Caliban and His Mirror: a Guest Post by James Enge

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).

Herewith:

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.

5 Responses to “Caliban and His Mirror: a Guest Post by James Enge”

  1. LJcohenon 11 Nov 2008 at 12:17 pm

    I found this whole conversation fascinating. James Enge’s commentary is thoughtful and insightful. It’s made me want to look more closely at the stories I have written and see what themes emerge.

    I also wonder if this theory would hold sway in cultures that are less focused on autonomy and self-actualization. What are the fantasy stories that emerge from the Far East like, for example?

  2. Chris Jon 12 Nov 2008 at 1:29 am

    True. Broadly speaking, stories are metaphors for life events in some way or another.

    A point I’d like to add though is that I’ve always half-thought that an interesting way to analyze any kind of epic, be it fantasy or SF, is to think of the story not as an interaction between individuals in an imagined world, but as conflict between parts of the self belonging to the author.

    For Tolkien to have successfully presented orcs as violent, petty and destructive, some part of him must have understood that humans can find delight in those things. ‘Orcery’ was a part of Tolkien at some level, just as elvishness and entishness must have been too. As such, tLotR can be thought of as a personal battle, a playing out of ideas concerning behavior, values and morals.

    In tLotR the morals and values associated with men, hobbits, ents, elves and dwarfs triumph (in a Pyrrhic sort of way), not because this particular belief-structure destines a faction to ‘win’, or because it inherently makes a faction more likely to win, but because Tolkien had already concluded in his own mind that these values were his values.

    The battle was long since fought, concluded and celebrated in Tolkien’s head before Tolkien ever started his work.

    Most fantasy stories can be picked apart in this way, I suspect, though I won’t go as far as to say, all. It’s only natural that an author will inject the moral-dilemmas that feel most real and dangerous to him/her personally when writing…

  3. Andreaon 21 Nov 2008 at 1:59 pm

    This has been a fascinating discussion. I haven’t had a chance to read all of the comments yet, but I’ll jump in with a few observations anyway:

    1. I’m not sure that all that many folk tales, historically, have been of the hero-saves-the-maiden type. Certainly that’s what most of us grow up with (thanks to Disney) but when I go back and reread, say, Grimms’, what I am struck with is the enormous variety of stories and heroes and arcs and how impoverished we are relatively speaking. Where’s Tom Thumb, Thumbelina, Iron Harry, the Seven Swans? (In the latter the heroINE spent six years in complete silence and sacrificed her three eldest children, and nearly her life, to save her brothers.)

    Also, reading them, I did not get a real struggling-for-autonomy feeling. What I got was the randomness-of-evil feeling, the despair-of-helplessness feeling, the necessity-of-sacrifice feeling, but not much about autonomy. In those days I would speculate that true autonomy would be fatal, not liberating, because people were so interdependent and the costs of failure were so high. Autonomy is, practically speaking, a luxury of the 21st century lifestyle in the developed world, an outgrowth of prosperity, specialization of labour and various political freedoms. I doubt it would have meant anything to the widow’s son.

    2. “Politics” doesn’t mean “party politics.” Politics, broadly defined, means who has power, why, and what they can do with it. As Ursula le Guin said, it’s impossible to have an apolitical novel (all societies, right down to the level of the family, have some people who are legitimized to wield power over others), and those works that have the loudest political voice are often the ones that claim to be apolitical (often exactly because they claim to be apolitical and don’t examine the consequences of the claims they make or the society they set up).

    Doesn’t it seem weird to you? Fantasy is so bloody monolithic. If it’s a good king, only bad guys disagree with him; if it’s a bad king, it’s the good guy who’s out to send him toppling. Where are reasonable people who disagree? Where are the rebels and revolutionaries, the heretics and freethinkers? Where’s William Blake, Christine de Pizan, Martin Luther? When the Inquisition appears and starts burning people at the stake, what are they really after? Why? Where are the cults, the new sects, the break-off religions, the communes, the refugees, the migrants, the despised immigrants? Where are the veterans of the holy wars? Why don’t they have PTSD? There’s never been a human society without these people, yet in fantasy literature they are almost completely absent.

    I’ve often read that fantasy literature “works” when everything but the magic is kept as realistic as possible. Well, societies in fantasy literature are often just plain not realistic. You end up with three-dimensional characters travelling through a two-dimensional world. Whether it’s lazy or reactionary, the end result is still a world that legitimizes and glorifies the absolute power of one person over everyone else by refusing to examine the costs of such a system.

  4. Mark Tiedemannon 23 Nov 2008 at 9:57 am

    Maybe it should be noted that what Le Guin said is true, but that while every story has politics, not every one is about politics.

    But I like Andrea’s remark about three-dimensional characters moving through a two-dimensional landscape. But it goes the other way, too—two (or one) dimensional characters moving through a three-dimensional landscape. And several variations thereof. We’re talking about a mismatch here, and maybe that’s directly because of writers not paying attention to consequences.

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