Thursday, August 22, 2013

Living in the Footprint

I was reading some old 'Savage Sword of Conan' last night, and it suddenly struck me what has always seemed strange about Conan as a fantasy character (and Hyboria as a fantasy world, for that matter). Conan was riding in on some adventure or other, getting ready to fight some slithery monster, and I suddenly realized--he has no elven friends. No dwarven friends either, for that matter.

That's not because Conan is racist, or anything. Sexist, yes. Racist, no. (Sexist, oh GOD yes. Robert E. Howard didn't just have issues with women, he had entire climate-controlled vaults filled with complete collections dating back to Gutenberg.) But the point is, he didn't have elven or dwarven companions because these were adaptations of fantasy stories written before Tolkien. It explained for the first time to me why I'd always felt like 'Conan' stories felt a little "empty"; the number of elements I'd actually associated with "fantasy" in my head were surprisingly few.

The implications of that thought were kind of unnerving. I mean, I'd felt for a long time like fantasy authors aped Tolkien a bit too much, but it was only when I realized just how out of place it felt to a reader who'd grown up after 'Lord of the Rings' to see a fantasy novel without elves, dwarves, dragons and long-bearded kindly wizards that I realized just how much of an impact Tolkien had made on the genre. (There were wizards in Conan's universe, of course, but they were almost universally decadent and in league with unholy forces. Magic was something the bad guys used, and Conan defeated them with his strong right arm and his trusty blade. I could write a frigging dissertation on the underlying psychological implications of Howard's work, starting with the anti-intellectual symbolism of magic as a tool of evil and going on from there.)

It's scary, when you think about it. Tolkien's ideas were so powerful that they left a permanent imprint on every single fantasy writer who ever followed him. Those writers, in turn, deepened the imprint--I don't think you'd see nearly as many Tolkien pastiches if 'Dungeons and Dragons"' hadn't given us all a framework of "rules" for the fantasy genre, complete with a list of official Protagonist Races. But still, the sheer memetic power of Tolkien's work has warped the entire mental fabric of the conceptual space we think of as "fantasy". Maybe that's why I've never been as much of a Tolkien fan as most fantasy enthusiasts; I'm a little nervous about something that's taken over that much headspace over such a short period of time.

Or maybe the problem isn't so much that Tolkien conquered all the territory as it is that it was primarily virgin land to begin with. Prior to Tolkien, the only really major "high fantasy" writer in modern literature was the aforementioned Howard, and we still see a lot of his staple ideas to this day as well. (Barbarian heroes, decadent nobles plotting and counter-plotting, degenerate monstrosities from lost races, women treated either like meat or scheming harpies by a sexist and misogynist author...) Perhaps it's not so much that Tolkien has made it impossible to escape the fantasy framework of elves, dwarves and humans going on a magical quest guided by a kindly wizard; maybe it's just that we need the next Tolkien to come along and add something entirely new to the mix. If Tolkien has shown us anything, it's that one book can definitely have that kind of impact.

5 comments:

Oddstar said...

Did you ever read any of Fred Saberhagen's fantasy novels? Particularly Empire of the East and the Books of Swords? If not, I strongly recommend them. There was a time when they were quite well-known, but they seem to have fallen out of favor with fantasy fans now. I think that's a shame, because they represented a possible different direction for fantasy, instead of the repeated aping of Tolkien that you describe.

Fakefaux said...

I've often wondered what the next Tolkien will look like. Every time some fantasy author starts to gain a modicum on mainstream success, it seems people start hailing them as "the next Tolkien." It's happened with both Robert Jordan and GRRM, for example. Most of the time it's just hyperbole, and the writers in question are clearly still operating in Tolkien's framework, even if they shake up other things.

In theory, a new Tolkien would once again redefine the fantasy genre, completely breaking away from the previous framework. Trying to figure out what that might look like requires one to spell out what exactly they means by "fantasy" in this context, which is a tricky proposition.

frasersherman said...

I'll defend Howard a little on the sexism front. His "Dark Agnes" stories and the original Red Sonya (Hawks over Kiev, I think) show he was fine writing tough, competent women. But Conan was a much better sell.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me for bringing in actual scholarship, but Conan is not "high fantasy".

Howard's Conan, like Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, is "low fantasy". If you would care to read more such, take a look at C. L. Moore's works and Leigh Brackett's works as well as Leiber's.

Tolkien's LOTR is "high fantasy" (although the term has come under some controversy of late).

Previous writers in the same vein as Tolkien include Hope Mirrlees (whose 1926 Lud-in-the-Mist is an unsung classic!), George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, G. K. Chesterton, James Branch Cabell, Frank R. Stockton, C. S. Lewis, Johann Ludwig Tieck, Mark Van Doren, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E. R. Eddison, William Morris (almost all of whom pre-date Tolkien or were his contemporaries!), debatably Mervyn Peake,
and, later, Ursula K. LeGuin and Peter S. Beagle and, possibly, Neil Gaimann.

Tolkien was not the first. He merely the first fantasist for adults to reach such renown that people who do not like fantasy still know who he is.

And if you love good high fantasy, please seriously consider reading Hope Mirrlee's Lud-in-the-Mist. It was only recently reprinted and so can be purchased relatively easily now.

Anonymous said...

Howard's work is more than a little sexist in its narrow gender norming, but I wouldn't call it misogynist in general.

Rather, Howard writes the sexism of the adolescent male for whom all women are Other. That may be sexist, and even dehumanizing, but it's not misogynist.

Every male and female I know fall equally into the category of "people Conan would hold in contempt", and Conan was actually more cruel to the men he held in contempt than he was to the women; the women he would abandon, but the men he would rob and kill. I think it one is fiercely determined to apply to Howard's works the label *misogynist* for the fact that so many females in it are evil, one might as well add the label *misandrist* for his works' contempt for almost every type of human male that exists other than those who adhere narrowly to Conan's particular idea of masculinity.

Really, if one is determined to apply a "miso-" label to Howard, the word *misanthropist* fits best of all.