. . . Or, Thinking Too Much About Fantasy
Today I thought I’d write something a bit different. It’s just something that I’ve thought about a lot on and off over the years – fantasy and suspension of disbelief. So be prepared to descend into a whirlpool of nerdy over-analysis. Or else just click on one of the excellent blogs off to the right there.
Right, so I assume that if you’re reading this you both made it past the bunny, and are a fantasy fan of one form or another. Sci fi and fantasy games are what this blog is (mostly) about after all. I’ve been a reader of fantasy and science fiction since I was a very small child, and grew up around adults who talked about mythology and Tolkien, and played D&D and wargames. But there’s something very interesting about fantasy fiction that I’ve only slowly become aware of over the years. It’s a very complex thing. I’m talking about when the realism of a story starts to get so high that you start to notice how impossible the whole thing is.
OK so you could be forgiven for not quite getting what I mean. I couldn’t think of a catchy way to put it, but hopefully it’ll all become clear as you read on.
I think two of the main things that make a work of fiction (or a game, or a setting or what-have-you) “fantasy” are that they conform to certain rules and conventions, and that they require us to suspend our disbelief more than ordinary fiction does. The two are connected. The first, the conforming to rules, is very interesting and I’ll write about that some other time. Today though I’m going to talk about suspension of disbelief and realism in fantasy.
Like I said, as a kid I grew up with fantasy around me so if you gave me, say, a Dragonlance book I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at any of the outrageous things in there. As I got older though I became a more discerning reader and less tolerant of stuff that I found hard to accept within the rules the author had established. I think that one sign of a good fantasy author is their ability to convince us that all this weird stuff could happen, in the world that they’re showing us. Orson Scott Card once wrote that if you’re going to have magic in your story, it better be consistent in the way it works.
I think this is spot on. The Harry Potter books are good fantasy in many ways, but the way the magic works seems totally arbitrary and thus they annoy me. I think much of the appeal of so-called gritty fantasy like the suddenly ubiquitous Game of Thrones (oh how I want to rant about that one day) is that they allow adults to suspend their disbelief much more easily. There are no Wizard of Oz style melting dragon men or teleportation spells in Game of Thrones. Just penises and intrigue and sort-of-zombies. People have become much more critical readers of fantasy as they and the genre have aged.
When we get too critical though, we notice that there are some things that no author, no matter how great, can account for. Some things in fantasy just don’t add up, no matter what. For example, an author who wants their adult readers to take their work seriously has a tricky decision right off the bat: If your world is not earth, do you just go with horses, rabbits, wheat, oak trees, autumn, goats, etc, or do you invent entirely new ecosystems and animals? If you choose the first one, your sophisticated reader is justified in asking why the hell a planet that isn’t earth has all the same animals. If you choose the latter course, things get a whole lot weirder and clunkier and you better be a damn good writer.
Here’s another example, and one that first started to bug me a little as a teenager. I’ve always been interested in language and linguistics. One day I was sitting there reading my AD&D Player’s Handbook and I suddenly wondered how a Lucerne hammer could be called that in a world where there was and never would be a Switzerland. Why do peasants in Greyhawk call their polearms “guisarme-voulges” and “Bec do Corbins” when there is no such language on Oerth as French?
This exact question just struck me again when I was recently reading David Eddings’s book The Diamond Throne. The book is great, I’m really enjoying the pace and the traditional heroism of the main characters (no grimdark anti-heroes here). One of the guys has as his weapon of choice a Lochaber axe, and it grates on me every time one of the other characters mentions it. Obviously there is no such place as Lochaber in Eddings’s world.
What is going on here? Taken further, I might decide that none of these characters are speaking English anyway. English is the cipher for whatever language we are pretending they’re speaking right? So why does it matter? When they say Lochaber axe they’re not really saying “Lochaber axe,” they’re saying whatever word in their language means what we call a Lochaber axe.
It still bugs me though. If we assume the above, then what we have is a situation akin to when ordinary languages have to translate words. Whatever the characters in the book are saying (pretending for a moment that they are real people somewhere) is being translated for the reader by David Eddings as “Lochaber axe.”
Usually when real languages use words from another language they go one of two ways: they translate the word into their own language using existing words, or they just borrow the word. Japanese often does the latter – it is filled with altered English words like “chicketto” (ticket) and “ban” (van). Chinese usually does the former. The Chinese word for cinema is made up of two existing characters, “electricity” and “shadow”. Basically nearly all fantasy writers go the Japanese way, which is cool, but then you end up with your fairy-tale knights from another world decapitating people with Lochaber axes.
It’s a real pickle for fantasy. It’s the linguistic version of the natural problem I described above, of animals and plants mysteriously matching ours. One of the main reasons I’m a big fan of Elric and Conan is that Moorcock and Howard both went to great pains to say (or at least strongly hint) that their stories are set on earth. Tolkien also did this come to think of it. Middle Earth, the Young Kingdoms, and the Hyborian Age are all sorts of “dreamtimes” of earth to use an indigenous Australian concept. One of the things I always liked about the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy is that one look at a map tells you it’s either earth, or a parallel world very much like it, so all of those nagging questions are instantly answered.
It’s a little thing, but ultimately it makes the whole mess much easier for me to swallow. It doesn’t bother me so much when Conan uses a gladius or a poniard, because at least I know there will one day be a Rome or France in Conan’s world. Perhaps the gladius and poniard are evolutionary descendants of the weapons Conan uses. It’s easier to accept that the words are just translations for my benefit. But when a warrior on Krynn uses a rapier it bugs me. The world is not earth, it has three magic moons and interventionist gods. Why does it also have rabbits and rapiers? I think I’d prefer it if the author spent a sentence or so describing how the swords of a particular nation are slender stabbing weapons and then referred to them as “(insert nation) blades” or something. If the world is not earth I think the Chinese method of translating is better.
OK so maybe I’m being a bit picky and attacking the very bedrock of fantasy here, but shoot me, I’m a fantasy nerd. As I said above, many authors successfully deal with these questions, so why can’t they all take the time to do it? Also, I’m a philosopher so I like to start with the basics. Where did this fantastical place come from and why is it like earth? Why is it not? In other words, what’s the cosmology?
I just think when you really start to think about fantasy, you notice strange things like this. It’s almost as if the tension between pretending to ourselves that this stuff is real at the same time as knowing it’s totally ridiculous and illogical is what makes it fun.
Another time, I’ll talk about the other main thing I think defines fantasy: sticking to conventions. Another contradiction, as on the face of it fantasy should be all about breaking the rules and writing whatever you like right? No, as it turns out.
I’d be really interested to hear any readers thoughts about suspension of disbelief and things authors do that make it hard for you, or that show up this tension between realism and uh . . . knowing-it’s-all-bollocks.