Kate Elliott November 11th, 2008
Commenter James Enge posted a rumination on fantasy and politics on his own blog, and I received his permission to repost it here for your reading pleasure (or for you to take issue with–we’re equal opportunity).
Caliban and His Mirror: Fantasy and Politics (or not):
by James Enge
Deep Genre has had a couple of interesting posts lately about political values in epic fantasy–specifically the old “SF Diplomat” question of whether fantasy is inherently reactionary. The first was (by Kate Elliott, and the next by Lois Tilton; both have provoked interesting comment threads, and with luck there may be more posts to come.)
In the comments to Kate Elliot’s piece, Mark Tiedemann (a sometime Black Gate writer, among other perhaps more notable things) suggested that fantasy was not necessarily interested in politics–he described it as an “added benefit” for fantasy but not essential. “Fantasy is not about systems but about the essentials of self, and the problems of the given story are designed to reveal those qualities of character which are outside of or beyond ‘politics.’”
I was going to just comment with something like “Word!” or “True dat!” but my experts tell me that no one says that stuff anymore, and they also refused to tell me what people do say. (“For your own safety,” they keep insisting, as if that arrest for misuse of “groovadelic” in mixed company hadn’t been expunged from my record years ago.)
So instead I wrote
Great post and fascinating comments. I especially like Mark Tiedemann’s point. Matters of governance in a fantasy novel are rarely about politics; they’re identity symbols. This can be bad (in an Iron Dream sort of way) or good, but it’s not necessarily advocating reactionary political values. It has more to do with the Freudian “family romance.”
Kate Elliott wondered, in a very civil way, what the hell we were talking about. I can’t speak for Mark Tiedemann, but here’s what I was talking about.
Fantasy is most effective when it acts through symbols that rest pretty deep in the awareness (or beneath the awareness, if you buy into the whole subconscious thing). At the center of every adult’s emotional life is a struggle for autonomy that occurs in adolescence. One may be struggling against well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) caregivers who are reluctant to surrender their authority. One may be raised in perfect environment that encourages autonomy and self-responsibility, but one still has to go out and face the world, make one’s place in it. Somehow, this is part of everyone’s story.
Why do so many fantasies involve young sons of widows who grow up to kill the monster, defeat the king, marry the princess and rule the kingdom happily ever after? Some point out that these stories are very old; this is true, but it’s just begging the question. A story appeals to audiences because it speaks to them emotionally. Why does this story appeal to modern audiences or ancient ones?
It appeals to them because it’s a symbolic representation of the struggle for autonomy that everybody engages in. The kingdom isn’t necessarily a kingdom; it’s just a life where you get to decide what happens. The princess isn’t a princess; she’s the hot checkout lady at the grocery store or maybe the likeable mechanic at the gas station, depending on how you roll. In fact, the hero may be a daughter, more like Atalanta or Camilla, nowadays: the dynamic of the story is essentially unchanged. The story has a wide appeal because its symbols are wired into emotional hot-buttons that are part of everybody’s life.
Everybody struggles for autonomy–and everybody fails. Your princess or prince will have their own ideas how the shared kingdom should be run… and if they don’t, life may seem a little empty. Your princess or prince may not follow the script and will perversely prefer someone else. You may not escape from your abusive or well-meaning caregivers, and if you do you may find you’ve become one yourself, trapped by a self-image you despise. When you challenged the monster, he may have won the fight.
All these frustrations give new impact to the symbolic paradigm of how things should be, but also open up an appetite for stories that break the paradigm somehow, mixing fantasies of fulfillment with the grittier realities of unfulfillment. (The 21st century love of fantasy is the longing of Caliban to not see his face in the mirror. The 21st century dislike of fantasy is the longing of Caliban to see his face in the mirror. I should write these things down somewhere.)
Some people might say that science fiction does these things, too. Anyway, I would. Take classic old guard sf like Heinlein’s Puppet Masters: it’s all about the struggle for autonomy, against figures who are beneficient (like the Old Man who orders the hero around) and malefic (like the invading “slugs”) ; in the novel’s climactic scene, the two threats meet and merge. So there you go: it’s just another adolescent struggling to achieve autonomy among a different set of symbols. But then some people would say that science fiction is just a form of fantasy with strict and somewhat irrational rules. Anyway, I would.
And it goes farther than that, I think. For many people, perhaps most, politics is not really about politics (i.e. issues of policy). It’s a matter of emotional identification with the symbols of a specific group, so that the party’s success or failure is a matter of intense and irrational emotional turmoil. The chosen candidate becomes the hero-self whom the voter identifies with; his or her defeat at the hands of the opponent (villain!) wounds the voter emotionally. Conversely, the candidate’s success can lead to irrational exuberance on the part of the voter: now they too will get half the kingdom and the hand of the unattainable princess/prince! A certain amount of babbling among winners and losers is inevitable after every election, especially one as significant as the recent presidential election in the US, because even politics is not really about politics anymore (if it ever was).
Does this mean fantasy can’t be more sophisticated in its representation of imaginary-world politics? Are we stuck forever with the same old lords-and-ladies-and-kings-and-queens-and-emperors-with-or-without-new-clothes? By no means. The best thing about fantasy is that there are no limits to what the storyteller can try to do. (That’s also the worst thing, but this is a topic for another time, maybe.)
But any sort of fiction (21st C. fantasy, 19th C. British novels, medieval Icelandic saga, ancient epic, you name it) is centered on personal or interpersonal issues which are smaller and more intense than any political issue, real or imaginary. Big things can play a role in a plot–civil rights, or a presidential campaign, or a war, or a great white whale. But any story that matters plays out in a theater no larger than a human heart, and if those greater issues are not sized-down to have an impact on some person in the story, they won’t have an impact on the reader either.