Sunday, July 05, 2009

Envisioning: Forgotten Detail

This is too small to be Part IX of Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary. It more properly belongs under one of the posts about Envisioning, either the initial, summary, or most likely, the extended discussion.

The pastoral vision relies heavily on a time that never was. This is a great weakness of Tolkien and the other writers of heroic fantasy as well. The simple, mildly prosperous life of The Shire, or Narnia, or even the grimmer Gormenghast settings, are all far healthier and wealthier than any actual era. Where are the doctors and dentists, the aged and infirm, the violent drunks, the wife-beaters? The purpose of heroic fantasy is not to include such things but to set up contrasts, of course. That's part of the genre, to move and inspire. But we should be aware when we try to make modern comparisons that there never has been a time when these difficulties were ever absent. In fact, they were far, far more present in the societies we most readily associate with legendary settings: medieval, iron age, Roman empire.

The danger is not so much in learning this as in remembering it. When reading heroic legends and the placid societies the heroes spring out of, we too easily smuggle in the idea that life was really like this in some era. Yet in fact, nearly everyone starved, was oppressed, and died much earlier than now. I touched on this in my review of The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100.

The Ren Faire and the costume shop at the Shakespeare Festival give us a wildly distorted picture of what those eras were like. We put the wealthiest 1% or so on display and without meaning to misrepresent the times, believe this vision to be close to true.

This comes up in discussions of colonialism, western civilization, the free market, and the mad nightmares of the left. This is also the Smooth Machine, the idea that everything should run fine. It doesn't. 99% of everyone was hungry at some time in the year before 1700. Before 1800, 95%; before 1900, 90%. Only in a very few areas, starting with the Anglosphere and NW Europe, has anyone had much of anything. Only since WWII has the prosperity of some medical care and a natural lifespan begun to creep slowly around the world. If you learn nothing else about the history of humankind, learn that. They were hungry, exploited, and died young.

1 comment:

Boethius said...

This may seem morbid but I think they were better off because they struggled and died earlier. I think they may have valued life more than we do. One of my fears is that I will live too long and become a burden to my loved ones.