The Rhetorics of Fantasy and the Rhetorics of Social Justice
That is the title of the talk Farah Mendlesohn, Professor and Head of Department in the Department of English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University, planned to give last Friday as the keynote address at the 2016 Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference at UBC.
She didn’t exactly give it – instead, as she freely confessed, her talk was more off the cuff as she thought aloud about fantasy and social justice, giving the audience a glimpse into what has been brewing in her head over the past few years –
“I’m a very slow thinker. People think I’m a very fast thinker, because I respond quickly, but actually there’s several years of thinking behind it.”
[Disclaimer from your Roving Reporter – not all quotes are verbatim; those not are noted. The above quote is not verbatim.]
But please note: if you have not met Farah or heard her introduce herself, you may be pronouncing her name incorrectly in your minds, which means that when you do get to meet her you will annoy her immensely by assuming F-A-R-A-H is said “fair-ah.” It is not. “Far-ah” is correct, as in far-off, because she lives in England, which is a long way away from Vancouver, and Ah, Now I Understand, because that is the effect her work has.
If you haven’t heard of Farah, she is best known for the book Rhetorics of Fantasy, wherein she examines how the narrative structures of fantasy novels reinforce or, more often, contradict the theme of the novel. She explained this to us via a coding term: legacy code. All programs, or almost all programs, are built on pre-existing (older) programs. Over time, these layers of programs accumulate crap you can’t get rid of (I’m quoting loosely here), so that every so often a program that runs perfectly well goes kablooey and there is nothing you can do to get rid of legacy code because it is part of the programs on which your program is built.
Fantasy is riddled with legacy code.
“[Legacy code in fantasy] makes it very hard for narratives of social justice to have the rhetorics of social justice.”
Want an example? Farah showed a clip of the tv miniseries 10th Kingdom, a fairy tale world meets modern world (NYC, specifically) mash-up involving portals between the realms. It’s clever, possibly funny, and offers a feast for critical examination. So why did Farah declare that she would never teach this series? [Never use it in class as a text.] Because of the legacy code: every character we saw in the clip was white, with one exception: a stupid, violent, brown-skinned troll who ends up mugging people in Central Park. That’s legacy code.
Fantasy is notoriously difficult to define, and Farah has a clear stance on the problem. “Instead of thinking about what fantasy is, we need to think about what fantasy does.” There are therefore four types of fantasy:
- Portal-quests: we [readers, identifying with the protagonist] are invited into the fantastic
- Immersive: we [readers and protagonist] think we know the world
- Intrusion: the fantastic enters the fictional world
- Liminal: we [readers] and protagonists may not agree on what is fantastic.
Portal quests, Farah said, “are basically exercises in tourism.” [I was reminded, and Farah must have had in mind although she did not mention, Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and later novels Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin; the former skewers this theme, the second creates the scenario under which these typical tourist-type narratives could happen, and the latter looks at the long-term consequences of that tourism. They are extremely funny and I recommend them to all fantasy readers and writers.] Narrative dependency is a central feature: the ‘tourist’ (questing protagonist) believes everything they are told about the world they enter, especially about the structure of the world, because what have they to test it against? They are almost utterly vulnerable to the perspectives and biases of their mentors/guides in the world, and therefore vulnerable to buying into “that’s the way it’s always been and you can’t change it.” Harry Potter’s acceptance of the enslavement of house elves is a case in point. Portal fantasies may hace social justice narratives, but characters remained locked – they are invested with people in power.
The problem with immersive fantasies is that we build them with legacy code – our own (often unexamined) ideas about peoples, groups, ethnicities, and so on.
In intrusion fantasies, “the intruder is always fascinated by our world.”
“No intruder enters our world, looks at it, says, ‘nah,’ and turns around and goes away.” (Rough paraphrase.)
Portal fantasies are “descended from colonialist dreaming. They’re about going somewhere else, and being incredibly important somewhere else.” Intrusion fantasies are justification of portal fantasies. In portal fantasies, we (reader/protagonist) go to somewhere else and are important. In intrusion fantasies, an intruder (often non-human) comes to our world; the intrusion fantasy is based on the “fear of them doing to us what we wanted to do to them in the portal fantasies.” Zombies and vampires, for example, huge in the USA right now, are metaphors for colonization. Vampires go somewhere and suck the people there dry. Zombies go somewhere and bomb the people there “because we can.”
Intrusion narratives vary, Farah noted, according to the country of the author. American novels “always have a narrative of genocide.” In British novels the theme is “colonize them and teach them and eventually they will become equal partners.” In Canada, fantasy narratives push for co-existence and/or assimilation. So, for example, American novels may have large numbers of vampires or gremlins mobbing over a wall to invade, reflecting American history/war policy/fears.
“[Intrusion narratives] are fantasies… about how we deal with immigrants.”
Then she broke off from her talk a little bit to elaborate on the kinds of legacy code that have become almost intrinsic, almost required, in fantasy, and to name a few novels that resist the legacy code.
Folklore-ish fantasies tend to be nationalistic. There is often a sense of deep time, which isn’t always a problem except that it tends to become a necessity. In mainstream (white) America, there is/has been a sense of not having much history, so writers made up, stole, or appropriated history from other peoples. There is also often a mutuality of belonging between land and people. But what if you are a people who don’t have land? This tendency is sometimes taken to the point where nations and people within those nations, have characters, and not just characteristics, but absolute traits. This sort of thinking prohibits change, such as social mobility or emigration, and endorses ethnic homogeneity within national borders. Robin McKinley’s Chalice is a case in point: certain people cannot leave the land or the land will die. On the other hand, Lifeblood by Jo Walton works against this thinking. People in this novel have a connection to the land, but they take the connection when they leave, so that new connections to different plots of land can be forged (and broken) as becomes necessary.
Another nasty piece of legacy code is Orientalism, which she summed up as follows:
- magic is other
- magic indicates primitivism
- and it only takes a little bit of the Other to make white folk specially magical
(Those notes verbatim from her powerpoint slide.) So all those novels about a white person with a great-great-great-great grandparent from another realm, whose (virtually undetectable and culturally extinct, so far as the protagonist is concerned) blood gives them a special insight into *everything*? Or a white person who undergoes some ceremony with the indigenous (magical) peoples and therefore becomes far more magically powerful than, say, the actual indigenous people who have devoted their lives to magical study? Yeah. Sliiiiiiightly problematic.
Farah was very up-front about the Harry Potter books. “I apologize if you love [these books], but they’re fundamentally unjust.” Harry Potter is possibly stuck in the 1950s. Here’s why:
- “Other nations have cute habits and talk in weird accents and we know they can’t beat us at sport even if they have a star player who is exotic enough that all the girls go wild” aka Viktor Krum doesn’t win.
- Half-breed giants (Hagrid, Olympe Maxime) are despised. (Well, Hagrid is; Madame Maxime keeps her ancestry a secret.)
- “It’s okay to dispossess others of their land” aka degnoming.
- “It’s okay to wander around the world collecting wildlife so someone can battle it in an arena” aka Hungarian Horntails. Bear-baiting is dead but dragon-baiting is well and kicking.
Most blatant of all,
“You can fight Voldemort and still keep house elves.”
Another pervasive bit of legacy code is that being half-something (eg. biracial or half-nonhuman) either makes you bad/less (Hagrid) or it makes you special. Either you’re lesser or you’re (often magically) superior. Neither approach changes a fundamentally unjust system of treating children born to parents of different ethnicities, religions, or (in fantasy) species as Other instead of fully human.
Farah noted that North American audiences may miss nuances of the Harry Potter series. For one, “the Dursleys aren’t upper middle class, they’re middle class businessmen of the sort upper middle class intellectuals despise.” So the Weasleys, for all their poverty and quirkiness and that whole blood-traitor business, are socially superior to the Dursleys. The aristocratic power structure is thereby reinforced. (Janet thinking aloud here: you could argue that the Malfoys are the epitome of aristocracy, but they are countered by the Weasleys. There is no equivalent counter to the unpleasantness of the Dursleys. We never meet the Grangers, for example.)
So: to sum up the legacy code of fantasy:
- Boundaries and borders (preference for strict homogeneous ethnic national lines; belief that justice/safety is all about protecting borders. Evil rulers can do whatever they want within their own country so long as they don’t invade other countries – this, Farah noted, was the prevailing attitude in Europe up to the Second World War; she proposed that Hitler’s mistake was invading Czechoslovakia; he could have gone on herding his own country’s population into concentration camps and nobody would have interfered if he hadn’t crossed that national boundary.)
- Archetypes and stereotypes
- Nostalgia and the mechanisms of the world (fantasy tends to be set in the past and loves monarchies; Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tale of Time City is an antidote to this.)
- Destinarianism (which came into fantasy in the 1950, she said)
- saviours and protectors
- … and the half-breed [sic]
- Cultural appropriation
Farah noted historical trends in fantasy and children’s literature. “In the pre-war period, children stumble into fantasies. They just happen to be in the right place at the right time.” After, children entered fantasies because they were born special somehow. Oh, and “Narnia is Canada.”
“One of the major movements of fantasy is dislocation.”
Farah concluded her talk by briefly discussing several books which upset or otherwise resist fantasy’s legacy code.
- Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett
- Rail Head by Philip Reeve
- Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge has an unintentional protagonist (“She just kind of pulls the wrong strings, and things start to fall apart”) and lovely guild resistance to aristocratic demands.
- Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey examines denial of agency. “How do you find agency when you are powerless?”
- Drowned Ammet by Diana Wynne Jones was the first book that admitted that poverty leaves marks, and not merely psychological. “We wear our social background” in our skin, our teeth, our limbs…
- Iron Council by China Mieville
- The Borderland series by Rhiannon Lassiter
- The Everworld series by K. A. Applegate
Farah emphasized that, unlike what you read in a typical save-the-world fantasy, social change is slow. After every shift in society or revolution “we produce new marginalized groups.” Some antidotes:
- Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge nails how slow cultural change is, Farah said. “It’s the funniest book about genocide I’ve ever read.”
- Sci-fi author Karen Travis wrote a book (the title of which I unfortunately could not catch) about solipsism and evolutionary drive.
- Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton takes Victorian ridiculousness as if they were real, and applied to dragons. A send-up.
Still wondering about the liminal fantasy, which is the only one Farah didn’t discuss?
“The liminal fantasy constantly depends on doubt, so things are constantly being disrupted.”
Want more quotes to chew on?
“[You can only write what you know] but it is amazing the limits of people’s knowledge.”
“You have to know what the future will look like if you’re going to try to get there.”