“How does the never to be differ from what never was?” – Cormac McCarthy

There’s been a huge number of blog posts generated in the fantasy and sci-fi community as a result of this blog post which is an interesting argument essentially saying that current  fantasy is too nilhistic and yearning for the return to the glory days of Tolkien and Howard.

Wertzone, Joe Abercrombie and R. Scott Bakker have all had a stab at demonstrating why this is wrong although Wertzone’s argument is probably the killer for me: it was never true in the first place. Even ignoring The Silmarillion (which after all was published posthumourously in 1977, the same year as Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R Donaldson. Another example of fantasy’s fine tradition of anti-heroes)  and concentrating only on Lord of the Rings it’s a curious argument. For the one person who has not read or seen Lord of the Rings there are some pretty big spoilers coming up!

Big Hollywood rhetorically poses an alternate Lord of the Rings ending where:

Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.

Whilst sounding quite interesting we don’t really have to imagine anything as grim as that. Imagine a Lord of the Rings where good is corrupted and fails to destroy the ring, where Hobbiton is ransacked whilst the hobbits are away and much of what they fought for is irretrievably lost, where Frodo is emotionally destroyed by his journey and unable to return to normality and where magic leaves middle earth. Sounds pretty much like the ending to me.

Given that this golden age of fantasy never existed outside the cherry picked imagination of Leo’s mind it’s fair to say that it still exists now. As anyone who knows my fantasy or sci-fi taste knows I’m quite a big fan of nihlistic visions of other worlds or humanities future. They strike a greater cord with me than mythical and eternal absolute good vs absolute evil battles. I’m glad that fantasy has developed as an art-form to talk about real people: who are broken, twisted and yet still capable of heroism and good like Frodo. The existence of evil that has a motivation besides eeeeevil whether that be power or simply survival such as Boromir. Those are modern themes that modern readers can identify with and have continued to drive fantasy since its birth.

About lenty

22 year old medical statistician living in London. I love drone music, F1, politicians and reading fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian fiction. Generally I post about a mixture of all the above plus the movies I watch!
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4 Responses to “How does the never to be differ from what never was?” – Cormac McCarthy

  1. Callan S. says:

    What I would ask is is the fiction a reflection on real life society, with some sort of goal of making real life society better through that reflection (‘better’ can just be the authors idea of better, that’s fine)

    Otherwise if it’s just pure popcorn entertainment, what’s wrong with him arguing for non nihilistic entertainment?

    • Dan says:

      “Otherwise if it’s just pure popcorn entertainment, what’s wrong with him arguing for non nihilistic entertainment?”
      Nothing. But he isn’t arguing for non-nihilistic entertainment. He is arguing against entertainment that he has incorrectly identified as nihilistic.

  2. lenty says:

    Thanks for both your interesting comments.

    There’s nothing wrong with desiring popcorn entertainment although it is not for me. I just don’t see this grand decline in fantasy from the pure non-nihlistic days of Howard/Tolkien to the “sewer” of Abercrombie. Fantasy has always had it’s fair share of nihlism and popcorn with the best work mixing these.

    The nihlistic tones are probably becoming slightly stronger as the genre develops but I don’t think that’s a reflection on a change in society over the last 50 years. Nihlistic novels aren’t a novel development to fantasy and have been popular in other genres for centuries. I think it’s a sign that the genre is developing with authors trying out new concepts. There’s only so long a genre can trope myths before it’s retreading old ground. Not only do authors desire to create but readers crave for surprise.

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