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.”