies, also, to the Fantastic Four and, even, to Batman and Spider-Man. When the technology is so advanced as to, basically, not be reproduce-able for the public, it has become "magical." Alien technology is the same. And Superman is above the need for human technology.
9. the Starks -- Again, no technology.
10. Dorothy -- No tech.
11. Katniss -- Effectively, Katniss functions below technology. It's basically, a magic vs. technology environment, but the magic is the special-ness of Katniss and her superhuman skill with a bow.
12-13. Skeeve & Pug -- No tech.
14. Dresden -- The Dresden series is another one that handles technology in an interesting way. Being set in the modern world, technology exists, but there has to be some way to make the use of magic more desirable than the use of that technology, so... wizards, like Harry, disrupt technology. Destroy it, actually. What we end up with is a constant struggle between magic (the old ways) and technology (the new ways) and Harry walking the line in between the two.

The end result of all of this is a lack of technology in how it relates to the protagonists.

The other two points, the descent and the "dark lord" antagonist, have more to do with the hero story arc than fantasy specifically, but fantasy, more than any other genre, tends to depend upon the hero journey. The confusion (entanglement?) of these two things is probably what causes the association of Joseph Campbell with all of this, but the hero journey can actually be applied to any genre. Probably. I'm not actually sure about romance.

At any rate, virtually every one of our heroes has some kind of "dark lord" they have to face off against, even Dorothy. Of course, in the case of super heroes, they will, inevitably, be more than one. From my list, I'm only not sure about Skeeve (being a comedy fantasy, it's not really required and, although there are antagonists, I don't think any would qualify for the "dark lord" position) and the Starks. I don't think the Lannisters quite count as a "dark lord," and, well, The Song of Fire and Ice is not really that kind of story, anyway, but that would be telling (really, that's for another post not related to this series).

Virtually all of the listed heroes also have a descent of some type, often literal as with Luke and his descent into the cave. The descent serves as a learning experience for the protagonist. Even Dorothy has her descent (in the book) when she is made into a slave by the Wicked Witch. Again, Skeeve may be the only protagonist without a real descent in his story arc but, again, comedy!

The question, then, is how much of this comes from Tolkien. Certainly, it's true that all three of these exist in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was adamantly opposed to industrialization (both in life and in war (especially in war after being in the trenches in World War I)) and it shows in his books. The orcs and goblins are his metaphor for a "technological society."

Both Bilbo and Frodo are confronted with defeating "dark lords," though neither of them actually defeat the dark lords of their stories. Smaug is killed by Bard and Sauron by Gollum, even if it was inadvertent. However, it can be argued in both cases that the protagonists set up their defeats. Both heroes survive their descents into darkness -- Bilbo in the tunnel down to Smaug's lair and Frodo... well, most of Frodo's journey is a journey from one darkness to another -- and come out stronger on the other side.

Just as clearly, many authors have modeled these specific aspects of their own works directly after Tolkien, but is there prior precedence for these in fantasy literature?

And will I ever tell you if there is?


  1. In Star Wars, Luke didn't really have technology: he had a landspeeder ,yeah, but he wasn't really part of the Empire and its culture, and even his tech was pretty low; remember that C3PO and R2 were twenty+ years old when he bought them in Episode IV. The rebels as a whole were low tech: they rode Tauntauns and had clearly inferior weapons, and repeatedly relied on magic to beat technology. In "Jedi," the low-tech was made obvious when Luke and Co. were walking through the forest and, ambushed by higher-tech Imperial troops, teamed up with rock-throwing Ewoks.

    In "Another Fine Myth," Skeeve had to defeat Isstvan, who was trying to take over all the dimensions.

    One quibble, though: If you define "advanced technology" as "magic," you're blurring the lines too much. I know what you mean, but saying Iron Man's suit is like magic is like when my kids used to say "Hamburger again!" when I was cooking ground beef to put in tacos.

    Batman I think is more magic because he relies on judo, etc., and some superhuman type of qualities that don't seem the result of simple exercise and training. Superman and Spider-man are magic because they get their superhuman abilities from something other than high-tech. Those guys all fit your model for fantasy, too, whereas Iron Man seems less of an apt fit.

  2. You've definitely got the major nemesis in every epic fantasy story...which is kind of irksome. Why can't they occasionally be at war with themselves, or nature, or something else entirely?

    I don't like it when they cut out all technology, but I absolutely love it when they have a different type of technology, like a deeper organic know how.

    1. It's been a while since I read it, but I love the big enemy in Moorcock's ELRIC series. Elric's biggest enemy is the enchanted sword Stormbringer which is also his own greatest weapon.

    2. Russ: I read... many of the Elric books, until I got tired of the repetition of them. Moorcock was certainly not conventional, but I'd have to go back and look to see at which points he strays from the model. His whole hero thing was really fascinating.
      I think I need to look at those books again.

  3. It's funny how the protagonist never knows the depths of what he or she can do until faced with a descent or antagonist. No wonder some villains are more interesting than the heroes who face them.

    Crystal, in my forthcoming fantasy Season Avatar series, my heroines will be fighting nature. Admittedly, there is someone else controlling nature that they will have to confront, but first they must deal with Chaos Season. Although the series starts with Bronze Age technology, it'll move to quasi-Victorian levels by the end.

  4. Briane: What I mean about Iron Man's suit is that it is always able to do whatever it is he needs it to do. He might need to tinker with it a bit, but it is completely adaptable. It's not like a car, say, that can drive down the road or, maybe, go off road, but it can't go under water and it can't go out into space. Which is not to say that some people haven't made cars with special uses and that we might soon have flying cars, but it's not like Iron Man just fiddling with his armor a bit and making it do whatever he needs it to. That's the part that is magic.

    And about Skeeve: Oh, yeah! It's been so long since I've read those.

    Crystal: I think the issue is that when you cut out the "dark lord," you've strayed from fantasy. Or what we see as fantasy. It's part of the model, someone the hero has to throw himself against.

    Sandra: Yeah, we have to have those things to bring out the depths, usually the goodness, of the hero.

  5. Anna: Wisdom is a good thing, yes?

  6. A discussion I'd be interested in exploring is how magic/superstition is generally seen as at odds with science/technology. It makes sense (to me) that a society that embraces one would eschew the other, both in fiction and in real life. Probably explains a lot of the antipathy a lot of fundamentalist faiths have with modern science, as well as why the two story types (fantasy and science fiction) aren't blended as often as common wisdom would think they should.

    Although, I do think of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, where the universe did run on magic, but ancient beings lost faith in magic and replaced the internal engines of creation with science. And after a few billion years, and the ancients are all gone, the universe is breaking down because that's the one big flaw with science/engineering: It can break. Magic if forever.

  7. Rusty: I haven't read the King series. Some day, I need to read... something... by him.

    I do know Tolkien's reasons; I wonder how much of that is true for others, as well.

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