Beyond Tolkien: Fantasy for grown-ups

Racialicious has a discussion going about the casting fiasco that went down for the upcoming Hobbit movie. I won’t get into it here because it’s kinda obvious how fucked up it is.

As a fantasy aficionado, this is one of the reasons why the uncritical consumption of Tolkien’s works and replication of Tolkienesque concepts in other fantasy works really grates my nerves.

As you can see here and here, I love fantasy. I love mythology. I love fairy tales (the real ones, not the watered-down Disney versions). These types of stories have a way of expressing primordial truths that reach us in deep places we cannot access through everyday left-hemisphere thinking.

Yet, I’ve often dismayed by how, on the one hand, other fantasy enthusiasts want the genre to be taken seriously but start kicking and screaming as soon as the serious analysis and critique start coming out. As a result, rather than growing up, fantasy has remained in a state of perpetual adolescent nostalgia – best represented by The Hobbit and LOTR.

Unfortunately, that nostalgia only works for the people reflected in that narrative – straight, White, able-bodied, cisgender men. Everyone else is either evil or non-existent. So, while the target demographic can see idealized versions of themselves in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (and, by extension, the vast majority of fantasy fiction – including games and films and other media), everyone else has to erase part of themselves to fit into that narrative.

In other words, regardless of my fantasies, if I crashed through a portal right now and landed in Middle-earth (say Rivendell, Minas Tirith, or Edoras), chances are I would be assumed to be a spy (or at least hostile to the West) and killed on the spot. Ditto if this happened at any time during the War of the Ring because Brown People are a threat right off the jump – and this is presented as objective fact, not as a reflection of the prejudices held by the peoples of the West. As Tolkien delineates the various peoples, the best of the best have uniformly been pale-skinned, light-eyed people (preferably blond!).

And despite the protestations of Tolkien apologists, the fact that neo-Nazis love these works because of how they promote White superiority is particularly telling. And disturbing.

Don’t get me started on the role of women in Tolkien’s works. Fine. Let’s just say that Tolkien was, during the Good Ol’ Days, considered pretty fucking conservative when it comes to gender roles. There are a few shining examples, but with few exceptions, they do what they do because of some dude, not because it’s worth doing in and of itself. Eowyn, you say? Bad ass. Then she took one look at Faramir and decided that the whole Shieldmaiden thing wasn’t for her. Arwen? Please. All she does is love Aragorn and die. You don’t really get examples of strong female characters unless you read The Silmarillion and beyond. Even so, that whole life-revolves-around-her-man shit is still there. Luthien? Definitely a genuine BAMF. And Tolkien’s personal Mary Sue, which means that, instead of using her bad-assery for the greater good, she does it (once again) for her man. Galadriel is the singular example of a woman who does not need a man in order have a reason to do her thing.

For real, she’s like, “Celeborn, sitcho ass down and let me handle this with my Jedi mind tricks.”

Queer in Middle-earth? Only in fanfic, and only for male Elves (plus Aragorn)*. Because, naturally, refined means effeminate, and effeminate means female, which means they take it up the ass. Case in point: Sam and Frodo. Ditto Legolas and Gimli. Lesbians don’t exist, and there is no Elvish word for genderqueer, intersexed, or transgender. Therefore they also don’t exist. Duh.

* Let me rephrase that. Only male Elves, plus Aragorn – for the most part. I think I once saw Treebeard m/m slash somewhere. Whether he was paired with Quickbeam or Tom Bombadil, I don’t recall.

Now, a genre that had matured would allow for more complex engagements definitive works such as The Hobbit and LotR that acknowledges the problematic elements and points us toward a way of rectifying them in future works inspired by these sources. But that’s not what we get. Instead, it’s knee-jerk reactions and invocations of “PC police” and “just a book/movie/game” and “it was his time” and so on. Then again, when straight, White cis dudes are dominating how Tolkien is interpreted, it’s not exactly surprising that this happens.

Since Tolkien is the most influential fantasy artist of the past century (next to George Lucas and Walt Disney), I don’t believe it’s an accident that I’ve yet to come across an R-rated fantasy movie. They top off at PG-13. There is an economic reason for this, naturally, and part of it is the fact that adult fans of fantasy tend to resist incorporating adult sensibilities and experiences in their consumption of fantasy works. But at the same time, they want the genre to be taken seriously by the “literati” (read: people who apply critical analysis that incorporates politics into that analysis). While I am skeptical of any attempt at a universal canon, it does seem that fantasy fans want to have their cake and eat it too. They want critics and scholars to see fantasy as more than a fluff genre, but when it’s examined in a critical way, they want to backtrack and make it simple again when this examination uncovers some particularly glaring omissions or ugly undercurrents.

Note: The Silmarillion and the last 3 volumes of The History of Middle-earth presents a more complex and nuanced idea of Tolkien’s mythos; it appeals to me for the same reason that the Tanakh does. I’m one of those rare people who enjoys biblical-style narrative.

Of course, the question is: What do you think “grown up fantasy” would look like? What sorts of themes, issues, and other ideas would adult-oriented fantasy works and analysis cover?

15 thoughts on “Beyond Tolkien: Fantasy for grown-ups

  1. If you are looking for fantasy with strong women, then you really should consider the Wheel of Time. Not only are the women strong, they are both also human with real flaws and weaknesses, but so are the men. There are parts where homosexuality is mentioned, and never does the sex or the sexuality compromise the character development.

    I’d go so far as to say the 2 women (Siuan and Moiraine), in my opinion, who pay the largest price over the course of the series are the most valuable characters to the eventual resolution since they sacrifice so much throughout.

    • I’m really gonna have to disagree with you about Wheel of Time. I think nearly every woman in those books comes off as an emasculating stereotype, and they’re all so eager to get naked together for their rituals.

      *smooths skirt and tugs braid*

  2. A Game Of Thrones sort of fits your description. It’s an “adult” fantasy series that’s gong to air on HBO pretty soon. The book series is called A Song Of Ice And Fire. It’s pretty cool, though it’s set in an extremely patriarchal world, but it seems to try to actually address some of the sexism through some of its characters rather than basking in it.

    (Not to say it’s perfect, it has a lot of flaws. Most of the characters are white, most of the fan community is pretty dudebro, etc.)

  3. Excellent post. You clearly have more patience with apologists. In my mind, “apologists” (for anything) should all be killed.

    And I think that people have got to slop glossing over how Neo-Nazis really do obsess over Tolkien.

    For me, when I watched the Trilogy, I just checked out the clothes, enjoyed the music, and the CGI. It might as well have been one long music to Moi because I think the plot was ludicrous, and the dialogue overbearing (“So-and-so, son of So-and-Other-So). When Elrond realized Isildur wasn’t going to throw the ring into the fire, he should’ve just hurled Isildur and the damn ring into the fire and have done with it…not bitch about it for 3000 whole years while blaming everyone under the sun BUT himself.

    *snort* Of course of a privileged, well-off white dude wrote that. When they can’t complete the mission, it’s someone else’s fault.

  4. Well written post. I agree with all the problems of Tolkein and you’ve articulated them extremely well.

    The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan is what I’d call an adult fantasy. It is pretty much an inversion of the usual fantasy tropes. The three heroes are all battlescarred war veterans; a dark-skinned gay nobleman, a black lesbian, and a straight clanleader of a nomadic tribe. The beautiful, white, elven-esque race are the main villains. The ‘good’, superior-skilled, highly advanced race are black. The humans come in all shades. It’s not a nice fantasy book, the world’s filled with prejudice, it’s dark and visceral, bathed in blood and sex and filled with unpleasant characters where there’s no easy answers and all three heroes are fundamentally flawed. It’s about as close as I’ve come to a book that ticks the strong gay character, strong female character, and multiple character’s of colour box, that I’ve ever read.

  5. Mercedes Lackey is great with some of this. She has a lot of gay & lesbian characters, and mentions it a lot in her books. There is the whole thing with that tribe of people that is based off Native Americans that I’m not too sure about (read those books years ago and don’t remember a lot), and I don’t recall her have any books with POC being anything more than mentioned as being in some distant land. But, again, it’s been a while, so I could be missing stuff in her lots and lots and lots of books. =) She’s def worth checking out, though.

    • I know many people mention Mercedes Lackey. I know many people hail her as absolutely wonderful and how ground-breaking The Last Herald Mage trilogy was for featuring a gay hero. It wasn’t the first fantasy book to do so, it wasn’t the best book to do so, it is one of those most commonly mentioned.

      The gang rape of Vanyel in the third book served absolutely no purpose. It did not further the plot. If anything it broke from the action. If Vanyel, the most powerful mage in existence, had been straight, that gang rape would not have happened.

      Then there’s Firesong, who on account of the magical gay that he possessed was more in tune with his feminine side and thus able to carry a magical artefact that had only allowed women to carry it before. Because gay men are like women.

      I also have serious issues with some of her other themes as well. She was better than Anne McCaffrey at least, but nowhere near as progressive as Diane Duane and Elizabeth Lynn had been 10 years before her. While it did raise visibility, visibility in itself is not progress.

      And more unforgivable in my mind is the following comment, posted on her website.

      “While I never say “never,” the likelihood of a transgendered lead character is so slim as to be invisible. Here is why. I support myself with my writing; I do not have the luxury of writing books for special-interest audiences. In my limited experience, so much of a transgendered person’s life and thought is tied up in their gender difficulties, the ordinary reader would swiftly become bored with such a character; even Vanyel’s whinging grates on some peoples’ nerves. A wider audience wants to see a character with problems that are solvable; in a modern or sf context, a transgendered person could solve the situation with surgery, genetic modification, body-swap, or whatever. Those options are not available to a fantasy author.”

      There’s so much wrong with that I’m not going to start.

      • There’s so much wrong with that I’m not going to start.

        Exactly. Gotta love good ol’ fashioned cis-splaining!

        It would be heartening for Ms. Lackey to know that I am pretty close to a trans woman who would love to see a trans woman protagonist who does not angst about her gender, get raped, or die tragically.

        I’m working on a fanfic that pokes fun at our ideas about gender and what makes a man or woman. But that’s for a specific LJ fandom.

  6. Within the written genre, though, there are many authors (and a lot of fiction) that intentionally engage with these issues. Katharine Kerr once commented that her Deverry novels were in some ways a dialogue with Tolkien on the status of women and other issues, for example. There’s also quite a bit of fantasy out there that does try and address one or more of the issues you raise (although authors successful in some areas can certainly fail horribly in others). A few recent novels that come to mind as “grown up” in the sense that you mean are Amanda Downum’s _The Drowning City_ and _The Bone Palace_ (particularly the latter), Kate Elliot’s _Cold Magic_, and N,K. Jemisin’s _Hundred Kingdoms_ novels, all of which are thematically quite different, but have diverse casts of characters and draw on a spectrum of cultures and mythologies outside the usual Western European source material.

    The fantasy you want is out there, I think, but I agree that it isn’t making it to the screen, or at least isn’t making it to the screen unmangled.

  7. “Since Tolkien is the most influential fantasy artist of the past century (next to George Lucas and Walt Disney), I don’t believe it’s an accident that I’ve yet to come across an R-rated fantasy movie.”

    You forgot Conan.

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