Friday, 3 June 2016

High Fantasy Versus Low Reality: What Makes Fiction Real

This wasn't the thing I was going to write about this week. I was going to write about Avatar: The Legend of Korra but then I saw an article on the latest episode of Game of Thrones which made me want to write about something completely different instead.

The article in question was by Fandom Following and argued that the show doesn't deserve critical analysis examining the motivations of its characters or whether it is providing commentary worthy of discussion.

The primary reason for this is because Game of Thrones doesn't have a consistent internal logic since the writing continually breaks the established rules of its own world.

"Listen to them, son. It doesn't make sense how one episode you needed to hold a root of the weirwood tree to have a vision but the next you stay in a vision long after letting go of the root. And no, 'because magic' is not an acceptable answer."

Game of Thrones often tries to have it both ways. The show writers defend the use of rape for drama, explaining it is part of "the reality of this particular world" of brutal patriarchy. However they still want to have ladies occasionally be sassy or talk back to men for a fist-pumping moment which makes no sense in a toxic misogynistic environment.

Or as Fandom Following explains,
Because you absolutely cannot pretend that in a world where Talla is not allowed to express that her future husband isn’t appealing to her without being silenced, her mother would even think to speak out against Randyll in order to defend a wildling that mothered the illegitimate child of her disinherited son. Yet not only did she speak out, she did so in front of others, and in such a manner that was meant to shame him.

Why would a blatant and violent sexist like Randyll allow his wife to publicly shame him like this?

But I don't want to focus on Game of Thrones since I wrote about the show last week. Rather I want to examine the critique that since fantasy novels have a vaguely medieval setting, they should therefore be 'historically accurate' or gritty. This is often a criticism leveled against high fantasy works, things like The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time in contrast to 'realistic' fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire.

The critique often follows something along the lines that it is unrealistic the main protagonists of a highly dangerous epic adventure are likable and all survive. How can it be taken seriously unless there is the real danger that any character could possibly die? Essentially, the real Middle Ages were a brutal place and since fantasy novels superficially reflect the Middles Ages, they should reflect that brutality in order to have real merit.

I'm sorry but I call bullshit. There is no reason why a quote/unquote gritty fantasy world should be considered more seriously than a high fantasy world. Darkness can exist in well-lit worlds, characters don't have to be anti-heroes in order to be nuanced or complicated, and compelling storytelling doesn't have to rely on a gritty setting full of death.

Captain America: Civil War dealt with complex themes of privacy vs security, agency vs accountability, freedom versus governance, and loyalty versus betrayal but I don't know if the setting was gritty enough for me to take it seriously.

Let's focus on death for a moment since so many shows nowadays follow the 'anyone can die' mould as way of showing how realistic their fictional world is. Todd VanDerWerff wrote an in-depth and brilliant article for Vox on how the proliferation of death on our television screens in recent years has actually diluted its narrative or emotional impact.

When you rely on death as a plot point, it becomes reduced to shock value and cheapens the narrative. A fictional world doesn't need to rely on the death of one or more of its main characters to raise the stakes in order for us to be invested.

For example, Harry Potter is a high stakes tale where a bespectacled boy battles wizard Hitler but we all knew going in that Harry, Ron, and Hermoine were going to survive. We didn't need their deaths to become invested in the world.

I can't possibly invest in this. They're laughing and none of them die.

Death can and should happen in fiction but it needs to matter. I mean there was death in Harry Potter but it had a purpose. The first character of any worth to die was Cedric Diggory but that was in the fourth book in the series and he was a minor secondary character. J.K. Rowling spent the three previous books developed a rich world inhabited by identifiable characters we related to and used his death to mark the severe consequences of Voldemort's return in a real way.

And Cedric's death had an effect. It signaled a change in the series as the tone become more adult and dark. One that heralded later more significant character deaths like Sirius Black in Order of the Phoenix. As Harry's godfather, Sirius' death was dramatically significant as he lost one more link to his parents and his sense of family.

This leads to Harry's first real emotional breakdown in the series as it all becomes to much for him to handle and he calls Dumbledore, his other father-figure, out on his bullshit. But Harry then learns from this what makes him different from Voldemort and how he will inevitably defeat the Dark Lord - he has the capacity to love.

I know it hurts Harry but at least his death wasn't a cheap shock.

Of course, there is Dumbledore's own death in The Half-Blood Prince but yet again, that wasn't an attempt to show the reality of this particular world so much as it served an emotional and narrative function. Dumbledore's death was effective emotionally not only because he was a beloved character but because his death was handled with sensitivity.

And thematically it made sense for him to die. Over the course of the story Harry lost his adoptive father-figures in order to become his own man and face He-Who-Was-Already-Named-In-This-Post. It could be seen as a metaphor for growing up since he could no longer rely on his 'father' to swoop in and save him.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that fantasy doesn't have to mimic the real world or be dark and gritty in order to be realistic. It just needs to establish the rules of its own fictional world and follow them. As Tumblr user Lindira puts it:
Fantasy does NOT have to follow real world rules. Fantasy does NOT have to relate to some real world event, country, concept, law, or history. Fantasy does NOT have to mirror any particular time period or country, even if you’re basing your world on a real world one. There is NO SUCH THING as “historical accuracy” in fantasy as it relates to the real world. 
THE ONLY THING Fantasy has to do to be believable is follow the established rules OF ITS OWN WORLD. Fantasy can literally be anything you imagine it to be.
This is why we all accept that Superman can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes but get upset when writers pull shit like this out of their arse:

Nothing in Superman's list of powers in the movies (or comics) ever mentioned or hinted at being able to throw cellophane S shields at his enemies. It is obvious that the writers didn't care this flew in the face of Superman's established powers.

In fact, the final act of Superman II is unfortunately riddled with this lack of care, which is a shame because I love that movie. Like Superman can suddenly make holographic copies of himself because that is somehow a thing.

And then there is the kiss. You know the one. Where Superman kisses Lois so hard she forgets all the events of the movie. There are so many things wrong with that that I don't even want to touch it.

You can't just make up things whenever you feel like it if they go against the rules of the fictional world. It just doesn't work. The only thing it shows is that the writer either doesn't care about either the fictional world they have created or their audience.

Now that I've established that, let's discuss The Wheel of Time for a bit. I am currently reading the series for the first time and have only finished the first three books so far but since that's a trilogy, it's as good a place as any to provide some reserved analysis.

I mentioned up top that due to the fact that The Wheel of Time is a high fantasy series where (as far as I've read) none of the main characters die and lacks the 'anyone can die' approach which is all the rage nowadays, it somehow is less serious than a work like A Song of Ice and Fire.

That argument seems to be based on the false premise that grim = realistic, one I've spent some time diffusing. It also ignores the fact that Robert Jordan was going for something completely different to George R.R. Martin. Now bear in mind that I am by no means well versed the works of either author but here's how I see the distinction between the two series.

To my mind Jordan is more interested in exploring notions of prophecy and determinism, the resistance between who the characters believe themselves to be and who they were fated to become, with an emphasis on duality. There's also a focus on the cyclical nature of time for some reason.

Hmm, an ouroboros entwined with a wheel. Whatever could it mean?

Jordan used his richly imagined fantasy world as a backdrop to explore those ideas in a manner which couldn't have been done in quite the same way if the story was set in a more 'realistic' setting. On the other hand, while Martin's fictional world is home to magic and mystical creatures like dragons, his focus is more on the medieval aspect of fantasy.

Martin uses fantasy to create as an a brutal, patriarchal feudal world and used the medieval values of that setting to explore the workings of sexism and ableism (and to a lesser extent racism), the expression of masculinity, and personal identification.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, rape is a very real thing since it is a symptom of the toxic patriarchal world Martin built and exploring, but it would seem quite anachronistic in a series like The Wheel of Time. This isn't to say that the regularity of rape within his narrative is completely necessary for the 'realism' of Martin's fictional world but it does make sense within its internal logic.

But just because his world is more brutal doesn't necessarily make it more serious. Both A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time deal with gender politics and both have explored the cruelty of slavery or bondage to some degree for example.

It might not be clear but the lady in green is Egwene and she has a leash around her neck that the lady in red and blue is holding to control her. This is from the less serious The Wheel of Time series by the way.

Furthermore, while The Wheel of Time could be said to have a lighter tone overall than A Song of Ice and Fire, the historical backstory that lays the foundation for the series is undeniably dark. From Wikipedia,
A century after the initial breach of the Dark One's prison, open warfare occurs between the forces of the Dark One and those of the Light, until the chieftain Lews Therin Telamon, known as the Dragon, leads a force of channelers and soldiers to reseal the prison; whereupon the Dark One inflicts a malediction that drives male channelers of the One Power insane. 
Thus affected, the male channelers create earthquakes and tsunamis altering numerous landscapes in an event that comes to be called "The Breaking of the World." Lews Therin himself kills his friends and family, and is known afterwards as "Kinslayer." Given a moment of sanity by Ishamael, chief among the Dark One's servants, Lews Therin commits suicide.
Remember this is the story which some dismiss as 'high fantasy' like that's a bad thing and less worthy of attention. And that's my point. Fantasy can be whatever it wants to be. It doesn't have to be 'adult' in tone to handle some heavy stuff and it doesn't have mimic the real world to be realistic.

It just has to follow its own rules. Even if those rules include magic.


Stop Pretending Game of Thrones is Worthy of Analysis - Fandom Following

Game of Thrones writer defends Sansa scene in heartfelt new commentary - Entertainment Weekly

Fantasy Does Not Have To Follow Real World Rules - Lindira

TV is killing off so many characters that death is losing its punch - Vox

A'dam - The Wheel of Time Wiki

The Wheel of Time Wikipedia page

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