On the fundaments of fantasy

Fantasy-nerd in-chief at The New York Times, Ross Douthat points me to an essay, Why is there no Jewish Narnia? As others have pointed out there are plenty of Jewish fantasy writers, including perhaps the most prominent mainstream fantasist today, Neil Gaiman. But this part caught my attention:

…and whether it is called Perelandra, Earthsea, Amber, or Oz, this world must be a truly alien place. As Ursula K. Leguin says: “The point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie.”

Amber refers to Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. Roger Zelazny’s father was an immigrant from Poland, Joseph Frank Zelazny. I can’t figure out whether Joseph Zelazny was Catholic or Jewish, but I think one can’t assume he was necessarily a gentile. Earthsea refers to Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy world. She was born Ursula Kroeber, her father being the prominent cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who grew up in New York City’s German Jewish community. Of the few secondary worlds the author names, turns out several may have been created by people of Jewish background.


As to whether fantasy is fundamentally a Christian-Pagan genre or whatever, I really doubt it. Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite draws on the medieval Khmer Empire to create her secondary world. R. Scott Bakker in his dark series which begins with The Prince of Nothing synthesizes Muslim, Hindu, Mediterranean and Northern sources in generating his secondary world. In fact, the primary action focuses on a civilization which to a great extent is analogous to a medieval Mediterranean commonwealth of states, but the religion is clearly derived from Hinduism, not Christianity. You can get really obscure if you want, Dennis Jones’ The Mask and the Sorceress has most of the action occurring in a society which seems to reflect the sensibilities of Bronze Age Minoan Crete. Jones’ prose and the plot are pedestrian, but the world is novel precisely because it isn’t out of central casting. I could give many other examples. The dominant backdrop in fantasy is surely one of medieval Northern settings, with a synthesis of Christian and pre-Christian elements, but it isn’t that hard to find secondary worlds which differ if you want something unfamiliar.
The basic elements of modern fantasy can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Ramayana. The Odyssey and the Iliad to boot. You combine a mythic background, rich and multi-textured, with an appealing plot and flat characters. Why did Tolkien produce works which were so strongly inflected by the North? Because he was a philologist whose bread & butter were works such as Beowulf! What do you expect him to produce? Is Christianity fundamentally more comfortable with the pagan than Judaism, as the author above asserts? I doubt it. The basics of Northern fantasy draw from a rich peasant cultural folk tradition which the Christian church ignored at best, and attempted to suppress at worst. The tradition was most robust in the regions which were Christianized last, so that relatively thick cultural memory remained from which to draw during the 19th century Romantic revival of national traditions. It is notable that Ireland in particular in the British Isles preserved its own mythic tradition; I chalk this up to the indigenous origins of Christianization, so that the culture-bearers of the past were not superseded by missionaries who dismissed the indigenous stories as being part & parcel of the pagan intellectual edifice. Tolkien was in part trying to create an Anglo-Saxon mythic cycle from fragments such as Beowulf and Scandinavian analogs. The Irish have no need of reconstruction. Culturally the Jews are very distant from their peasant origins, and naturally much more detached from their pagan past than Northern Europeans. For the past 1,000 years Ashkenazi Jews have been an urban minority, as insulated from the world of faerie as Christian priests. No wonder that Jewish authors, such as Neil Gaiman, draw upon Northern motifs. How popular is urban fantasy as a distinct genre anyway?
Personal background’s influence is pretty clear when you look at the novels of someone like David Anthony Durham. His Acacia series is set in a secondary world where populations and societies which are black loom larger than is the norm in fantasy. Black cultures exist in many fantasy worlds, but only as part of the distant background (or, as in the case of Tolkien, as part of the southern hordes who fought for the Dark Lord). Perhaps it is coincidental, but Durham is one of the few black fantasy writers. Similarly, Brandon Sanderson’s work is partly reflective of his Mormonism.
Sanderson, Stephenie Meyer and Orson Scott Card are one of a large contingent of Mormon fantasy and science writers. Why so many? I have no idea. I’m sure I could make some stuff up about Mormonism’s affinity for the fantastical and unbelievable.

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