I'd gone off writing fantasy, but now...

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Rich.

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Sep 28, 2017
Spain
So, I've gone back to school (which rather took me by surprise) – studying part time, distance learning, a degree in English lit (started out as classical studies but then I realized – the bleedin' obvious – that it's words and stories that float my boat).

Anyway, they've got us reading Antigone by Sophocles, and it's just brilliant. But it's not the actual play that I wanted to talk about here but rather something in the commentary that accompanies it. Greek-drama expert Angie Varakis writes:

In tragic theatre, even though the stories were set in the distant Bronze Age, the characters were mentally close to the audience and shared the values of the [5th century BCE] democratic period in Athens. The mythic subject helped the writer retain critical distance, allowing his audience to judge current political or ideological issues in an objective manner.*​

And I thought, oh my gosh, that could be a definition of modern epic fantasy, in the sense that both (often) look back to a mythical age for their setting but use characters with modern values and address modern concerns. And this could also be, broadly speaking, what separates historical fiction from fantasy – fantasy gives you the excuse to talk about now while setting it then in a much freer way than straight historical (and you get to have dragons – a fact that should never be underrated).

All of this got me very excited. I'd kind of gone off writing fantasy. I'd kind of gone off writing, to be honest. But this little comment has rekindled the fire – the dragon fire.

Just thought I'd share :)


*Sophocles (2006) Antigone. Edited by Angie Varakis. Translated by D. Taylor. London: Bloomsbury. p. xv.
 
I'm so glad you found a spark to stoke the fire :) Welcome back!

I enjoy taking what authors discuss (when they wrote the book) and applying it to the now too. That's fun :)
 
Love, love, love Antigone. I played her on stage, not the classic version, but Jean Anouilh's version (which is set against a WW2 background. Like you say about politics, he used it to speak against the Nazis, sort of, anyway.)

I think Greek tragedy continues to resonate with so many because it's about humanity. About people. Humans at their best and worst. Their barest. Their rawest. Their truest. With their many complexities. Brothers Grim were good at that too. To me, there's blunt honesty and reality in those stories. That makes them timeless because, well, humanity doesn't seem to ever change (SIGH). The actor in me loves Greek tragedy. It's so meaty to play. Relationships, emotions yaddyyadyya

The mythic subject helped the writer retain critical distance
fantasy gives you the excuse to talk about now while setting it then in a much freer way than straight historical (and you get to have dragons – a fact that should never be underrated).

I wonder if this is because it gives us an excuse to look at our own flaws via something that doesn't resemble us quite so much and hence is less threatening. We can explore our own fears and faults without our own world being threatened. Safely at a distance. We don't have to look at ourselves in the mirror. Many people don't like taking a hard look in the mirror. Throw a mirror at someone and they often bulk. But Fantasy etc are like an arty self-portrait with which we can explore 'the me' without exposing our pimples and wrinkles to ourselves and to the world. Am I making any sense? Probably not. But I love the subject. I love Greek tragedy and I've been looking at fantasy recently.

There's a Swiss playwright, Max frisch. He wrote Andorra. It reads like a modern adaptation of a Greek drama. It too was written to make a political point. I'm saying this because I agree with you that many plays and stories have been used over the centuries to make the audience look at stuff. It cloaks blunt truths into something softer, more inviting to explore. Sometimes you can't name the bogey man.

Anyway, I'm probably talking rubbish. Now where is that dragon. I saw one earlier.
 
We can explore our own fears and faults without our own world being threatened. Safely at a distance
Exactly that. Quoting from my notes: Finding the emotional link that joins the reader to the character is the first step to getting the reader to keep reading. They invest in the outcome of the character. They want to live this life for a while so they can learn the same lesson, but with no risks.
 
Love, love, love Antigone. I played her on stage ...
You know that means I now have to ask for your autograph! :D

I think Greek tragedy continues to resonate with so many because it's about humanity [...] I'm saying this because I agree with you that many plays and stories have been used over the centuries to make the audience look at stuff. It cloaks blunt truths into something softer, more inviting to explore. Sometimes you can't name the bogey man.
Exactly. You've hit the nail bang on the head. That's exactly what I meant. The fact that Greek tragedy is so infinitely reinterpretable speaks to how it deals with human truths. Regardless of how you view Antigone or Creon, you're moved by the fact that the story deals with ideas of justice and responsibility in a way that seems to go to the heart of human nature (I've just been reading about how the classical Athenian citizens – all male – would have viewed Antigone as a 'bad woman' regardless of how much they saw Creon as making mistakes). Sophocles was cloaking in myth contemporary Athenian worries about responsibility to the state usurping responsibility to the family. But now we see Antigone as representing any number of repressed minorities standing up to an authoritarian leader. Maybe that kind of applicability is what makes a story endure (Tolkien talked about that in relation to The Lord of the Rings). And, in fantasy fiction (including Antigone), not naming the bogey man gives the work the opportunity to be related to many bogey men, gives it the opportunity to be applicable to different times and cultural contexts.

I do think that when fantasy is done well, it gives you license to talk about whatever cultural aspect you want to without contemporary baggage. Maybe some would think that's a cop out. It might be. I don't know. I'm currently re-reading Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy. She has a character who's gifted with a particular kind of magic that most people think is unnatural, bestial, horrid and gross, so the character has to hide it and live with shame and guilt and stress. And... maybe... maybe many people who read Robin Hobb would never read an overtly gay story (or a story about any other innate orientation that some society doesn't approve of), but maybe after reading Hobb, they might understand something they didn't before. Am I reaching here? Am I putting too much faith in fantasy fiction? I don't know. I don't think so.
 
I've just been reading about how the classical Athenian citizens – all male – would have viewed Antigone as a 'bad woman'
You know that hadn't even occurred to me. *Slaps herself*.
You know that means I now have to ask for your autograph!
LOL. Will three 'xxx' do? Here you go:

xxx

You might be able to sell it on ebay for 5p.
:D
I do think that when fantasy is done well, it gives you license to talk about whatever cultural aspect you want to without contemporary baggage. Maybe some would think that's a cop out. It might be. I don't know.
Totally agree. And I don't think fantasy is a cop out, not at all, but instead, a bigger canvas; a different canvas. Everyone has their medium that resonates with them; that can reach them; make em think. Some resonate with writing/reading academic analyses of the world, and others gravitate to look at life through a 'dragon lens with rainbows on it', or both or something all together different. I know which I prefer and which of those two makes me really think. What I esp like about fantasy is that the angles to explore a modern day issue are more endless. And you don't have to prove your theses to the 'critics' with facts. The proof is in the world you create; in its philosophy. In fact, you don't have to prove anything and instead, you can simply explore and deal with the core issue. Your 'theories' can't be seen a threatening because, well, it's not a real world. I feel fantasy has less 'constraints' (is that the right word?). You can let rip with ideas and philosophies and you can go off on a tangent to explore a current cultural view with a quest across a path of mountain ranges and forests with unicorns, and you can slay the bogey man who wants to take over the world. That in itself is satisfying (slaying the bogey man, that is) because in real life we often can't, but reading about it in fantasy seems to give a sense of 'justice' ... I may be waffling. My brain is a bit fuzzy, but I'm loving this thread.
 
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My present fantasy WIP deals with acceptance of the different in both individual and being (talking vs non-verbal; human vs fae). It will hopefully strike a cord with many readers without it referring to anything or anyone in this world, and at the same time allow anyone, including those tainted by similar issues, to escape into the pages of an otherworld. (That's my aim anyway). I could write about these issues in any genre, but it wouldn't bear the same kind of escapism opportunity.
 
I agree SF/Fantasy have always been more about ideas than feels. In that sense it resembles Greek Tragedy. National theatre has Antigone available online with 2 Dr. Whos playing the main roles. They played it like melodrama. In Dublin I saw a rewrite of Trojan Women called Hecuba,also played as a melodrama. I think Greek Tragedy loses it's meaning when played just as "a good cry." Catharsis really means a change of mind that reinterprets your actions. Change your attitude-change everything. Greek Tragedy was written for a religious festival which would be like Judaism, Christianity and Islam getting together for a big story contest to see who determines the zeitgeist for the coming decade. The last 30 years or so popular culture has dropped the ball on ideas and just gone with feels. That has created a vacuum where Qanon etc has flourished. Who doesn't want to believe little John John survived and is secretly pulling the strings against the conspiracy to destroy America. I just wish he was on the side of those who really are trying to save democracy. If we are not all going to see a fascist world controlling the last of the resources as we sink into the new dark ages, storytellers need to find narratives that lead us into a better outcome. I have more faith in SF/fantasy doing that than religions or political leaders.
This is one of the most powerful films I've ever watched. Following the Viet Nam war.
 
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I could write about these issues in any genre, but it wouldn't bear the same kind of escapism opportunity.
I totally agree about the escapism.

I'm just thinking, and I'm keen for people's thoughts on the following. I wonder if fantasy is the most 'optimistic' genre of them all? The one with the most hope? Anything is possible. It's just a question of creating the world. But genres which take place in 'regular earthly worlds' (thrillers, romance, historic fic) have the constraints of our reality where the flawed humans live. Of course fantasy too has flawed characters but bear with me. For example, in romance novels, girl generally meets boy and they live happy ever after, but most readers know it's not that simple in real life. It rarely works out that way. Yes reading it is still escapism for a while but we close the book and 'know' that happy couple won't be quite so happy in a few years. (Am I a sour puss? Probably) Or in crime, the murder may be solved but there will soon be another. But in fantasy the ending really can be 'good', forever. The happy ever after can feel eternal when you close the book because the reality of that world allows it and also because that world exists in our heads beyond the book. Hence hope.

I wonder what others think?

I'm curious as I'm new to fantasy: has anyone read a fanasy with a disturbing or 'unhappy' ending? How does fantasy normally end?

I wouldn't mind reading some darker fantasy. I haven't so far but I think I might like it. Probably because I'm hardnosed realist who can't buy into the happy ever after or happy end happy life stuff. I need wine. No. Chocolate.
 
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In the best fantasy, there's a sense that the world goes on without the reader. They can imagine it going on, they can see it, believe it. Regardless of whether dark or light, high or low, creating the real world of fantasy gives the reader an attachment to it as if it were real, as if it is real, as if they can see bits of it in their everyday lives through the things that happen, the things they see and do, and in the people they meet.

Most dark fantasy
(defined as: Dark fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literary, artistic, and cinematic works that incorporate disturbing and frightening themes of fantasy. It often combines fantasy with elements of horror or has a gloomy dark tone or a sense of horror and dread. Wikipedia)
is aimed toward a not-happy ending, especially grim-dark
(defined as: Grimdark is a subgenre of speculative fiction with a tone, style, or setting that is particularly dystopian, amoral, or violent. The term is inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: "In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war." Wikipedia)

Most of what I write is folk horror, one of the many subgenres within dark fantasy.
 
There is fantasy with not so happy endings. Can't think of one right now because I like HEAs so I tend to avoid books which don't have them.

I agree with, when you close the book, the 'reality' of the fantasy world allows the good to be eternal'. I really like that. There is, of course, Urban fantasy which takes place in this world, but the fantasy element still allows the ending to be eternal (if that's what the author wants).

I totally recommend Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea.
 
I'm curious as I'm new to fantasy: has anyone read a fanasy with a disturbing or 'unhappy' ending? How does fantasy normally end?

That is a darn fine question :) First books of a trilogy tend to not end perfect, but by the end of a trilogy, things normally do. If you like darker, there's always Game of Thrones. That is gritty and unfinished, so no happy ending there. The Clan of the Cave Bear is a realistic ending. It's in omniscient, but it's one of the best omniscients I've read. You can sense the author's strategic use of it (well, I could) :)
 
I would say 'feel' is just as important in SF/Fantasy as ideas. I'd soon lose interest in a story that was all ideas and no feel.
It's more the difference between a book that is written for a good cry and one that changes your mind through feels. It's the reason Neo-Nazi,-fascist-white supremacists are attacking books with ideas that change the way the reader feels about racism, queer people, science. The far-right have gained in power and followers because they have better stories. If the values of democracy are going to regain any traction it needs to be from reason and ideas. The feels is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. It was the purpose of Greek Tragedy. Unless liberalism can come up with better stories the far right wins. Hollywood won WW2 as much as the US's petrol reserves. This SF novel is a staple for Neo-nazis. It is behind the anti-immigration policies of Trump and Nigel Farage. The Camp of the Saints - Wikipedia
 
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I wonder if fantasy is the most 'optimistic' genre of them all? The one with the most hope? Anything is possible [...] in fantasy the ending really can be 'good', forever. The happy ever after can feel eternal when you close the book because the reality of that world allows it and also because that world exists in our heads beyond the book. Hence hope.
Hmm. That sounds more like a description of fairy tale, I think, rather than fantasy as a whole. Kafka's Metamorphosis is fantasy after all – dude wakes up to find that he's turned into a cockroach! That's an allegorical story, sure, but it's definitely not realist fiction (dude wakes up to find that he's turned into a cockroach!). But then... now that I'm thinking about it, Metamorphosis does end hopefully. It's not a happy-ever-after ending, but it is hopeful.

Maybe fantasy fiction (by which, now, I mean the modern stuff, not classical Greek tragedy or Scandinavian epic or any other 'root' genre) – maybe fantasy fiction does contain a lot of hope. But I think it's often a realist kind of hope, even if the setting is fantastical – happy-ever-after isn't common (at the end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo goes off to the 'undying lands' because he's so deeply hurt (he dies!) and Sam returns home full of regret and longing – but also hope (more than anything LotR is about hope)).

On a personal note, for me what fantasy offers is the...
escapism opportunity
Specifically, it's the sense of awe that good fantasy creates – literal awe, a reverential feeling of wonder and fear. Again, to pick on LotR, Gandalf has become the archetypal old-man-with-a-beard wizard, a version of which has subsequently turned up in any number of stories. But Gandalf wasn't a man. He was some kind of angel. He wasn't human (Tolkien's The Silmarillion) makes this clear. Gandalf was from somewhere else, as was his magic (no human in LotT has magic). He was thousands of years old and had been sent to Middle Earth by powers utterly beyond human comprehension. That is awesome, literally.

I want to write more, but life is calling. Oh, but do check out The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter. It's one of the best short stories I've ever read. It's dark, angry, gritty, violent and disturbing. It's also a fairy tale with a happy-ever-after ending, and it's definitely a story of hope.
 
Hmm. That sounds more like a description of fairy tale, I think, rather than fantasy as a whole. Kafka's Metamorphosis is fantasy after all – dude wakes up to find that he's turned into a cockroach! That's an allegorical story, sure, but it's definitely not realist fiction (dude wakes up to find that he's turned into a cockroach!). But then... now that I'm thinking about it, Metamorphosis does end hopefully. It's not a happy-ever-after ending, but it is hopeful.

Maybe fantasy fiction (by which, now, I mean the modern stuff, not classical Greek tragedy or Scandinavian epic or any other 'root' genre) – maybe fantasy fiction does contain a lot of hope. But I think it's often a realist kind of hope, even if the setting is fantastical – happy-ever-after isn't common (at the end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo goes off to the 'undying lands' because he's so deeply hurt (he dies!) and Sam returns home full of regret and longing – but also hope (more than anything LotR is about hope)).

On a personal note, for me what fantasy offers is the...

Specifically, it's the sense of awe that good fantasy creates – literal awe, a reverential feeling of wonder and fear. Again, to pick on LotR, Gandalf has become the archetypal old-man-with-a-beard wizard, a version of which has subsequently turned up in any number of stories. But Gandalf wasn't a man. He was some kind of angel. He wasn't human (Tolkien's The Silmarillion) makes this clear. Gandalf was from somewhere else, as was his magic (no human in LotT has magic). He was thousands of years old and had been sent to Middle Earth by powers utterly beyond human comprehension. That is awesome, literally.

I want to write more, but life is calling. Oh, but do check out The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter. It's one of the best short stories I've ever read. It's dark, angry, gritty, violent and disturbing. It's also a fairy tale with a happy-ever-after ending, and it's definitely a story of hope.
Love the film Neil Jordan made form Company of Wolves. Kafka was a Jew. Antisemitism was already strong in 1912. By 1936 obligatory genealogy searches for employment meant people who didn't know they had any Jewish background found out they were to be classified as Jewish and therefore unemployable or even subject to being sent to concentration camps. He caught the zeitgeist of what was to come.
 
Kafka's Metamorphosis

I listened to this around Christmas and I didn't get hopeful from the ending, I admit, but maybe I was too invested in the cockroach (lol) to see it! I got hopeful from his family. I guess that's what you mean? @Barbara, it's only a short story, why not try it? Then you're not investing too much time in case fantasy isn't for you. For years, the idea of a cockroach story put me off, but what a mistake!
 
I don't read or write fantasy for political awareness. Issues I allude to are about inclusivity as a purely individual to individual/group concept, or overcoming fears or answering needs. I want to be touched or touch hearts and minds. I want to cry and smile and laugh. I want escape, to live for a while in a completely different world or the same world with a wonderful (and probably at times, a heart-wrenching but eventually overcome-able) difference. And I love an adventure.
 
I listened to this around Christmas and I didn't get hopeful from the ending, I admit, but maybe I was too invested in the cockroach (lol) to see it! I got hopeful from his family. I guess that's what you mean? @Barbara, it's only a short story, why not try it? Then you're not investing too much time in case fantasy isn't for you. For years, the idea of a cockroach story put me off, but what a mistake!
I can't read it and definitely can't watch it. I absolutely hate cockroaches about as much as I hate spiders.
 
Love the film Neil Jordan made form Company of Wolves.
Have never seen it (shame on me)! But I do remember seeing its box there in the video library when I was about ten, up there with all the other horror flicks, and being drawn to the title. I don't quite know how I've managed never to see it since.

I got hopeful from his family. I guess that's what you mean?
Yes!

I don't read or write fantasy for political awareness.
/devil's advocate on

Maybe not consciously. But it's all politics, isn't it? – in the sense that all human relationships involve power and status. Everything is a commentary on something.​

/devil's advocate off

But having said that, I don't want to be preached to when I'm reading fiction; though I do like being confronted with questions. I also want...
to be touched or touch hearts and minds. I want to cry and smile and laugh. I want escape, to live for a while in a completely different world or the same world with a wonderful (and probably at times, a heart-wrenching but eventually overcome-able) difference. And I love an adventure.
And fantasy fiction, when it's done well, excels at that.

Oh... (there I go again with an 'Oh!')... @Barbara, I've mentioned these books to you before, but seeeeeeeeeriiiiiiiously, if you're on a bit of a fantasy trip at the mo', read the Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin. If I wound up on the proverbial desert island and was allowed only one work of fantasy fiction, it would be Broken Earth. The opening lines of book 1, The Fifth Season, read:

Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.​

Read them. They are great :)
 
Oh... (there I go again with an 'Oh!')... @Barbara, I've mentioned these books to you before, but seeeeeeeeeriiiiiiiously, if you're on a bit of a fantasy trip at the mo', read the Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin. If I wound up on the proverbial desert island and was allowed only one work of fantasy fiction, it would be Broken Earth. The opening lines of book 1, The Fifth Season, read:

Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
*Heads off to ... an online bookshop*
 
I was going to jump into this conversation, but anything I was going to say has already been said. LOL! So the Cliffs notes version of my take:
1. Yes, fantasy is a great way to explore ideas (political, social, emotional, whatever...) in an environment where you can make the reader think they're just running through the woods swinging swords and riding dragons. (I will admit that I'm trialling a novel study guide for my book The Dragon Slayer's Son in a couple of months, and all I can think as I write the guide is, 'well this'll suck all the joy out of it.')

2. I third the Broken Earth trilogy.
 
Animal characters can do the same job. In my graphic novel, the animals plan something that would be described as terrorism and set off all kinds of triggers in readers if the characters were human. Because they're wild animals, it's sufficiently escapist to work.

Also, when I first read Watership Down as a kid, I interpreted the Sandleford Warren as a "normal" society with a slightly corrupt, self-centred politician at the helm (ahem), Cowslip's warren as a religious cult, and Efrafa as a fascist dictatorship. Would I have picked up a book about politics and societies that suppress freedom of movement, aged 8? No. Would I now, aged 48? Probably not.

You can actually do a lot if you have animals and their herds or packs as characters, because readers can explore themes without thinking, hang on... 1940s Berlin wasn't like that... or similar fact clashes/research fails popping up to pull you out of the story. It's a pity many agents won't even look at such stories. There's massive reader demand, from what I've gathered.
 
(I will admit that I'm trialling a novel study guide for my book The Dragon Slayer's Son in a couple of months, and all I can think as I write the guide is, 'well this'll suck all the joy out of it.')
Yeah, but 'studying' a story is a very different thing, isn't it? And there'll always be those who enjoy knowing what makes a star burn in the sky, while others are happy to simply watch the sunset. Out of interest, what aspects of the novel do you want your students to study (I guess I'm really asking how much you want them to divine your intent vs. draw their own conclusions)?

Animal characters [...] There's massive reader demand, from what I've gathered.
Is there a popular misconception, do you think, that such stories are for for children? I ask because I think it's something that plagues fantasy in general.
 
Yeah, but 'studying' a story is a very different thing, isn't it? And there'll always be those who enjoy knowing what makes a star burn in the sky, while others are happy to simply watch the sunset. Out of interest, what aspects of the novel do you want your students to study (I guess I'm really asking how much you want them to divine your intent vs. draw their own conclusions)?
There are some strong themes in the book around values and wildlife conservation--basically I want students to use the concepts presented in the book as a springboard to discuss societal values, personal values, and school values. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, conservation is an important topic of discussion in everyday life, so it makes sense for them to consider the conservation issues the book raises. These are the things I as an author want kids to 'study'.

But teacher me recognises that these things are the spice--what makes it relevant to the kids. Realistically, the reason teachers do novel studies is the national curriculum and all the literacy achievement objectives kids need to meet. The meat of a novel studies unit is using the activities around the book's themes to provide students opportunities to practice the reading and writing skills they need to meet those learning objectives.
 
Yeah, but 'studying' a story is a very different thing, isn't it? And there'll always be those who enjoy knowing what makes a star burn in the sky, while others are happy to simply watch the sunset. Out of interest, what aspects of the novel do you want your students to study (I guess I'm really asking how much you want them to divine your intent vs. draw their own conclusions)?


Is there a popular misconception, do you think, that such stories are for for children? I ask because I think it's something that plagues fantasy in general.
Yes, definitely. Plus, any film that's animated, regardless of genre, themes etc.
 
Realistically, the reason teachers do novel studies is the national curriculum and all the literacy achievement objectives kids need to meet.
And it's a huge challenge, I imagine, not to
suck all the joy out of it.
I remember doing To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet at high school, and I just didn't get them, couldn't engage. And looking back it's easy to blame the way it was taught – we were told the themes; I can't remember any discussion that allowed us to find them organically. But then again, some of the blame must lie with my teenage immaturity. Either way, I take my hat off to you, Robinne, it's hard to get kids to enjoy reading and 'study' it at the same time.
 
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