Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Heroic Fantasy and Moral Simplicity

Heroic fantasy helped raise me.

Seems a silly thing to say, doesn't it? But it's true. Fantasy novels (at least the good ones) were like supplementary parents. It's a little sad, sometimes, that we don't see each other much anymore. I've been busy, you know, with Big Theme and Moral Ambiguity and that slick sonofagun the Human Condition. But I miss ol' Heroic Fantasy sometimes, though mostly in a nostalgic way, a weren't those great times kinda way.

But I don't look down on Heroic Fantasy. We may not visit much, but I'm still glad it's out there. Why? Because I think there's value in the moral simplicity it offers.

One important avenue of art (at least the written kind), is to show, and to explore, the world as it is. I believe this, and I seek this in my own writing. I'm trying to find truths, and if they aren't universal and aboslute truths they are at least subjective and personal ones, uniquely prophetic. But this exploration of life and meaning isn't the only avenue for literature, and I think Heroic Fantasy fills another niche.

There's value, I think, in exploring not the world as it is but the world as we want it to be. It's little more than a wish, but a wish can be an important thing. Wishes shape actions and beliefs. Wishes are hope.

A hero, a dark lord. Black and white, good and evil. Seems hokey, at times, and yet there's a relevance here. This is narrative as moral fable, as a reinforcement of an ideal. Heroism is possible. Is that the way it always is in the real world? No, of course not. It is rare, in fact, and yet it is there. And so why not aspire to it?

Heroic fantasy, I think, aspires to that ideal, to hold up a vivid tapestry of what might be, of what we might wish of ourselves. Will we live up to it? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But I think we might be better for having that tapestry before us.

I read a lot of fantasy growing up. Some good, lots bad... but even the worst usually offered a comforting framework. Some would call it escapism, mere wish fulfillment... but wishing for something creates an interesting path in the brain. You go from wishing to wanting to finding.

I read, years ago, some studies on human behaviour which showed that certain types of delusionary thinking were a basic aspect of human life. The brain doesn't want to see things perfectly clearly. Reality can be dark and overwhelming, and the mind copes by telling itself little falsehoods. The brain's a fibber. It convinces you of possibility where there is little. When someone you love dies and grief claims you... the brain will distract you for moments here and there. It's a safety function, a diversionary process to poke you temporarily through the grief. It keeps those feelings from overwhelming you... Yes, they will come back, you can't trick yourself forever. You'll see a shirt that the dead person left hanging on the back of the door and the grief will wash back over you, a black sea, and you will wonder that you forgot for a moment. But those little diversions are windows on a brighter world. A false world, maybe, a trick of the brain, but a necessary one. This is hope, perhaps, at its most basic.

Stories of heroic fantasy are like wishes, are like little acts of hope. They are a clean light shining on what seems a dark world. They are a slender path calling you onward, bidding you to follow.

Now, if grey has become my favourite colour (seductive and shifting and ever mutable), it is sometimes still nice to remember the beauty of black and white.


Bookworm1605 said...

Gimme some examples of heroic fantasy.

Ink said...

I'm talking traditional epic fantasy of the good and evil sort. There's varying levels of quality and complexity, of course, with LotR at the top and some of the cheesy stuff at the bottom. Lots of heroic fantasy writers out there: David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan. So many... Go to the fantasy section of the bookstore and there will be lots. Now, having said that, it's not always clear cut, and as with most things there's probably a bit of a spectrum, with varying amounts of grey introduced into the black and white worlds.

Some of the more gritty, grey epic fantasy is catching on these days. Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin come to mind. Who's good and who's bad? Hard to say at times...

But most of the old quest fantasies are based around the heroic model (which has a great history, starting with stuff life Beowulf and Gilgamesh). I don't think all of the older stuff fits in, though. Glen Cook seems a clear predecessor of Erikson. Robert Howard wrote Conan as a sort of anti-hero, and thus the stories are more grey than typical (at least as I remember it... been awhile since I've read him).

Terry Brooks might be a good standard bearer for the modern heroic fantasy, though I say that having not read any of his recent books. Good young people, quests and magical items, forces of evil that must be defeated to save the world... Heroic!

Ms Kitty said...

There are some beautifully crafted stories, by woman authors:

Jennifer Robinson with the Sword Dancer series. That was prime Heroic Fantasy, so was Andre Norton's Witch World.

Anne McCaffery's Pern doesn't get any more heroic, girl and dragon save the world.

The Derni series by Katherine Kurst(?) would also qualify, I think.

I don't think that the "dark Lord" is the point as much as the need for "heroes" of either gender. There is a certain nobility of purpose, a calling to save whatever that requires sacrifices and a higher calling.

Bookworm1605 said...

Ah, I'm with you now. Of that list, I have read Eddings' Belgariad series and LOTR. I think I understand where you are coming from. Those two examples are similar in that they feature ensemble casts and their quests are on an epic scale, involving the fate of the world, etc...

Unfortunately, those are the only two series's I've read that fit into that particular category, but I still know what you mean. You mention REH and Conan as an anti-hero, and that is very true. In most of those stories the protag triumphs in some way but there is a cost. Kind of Lovecraftian, if you will.

You're probably going to think I'm crazy when you read this, but I'm going to submit that ERB's stories were heroic fantasy. Not traditional epic fantasy, but heroic--emphasis on the hero.

Quite the opposite of Howard, Burroughs' heros are demigods of perfection. Tarzan and John Carter are my favorites, although the rest of his MCs are all the same. Perfect physical specimens. Brilliant. Often nobly born, and possessing the highest sense of chivalry and moral uprightness.

I think I got the same thing out of ERB's stuff that you did from traditional fantasy epics. John Carter was invincible and selfless in his constant struggles to rescue his princess, Dejah Thoris--quite the picture of perfection herself. Ditto for Tarzan and Jane. You knew while you were reading it that there was no way people could be that strong and courageous and morally perfect--but you wanted to believe that people could be that way. And maybe that's escapism at its purest--vicariously experiencing that clean light shining in a dark world.

Yeah, I think I know what you mean.

Bookworm1605 said...

OK, thanks. I have read Dragonriders of Pern--many times. So that's another one.

Ms Kitty said...

Book, your right, ERB deserves a mention here.

Though ERB wrote Tarzan as the Noble Savage, a rather racist/classist idea that 'breeding tells' and a gentle born son would have all of his father's noble graces, even when raised by apes.

But they were still great yarns for the day. Though John and Deja should have learned to stay put, either she was kidnapped or he was shipwrecked on the other side of the world. (G)

BTW, didn't she lay an egg? I seem to recall something odd like that.

Pern rocked! It was such a break out in it's day. Utterly new to have a woman writer with a big hit series, at the time.

Thank God that times have changed!

Ink said...

Yeah, Ms. Kitty, I agree that the Dark Lord isn't really the point, but they so often go together... the heroic embodied in one way, and evil in another. I think there's a sort of mythological resonance to the old heroic trope. It's about showing what should be rather than simply what is.

And, Book, I actually thought of Tarzan too (on account of you)... but I haven't actually read any of the original Burroughs, so I didn't want to presume. I have read some of the Pern stuff too... but so long ago that I have no real memory of it.

I really do think there's a sort of ideal to heroic fantasy, a feeling that an example is being shown. Simplistic or not, it's sort of something we should strive to live up to. Is it silly to say that a bit of my moral backbone is the result of reading about knights in shining armor? Silly or not, it's probably true...

Bookworm1605 said...

RE:John and Deja

You are correct. I guess ERB felt obligated to make his 'martians' somewhat otherwordly, so they laid eggs. Although, I'm not sure how that egg came to be since, as you pointed out, during their many years together, with all the kidnappings I can't see how they were together long enough to create it.

RE:Pern rocks. I don't know why Dragonriders resonated with me so but I did enjoy it. I think maybe I read too much Conan and Tarzan as a kid and got sick of the stereotypical super he-man hero, and so Lissa really appealed to me.

And Ink, take a break from that intellectual literary stuff and get yourself a copy of Tarzan and The Return of Tarzan, the first two in the series. Oh, and A Princess of Mars, too. Have fun. Live a little.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I guess there's something to be said for the fable-like satisfaction of good versus evil. It's a theme everyone can relate to, since it shows up in so many stories in human culture. We've all grown up with it, really.

Personally, I prefer more nuanced plotlines than that. It wrecks my suspension of disbelief when the lines between good and evil are too neat. Large groups of real people are not divided up that neatly. Well-crafted heroic fantasy can do it believably, of course, but knowing that the ending will come down to Good Guys versus Bad Guys just preemptively disappoints me. Good always wins! Everyone knows that! The ending's (probably) spoiled right off the bat.

Hmm, I think that sums up why heroic fantasy doesn't agree with me. It's so comfortable and familiar that it's difficult to wheedle a surprise out of it. Well, then heroic fantasy is like anything: great in moderation, and when well-crafted.

While we're on the topic, got any recommendations for shades-of-grey fantasy?

Wanu said...

Yey! Heidi! Put them on the spot! I don't have much to contribute to this one, even though I've read some Conan books, and Eddings' Belgariad.

For me, you know, it's so true that 'one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist.' Good and evil are a matter of perspective, and cannot be laid down in terms of absolutes.

I think that a lot of 'world conquering' schemes (real world, as in Russian occupation of the Balkans, Hitler's go at the whole shebang, Sadam's iron-fisted approach to the Middle East) have this essential idea that with enough force, with enough power, all people's can be brought to adopt a single set of rules and culture, and through that, 'world peace' can be brought about.

It gets tangly, obviously, when peole say 'I don't want your peace, because it means I have to give up my right to privacy and various civil liberties' so you get this weird cultural thing whereby we can all cheer for Schindler, who subverted the system he found himself being swallowed up by, but yet, when groups of Muslims throw grenades at US soldiers because they 'don't want your democracy', we boo.

It's complicated. It has always been complicated. But add into the mix the level of modern day awareness of psychology, and it gets complicated yet further.

Hitler - impotent? Many say he was (biographers, not media spinners!), fancied his own cousin, ranted at length on the slightest issue, short (complex about that?), friends were all deformed or weird in some way (Gobels and Co). We can step back and say, "This is a man in pain."

Bottom line is: a truly happy individual will not murder his brethren. Just wouldn't happen.

So you get a realistic situation of 'Good Vs Evil' and the 'evil' will be in need of therapy - at least enough to bring them in line with socially approved norms among a 'good' (or relatively good) society. He needs friends, and appreciation. Actually, he needs what's on Maslow's heirarchy, and maybe his esteem needs are out of whack with the general populace, but does that mean he should be caught, beaten, and have his spine broken by a particularly good spin kick?

These are the shades of grey. I see them in some fantasy, but there is a line drawn (I mean, we all draw the line - especially at work!) where as individuals we get to the point of going 'Jeez, I've given this dude hundreds of chances, he's still pissing me off, I'm going to have him.'

From my perspective, you have to be careful when you handle the hero, and just how far he goes in his pissed offness. The ultimate, I think, in heroic protagonism to do the right thing is when Doctor Who tries to save The Master. There's a good reason - The Doctor and Master are the last two of their kind, and that imbues The Doctor with a fervent desire to keep this guy alive and bring him around to the 'right way'. He can't though (great, I love all the screen writing and character work on Doctor Who, just brilliant). Shades of grey, plus deep character motivation.

Yes, so, shades of grey and matters of perspective. I cringe, basically, when Sparhawk gives a silver coin to a street hooker, and expects nothing in return (Oooohhh, big man!), and then severs the head off another guy who leers after the girl. It's just so... self righteous? Judgemental? Flawed? Pick one.

Okay, so he didn't do the severing part, but you see what I mean. I'm caricaturing the caricature, to some extent.

I can't cheer it. I basically think, 'Asshole. Get some perspective.'

Wanu said...

Ink, dude, before you take major exception, you know I'm talking about heroic fantasy in general. In your novel, DHDD, Japeth isn't an asshole. I genuinely enjoyed that story, and part of it was the unique perspective on fantastical events (which you did quite deliberately, so you know what I'm getting at). Japeth isn't the judger, not at any point. None of the fights in the book are his, they are either his duty, or forced upon him. Incredible stuff, to be honest, there are reasons why I enjoyed reading DHDD (I'd put in the full title, and tout it a little, but I don't now if you've change it) and they are all to do with realism. Even though it is a work of fantasy.

Just to make pre-emptive peace there. Everything being a matter of perspective 'n' all...

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Wanu: Hee. I don't mean to put anyone on the spot so much as find delicious, character-development-heavy story morsels to read!

Bonnie said...

I disagree with your fundamental point that heroic fantasy presents a desirable world, and it scares me that so many people think that the rigid categorization, pseudo-feudal social roles, overt militaristism and nearly overt racism, and deterministic fate represent an ideal.

Ink said...

Hey Bonnie,

I think there's a desirable element to the moral simplicity offered by heroic fantasy (or at least some heroic fantasy). The particulars you suggest are always debatable (and I don't think I made any attempt to address them, so I'm not sure how that could be considered my fundamental point). What I was talking about was the simplistic embodiment of good and evil, with heroism as the desire to to do right, to stand against this evil. And I do think there's value to such fables.

Now every writer is going to approach this differently, and they're going to have different ideas about class, race, violence, etc., (or no idea, sadly, and they'll simply reuse tropes without any thought or consideration). But these are particular things, and difficult to answer on a general level when dealing with heroic fantasy. Are there certain bothersome trends in such heroic fantasy? Certainly. The white male focus, for one, is predominant, and without any particular good reason, outside writing to the perceived audience perhaps (anyone have any numbers on fantasy readership? Might be interesting.) So, while I think you're right to have some of these concerns in regards to heroic fantasy (and I'd throw in things like sexist and paternalistic, too), I think it's dangerous to imply such a label, and structure heroic fantasy as a solely pseudo-feudal, rigid, racist, determinist and militaristic pursuit.

These elements, to me, are not part of the simple moral code of the stories, though these elements might very well have moral implications. These are some of the unacknowledged cultural assumptions inherent in the writing. Some writers will have accepted them, I suppose, but many will simply be reproducing them without thought or critical apprehension, which is not good, particularly as these assumptions, when filtered through the narratives, may have moral ramifications (depending on the reception of the text).

This, though, is another subject entirely, moving from an understanding of heroic fantasy as a moral fable (good vs. evil) to an exploration of the tacit assumptions within the story via cultural criticism. A good subject, though! And something I might blog about in the future: Why Heroic Fantasy Often Annoys Me. Maybe you can co-author it with me...

Ink said...


Next time I get Tarzan in the shop, I'll go for it. Promise. (My fingers are crossed, just in case I chicken out...)


No offense taken! In DHDD (and yes, I've basically renamed it The Dreams of Crows) I've tried to take many of the elements and trappings of traditional heroic fantasy and then use them in a different way. I've tried to frame them differently, to subvert them in some sense, and yet keep enough of their original intent to please those who appreciate it. So I subvert the whole "orhpan hero" thing, the good vs. the bad... lots of grey and grit, with the story centered around the human elements that lie underneath the epic, the sort of stuff that's normally ignored in the quest fantasies (like the racism, militarism and determinism which Bonnie pointed out :)). I can only hope it works, and I've pulled off the balancing act.

And Sparhawk did have his moments... but yeah, I know what you mean. And this is one of the reasons I don't read the stuff much anymore. A lot of these things grate on me now. I can still appreciate that moral simplicity... but some of the other stuff, which I was oblivious to when I was young, annoys me. It's harder and harder for me to gloss over such things when reading. Simple moral codes I can live with... but a lack of thought and consideration I often can't.

Ink said...


Shades of grey fantasy... hmmmmm. Here goes:

Big guns first...

George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (Series... a lone one). King of epic fantasy right now, I 'm guessing. Piles of POV characters, all complex and running back and forth on the spectrum of good and bad. Most of the traditional quest/epic fantasy stuff is subsumed beneath the personal and political conflicts of the characters. Inspired, apparently, by history, the brutal War of the Roses in Britain. Well written, dark, gritty... though big and sprawling and with ever more and more characters and storylines to follow as the series goes on.

Steven Erikson, Malazan Book of the Fallen (Series, also blooddy long...) One of my favourites, though I'm guessing he gets a lot of love him or hate him sort of reactions. Huge, intricate, tangled, sprawling... and then some. You basically have to give yourself up the madness and just read. The sheer size and complexity of the story is staggering, a thousand stories sort of slowly tumbling toward a distant endpoint. I sort of think of a whirlpool, hundreds of smaller stories spinning around, seemingly on their own... and yet always being drawn toward the heart of that whirlpool, sucked in... Well-written, dark, funny, sometimes brutal, and very grey. Who's good, who's bad? Who's a bit of both? Always hard to say with Erikson (who I always say is sort of like Glen Cook on steroids).

C.S. Friedman, The Coldfire Trilogy (Black Sun Rising, When True Night Falls, Crown of Shadows). It's been awhile since I've read it, but it's dark and good, with a wonderful villain/anti-hero type at its centre.

Louis McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. Thoughtful and very human fantasy, with a focus on character and culture over action and epic.

Glen Wolfe. Lots of stuff, like the Long Sun books or The Wizard Knight duology. Won a gazillion awards, and never does anything to simple, though I admit I find him a little cold, and personally find his stuff more interesting than moving. Maybe that's just me, though.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana. My favourtie of his books. Human, grey, fascinating... structured not around a good side and a bad side but just around people who's wants and needs puts them in conflict with each other. The character who at first might seem to be the villain (and would be in most series) ended being one of my all time favourite fantasy characters.

I was going to say Melanie Rawn, too, though I hesitate, as it's been a long time since I've read her books. They're definitely of the character-centred fantasy type, and in my head I definitely think of them as grey... but it's been awhile. And if you try her, get the dragon books (Dragon Prince trilogy, Dragon Star trilogy) rather than the Ambrai books, because that series is unfinished, and has been for the last decade. Talk about writer's block on a story... Lots of fans dangling off the cliff out there... :)

I'll shut up now.

Lauren said...

I used to love Heroic Fantasy, but as I got older the Black and White began to get monotonous. I like how you compared them to fables and I think that you are right.

Heroic Fantasy is the oldest sort of stories around. I'm thinking Iliad, Oddessy, Beowulf (as you mentioned), and the myths of pretty much every culture. It teaches you about good and evil and explores them. As I got older I began to prefer where the lines between good and evil got a bit muddled, but I'd agree with you...they did help raise me. I think that young people, those too old for YA, but still fairly young, tend to enjoy those stories the most, or at least that was the age that personally I began to love Heroic Fantasy.

Ms Kitty said...

Bonnie, it depends on who you read. Not all heroic fantasy fits into the current mold. Some of the old stuff is quite tasty, still.

I agree with your objections, and the basis for them. I'm just saying that not all heroic fantasy authors wrote: "rigid categorization, pseudo-feudal social roles, overt militaristism and nearly overt racism, and deterministic fate represent(ed as) an ideal."

Granted, I wouldn't touch most of the new stuff with a stick. However the classic works of heroic fantasy were great stuff for those who were too mature for YA. Which was Ink's point.

For example: Witch World has a feudal society, to go with the technology level, which is very low. That world was literally blasted apart and is rebuilding. There is plenty of good and evil, without an Overlord of any kind. But the stories show that a society with only the 'witches' having power is as wrong-headed as any male-centric society.

I think it is very telling that the series was written during the 60's and 70's, by a woman with a completely Victorian upbringing. She rebelled in her own quiet way.

Also I would take it for granted that as a person would grow their taste for that genre would fade. As I've gotten older, I'm reading more non-fiction than anything. But even I can't bury my nose in technical manuals forever. (g) Not even books about writing.

Sarah Jensen said...

Wow, I'd have to agree. I tend to write in shades of grey, but black and white can be quiet refreshing. I do read Christian novels sometimes and old Westerns for that reason.

And thank you so much for commenting on my blog. I will work on my revised, revised a few times over, query. Thank you!

Ink said...

No problem, Sarah. Glad I could help a bit.

Bookworm1605 said...

Is it then, this love of the grey that has given rise to the anti-hero? Would you say that moral simplicity, even on an epic scale such as 'we must save the world!' is at its heart just that: simple. By simple I mean not complex. Cut and dry. Black and white. Absolute.

We've come a long way from the post World War era and heroes like Superman and Captain America. We've moved from battling external moral dilemmas like some evil overlord trying to take over, or destroy, the world, to internal moral struggles. Today's heroes or anti-heroes are flawed and even twisted and usually their inner battles effect every aspect of the story or sometimes the inner battle IS the story.

I think we've moved from being concerned about the big picture--maybe disaster/world domination stories are cliched--to focusing on complexities of character.

Just last night I was watching a bit of the last (as far as actual production is concerned, not Lucas chronology) Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith. At the part close to the end where Palpatine is essentially winning and becoming the Emperor, I had a moment where I asked myself, "Why would anyone want to rule a galactic empire? I mean, that sounds like a lot of trouble to me. This guy's wealthy already. Why the power trip?"

I wonder if that's why a lot of people prefer the grey areas now. We simply can't relate.

Heidi C. Vlach said...


There are some additions to my List Of Stuff To Read! Thanks! The Curse of Chalion sounds particularly interesting, since "focus on character and culture over action and epic" is a stance I highly approve of.


I think Douglas Adams put it best: "Anyone who wants to rule should, for that very reason, never be allowed to rule."

Ink said...

I think you're probably right, Book. Captain America is an interesting case in point, too, as I believe he was wartime invention. He basically was created to fight nazis, if I recall properly, and once the war was over (and they had a popular hero on their hands) they realized they had to invent some new storylines since the nazis were kaput.

I think we're a much more media aware culture now, with information at our fingertips. There's still black and white propaganda out there... but you can hit a few buttons and find viewpoints on the other side of the story. Curious about the Middle East? You can go to CNN... and then go to Al-Jazeera. I think the multi-dimensional nature of the world is more easily accessed now, and so the simplicity isn't always easy to swallow. Like terrorism. Black, right? But I think people are more willing than ever to look at the grey areas. Why do they do this? How did western actions create this? What's the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? What's law and what's oppression? I think all this comes out in the fiction, probably, in the stories we tell. And yet when the world gets too complex and grey sometimes there's a yearning for simplicity, too... nostalgia. He's bad, and I whacked him. Satisfying! Guilt's a bummer, you know, and the whole grey world is full of guilt... :)

Wanu said...

Someone at FM has a signature which says, "The value of fairytales is not that they tell us dragons exist, but that they tell us they can be beaten."

Age seems to be a big factor in the 'into/had enough of' when it comes to heroic fantasy.

We need fairy stories? Maybe they are easy to grasp, and I'd say the same about heroic fantasy. How come some people never let go? It could be, in some ways, the degree to which a person will allow themselves to be enchanted.

Maybe toward that end, there will be cynical types who cannot get to grips with fantasy, romantic/optimistic types who can, and then another group - purely going for escapism.

Maybe. Maybe?

Ink said...

That's interesting, Wanu. I think there's something to that. I sometimes feel that people who stay like the clarity of heroic fantasy, like to remember the need for heroism. It's like a refreshing breeze blowing through the thickness of our grey and complex world. I think a lot of religious parables work in a similar way, by condensing situations and offering a clarity of thought, a moment of guided insight.

And the whole good vs. evil thing can be handled very simply, or it can be handled more complexly. Tolkien, for example, handles the good and evil more interestingly than many of his followers. He doesn't just have the embodiment of evil as something that simply kills things, and thus is "bad". Being the serious Catholic that he was, his dark lord was an embodiment of the seduction of evil in individual people. Sauron is a devil figure, a seducer, which is exemplified by the One Ring. It whispers in the ear, pushing the wearer towards greed and vanity, towards a lust for power. This is everywhere in Lord of the Rings, the challenge of resisting evil in ourselves. Those who fail (Saruman, Denethor, Boromir), those who fail but are redeemed (Theoden, Pippin), those who succeed (Sam, Aragorn, Faramir) and those mostly succeed (Frodo, though he had the toughest line to hoe...) Tolkien took this struggle in the characters and then reflected it both symbolically and physcially within the text. A complex view of simplicity, if you will, and probably one of the reasons that LotR has more resonance than many of its imitators.

Bonnie said...

Ink -- It has been my experience that attempts to simplify morality always and inevitably lead to repressive hierarchies of some sort. World views that try to separate good from evil wind up saying "we" are good and "they" are bad, and "their" badness justifies whatever we have to do to defeat them. It also means that "we" don't look at our own faults and problems, because look, the evil is out there! and it's important we stay united in order to face it. Everybody stay in their place and don't rock the boat!

Evil exists, certainly. It exists in Wall Street and governments and it exists down the street and in our backyards. Yes, it's good to know dragons can be beaten, that we can rise above evil, that we can do right and stand up for the good. The danger arises when we forget that the dragon isn't out there in the Evil Empire, it's in our back yard eating our children.

Ink said...

Hey Bonnie,

There's a lot of truth to what you say, certainly. And particularly in the poorly written heroic fantasies, I think, where everything operates literally. I think in the better ones, though, this simple breakdown often starts to work as fable and metaphor, begins to work in the symbolic realm rather than the literal one. The good and evil then become translatable to other situations and other circumstances. Tolkien, while dealing with good and evil, is really talking about the individual's resistance to the seduction of evil, of sin, whether it be greed, vanity or a lust for power. Which is not to say that Tolkien (or any writer) is perfect. Tolkien makes a few of those cultural assumptions that sometimes annoy me, but I don't think that necessarily diminishes the symbolic power of his narrative.

I do, basically, agree with what you say... I just think it's somewhat reductionist to label all such moral simplification this way, to think of it as a veneer that leads to a blindness of our own ignorance. Yes, sometimes the evil is in the backyard eating our children (nice line, by the way :) ), but sometimes there are evil empires out there, and human history has shown that we are often all too weak in resisting their pull. I think there's definitely a place for (good) moral fables of this sort, though at the same time I also think we need a lot of other things too, one of them being works of fiction that explore the true moral complexities of human choice.

Great conversation! Glad you checked back in.

Bookworm1605 said...

Worldview is the important word. Moral simplicity asserts a black and white view--an ability to entertain the concepts of absolutes. And while we may scoff at the idea of a chivalrous knight in shining armor of the sort that populates much of heroic fantasy, if we're honest with ourselves, we crave a world where everything is that simple and uncomplicated.

Yes, real life is complicated. Sometimes things just can't be reduced to black and white. Sometimes the powers-that-be twist our realities and mislead us with hype cleverly disguised as black and white. But that doesn't make the concepts of good and evil any less valid and for me, that's the basic attraction of heroic fantasy: an uncomplicated worldview.