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Fantasy Literature and Mystification (Part 1)

I - mystification in fantasy literature

What China Mieville once called “feudalism lite” still forms the backbone of much fantasy literature. Whereas Mieville rightly criticizes many of the symptoms (ie. boys and magic rings or swords, etc.), I find that the most pernicious aspect of this literature is the mystification of feudalism as a mode of production. Although Mieville does mention this problem, I want to examine it in more detail. I am interested in examining that extremely popular fantasy literature where a distorted and ahistorical version of feudalism is celebrated. While it is true that there has been a recent trend of grittiness (reviled and called a “fad” by those who want a return to sterile feudalism), feudalism lite still dominates fantasy. The spectre of Tolkien has not been completely exorcized.

The “idiocy of rural life” in this literature is depicted as honest and robust. Heroes come from small villages where, aside from a few bad apples, everyone is generally happy. There are no landlords, no gentry, no toiling through shit to please a feudal lord. Instead, these honest-but-ignorant folk (volk?) exist outside of actual feudalism; there is no oppressive structure that connects them to the castles and cities. They live in isolation, doing god-knows-what with their fields as if they have solved the riddle of production, avoided an exploitative system of tribute, and have no need of anything to improve their lives… except, of course, to send their heroic sons (or in some supposedly “feminist” versions, their daughters) out to battle with faraway “dark lords.”

Furthermore, the nobility as a class category is never questioned. Indeed, there are “bad” nobles, but this is not because the class itself is a problem––this is because of some pernicious and corrupting evil that must be destroyed in order to preserve the class as a whole. A good king (or sometimes queen) must be established, hopefully with good advisors, to save the world from evil. According to feudalism lite, the ruling feudal class is never seen as necessarily exploitative. In real and historical feudalism, however, “good” or “bad” individuals within this class are not the problem: in order to remain the dominant class, the kings and their nobles need to exploit the commoners, no matter how nicely they might do so––it is a function of their class. But since kings and their mystic powers (from their divine election, of course) are needed in the literature to defeat “evil” kings, and save the kingdoms of the “good” folk, the class basis of their existence is banished.

Thus, the antagonists of this fantasy literature are judged as “bad” simply because of some Platonic essence of evil. Nebulous justifications for their evil are asserted: they have “dark” powers and congress with demonic entities, they seek to enslave the good and noble folk, the indulge in torture… Good and pure rulers, of course, never oppress or torture their people. Everything will be okay in fantasy land as long as there is a good king––like how Aragorn begins an age of freedom and peace in Tolkien’s Return of the King. Feudalism itself is not a problem, this genre claims; it is simply a matter of good (divinely elected) versus evil (corrupt and against the order of nature) rulers.

Once the mode of production is obscured behind successive layers of vulgar moralism, once the class basis of these types of societies is obscured, all manner of reactionism can thrive without having to be explained. Unproblematized narratives of divine right, chosen people, the evil and backwards primitive races, and magical destiny appear as symptoms of this mystification––because these are ideologies of feudalism. And fantasy readers (I guility include myself, here) can indulge themselves in the resulting excitement.

Although I indicated above that there is a new trend in feudal-fantasy that attempts to reject these tropes, feudalism lite has not disappeared. In fact, it remains quite popular. Take, for example, Russell Kirkpatrick’s Across the Face of the World, a recent bestseller written in the last five years and the first book in a trilogy. In this book (and it is not alone) we find the same tired and reactionary elements of feudalism lite––and this is all due to its failure to establish the actual basis of its superstructural mess. Reviewers sully forth to celebrate Kirkpatrick as the next Tolkien. Readers excite themselves with yet another story of hardy peasants (two of them, of course, are boys with a destiny) confronting the forces of ultimate evil.

Since it is the 21st century, however, Kirkpatrick attempts to hide his (perhaps unintentional?) reactionism behind a naive liberalism. Petty provincialism between people groups are condemned, but this condemnation exists within a larger racial superiority. One of these people groups is a “chosen people” (descendents of the “First Men” elected by “the Most High”) and Kirkpatrick simply tells us that it is “bad” if some of these chosen people act like bigots towards the non-chosen people. The whole backwards concept of racial chosenness is taken as a given. In fact, in a stunning ideological parallel to real world racism, this chosenness connects to the novel’s larger tension between the “chosen” people (supported by the unchosen but nice people), and the evil, “oriental” types from the East. Once again the good people are stand-ins for white Europeans.

I do not believe, however, that writers like Kirkpatrick are intentionally racist and reactionary. As judged by some of his pathetic attempt at anti-racism, Kirkpatrick (unlike, say, the best-selling and unabashedly right-wing fantasy author Terry Goodkind), is simply a liberal. Just as liberal ideology fails to recognize the actual, structural oppression––and believes that tinkering with the status quo is the answer to problems such as racism––Kirkpatrick cannot understand that the underlying and unquestioned structure of his fantasy narrative is itself problematic. By mystifying his chosen social period, he is trapped in a structure from which only flawed and reactionary notions can emerge, regardless of how much tinkering he does.

Of course it could be argued that, since this type of fantasy literature tends to exist in a make-believe world, the feudal structure itself should be make-believe. This is all well and good except that, in light of most of the literature, such an argument is absurd. For one thing, the feudal elements in these books have been lifted from the real world. Notions of kings and knights, divine right, and courtly customs––feudal characteristics from this world’s history––are essential to much high fantasy. Ideas of social structure in fantasy do not emerge from a creative vacuum; they are based on the writers’ understanding of lived, human history. Thus, if an excited fantasy author has read too much King Arthur folklore, the mystified and feudal ideologies of this narrative manifest themselves within his books.

If an author was truly trying to construct a make-believe and utterly fantastic world, we should expect that it would look nothing like a medieval or pre-medieval Europe where the valorized human races bear uncanny resememblances to northern or western Europeans. In truth, one cannot create fantasy that is completely divorced from the real. Our creative process is social: creating art and literature is an act of production where the author creates by assembling and translating what she encounters in the world.

Furthermore, even if the fantasy world is make-believe, should there not be an attempt to reveal how this world actually works on a fundamental, social level? Fantasy authors often spent a lot of time discussing the mechanics of magical systems––if magic exists, then how does it work? Most fantasy authors do not want the possible, material existence of magic to be reified; otherwise magic becomes a deus ex machina and can be used, cheaply, to solve every conflict in the plot. If magic is real with the fantastical universe then, like all real things, it must have form and logic––it must have limitations and possess a specific social function. So why is it that, unlike fantasy magic, the fantasy society becomes reified?

The point is not to transform every work of fantasy into an imaginary political economy. Rather, the point is to give structural reality to the societies within these fantasy worlds and to not replicate the mystified, feudal ideology within the underlying narrative logic. While feudal ideology must, like in any real society, be disclosed by characters within these books, a “feudalism hard” fantasy literature would creatively deal with this ideology as ideology rather than a sublimated moralism behind the plot, or a universal fact of nature.

II - the emergence of hard feudalism

George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is an example of what we might be able to call “feudalism hard.” The numerous aristocratic protagonists function in a very real feudal world, despite all of the magic and monsters. They act like the nobility, justify their actions based on their ideology, and are not insipid heroes of mystified fantasy literature. Neither are Martin’s books boring acts of possible-world political economy: he simply understands how feudal societies functioned historically and this understanding serves as solid building blocks for his altered and fantastic literature.

At the same time, however, Martin’s books reveal that simply depicting a real feudalism does not allow fantasy literature to escape the problems of “feudalism lite.” While his feudal world is somewhat real, those who are valorized are ultimately members of the aristocracy. The plight of the peasantry is largely absent. The rising merchant-class, the possible desire for democracy, the way monarchies are experienced by the majority of the population… all of the contradictions are lacking. Thus, Martin’s harder feudalism is still, in some ways, a “feudalism lite” in that it never transcends the problems of the genre. He does not provide the clash of contradictions inherent in his fantasy mode of production, nor does he demonstrate the necessity of transcending these contradictions. The nobility, as gritty and real as it might seem, is still a universal fact.  Moreover, it is often unclear whether some of the "hard feudal" elements Martin describes are critiques or are simply an importation of unquestioned and oppressive ideas (i.e. he has been accused of sexism) into his narrative but, unlike the "feudalism lite" style of fantasy where problematic gender relations are sublimated, being more honest about his ideological commitments.

The point is not to impose some narrative rule as stupid as there must always be a democratic revolution in feudal fantasy literature. Rather, the necessity for the transgression of feudalism––the confused rebellions, the problems the monarch causes, the hatred of kings––should somehow be apparent, even in germ form. (There are, of course, books that intentionally ignore the rules of realism. The writers responsible for feudalism lite, however, are not magic realists or surrealists. In fact, despite the irreality of books that can be called “magic realism” or “surrealism”, these are often more real than that fantasy that seeks to provide the reader with a sense of realism––the surrealist novel knows it is surreal.)