Is the Fantasy Genre Fundamentally Conservative?

Yes, according to many theorists, or at least Tolkien-derived fantasy is.

They point to the fixation with a medieval golden age, the essentialist labelling of races as either all good (elves) or all bad (orcs), the glorification of monarchy and purity of bloodlines, stories that revolve around protecting the status quo… all of which are valid points (although more accurately applied to Tolkien’s imitators than Tolkien himself).

But they ignore Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message.”

He means that the medium by which any particular message is conveyed has more of an impact on how humans think and develop than the content of the message. He gives the example of a televised news report of a horrific murder. The details of the particular report matter far less than the effect of bringing crime reports into our living rooms every evening, and how that affects our fear, our communities and our attitudes to crime and punishment.

When you read fantasy, there is more going on than the content.

Deep reading, where you actually sink into another world, forms memories as vivid as your real experiences. Your brain is basically incapable of distinguishing between real and imagined memories (which is bizarre, and fascinating, and you can read more about it here). So reading about new worlds broadens your mind in just the same way travel does.

The simplistic version of this might be “if elves and dwarves can get along, why not Muslims and Jews?” but that’s really not what I’m talking about. Experiencing any other society, good or bad, forces you to realise that the world as-it-is is just one of hundreds of possible set-ups for society. 21st Century Western Capitalist Democracy is not How Things Are, it’s one of many ways it could be.

Any High Fantasy book, no matter how regressive the world it portrays (Hello, Game of Thrones), renders itself revolutionary by the act of creating another world.

And, because this is how reading works, by making the reader a collaborator in the creation of that world.

**For the record, I love Druss. But that cover is pretty bad.

For a thorough explanation of Marshall McLuhan’s theory, watch his lecture, “The Medium Is The Message.”


12 thoughts on “Is the Fantasy Genre Fundamentally Conservative?

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  1. While I don’t agree with Faustus that all high fantasy is inherently conservative, I do have to point out that your argument that “High Fantasy … renders itself revolutionary by the act of creating another world” opens the door to suggesting that a novel that portrays a world where slavery and rape is the moral course of action as being revolutionary.

    It may be true, in the sense in that such a world would require a nasty revolution to come to pass in our world, but that’s a definition of revolution that is using a very loose definition of the words conservative and revolutionary.

    Imagining horrid regressive fantasys is not a revolutionary act. Though such fantasys aren’t necessarily conservative either…

  2. Paul, I don’t think that the content of such a book would be revolutionary (except, as you say, in the loosest and most awful sense) but I do think the overall effect of reading even regressive fantasy is to broaden a reader’s perspective and make them more likely to imagine alternate realities.

    On the other side, which was more what McLuhan was saying, watching hours and hours of even the most progressive, enlightened television would likely have a deadening effect on the viewer’s brain, where they think and question less.

    Maybe it’s idealistic but I think the majority of adherence to, um, political beliefs I disagree with, comes from accepting the status quo, rather than a genuine preference for harmful things. Once people start questioning, I think they’re likely to lean progressive, regardless of the author’s intent.

    Although I do personally find the Gor series deeply creepy.

    I’m going to do a follow-up post on some recent studies that show deep reading increases people’s empathy, because they’ve got into the habit of taking on other people’s perspectives. In those cases it doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re reading about oppressed people or oppressors, it’s the practice of ‘experience-taking’ that makes readers more empathetic.

  3. “Once people start questioning, I think they’re likely to lean progressive, regardless of the author’s intent.”
    Hmm, I can’t agree with this. I do agree with once people start questioning they are more likely to arrive at beliefs based on personal choice rather than a societal assumption, but that doesn’t necessarily mean progressive. Though this sort of discussion isn’t helped by the fact that any progressive/conservative split comes with massive assumptions built in [1]

    “Although I do personally find the Gor series deeply creepy.”
    Yeah, I’ve heard that. It’s one reason I’m strongly split on reading them (I haven’t yet). On one level I hear them mentioned often enough that I want to understand the references, on the other hand I’ve read parts of FATAL [3] for the same reason and I’m not sure the understanding is worth the mental damage taken.

    I’ll have to find time to read the studies that you’re talking about when the posts go up.

    [1] For example, John Stuart Mill wrote “On the subjection of women” in 1869 and the suffragettes successfully sought the vote in the late 19th/early 20th C. Given that, does support support for women’s rights (at least to some level) become a conservative action at some point? Is opposition to that progressive? If militant opposition to terror attacks is a mark of right wing/conservative politics, then is the Taliban progressive for their desire for change (back to the 15th C)? If they instead imagine brand new forms of oppression and seek to implement them, would that make them progressive? [2]

    [2] In short, the idea of progress and conservation depends on where your starting assumptions are made. The labels tend to be a short hand for a political debate that people are familiar with rather than actually embodying the words used.

    [3] Generally accepted as the worst fantasy role playing game ever.

  4. Hey, interesting blog! Had fun reading it 🙂 I feel like I should stand up for poor Mr Gemmell though (despite the Mills&Boon cover…tho how cool is her dress??) Anyway, if anything I think Tolkein’s work is far more conservative than his imitator David Gemmell. As you pointed out Tolkein’s stories have quite a few races/characters who are to the extreme of the good/bad spectrum, whereas I think that Gemmell worked really hard to create depth in his characters, particularly in his later novels. Full disclosure, I read quite a few as a teenager because hell, what else is there to do in the country? For example, most of Gemmell’s characters, men and women, tend to be bad or fallen heroes on a path of redemption or forgiveness, so evil trying now to be good (for whatever particular reason, usually the influence of external forces ie Waylander) and their action in pursuit of their personal vendettas inadvertently helps to bring down the established forces in change of the fractured societies that they live in (usually helping the rebellion overthrow the monarchy). In the case of poor old Druss, he does a lot of evil in his pursuit of good (the rescuing of his wife). Finally, in the novels he wrote just before he died, set in a fractured and fictional Troy, the only characters that could be classified as purely good, are the two lesbian women who fight to be together, so actually quite a liberal concept, but the cahracters they interact with never judge their sexuality. Whereas the men tend to either be evil men trying to be good, or good men who are now doing evil to maintain the status quo.

    Sorry, sort of a ramble, but I think Gemmell’s characters are perhaps deeper than Tom Bombardillo or Aragorn, who do what they do because they’re good or the pure king. I did love reading the blog, please write more cause it’s really thought productive!

    p.s. how much does Druss look like Neil Gaiman with a beard…coincidence??

  5. Fantasy is probably my favourite genre, so thank you for further justification to indulge. 🙂

    I like your argument that the kind of immersion in a fantasy world one can get from a book may broaden the readers mind in the same manner of travel. The thing that strikes me is that surely this is not limited to the genre of fantasy – wouldn’t any well written work of fiction draw the reader into another world of experience? As such, I am not sure if this broadening effect can be used as an argument against the idea that the genre of fantasy specifically is fundamentally conservative, more that reading fiction in general is an act that encourages people to develop different modes of thought (an argument that seems quite reasonable to me).

    My problem with the idea that fantasy is fundamentally conservative is that a) honestly I’m not even sure that I know what that means any more or why it is a bad thing, and b) there are many different types of fantasy writing. The latter point is most important. The former is me having a winge.

    Fantasy is so strongly linked to science fiction that the two genres are very often grouped together. I’m speculating, but surely the reason for this is the depth of imagination an author writing in these genres is able to employ in the act of developing the world into which the reader will be drawn? Only uninspired fantasy is conservative in terms of its content, and it is that way due to a mediocre level of imagination on the part of the author, not due to some deficiency of the genre. There is absolutely nothing that compels an author to represent all elves as noble, or all orcs as evil. There is nothing that compels an author to even use either of those species, or use them in the same way as it has been done by other authors.

    I also think it is important to note that these are not really different races – elves are more like a different species to humans than a different race (and even in Tolkien, they are not represented as all good – members of the species are sometimes represented as arrogant and aloof). The idea that it is discriminatory to represent different species as having general characterisitics is absurd – they may call me a bigot, but I will still insist that rabbits are generally much more bouncy and burrowy than humans.

  6. Oh yeah, I forgot… Druss doesn’t look like that! The Druss in that cover looks kinda skinny and a bit like he’s about to fall over backward with the weight of his axe.

    Druss is burly and grim and grisled and beardy and indomitable! That cover represents Druss about as well as the TV series represented Hercules…

  7. In order of easiest to most difficult to answer:
    Druss’s appearance on that cover: not at all how I imagined either! I agree Sean, he is way more burly. But then, AJ Bell did not seem to have an issue with it! I mean, not for its lack of Drussness. So perhaps it is only us.

    Conservativeness of Gemmell – I’m not sure. I do think they tend to glorify war (and that includes the noble tragedy of masculine death, not just, “war, hooah!” stuff). I really liked the first Druss books, and I went through a period of reading most of his books, but I started to notice that every single one had a rape in them. And I thought, “well, I guess that would happen, it’s probably realistic.” But then I would go to pick up a new one and I would know there would be a rape in there, for sure, because Gemmell has to include one in every book, and I would think, “do I want to read a rape today?” and usually I would not. The inevitability started getting to me. And his books were starting to get same-y. Id idn’t read any of the Troy ones though, perhaps I should have.

    Paul and Sean, you both talked about the problem with the word ‘conservative’. That’s um… yeah, that’s pretty valid. It does start to become pretty meaningless. I suppose the way I generally mean it is “wish to preserve values and societal organisation that was typical of America in the 1950s”. Which would be illogical to apply to Tolkien. I don’t really know what else to say to that, although I do believe the word has a meaning that we all kind of get. We know what things fall in line with it. (The labels tend to be a short hand for a political debate that people are familiar with rather than actually embodying the words used.)I didn’t want to use ‘left-wing vs right-wing’ because that’s loaded with other ideas that don’t quite fit.

    Sean: the idea of elves and orcs being species not races doesn’t quite transfer because real-world has only one accepted sentient species, whereas orcs are clearly sentient. Also, as adorable as your bunny-description is, ‘burrowy’ is a lot less problematic than ‘murdery’. That said, I don’t think Tolkien was remotely … right-wing … he didn’t glorify war and he wasn’t nationalistic at all. He was highly conservative towards the natural world, and anti-progressive in the sense of anti-industrialisation. Those things are now seen as politically progressive. Complicated!

    I believe there are so many examples of non-conservative (…) fantasy books as to render the argument sort of pointless. So I really was only addressing the ones that people are usually referring to – the mediaeval feudal European quest-type ones, and I just thought it was a neat take on it. I don’t know that I can argue it wouldn’t apply to all reading, although surely strange fantasy is going to broaden your mind more than Tsolkias’ The Slap?

    Re: depth of character.
    Tom Bombadil is not deep because is very simple – he’s a force of nature. He isn’t really a full complicated human. Aragorn I think would have depth, but his internal world is deliberately kept from the reader in order to keep him seeming distant and kingly. Ditto Gandalf. They’re not the protagonists so it’s not a fair comparison. We do see inside the hobbits’ heads, and I think Frodo is as deep and real as any character in fiction you could want.

    I think people have got intot he habit of thinking “good character who sometimes does horrific things” = deep, complicated, ambiguous. I certainly think it’s become HBO shorthand for character development. But to me there’s nothing unrealistic about a good person who’s never committed an atrocity. And the good guys might always do the good thing, but it doesn’t always turn out for the best. For example, they don’t kill Gollum when they have the chance, and that turns out for the best. But they also show Saruman and Wormtongue mercy, and that turns out horribly and causes a lot more suffering.

  8. It is true that murdery bunnies are another thing altogether! Much more dangerous than the regular burrowy kind.

    I just dislike the argument that fantasy as a genre is conservative – as I am sure do you! If that argument is just directed toward fantasy books of a particular kind, surely it then becomes something like… “conservative fantasy books are fundamentally conservative”. True, perhaps, but not very informative. I like your McLuhan inspired response to the people who say such things, but generally I think it would be better to just throw those people into a pit of murdery bunnies…

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