Monday, 18 October 2010

Power in Epic Fantasy

What is epic fantasy?

At its root, a lot of the subgenre seems to be about the possession and distribution of power and authority, whether that is power over a family, another person, a business, a religion, a kingdom, an empire or a whole world. The clash of those people with different agendas seeking (or avoiding) power drives many works in the subgenre.

"Fear my mighty warhammer!"
"Not that mighty from this angle, actually. Oh hang on, that wasn't a euphemism?"

In Tolkien's Middle-earth mythos, the clash of power takes place between the not-always-clearly-delineated forces of 'good' and 'evil', driven by the betrayal of the Valar (god) Melkor/Morgoth against Illuvatar, the creator of the universe. This clash results from Melkor's wish to control the development of the world that Illuvatar has created, Arda. That Melkor is a god with immense power over the world is not enough, he must be the ultimate force in the universe and will not rest until he achieves it. As The Silmarillion proceeds, however, Melkor is continuously diminished in power and stature, starting out being able to challenge Illuvatar himself and later being physically injured in single combat with the elven king Fingolfin. He even loses his godly name, becoming the accursed Morgoth as the book and the War of the Jewels proceeds, before losing all of his power when he is cast into the outer darkness. Morgoth's diminishment and defeat allows his protege Sauron to rise to replace him, and in an interesting contrast his power rises from that of an ordinary Maia (angelic or demonic spirit) to that of a demigod many times more powerful than his former peers, such as Gandalf and Saruman.

This leads into the action of The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron's greed for power and authority leads to his own destruction at the hands of the hobbits, beings notably not seeking such status and recognition (though they receive it anyway) in a classic tale of hubris and the mighty being undone by the meek. Where Tolkien falters is with his character of Aragorn, who seeks the throne of Gondor, vacant for over a thousand years, on the basis of his great-great-great-something-grandfather's claim despite Aragorn and his ancestors notably failing to claim the throne in the interim, which could have provided stability to the kingdom and possibly avoided the weakening of Gondor which led to its vulnerable state during the War of the Ring in the first place. The timing of Aragorn's play for the throne seems to be down to dramatic convenience more than anything else. In this regard, Peter Jackson's take that Aragorn (and presumably his ancestors) is reluctant to take the throne due to his fear of the corrupting influence of power ("The same weakness," that Isildur had) actually makes more sense.

Aragorn getting the throne of Gondor in this manner has led to accusations of Tolkien favouring authoritarianism, an accusation which has since been voiced against other fantasy authors working in the same field. Certainly this accusation would have stung Tolkien, whose loathing of Hitler and (especially) Stalin is very well-known. This criticism does expose an inherent problem in epic fantasy, namely that the typical faux-medieval settings of the subgenre tend to echo the real political make-up of that time period, which favoured strong leaders, often inheriting their power from their parents (usually the father) rather than the will of the people.

Ikea are now doing a nice range of dragonbone chairs at very affordable prices.

In this sense epic fantasy tends not to like to challenge the order of the day. Often this is understandable in that worker's revolutions and the enfranchisement of the masses comes from widespread education ("Libraries gave us power,") and employment ("Then work came and made us free,"), which tend to follow industrialisation. Most epic fantasies take place in pre-industrial societies (often centuries prior to industrialisation, assuming a similar development to the real world), so asking why the inhabitants of Osten Ard haven't kicked out both Joshua and Elias and set up the Worker's Revolutionary Front of Rimmersgard is a bit like asking why a popular uprising didn't unseat the Tudors in the 16th Century. The time was not yet ripe. Those secondary world fantasists that do want to engage in this question, such as China Mieville's Bas-Lag books, use an industrialised or steampunk backdrop to explain how the people get to the point of demanding social change.

A steam train in a fantasy novel! What the hell is going on here man? This is new! And weird!

Still, this leaves the problem that there are many books out there where the principle storyline seems to involve one unelected (tyrannical or benign) dictator being replaced with another, sometimes several times through the course of the narrative, usually on the questionable basis that the new king is better than the old one on the basis of just being a nice guy. Garion in Eddings's The Belgariad being a typical example, although Lyam in Feist's Magician also falls into the same category.

Introducing fantasy to 8-year-olds since 1982.

In this sense, Jordan's Wheel of Time is mildly different in that Rand al'Thor isn't that nice a guy as he railroads and bullies the nations of humanity into following him against the Dark One 'for the greater good', developing tyrannical tendencies along the way before being brought back from the edge in The Gathering Storm. This series is also notable for featuring somewhat proto-democratic institutions (such as the Aes Sedai and Whitecloak councils), reflecting the much more widespread nature of education and social developments in the world (the WoT world is more akin to the 17th and 18th centuries, whilst the tech level is somewhat earlier). The series also addresses other types of power and authority in the books, most notably through the controversial character of Elayne Trakand.

Three Aes Sedai trapped in a mid-80s music video. The evil of the Dark One knows no bounds.

Elayne is the heir-apparent to the Lion Throne of Andor when the series opens, but eventually develops the ability to channel the One Power and is taken into the ranks of the Aes Sedai sisterhood. Elayne's mother, Morgase, is corrupted by Rahvin, one of the Forsaken servants of the Dark One, and neglects her duties, plunging the kingdom into corruption and risking civil war. When Morgase disappears, the Andorans expect Elayne to take her place but instead Elayne spends a few more books arsing around looking for a weather-control magical device before deigning to show up and take on her responsibilities (which seem to involve ruling the kingdom, somewhat confusingly, from her bathtub). Understandably, there is more than some resistance to this idea and a brief civil war results before Elayne is victorious and is crowned Queen. What is ridiculous about this storyline is that at no time does Elayne acknowledge the validity of the complaints voiced against her: that she neglected her duties to Andor in favour of those as an Aes Sedai. As such, it is questionable whether she can serve as Queen when her first loyalties are blatantly not to her people or kingdom, but to another institution. Jordan thankfully shows some awareness of this problem (Elayne's coronation is accepted by many of the high lords of Andor as a peace-restoring measure, but many are unhappy with her attitude), which hopefully will be addressed further in Towers of Midnight.

An altogether more comprehensive take on power and authority is undertaken in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, where it is the primary theme. The Targaryen family has displaced the separate ruling dynasties of the former Seven Kingdoms to forcibly unite the kingdom at gunpoint (well, dragonpoint). When the Targaryens are destroyed and their survivors driven out of the continent, the usurper, Robert Baratheon, claims the throne through a combination of might and a blood-claim dating back several decades. Despite his initial success, the dragonless Robert is unable to hold the kingdom fully together and upon his death it splinters apart, several of the families fighting for control of the whole continent and others taking advantage of the chaos to declare independence for their regions.

"All your thrones are belong to us."

Reflecting the title of the first book, A Game of Thrones, the reader is practically invited to choose a side and argue the validity of that side's cause (as they have done in person and on message boards for almost fifteen years now): do the Starks have the right idea in returning to their region's former independence from before the Targaryen invasion? Does Stannis Baratheon, as both Robert's true heir and the heir to the Targaryen family (his grandfather married King Aegon V's daughter) within Westeros, have the right of it, despite being a harsh and ruthless martinet? Or should we be siding with Daenerys Targaryen, the displaced heir to the Targaryen family line, who is marshalling her forces in the far east in preparation for her triumphant (or not) return?

More interestingly, Martin does address the role of the common people in this conflict. Whilst the People's Soviet of Oldtown hasn't appeared (yet), the smallfolk have unified under the banner of religion (in this case the Faith of the Seven) to try to stop the war and the violence, something the Faith has been more than happy to help them with (of course, because it restores the Faith to a level of power and authority it has not enjoyed in almost three centuries).

"This is my eye and I am judging you! With it! Because that is how I roll!"

The role of religion in epic fantasy is thus something of a way of engineering change in a pre-industrial society, which makes it all the more bemusing that it is so rarely addressed in epic fantasy. There is no religion at all in Robert Jordan's world, it plays a minimal role in Raymond E. Feist's Midkemia and is even barely acknowledged in Middle-earth. It falls to Martin, to R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy (where a man engineers his own recognition as the messiah to seize ultimate power), to Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God sequence and to Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series to address the matter of religion and how it promotes or abuses its power in a pre-industrial society.

Returning to the original point, the changing role of power and authority is a primary driving force of epic fantasy, but the genre's typical settings seem to limit how radical those changes can be, mostly resulting in the person in the chair changing but not the corrupting influence of power that led to problems in the first place (though this observation itself is sometimes the point, as in Martin's series). With the increasing popularity of non-medieval settings and steampunk and industrial fantasy settings, there is an opportunity here to see more flexibility and originality when it comes to the role of power and authority in fantasy.


The Dude said...

Great post,Adam! And the subtitles for the pictures were hilarious as always.

Despite being an epic fantasy fan for many years now, I've never really enjoyed the medieval settings that are the most used in the subgenre. I've always been more attracted to steampunk or post-apocalyptic scenarios.

franti said...

I understand what you're getting at in how you define religion in epic fantasy, but I think a strong case can be made for the kind of worship - if unorganized - that is reserved for the rebirth of a hero of destiny, like in the Wheel of Time series. While there re no temples of the dragon, the skepticism and opportunistic nature of would-be reborn Dragons argues for a kind of insidious folklore, if not a loosely constructed religion. Certainly, the knowledge of the existence of the Wheel itself seems to suggest a relaxed kind of religion - relaxed because the idea of doubt is hardly a factor, since the metaphysical organizations (Aes Sedai, etc.) have basically proven that the Wheel exists, and all human fate is tied to it.

I think that counts as a religion. Not a religion comparable to the catholic church, but there's definitely a power to Jordan's folklore for the people in his world.

It might make an interesting article to explore that kind of "religion", a religion where the metaphysical properties that inspire so much doubt or faith in the real world are presented as unassailable Truths.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog for a while now, but this has been your best post to date.

I would seriously like to see an expanded form of your ideas, expressed in a full essay article. You have great material, and I enjoyed the concepts illuminated within the genre from your apt insight.

jamie said...

Interesting, I've never really thought about power in epic fantasy. It's certainly one way of looking at it, though I've always though that epic fantasy was something that covered lots of people and places by having an epic scope.

The topic of religion in (any) fantasy is also interesting, if only because having an atheist in a world where you know the gods exist is really weird (and seems suicidal) Of course, it's also possible to completely ignore religion, even after the writer has used the gods to solve a narrative problem earlier, but now they're too tired or something?

Ech, I'm thinking too much about this, great post Adam, please do more like it!

Adam Whitehead said...

"if only because having an atheist in a world where you know the gods exist is really weird (and seems suicidal)"

Pratchett has this in his DISCWORLD books (SMALL GODS, IIRC), where an atheist philosopher walks into a pub and asks, in a general fashion, "Do the gods, when you get right down to it, actually exist?" There follows a lightning bolt through the window with a note tied around it saying, "YES."

ChrisM said...

Nice post Adam. You should do an article on magic systems. :)

JD Woodman said...

Great post, but one issue re: Aragorn's line not trying to reclaim the throne prior to the time of the LotR books - I'm pretty sure in the appendices it talks about some ancestor who tried to reclaim the throne after the North Kingdom had faltered and the kings of Gondor had died out, but while the nation and stewards were still strong. They basically told him to kick stones.

There's actually something very realpolitik about Aragorn waiting until a time of great strife in Gondor to make his claim to the empty throne - it probably wouldn't have succeeded any time else.

jamie said...

@Adam Whitehead: I should have known Pratchett would have had something like that, I was actually thinking about a character in Oblivion who, when you talk to her the first words out of her mouth are along the lines of: "The gods don't exist and even if they did I don't care for them" Keep in mind that this is in a world that you (The player) can go and meet gods, so I ended up finding this character really weird and out of place.

Of course now I need to read Small Gods, which I never got around to, (After I've finished all the other books I just borrowed from the library)

dredd i knight said...

Really enjoyed this post.
Interesting points, and well made.
Religion is pretty central to the Malazan world, where the gods find themselves constrained by the beliefs (prejudices, pet hates, obsessions etc.), of their followers, and as such not nearly as free and powerful as their "ascendancy" would suggest. As such I felt that Erikson was commenting on religion in our world where the beliefs of zealots, and fundamentalists (across all religious spectrum's), distort, dilute and constrain the heart of our religion's messages.

Jebus said...

Great post Adam.

Increasingly when reading fantasy of any type but certainly Epic fantasy, I often sit back and wonder "why?" Whay is this person reaching for power? Why is this person determined to take the path they are on (or change it)?

Authors like Bakker and Martin answer this very well and it makes their novels that much more interesting, but too often the reader is just presented with "welll we're going to depose the King because that's the story" and no real reason is given.

I also think a major issue in the settings of Epic fantasy is education and how world smart or intelligent many characters appear to be. Too many times I come across a character using a phrase or word or coming up with an idea and I think to myself "well how do they know that? They never went to school they're a fucking pig farmer, how do they know that?".

Anyway, it's a minor gripe but it can really skew a book for me in a not so good way.

Also some spoiler warnings at the start of the post might be useful, especially re ASOIAF.

Q said...

I must say that this post was really good. i've come to the blogger site from Google reader, just to say this:)

Care to elaborate on it a bit further. This is a fascinating & at the same time, the most overlooked part of 'world-building' in any fantasy book. would love to read more

Anonymous said...

Another fine post, Adam.

Jennifer Fallon with her Second Sons ( trilogy would also be a nice subject for this article.

Lord Nerevar said...

This was really great post.

However, I do have a gripe to make. It is about the concept of dictatorial and hierarchical power structures in the pre-industrial world. You said the majority of epic fantasies display this kind of power structures because of their pre-industrial setting. What about the Greek democracies, Roman senate, Sumerian unkins, the oligarchies of Aborigines and many other tribal societies? It is true that there was a great prevalence of dictators and kings in pre-industrial society, but they became the complete norm after the dark ages, thus medieval times. This means that a specific event in world history caused European societies to cleave to such dictatorial power structures. Unless a similarly cataclysmic event happened in the history of the alternate world that is the setting of some epic fantasy, something that did happen in The Wheel of Time for example, you can't just explain it as the result of a pre-industrial setting. This doesn't mean that pre-industrial setting shouldn't have dictatorial power structures, but it does mean that epic fantasy writers shouldn't decide to have dictatorial power structures just because their setting is pre-industrial.

By the way, I'm also very interested in how religion is shown in epic fantasy and I also think the theme is underused.

Once again, thanks for the great post.

Lord Nerevar said...

Sorry for double-posting. Didn't think it got through.

Lagomorph Rex said...

This is a really good post.

I find it rather humorous whenever anyone attempts to attach a political ideal to Fantasy.. I've seen lots of people claim it to be a "Fascist" subgenre.. I think it was Norman Spinrad who wrote an Alt-History where Hitler becomes a fantasy writer because he couldn't rule the world...

Personally I don't really attach any importance to it. It's a genre that is chiefly set in pre-industrial settings.. and I would be disappointed if it didn't have pre-industrial government styles.. if anything I find distinctly matriarchal governments like those presented in the Wheel of Time series to stick out all the more simply because they go against the pseudo historical setting..

The fact that it even sticks out to us shows how deeply democratic and egalitarian ideals have rooted themselves in our cultural mindset.

But I'll go so far as to say that, I get my fill of corrupt politicians and cynical real-politik stuff in real life.. I'd just as soon it stayed out of my fantasy books.

daranthered said...

That's an interesting take on epic fantasy. The idea of power and its application as a motivating force is a great way to deconstruct works like Lord of the Rings, or A Song of Ice and Fire.

I also agree with you about Aragorn's motivation in the movie making more sense.

As for one tyrannical ruler being replaced by another, I have to ask; What about predestination? Gods choosing our leaders through elections. Fate providing just the right king at the right time?

While terrifying in real life, these ideas are rather comforting in a vacuum. I think that's one of the appeals to casual readers of fantasy.

Anonymous said...

In regards to the religion of Wheel of Time, Brandson Sanderson stated at Worldcon 2009 that organized religion is not needed when you could travel to the Blight and see the Dark One's impact for yourself. Do you need religious institutions when you can go directly to the source?

Mieneke van der Salm said...

Super interesting post Adam.
Anonymous above made the point I wanted to raise about religion in the WoT and to an extent the same applies to the Malazan universe. Yes there is organised religion, but the gods can be foiled just as mortals can, which makes the grand role such as faith has in Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars series rather impossible, since that sort of faith seems to require an infallible god or gods.