Sunday, June 28, 2009

Further Discussion - Envisioning

The oversimplified version of this post: In fantasy literature, the standard liberal vision turns conservative, which is why progressives have very mixed reactions to the genre. It's not actually that sharp a distinction, but it will do for openers.

A small, prosperous, agricultural and small crafts society, which wants only to be left alone to live in peace. It doesn't get more idyllic than that. But trouble in the form of evil from without comes to them. The Shire, Archenland, Redwall, the Four Lands, Prydain, Malacandra, the Minnipins, The Land (in Thomas Covenant) - all fit this description. Even Gont, Arthurian England and Susan Cooper's or Alan Garner's England draw from this.

It is hard to call this a political vision, as it is more of a universal desire of good people everywhere. It certainly fits a liberal or Green vision of non-polluting economy, equality, conflict avoidant to the point of near-pacifism. Everyone has a job, but no one seems to toil or suffer. Both wealth and poverty are mild. The evil without is warlike, seeking treasure or power, straight off the Daily Kos stereotype index page for conservatives.

Yet this fits a libertarian vision as well - people are left alone to do as they please, authority is wielded lightly, differences are tolerated in the best sense, with no social pressure to either celebrate or discourage them.

And still again, it is a conservative vision, far more conservative than is common today. However much mutual respect is shown, these societies are hierarchical, usually monarchical or religious. Custom is respected and traditions kept. The old are accorded wise, and ancient texts are consulted for guidance. Everyone works for themselves, yet somehow the whole society benefits. Everyone is comfortable with not only racial but even species distinctives.

To move from this specifically literary to the more general idyllic vision for a moment, this may be why progressives are so distressed who do not seem to share their intensity of vision, and are sometimes even eager to impose it. They discern correctly that this desire for such a society is not theirs only, but shared by all good peoples. Everyone would like it if they would only give it a try. That others might desire such idylls but have very different ways of getting there does not seem valid to them. (Remember from the last post that the progressive approach is to erect a structure of what should be, then put everyone to live in it, expecting things to eventually come right. Come to think of it, this is enormous evidence of their belief in the force of environment in shaping personality and society.)

This is also the vision of the smooth-running machine of nature, economy, and relations between nations, which was #4 in my list of key features of liberalism.

And, in the stories, those who do not share that vision are invariably very bad people.

But the fantasy genre turns largely against a full liberal vision, beginning with pacifism. The peaceful villagers reluctantly conclude that they will have to take up arms. Often, they are so unused to this as to be at a disadvantage, which the authors clearly regard as an error. The evil cannot be reasoned with or placated. Much loss of life can perhaps be avoided by outwitting the evil, or holding on defensively until it devours itself, but it is central to the genre that even gentle people eventually have to fit an arrow to the string or take sword in hand.

The complaint against battle-glorification came to the forefront when the Tolkien and Lewis series were made into films, but there has been an undercurrent of this opposition for decades. I remember the dark looks and mutterings when Lloyd Alexander's books were winning awards in the 60's, even though they are among the least warlike in the genre (he was forgiven much because even pacifist women loved Eilonwy). When Lewis attracted criticism it was more for his religious themes, and Tolkien was first on the block when someone disliked fantasy per se, with little reference to bearing arms. Yet even then I heard and read complaints about the warriors in Weirdstone being unnecessary and perpetuating masculinist myths, or the incitement to racial hatred that could result from orc-slaying.

Though even among progressives, all this was deemed less worrisome because of the types of weapons used - no guns, please - for reasons more romantic than logical. Perhaps the reality of fantasy/medieval battle on the screen stripped some romanticism away.

Relatedly comes the fantasy genre's reminder that these good things come at a price. This life does not come easily. It is not a matter of simply going there and living it. Though fantasy literature does feed the idea that it would be easy, except for the occasional interruption by fully evil forces, and conservatives should give no thanks to fantasy authors for perpetuating this myth.

As fantasy authors develop their worlds, they have to flesh out how these things came to be, what motivates evil creatures, and how even the good people have susceptibility to evil acts. To make the world believable, even internally, all these why's and how's have to fit together somehow. Even in Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, where even the demons are rather interesting and understandable fellows at first, as he progresses through his adventures, darker and deeper understandings of annihilation, chaos, and evil begin to take shape. The later books remain comic, but real dangers and fears emerge in books 4-6. The fantasy author must eventually confront his own vision of hell. To reveal the character of the hero(in)es, their own understanding of temptation, cost, fear, and conflict must deepen.

Just like real life, eh? When one attempts to put the vision on a page and explain to others about it, it is assailed by realities similar to those that humankind faces everywhere. The dream can no longer be held vaguely, thoughtlessly. All of a sudden, to keep the dream afloat the characters have to start acting like conservatives, concerned with what must be done rather than how anyone feels about it.

I also note here that this is what happens to utopian societies as well. They become more conservative or they cease to exist.


Yet not everything flows against progressives forever in epic fantasy literature. For all the battles and military strength needed to buy time in Lord of the Rings, the real battle is ultimately Frodo's journey, which becomes increasing pacifistic and spiritual as he goes on. He casts away armor and knife in Mordor, and even in the final struggle against Gollum, the latter is not pushed to his death, but slips. Taran's final sword-stroke is founded on his spiritual lessons in the preceding four books, and is not even against his opponent's human form. The last battle in Narnia is revealed at the end to not be much of a physical battle at all, but the lead-in to purely spiritual conflict. In this genre, one can buy time through force of arms, and often must, but evil is ultimately only defeated by good.

As a side note, it is curious that even such clever people as Pullman and Moorcock, who subcreate well, are unable to refrain from considerable emotional leakage when they attempt to reform these tendencies of the genre. They just have to tell you that they are trying to be an anti-Tolkien or anti-Lewis. They somehow cannot contain themselves. I am reminded of Screwtape inadvertently turning into giant caterpillar, actually.


Donna B. said...

This is where I confess to never reading Lord of the Rings. I should be banished from all discussions of literacy, no?

"A small, prosperous, agricultural and small crafts society, which wants only to be left alone to live in peace. It doesn't get more idyllic than that."

And it doesn't get much more stultifying than that either, does it?

Except that the societies which fit that ideal didn't stay they. The agriculturalists invented better plows, the small craftsmen invented other labor-reducing devices. The inhabitant of the idyllic was never satisfied with his habitat.

Because he was human, of course.

To me this is the "traditional" liberal ideal -- take what you have and make it better by improving the lot of all.

The "traditional" conservative ideal is "if it works, don't mess with it" no matter what.

I am a "traditional" liberal. However, I understand the conservative ideal to the extent that what is considered "better" may not actually work as well as the old way.

For me, a truly rational person will say "let's try it, but if it doesn't work let's go back to the old way and try again."


jlbussey said...

The thing that strikes me about these imagined "idylls" is that they seem so static. That being so, they'll always fail because we live in a universe that is always moving, changing, and evolving. The mere assumption that no one else's "idyll" could be in direct conflict with their own is pure hubris. (Basic humility demands that you at least acknowledge the possibility that you're wrong.) For all that they hype "diversity," they sure expect lock-step.

OBloodyHell said...

"The universe is just THERE; that's the only way [you] can view it andremain the master of your senses. The universe neither threatens nor promises. It holds things beyond our sway: the fall of a meteor, growing old and dying. These are the realities of this universe and they must be
faced regardless of how you FEEL about them. You cannot fend off such realities with words. They will come at you in their own wordless way and then, then you will understand what is meant by 'life and death'.
Understanding this you will be filled with joy."

- 'Children of Dune' -

OBloodyHell said...

> For all that they hype "diversity," they sure expect lock-step.

Seig Friggin' Heil, Comrade Tovarisch. Iz Pravda they seek, nothing else.