Fantasy for our time: my writer’s manifesto 3

This blog post originally appeared on Nicholas Kotar’s site and is reprinted with permission.

Ask pretty much anyone what is the one pop-cultural event that they’re waiting for more than any other this year. What do you think they’ll answer? The new “American Gods” show? Marvel Hero-du-jour: Episode 4,302? The Empire Strikes Back: Let’s do another rehash for 2017?

I’m pretty sure it’s not any of those. I think it’s the premiere of season 7 of Game of Thrones.

A cultural juggernaut

Now, some of you may cough in distress, especially those who object at the show’s portrayal of women, its torture-porn violence, and its generally gleeful nihilism (is that even a thing?)

But you can’t deny what a culture-defining moment both the show and the books have been for the past ten years or so. No other book/show/movie of the last decade that has polarized and energized so many people.

I resisted reading the books for a very long time. I was going to be a snob supreme and stay above all the plebeian nonsense. But eventually, my curiosity got the better of me.

I read all six books in a month.

They’re good. A Game of Thrones (the first novel) is excellent. Yes, I say this in spite of the problematic portrayal of women, the detailed sex scenes, the plentiful decapitations, and the generally gleeful nihilism. All that gets old, and quickly. But that’s not my point.

The “truest” genre

Why am I making a big deal of this? Because I believe (and I’m not the only one) that fantasy and sci-fi (or speculative fiction in general) are the genres most suited for telling difficult truths about our world and our society. That job used to be the exclusive domain of what is now called “literary fiction”. In the 19th century especially, the realists like George Eliot and Charles Dickens effected real societal change through their portrayals of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution.

But literary fiction nowadays is often more obsessed with itself than it is with telling any sort of truths about the world. The Goldfinch—that sad, pathetic excuse for a Pulitzer Prize-winner—is the perfect example. It’s got gorgeous words, interesting characters, and absolutely no significance whatsoever.

I realize I’m probably exaggerating. But think about this: which HBO production are people more excited about: Olive Kitteridge or Game of Thrones? Did Twitter and Facebook go as mad over Atonement as over the Red Wedding?

Look at the books of someone like N.K. Jemisin. Her “Broken Earth” series is as incising a criticism of racism and slavery as any Underground Railroad. And it’ll be remembered as great literature far longer than anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Mark my works. Today’s fantasy novels will be remembered in the same sentence as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

Is Tolkien morally simplistic?

That being said, there’s something missing in most fantasy novels these days. It has to do with a willful misunderstanding of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It may surprise many of my readers (most of whom are Tolkien lovers) that “modern” fantasy readers generally don’t like Tolkien. They object to the ubiquity of elves, dwarves, and vaguely medieval European settings. They object to the “moral simplicity” of Tolkien’s vision. Martin is the first among these:

“The battle of good and evil is a great subject for any book and certainly for a fantasy book, but I think ultimately the battle between good and evil is weighed within the individual human heart and not necessarily between an army of people dressed in white and an army of people dressed in black. When I look at the world, I see that most real living breathing human beings are grey.” (quoted in the American Spectator)

And so, we have the current ascendance of something called “grimdark”. Yes. It’s both grim and very dark. And its moral universe is definitely grey, but skewing close to black.

The problem is that this is not a response to Tolkien at all. It’s a response to “Tolkienesque.” I’ve talked about this in more detail in this review, so I won’t expound on it here. But it’s important. Tolkien’s surface style led to everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Eragon. But very few “Tolkienesque” fantasy books are in the same league as Tolkien.

As I read in an interesting article in the American Spectator:

“Tolkien’s creation displays a sense of depth yet unrivaled in the fantasy genre. In this way, Lord of the Rings is to Game of Thrones as the Atlantic Ocean is to Lake Michigan.”

The author of the article is talking about worldbuilding, but his words can be just as easily applied to the moral complexity of Tolkien’s novels, his characters, and the very foundation of his sub-created world.

Morally grey, or morally black?

Fantasy’s strength as a genre is showing the inner battle that occurs daily in every person’s heart. And even though Martin claims that distinction for himself, I would argue that his books are much less morally complex than Tolkien’s. Heroism is simply not a possibility in Martin’s vision. It’s not so much grey as nearly black. W.B. Yeats’s famous quote from “The Second Coming” fits Martin’s universe almost perfectly:

“The best lack all conviction,

While the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Only someone with the most cursory reading abilities will claim that Boromir, or even Faramir, is simple to explain in terms of morality. Is there anything at all black and white about Denethor? (I’m talking about the book version, not the cartoon Denethor in the Peter Jackson version). But there are plenty of people who agree with Martin and consider Tolkien’s morality to be of the black-and-white, simple, archetypal variety. Michael Moorcock famously called Tolkien’s vision “Epic Pooh,” considering Tolkien’s vision of the “chaos of the world” to be infantile.

So which is it?

I believe that Tolkien skillfully created a world in which black-and-white moral categories serve as archetypes or ideals. But the real world of Middle Earth constantly veers from the Black and White. Galadriel refuses to take the ring. Why? Is it because she is so White that she fears to sully herself by contact with the Black? No! Because she is grey, but she wants to become White. She knows her own limitations, and fears that even she, with her centuries of experience, may fall to the Black. Even Gandalf doubts. And Gandalf is basically of an angelic order. That is the opposite of simplistic morality.

Actually, it’s Martin’s moral vision I find to be overly simplistic. From the very first page of A Game of Thrones, we enter a world where greyness is overwhelming. Martin doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that the White will ever win the battle. On the contrary, it seems very possible that the Black will win everything. All the characters seem permanently enslaved to their caprices and failings. It’s a pessimistic worldview, one that jives well with our current sensibilities and the tremendous political and societal upheaval going on all around us right now.

This is why I think any really good fantasy writer still needs to contend with the reality that is Tolkien. That’s not to say that anyone wants to read a rehash of The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the kind of fantasy that Tolkien popularized has become so hackneyed, it can no longer move the heart.

I submit that there needs to be a new kind of fantasy, one that is neither Tolkien nor Martin, though it can be inspired by both.

Gritty Realism vs Epic Heroism

Modern fantasy can mostly be described as “gritty realistic fantasy.” Readers who prefer such fantasy often complain that Tolkien’s work is too exalted, too removed from everyday life to be effective literature in our time. They make the claim (and they may be right) that Tolkien’s “Epic Heroism” requires that you already have certain archetypes in mind—the wandering knight, the exiled king, the dark lord.

The problem is that these archetypes and ideals, for the last millennium, have been part of the cultural inheritance of the West. Nowadays, hardly anyone is raised in a common, essentially Christian Western culture. Worse than that, people have been (and are being) fed a vision of Christianity that has very little to do with historical, actual Christianity.

We see this a lot in recent historical and speculative fiction. Religions—Christianity in particular—are often described as ideological systems that strive to gain power or control over people and institutions. They are no different from governments or drug cartels, except religion is worse, because clerics have the gumption to claim “divine sanction” for absolutely everything (especially bad stuff).

For example, in the award-winning novel Station Eleven, the main antagonist is a violent cult leader who goes insane after reading St. John’s Revelation. When the end of the world does actually come, he begins to gather people into his cult forcefully, sometimes even killing people who get in his way. The author suggests that he became this way because he read the Revelation, which is crazy. If there is any single image of the faithful Christian that stands out in Revelation, it’s the bloodied martyr crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10) These are hardly holy warriors.

Another example is the depiction of the Church in BBC’s otherwise excellent series “The Last Kingdom.” In this series, the Church is an organization full of either credulous idiots or unscrupulous power-hungry clerics. Abbots see nothing wrong with exterminating pagans. Priests hoard money and jewels “for the Church,” letting poor people starve in the process. It’s all about power and accumulation of power. And it’s rubbish, historically speaking.

I’m not writing all this to complain about the treatment of Christians in popular culture. My point is that Tolkien’s heroic ideal is rooted in Christianity. Not only that, but the simple historical truth is that any heroic ideal, even one rooted in paganism, has become inextricably linked with Christianity, even if people don’t realize it.

That’s why, rather than trying to come up with a new heroic ideal for modern times, modern writers instead suggest that the heroic ideal is impossible. Or worse, they imply that it’s the made-up delusion of a power-hungry Christian Church. If Christianity becomes equated with something that it is not, then the heroic ideal stops being appealing by association.

Christian Fiction

Unfortunately, Christians aren’t helping themselves much. I recently read an excellent article by a former judge of Christianity Today’s Novel of the Year award. In her own words:

“The authors had set their tales within a ‘Christian bubble’ that was safe and nice, and although these authors would nod their heads at the reality of vices such as smoking pot or smart-mouthed teens, there was no real sin, no real suffering, no Dostoevskian ‘crucible of doubt.’ Nor was there any passion or catharsis, probably because the characters (and their dialogue) sounded like they were sketches from a recalled 1990s PBS special.”

But here’s another problem. “Christian readers” (that is, readers who read books specifically found in the “Christian fiction” section of the bookstore) don’t like fantasy. Probably because good fantasy is not safe at all. “Aslan is not a tame lion,” we read repeatedly in the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis.

Interestingly, the really successful Christian writers of fantasy don’t market their books as Christian. They use other terms that address reader fatigue with grimdark. I’ve encountered the terms “noblebright,” “nobledark,” and “clean fantasy.” Some of these authors, such as Jeff Wheeler, are good writers and have found success. But most are too careful about offending the delicate sensibilities of “Christian readers.” They limit their ability to write fiction that can really shake up people and make them think differently about themselves and their world.

Restoring a Heroic Ideal?

I hate to say it, but I’m afraid that we need a radically different sort of hero now, to counteract the damage that has been done to the image of the traditional, archetypal hero. This hero won’t be someone who seeks power. Or if he does, it will not be through the acquisition of power that he becomes a hero. Quite the opposite. Only in the abandonment of control and power over others will this new hero find his heroism.

There are a few examples of this kind of hero in fantasy literature. The first is Severian in Gene Wolfe’s incredible The Book of the New Sun. Another is Paksenarrion in Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion. But both of these books, while excellent in their own right, are more “cult classics” than earth-shattering literature capable of changing the world.

I suggest looking in a completely different direction to find the source for this new heroic ideal. If you haven’t already, I really recommend that you read The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder PaisiosIt describes a man who battled with forces of evil on such a scale, and with such power, that it all sounds too fairy-tale to be true. But Elder Paisios is not large, muscle-bound, or handsome. He’s a short, hairy, funny-looking old man who is more ridiculous than inspiring to the eye.

But he’s a hero, and one of the most well-loved and well-known figure in Orthodox Christian circles today. And it’s precisely his humility and love and self-effacement that is the source of his incredible strength. That’s the kind of hero we moderns need, and that’s the kind of ideal hero that I think good modern fantasy should try to depict.

This kind of hero lives in a fallen world, where grey is the predominant color. There is no certainty in his internal battle – at any moment, he knows that the Black can overwhelm the White within him, and this knowledge gives him constant vigilance. He doesn’t go out to battle guns blazing, sword in hand, a song on his lips. At least not in the beginning. He first must overcome the evil in himself. Most importantly, he recognizes that the source of his power is not within him.

Magic vs. Grace

This is paramount. Tolkien’s magic is notably different from most other fantasy writers. The source of “good” magic is never within the wielder of power– it is derivative power, and it never seeks to dominate others. In the case of the Three Rings, the power derives from the Valar, and it is useful not so much for weapons as for things like maintaining the cycles of nature and the fruitfulness of the earth.

The One Ring, on the other hand, thrives on the kind of grasping after power and control that “caricature Christianity” has been reduced to in popular fiction and movies. Sauron is the source of his own power, and he seeks to dominate others with it.

The good guys deplore any attempt at domination (both Gandalf and Galadriel refuse to take the ring for that reason alone). Good magic always derives from a higher power, and it never dominates. It only serves.

Let’s call that kind of magic “grace.” It is no less powerful than the magic of the fully-realized self, in fact it is far greater. It can only be accessed through the path of self-rejection and humility, not the path of self-actualization. It only seeks the good of others, especially the good of the whole world. This is a new kind of quest that good fantasy needs to depict—not the acquisition of power for control, but the search for grace for service.

The Fairy Tale Method

However, depicting such a path, depicting grace and beauty and truth in literature is very hard to do without using clichés, without becoming sentimental and mawkish. The world has become cynical to the possibility of ultimate good and truth and beauty.

So how can an author “show” the quest for grace, without “telling” anyone about it with a hammer on the head? How can an author, in the words of Madeleine L’Engle, show readers “a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it”?

One way is by using fairy tale tropes. The great Russian writer Ivan Ilyin has an entire lecture about the spiritual meaning of Russian fairy tales, which you can read in its entirety in English here. For the purposes of this manifesto, I’ll only take out a few paragraphs:

“Fairy tales are not fabrications or tall tales, but poetic illumination, essential reality, and the beginning of all philosophy. Fairy tales don’t become obsolete if we lose the wisdom to live by them. No, it is we who have perverted our emotional and spiritual culture. And we will dissipate and die off if we lose our access to these tales.

“The fairy tale… is a kind of art similar to myths, songs, and decorations. It comes from the same place as dreams, premonitions, and prophecies. This is why the birth of a story is at the same time artistic and magical. It not only tells a story, but it sings it into being. And the more a fairy tale sings, the easier it enters the soul, and the stronger is its magical force to calm, order, and illumine the soul. The fairy tale comes from the same source as the songs of mages, with their commanding power. This is why stories repeat phrases and images so often.”

Archetypes may make cynics snicker. Sincere expressions of Christian faith may make people wince. But hardly anyone will deny the power of a fairy tale to get into your head and to force you to sit up and be attentive.

In a series of articles and two excellent books, author Lisa Cron makes a compelling argument, based on recent research in neuroscience, that there is something wired into the human brain that makes it receptive to good storytelling.

“Story is how we make sense of the world,” she says. (To read an introduction to her way of thinking, read this article)

That’s why I write epic fantasy, but within the comfortable setting of traditional Russian fairy tales. I want the best of both worlds.

My Writer’s Manifesto

Ultimately, however, it’s still really hard to write about ultimate truths in a convincing manner without becoming preachy. Why? Because depicting heroism realistically depends on a scary reality. The author himself has to attempt the quest for grace in his own life. Gritty, realistic modern fantasy is comforting because it confirms readers in their own worldviews, instead of pushing them to consider other alternatives.

What I’m saying is that an author who really wants his fantasy to change the world needs to become a kind of ascetic. I’m not being facetious. If fantasy has the power to move readers, it’s because the writer knows what he’s writing about. If good fantasy is the kind of literature that will move people to become humble and strive to acquire the power of grace, the writer needs to experience it first-hand.

The great Russian writer Pushkin had an artistic credo. In the words of the literary critic Ivan Andreev:

“He understood that aesthetics without ethics is nothing; that Beauty without Good is not Beauty at all, but only prettiness; that to be a great poet one must first become a good man.  And then service to art will become a high moral calling – loving one’s neighbor.”

People actually used to think like this; people actually used to live like this. I think this is something that modern fantasy should aspire to. Whether you travel the path of Tolkien or the path of Martin, fantasy for our time needs to have this high moral calling. Readers of fantasy should themselves be inspired to become better people, to begin the quest for grace, to become the kind of hero that Elder Paisios was.


This guest post was written by  Nicholas Kotar. He is a writer of epic fantasy inspired by Russian fairy tales, a freelance translator from Russian to English, the resident conductor of the men’s choir at a Russian monastery in the middle of nowhere, and a semi-professional vocalist. His one great regret in life is that he was not born in the nineteenth century in St. Petersburg, but he is doing everything he can to remedy that error. His book Song of the Sirin: Raven Son, Book 1, was released July 1, 2017. It is available on Amazon and directly from his website.  

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