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Monday, 01 October 2012


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Bill Benzon

Concerning the convention of maps, Bob Clampett's 1938 "Porky in Wackyland" has Porky's plane fly over a map of "Dark Africa" (label on the map), then "Darker Africa" and finally, well you can guess it readily enough. That progression alone tells you he's playing against a hackneyed convention.


I'll confess to not wanting to track that shot to its Ur-form, which is why I side-stepped it via Spielberg. My memory -- never really reliable -- tells me that I've read something about it and silent film, as a means to create a more visually compelling intertitle, but I couldn't find the source.


Doesn't Casablanca use the flying map, or am I confusing Harrison Ford and Humphrey Bogart?

Distinguishing "High" fantasy as a genre separate from fantasy seems like you're running the risk of a tautological/no-true-scotsman thing. Wouldn't it be easier to say something like "Magical Realistic Worlds with Homeric narratives"? Or would that just not be useful to your students?


Just not useful. I mentioned trying to use immanent analysis to define it because I want to circumscribe the question of genre for the purposes of the class. I'll note that it's obviously more complicated, but we have to work with what we can provide evidence of, and if our only evidence is this text, etc. Basically, force them to define through close-reading instead of the increasingly popular Appeal to Wikipedia.


I'm confused by the definition of the genre you end with (perhaps that's partly the point...). It seems to me that that description would possibly include a lot of stuff that we might not really consider High Fantasy, since you've removed entirely any dependance on a "world utterly unrelated to the one in which we live".

For instance, suppose I wrote an epic spy novel following a rookie spy during the Cold War that follows his/her global search for a Secret Document that will help win/end/delay an imminent war between the faceless hordes of the American/Soviet armies. Is that high fantasy?

Aside from the "in order to facilitate or forestall wars" piece, your definition seems remarkably close to a sort of Joseph Campbell-type hero's journey thingy. (Can you tell I'm not a "literature guy"? Go easy on me...) And I always thought the point of that was that it was quasi-universal, across lots of genres.


As JME points out, your definition works as a broad definition of "romance" (as opposed to realism and naturalism) but not necessarily of the specific genre of high fantasy. For instance, with the exception of the "token of power" part of your definition, it also perfectly applies to the Western. And all parts of your definition encompass a lot of science fiction.

I think any definition of high fantasy should include the nostalgia for pre-modern social hierarchy that runs through the genre. It should also include magic - the key feature that generally distinguishes fantasy from its more technology-minded cousin, science fiction (with the exception of hybrids like Star Wars, which is basically Tolkein plus space ships).


I'm casting back to a 'Narrative Fiction' course I took as an undergrad, the title of which was basically an excuse for a well-tenured Shakespearean to teach Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and George MacDonald. He established a working framework of the genre we were reading at the outset as well:

The main thing his definition had that differs from yours is a specific sense of the 'fantastic' (or 'phantastes' in the MacDonald sense of the word) as a thing that is of and arises from nature, yet somehow surpasses nature. It's not so much 'supernatural' as supranatural or extranatural. This is basically a broader conceptual framework for what you get in the land of faerie: For the likes of the Inklings and pre-Inklings like Edmund Spenser, John Milton and even Shakespeare -- and arguably this could work for Martin as well -- the specific sense of the fantastic emerges out of the faerie world, which itself is intrinsic, rooted in the rocks, trees, winds, waters and loam of nature. That's also what sets itself apart from, say, science fiction; the fantastical elements of science fiction are generally constructed by the population of that world or are tapped out of nature, while the fantastical elements of the kind of fiction in question here is more elemental, existing there long before the world was ever populated (hence the Silmarillion). It often does but doesn't necessarily have to be a throwback to arcane historical social context; Neil Gaiman's made a career of dealing with fantastical elements in our own contemporary context.

But constituent of that 'rootedness' is what prior narrative traditions (mythic, oral) identified as 'fantastic' and 'extranatural,' and that's where you get your exotic creatures, especially in northern Europe. Dwarves came from inside mountains; trolls from rocks; giants from out of mountains, etc., and if you really start to dig down into them, you find they're broadly metaphoric of different states of the experience of nature. Trolls don't live under rainbows. Check out the connection between the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland and Fingol's Cave in Scotland. (Interestingly, there are many similar creatures in Native American folktales, at least among the Anishinaabe-speaking tribes.) The Green Man of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a great example of this, as are Cane's Clan and the dragon from Beowulf. Its why Christian proselytizers/St. Patrick had to go around blessing and claiming wells in the name of the church; the wells already represented elemental conduits to the faerie world, which Christianity needed to eclipse in order to become established. Yet this rootedness of the fantastic world remains: John Millington Synge went to the west of Ireland to collect old Irish folklore before Gaelic disappeared. At one point while interviewing an old woman, he asked her if she really believed in the faerie folk; she replied she didn't, but that didn't mean they weren't there. And to this day, in Ireland and (IIRC) Iceland, public works like roads will re-route if a faerie-ring pops up in their path.

Martin's is a decidedly less exotically fantastic world than Tolkien's, but not because he's trying to make it more recognizable; as is pointed out over and over again, when there were dragons in the world, those other fantastical elements emerged, like the ability to produce wildfire. Dragons are certainly linked to the Targaryens (Dany is immune to fire), and they may also be connected somehow to the Others; as the dragons become stronger -- and hence elemental magic becomes increasingly possible -- the Others north of the wall rise up and begin marching south. Whoever controls the iron throne as a token of power (for a long time the magical Targaryens) also controls the fate of millions in direct confrontation with the Others of winter. And don't forget the weirwoods, Martin's own imaginative take on the Ents (weir comes from the Anglo-Saxon root for man, as in wergild or man-price, or werewolf -- man-wolf).

So in short, high fantasy quest narratives have singularly important people going after tokens of power in order to facilitate or forestall wars between anonymous hordes in a world whose nature is comprised of fantastical, extranatural elemental features, all of which can be tracked on maps. If you don't have the elemental, faerie-like fantastical components -- even if they're not used -- then you're not really dealing with fantasy.

[I'm already off on a tangent, and almost went off on a tangent-within-a-tangent, a Chinese box of tangents, about myths, literary syncretism, and how the whole concept of 'fantasy' relates to the process of god-like creation through mimesis, but this is long-winded enough.]

(P.S. The National Weather Service is naming the next hurricane 'Gandalf,' so you have that going for you.)

Peter Erwin

It strikes me as unnecessarily perverse to reject the key characteristic of "high fantasy", which is that it takes place largely or entirely in a completely different world, one which is moreover explicitly unrealistic (in the sense of containing magic and the supernatural). The problem is that your initial formulation "Works of fantasy exist in a world utterly unrelated to the one in which we live and are therefore purely escapist" conflates two entirely separate concepts, and is arguably just as illogical as saying, "Romantic comedies take place in the real world and are therefore purely escapist." I'm happy to agree with the idea of rejecting the automatic assumptions of escapism when it comes to works of fantasy, but you kind of have to keep the "invented world" bit, otherwise, as JME correctly points out, what you're left with is the much broader category of epic adventure.

After all, Mission Impossible IV fulfills all of your final criteria -- do you really want to say that Fellowship of the Ring and Game of Thrones are in exactly the same genre at MI IV?

(As a minor point, "wars between anonymous hordes" is kind of redundant -- anything on the scale of an actual war is going to involve "hordes", most of whom will remain anonymous.)

I'll disagree slightly with Stephen on the issue of "romances" and point out that what Fellowship of the Ring and Game of Thrones -- and JME's "epic spy story", MI IV, etc. -- share is that they are, well, epic in scale and scope: the fate of nations -- possibly the whole world -- is at stake, and the story usually spans entire continents (either because individual characters travel across large parts of the world, or because we get different sub-stories taking place in widely separated places). So while Westerns can certainly be seen as romances, they are not epics in the sense of Tolkien's and Martin's stories.

Peter Erwin

Doesn't Casablanca use the flying map, or am I confusing Harrison Ford and Humphrey Bogart?

Yes, it does, although I think it actually does so somewhat more in the mode of the two fantasy movies than is the case with the Indiana Jones map scenes. Which is to say: in addition to the visual evocation of an older filmmaking style, the Indiana Jones map scenes are primarily used to convey the sense of long-distance travel while it's happening (e.g., as a short-hand for "somehow, the characters get from Nepal to Egypt, but we're not going to waste time with shots of people boarding airplanes and conversations about which airport they're landing in now") more than for purposes of orientation. It doesn't actually matter where Nepal is in relation to Egypt, just that they're rather far apart.

By contrast, the map scenes in Fellowship and Game of Thrones are crucial for two things: establishing right from the start that we're in a completely different world, and giving some very basic sense of geopolitical orientation (the Shire is over here, Morder is way over there; Winterfell is far to the north of King's Landing, but the Wall is even further north; the Dothraki are across the see on a whole different continent; etc.). The latter is important not just because characters travel long distances, but because of the international politics which are an important part of the story in both cases.

I think the map sequence which opens Casablanca is largely scene-setting, because a 1940s American audience wouldn't be expected to know where Casablanca was; it also establishes a minimal geopolitical context: Casablanca is across the sea from Nazi-occupied Europe, but not far enough away. And, now that I think about it, the sequence also creates an ironic contrast between the motion of people travelling to Casablanca ("From Paris, to Marseille, across the sea to Oran, then by train or car or on foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca") and the fact that they're now unable to go anywhere else. (Casablanca isn't a story about people travelling to other places, it's a story about people who, having travelled from other places, are now stuck and prevented from going any further.)

Keith Romig

In war and in war stories, people can get stuck. People also can be moving and on the run. Genres can mix and mesh. Let me cite another recent popular source: Battlestar Galactica (TNS), ostensibly science fiction, but following for the most part the conventions of a war story, and all full of magic to boot. A simulacrum of a (presumably dead) character appears inside another character’s head. When he defies her one too many times, the character who appears more-or-less immaterially to him assumes corporeal form to put him back in line. The only magical beings I know of who almost always are invisible, but who can appear to whom they choose, and can assume corporeal form when need be, are djinn. Also, very pertinent to the way the story plays out, djinn follow the same religions as human beings. Djinn are mischievous, but no more malicious than we. An entire anonymous horde is fleeing, but all of them together, are on a quest, and are brought to their goal via magic provided by a character who has risen from the dead to lead them to the promised land. High fantasy? SciFi? A war story? I think all three.

And speaking of djinn, I don’t think high fantasy necessarily needs a new map. P.B. Kerr’s Children of the Lamp series presents our world with a twist; djinn and similar beings are real, and like djinn as described above can be good, bad, or any shade in between. The major difference between his djinn and the traditional view as described loosely above is that djinn here are corporeal, and invisible when need be. Also it presents nice opportunities for comedy, as for instance when our twin protagonists emerge from an underground quest to find themselves in the middle of a U.S. Army camp in occupied Iraq. The books are billed as YA, but then so is LOTR, really. As for realism on human motives this is much more Martin than Tolkien. The Harry Potter books are another prime example of our world with a twist fantasy. So my view is that high fantasy does not require a completely other world.

Dan Hassler-Forest

Stephen, I've been following your fascinating discussions of visual rhetoric off and on for some time, and now that I'm working on a research project oriented towards high fantasy, I was thrilled to discover (slightly belatedly) your series of analyses of Game of Thrones and The Fellowship of the Ring. But besides complimenting you on your great eye for framing and your phenomenal abilities as a writer and teacher, I keep stumbling over one recurring detail that may be rare instance of inaccurate critical vocabulary. In a number of posts I've read, including this one, you consistently use the word 'zoom' for a shot in which the camera moves closer to an object in the frame. Since the use of zoom lenses in both classical and post-classical Hollywood cinema is rare (outside of its use as a historically specific visual style, predominantly in the 1970s), the shots you refer to as zooms are in fact as far as I can tell mostly tracking shots, not zooms. I'm sure the distinction is meaningless to most people, but since it's something I always find myself correcting in my students' work, I felt compelled to comment here as well.


The definition seems to say that Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy isn't high fantasy, which seems a defect in the definition. No anonymous hordes - the Ska are quite well developed, and they're the only candidate for such. (Also pale and Scandinavian - they are actual refugees from anonymous Neanderthal hordes.) No tokens of power for defeat of same.

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