Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

High fantasy

misia doesn't like high fantasy, and lots of us do, and discussion has ensued. And part of what strikes me upon reading the comments is how few of the works mentioned I would classify as high fantasy on an immediate emotional level. Part of that is that I know of too many ways to categorize and sub-categorize, so when papersky referred to pameladean's Secret Country books, I thought, "Those aren't high fantasy! Those are other-world fantasy!" Well, okay, so there are the dragons. And also the unicorns. But Patrick! Patrick is not a character in high fantasy, so I'm standing firm on my first thoughts, on second thought! So there!

(I wanted to say, oh, how I loved Patrick, but actually I didn't much like Patrick at all, though I had some affection for him as well. Complicated. But I loved that he was there, if that made any sense. He is a very right thing to have in those books. Which, not being high fantasy, are not the subject of this post. But might be if not for Patrick.)

I was going to say that I like high fantasy because I'm not smart enough to tell the difference between it and other kinds of fantasy, but while my brain may not be smart enough, my instincts are: I didn't read anything I consider high fantasy for a couple of years, a couple more years ago. alecaustin told me to give Robin Hobb's Assassin series a try, and I would like to say it restored my faith in high fantasy, but I think the truth of the matter is that I was ready to like high fantasy again, albeit not as compulsively as once I did, and Robin Hobb was the first thing I was handed under those conditions.

The thing there is that some of the things I really like in Robin Hobb (the Rain Wild Traders, oh, oh!) are not typical of the kind of high fantasy misia doesn't like, to the point where you could probably push it out of that category if you wanted. Once you're talking about not liking muddled Western Europe with dragons and elfses, it's very easy to point at a lack of muddling or elfses to throw the work in question out of that category and into the larger, broader category of "literature of the fantastic."

Some high fantasies take Norse mythology and make them Greek mythology with fairer skin. They assume that gods play analogous roles and have analogous attitudes. But look: people are constantly getting screwed by Greek gods. Hubris is a big thing. The Norse? Not at all big on human hubris. At all at all. The gods are constantly losing to each other, to mortals, to death itself. The gods are mortal. The death of the gods is foreknown. This should mean more in fantasies that deal with Norse or pseudo-Norse culture and religion. The existence of the Allthing should mean more. Weregeld should mean more. These things get skimmed at best by some poorly done high fantasy, and it really, really annoys me. Steal from other cultures for your books. By all means. But know what you're stealing and why.

I often contrast Faust (not Greek, I know; I am not entirely stuck on the Greeks here) and Odin. When Odin gives up his eye for wisdom, he gets wisdom. He has made a bargain, and the bargain -- I think fairly clearly -- is worth it, both to him and to the other party. That's a different view of the world entirely. It is a trade, in the context of a trading culture, and other beings have something of worth to offer the Allfather: trade has some meaning with a god. Why does this not inform more fantasy novels containing big bearded men with axes? WHY? Don't get me wrong: I am quite, quite fond of big bearded men with axes. (Or, y'know, without axes. Take your pick. But not your pickaxe. Ahem. Sorry.) But as tasty as they are, they are not the good bit of Norse culture. They are not the interesting bit to steal. This is like taking the toga as the interesting bit in Classical mythology.

I feel like my friend Rachel. She used to get in arguments constantly when we were at college. We would argue that the psychology major was not a science major at our college, and she would argue back that psychology was too a science, and would end up lamenting that it wasn't taught as one at our college. I do have quite a bit of sympathy for frustration with fantasy. I have that myself. I have higher standards for things that draw on Norse mythology than I do for things that draw on, say, Sumerian mythology, because I know it much better and it resonates much more with me.

I think this is a different objection from misia's, though. I don't think she's complaining that she would love to like Norse or Celtic or Arthurian fantasies and is being thwarted by the idiots and hacks who are working in those fields. I would like to think she would like Dwarf's Blood Mead, but I really have no reason to think so except that one hopes people like one's books, and sometimes they just don't. Sometimes it's the wrong book for the person.

I think Tooth and Claw is about dragons, though. I don't think it's only about dragons, but I think I would be doing Jo a disservice if I said it only looked like it was about dragons. It really is about dragons, and also things other than dragons, and I think if it wasn't really about dragons, it would be a much worse book.

I keep having the problem that everything I try to point at as a reason to like high fantasy is also a reason to like something else, and not necessarily a reason to overcome some of high fantasy's foibles. Even papersky's excellent bit about how she likes things to matter absolutely is true in fantasies I would not classify as high at all, and in some SF, and even in some rare and lovely mainstream work.

I think it's like avocado, is what. It's a taste easiest acquired early, it's easy to get sick of in overabundance, there's no reason to force yourself to like it, its nutrients are available elsewhere, sometimes it's hard to tell whether you've got a decent one because they look roughly the same on the outside...but if you pick out a good avocado and you like avocado, there's really nothing like it.
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