Middle Ages, Dark Ages and pre-modern "straight" fantasy

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Fri Aug 11 15:44:54 EDT 2000


On Fri, 11 Aug 2000 16:50:21 +0100, Philip.Belben at pgen.com wrote:

>And...  Urban fantasy?  Why should it be called Urban unless it specifically
>relates to cities?  For that matter, why should Urban fantasy be modern in
>setting?

Glen Cook's Garrett novels seem to fit this description--definitely an
"urban" setting that is not modern.

>> Er, "pre-modern" hardly implies a mere 80 or so years back. That term sounds
>> more like another way of  saying pre-industrial, actually.
>
>Argh!  Why not???  (Sorry, nothing personal, I am just questioning assumptions
>that I consider unwarranted.  Hence the repetitive Why? Why? Why? in my post)

Well, for right now, 80 years ago means 1920s.  And in America at least,
this was a "modern" era in a lot of ways: dependent on technology (cars,
telephones, electricity all were in common use), with some segments of
society--particularly the literary crowd--demonstrating a world-weary
hardheadedness about life and love that I would characterize as modern.  But
again, that depends on what you think "modern" implies.  That would need to
be defined before we can tell if certain assumptions are unwarranted.  What
characterizes a "modern" society?

I agree that "pre-modern" should be read "pre-industrial" because I think
industrialization was one of those things that made a profound difference to
society in general.  Suddenly a lot of things that were done by hand could
be done by machine--the learning threshold drops substantially--and that
carefully protected knowledge becomes more or less obsolete, or maybe I mean
that its currency is devalued.  It no longer matters whether you are the
only one who can spin wool a certain way if someone else who's not quite as
talented can build a machine to outproduce you.  But now we are moving back
into the field of economics and my knowledge here is limited.

At any rate, I think of "modern" as entailing a certain attitude toward
life, one that's related to our university model of medieval life.  A modern
era would have a strong middle class and an aristocracy whose range of
social power is limited.  Magic in a modern fantasy would be the sort of
thing one could research and document--something like Philip Pullman's _His
Dark Materials_ series suggests.  And there's another book I read recently
that takes the same approach, only I can't remember the title right now.
I've read a number of stories in which magic takes the place of technology
(though that's still a very small number): it is widely available to anyone
rather than being the province of a few, it's used to accomplish mundane
tasks as well as the epic ones, and it's open to development and research.

>Indeed, I would put the defining properties of "epic" fantasy as "most tours are
>organised as a quest" and "you have to visit every d---ed place on the map,
>whether marked or not"

I like that.  It's at least what most people seem to *think* is necessary
for epic fantasy.  Assuming that Tolkien is the model for epic fantasy
(despite there being earlier analogues, he's the earliest that exists in the
common knowledge base, I think) it makes me wonder what elements of his
books should have been defining properties of the epic style, but got
discarded for some reason.  If there were any.

I would say epic fantasy is a subset of what I called straight fantasy.
And to my mind, straight fantasy excludes the possibility of any level of
industrial technology.  I say this because I'm basing these wild assertions
and classifications on what I've observed rather than what I think should
be.  In other words, these are elements common to a particular type of book.

And to answer the question in another post--"WHY should it be
pre-industrial?"--there are a number of reasons.  For one, what JOdel
pointed out about the stuff of legend needing to be "untainted by the
squalor of these lesser times."  Even if straight fantasy isn't epic in
nature, it almost always deals with themes that are legendary or mythic in
nature, or are more overtly archetypal than others.  (Urban fantasy does
this too, for different reasons.)

I'm not done yet, but I want to post this and come back later when the
baby's not fussing.  More in another post.

Melissa Proffitt
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