I was reading a guest post at Blood of the Muse called Slums of the Shire by Daniel Polansky. (Read his piece here: http://www.bloodofthemuse.com/2011/08/guest-post-slums-of-shire-by-daniel.html) He utters a thought most readers of High Fantasy, at some point, must ponder.
Perhaps it’s my being a history buff, but the past sucked. For about a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe just seems like a real sh*t place to reside. Lots of rooting in filth until you die at thirty, a half mile from where you born. Nominally the nobles had it better, but still, your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches and your pretty young bride had like a one in two chance of surviving child birth.
This probably is why I don’t understand fantasy—that is to say that collection of high medieval tropes collected by Tolkien and gleefully reproduced by two generations of descendants.
Take elves for instance—though perfectly capable of imagining a world where higher intelligence evolved in a species separate from humanity, my powers of make believe fail when positing that the relation between said species would be anything beyond unceasing warfare.
He goes on to say
Even when nestled comfortably in a quest to kill a dragon or overthrow a dark lord or what have you, strange thoughts plague me. What does the shady side of Gondor look like? How many platinum coins would a dime bag set me back? What is the point of hobbits? They’re just short, fat people. People are plenty fat as it is.
Sauron the Great himself (who rules what is literally the shady side of Gondor, a swank joint on Upper East called Minas Morgul) could not have voiced that last sentence more clearly. Hobbits are no use, and have no point. Sauron is occupied with modern ideals, industrialization and total wars of extermination: Hobbits would not last long, even as slaves.
Mr Polansky goes on to hawk his novel LOW TOWN, which he advertises as a low fantasy “film noir” sort of grim and gritty tale of murder and intrigue among spies and drug dealers.
Low Town centers on the conceit that a world with magic wouldn’t be altogether different from a world without it. People are still (on the whole) selfish, stupid creatures, focused almost exclusively on the immediate satisfaction of their basic desires, only now some of them can shoot fire out of their hands.
It sounds like an interesting conceit and I wish him healthy sales and many happy fans with it. I might pick it up myself.
Some of the best SFF I ever read was precisely written by this formula: take the film noir tropes and put them into a speculative fiction setting.
I am thinking of DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer and NINE PRINCES IN AMBER by Roger Zelazny, the first of which could be described as Philip Marlowe as Time Traveling gumshoe, and the second as Sam Space meets Machiavelli in Elfland.
Believe you me, I got nothing against Low Fantasy Noir.
Oh, you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, right?
But the good Mr Polansky, if he is cracking wise with his quip about the Dark Ages, or, as historians call it, ‘Late Antiquity’ or, as we Catholics call it, the ‘Lost, Glorious, Honorable, Ancient and Most Chivalric Golden Age of High Christendom’, makes a good wisecrack, and we should laugh along with it.
But if the comment is meant to be taken seriously, we should laugh at it.
I say ‘it’ and not ‘he’ for the comment I wish to take to task, not the man. I know nothing of him but this pair of paragraphs I quote, not even so much as to know how he meant the comment to be taken. But the comment, taken at face value, if meant seriously, shows a true lack of understanding of high fantasy, a laughable ignorance, but a lack of understanding which perhaps a few words can fill up.
No one wants to die at thirty, half a mile from where he was born, unless of course he likes his home, and any patient would prefer antibiotics to leeches, I grant you. But man does not live by bread alone, or even by jet travel and space age medicine. We paid the price to enjoy the mixed blessings of the modern day, and something beyond the price we paid was lost, something precious.
To look at mankind, who so clearly yearns for some sort of communion or reunion with nature that the pagans people the woods with nymphs and satyrs adumbrate, or the nursery tales or Aesop fables with talking animals, and conclude the only possible relation between man and elf is mutual genocide is a Darwinian rather than sacramental view of life: it is simply blind to what in man, weak though it may be, is not devout to totalitarian modernism and ideas of total war.
It is the world view of François de Robespierre, who guillotined the aristocracy of France like vermin, not the view of Francis of Assisi, who saluted the verminous wolf as his brother.
As an honorary Houyhnhnm, I of course applaud any author choosing to satirize the race of selfish, stupid creatures we call Yahoos. My only concern is the one not lose sight of the fact that satire is satirical, an eructation of mirthful scorn, not an objective and dispassionate report (such as we Houyhnhnms love) of the truth of the human condition. Mr Polansky was careful enough to say that humans on the whole were selfish, and focused almost exclusively on their base appetites. Ah, it is through this tiny crack he leaves to us that some sunlight streams.
What’s the use of fat people?
No use, to those who forget what famine is like. And that includes those who forget what spiritual famine we modern men who are (on average) so physically fat must suffer.
Hobbits are jolly! What other point do you need to get?
If you don’t get Hobbits, let me say that the Harfoots, Stoors and Fallohides serve as clear and striking a mythical representation of what we love about hearth and home and family and simple life as dragons are a mythical representation of hoarding, iron-hearted greed — or, if not dragons, then mills and factories and smogs of Mordor.
To be sure, Ye Goode Olde Days were indeed When Things Were Rotten, and the contrast between the high ideals and the low stench is worthy perhaps of the merriment of a Chaucer. But you have to appreciate what high things the heights were trying to reach before you can even see the contrast.
Perhaps more than a few words are needed, for we must discuss Noir and Fantasy both High and Low, and say what each in its proper place should be, and then we can see how the odd miscegeny of Hard Boiled Elflanders can be done.
What is the meaning of High Fantasy genre, or, as we professionals call it, Tolkien Ripoff? For that matter, what is the meaning of Low Fantasy, or, as we professionals call it, Robert E Howard Ripoff? While we are on the question, what is the meaning of the Hard Boiled Detective genre, also called Noir, or, as we hacks call it, Dashiell Hammett Ripoff?
You are no doubt puzzled by the Linnaean classification by which we professional writers categorize our targets, er, I mean, our genres. This is not because all true professionals merely rip off better ideas better executed by talented and classical models. No, not at all. First, we also rip off mediocre ideas from peers and inferiors. Who can be picky when you have to make a living? Second, there are original professional writers in the field! Or, if not writers, then writer. I think his name is Harlan Ellison.
Be that as it may, let us attempt an answer to our last question first: what is Noir?
Dashiell Hammett famously described the archetypal Sam Spade as a man who has seen the wretched, corrupt, tawdry side of life but somehow loyally retained his “tarnished idealism.”
Had Sam Spade put the black bird in his back pocket and gone off to Vegas with Brigid O’Shaughnessy at the end of THE MALTESE FALCON, or, in other words, had there been no ideal to provide the ‘tarnished ideal’ of Noir, there would have been no film. Without the monologue by Spade at the climax where he turns the dame who maybe he loves and maybe he don’t over to the police merely because it is the right thing to do, the tale would have been entertaining, tawdry, disappointed, and forgotten, rather than the defining landmark of the genre. (Which genre would have been called instead Raymond Chandler Ripoff).
Speaking of Chandler, allow me to quote the opening paragraphs of THE BIG SLEEP, so that I might make a comment about Noir and Knights, medievalism and perhaps lead to a point about High Fantasy.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
The main hallway of the Sternwood Place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him.
The knight who is not trying very hard to rescue the damsel is the opening image of the work, and the central conceit not just of this novel, but Noir generally.
Noir is about knighthood: Tarnished but not vanished knighthood.
The armor does not shine much these days. But Chandler captures the mood perfectly in the final line of the paragraph: since the knights are not doing their jobs, Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s paladin and cynical gumshoe, will climb the heights to lend his mettle and main as well. As, perhaps, end up climbing the walls.
But notice the immediate parallel here between Noir and High Fantasy. The tarnished knight of the grim gumshoe is not looking forward hopefully to the higher ideals which one day will shine on his darkened world: the tone is one of a man who has known and lost higher things. The tone is of a present darkness remembering a past brightness. The tone is nostalgic.
High Fantasy rests for its paramount appeal on nostalgia: the longing for a world once known, now lost. An Uzi is a more efficient killing machine than the great sword Excalibur, but the Uzi is never to be described in words like these: “The winter moon, brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth and sparkled keen with frost against the hilt: for all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks, myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth work of subtlest jewellery.”
By the same token, the sewers and streets of New York are cleaner than the crooked lanes of Athens, but New York is famed neither for her acropolis nor her philosophers. And again, a Panzer tank is better armored than a cataphract of Byzantium or a Paladin of Charlemagne, and an ICBM more dangerous than any dragon.
Oh, you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, right?
But we all know, or should all know, that modern society for all its hard and metallic glories and all its cold and soaring skyscrapers, and for the miracles of moonshots and penicillin shots, and the blessings of good plumbing and the opium of twenty-four-hour television, has lost something.
Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy.
The difference between a culture that respected and reveres the virginity of the maiden fair and the bravery of the warrior prince, and the cult that reveres the bravery of the transgendered community and protects the crooked penis of a presidential adulterer with comically ferocious self-righteousness, is not merely a difference between an ape and a man, a savage and a savant. I mean that it is not an evolution to a better state to despise virgins and destroy marriage and then demand the military accept Marinesses to serve alongside Marines: and while the wealth and happiness which issues from the dark Satanic mills pours forth the blessings of a cornucopia into the comfortable fatness of our overweight era, it is not an unmixed blessing. The Middle Ages may have been evil and cruel and dirty in many things, but they were never held Mutually Assured Destruction by thermonuclear annihilation to be a work of wise political policy.
Don’t get me wrong: modern medicine saved my life, and the modern world provides me with luxuries that Caligula and Nero could not have enjoyed, nor the robust Empress Messilina. The modern world also provides me with dangers and temptations beyond those that lured Dr Faustus into the inferno.
Despite the extravagant claims of some scholars in the speculative fiction world, who wish to include Ariosto or Dante or Homer in our ilk, modern fantasy in the sense we mean the word started with William Morris, and it was part and parcel of the Pre-Raphaelite medievalism and romanticized longing for the world lost when Merry England became Modern England, unmerry and industrialized. It was a genre despised by the worldly-wise, who rushed to heap adoration on realism.
The only tales ever told in the history of the world without any element of magical or the supernatural were those told in the modern age. It is for this reason that the extravagant claims of those who call Dante an SFF writer are worth pondering: because there is a common thread linking speculative fiction with romances and epics and fairy tales of old. That thread is an acknowledgment that the world is wider and wilder and weirder than we suspect, and that there are fields beyond the fields we know where elves might dance in moonlight or demons rage in flame or angels clothed in brightness soar at their lord’s command on errantry to deeds immense of which we mortal men hear no slightest fame.
The thread of course is broken. The epic tales or fairy tales of old were told to men who, even if they did not necessarily believe in fairies, believed they lived in a world where such things might exist, or dragons beyond the white space at the edge of the map. The modern fantasies are told to men who, even if they wished so dangerous a menace as a dragon might exist, believe we live in a world where no such thing can exist: all our maps of Earth are quite filled in.
As to what is the appeal of High Fantasy, that is a mystery I am reluctant to state, since, once stated baldly, it will lose some of its subtle and subversive appeal, or, rather, superversive. By subversive I mean that the current world in which we live, the current age of darkness, rests on certain assumptions which High Fantasy undermines: the assumption that might makes right, the assumption that man is the master of his own fate, the assumption that the universe is a machine and everything in it (including man) is merely a raw material to be exploited in the restless search for pelf and pleasure.
It is the kind of warped assumptions from which we moderns draw conclusion that label perversions as brave while labeling virgins as contemptible. The warped assumptions see all human relationships, even loving ones or loyal ones, as power struggles between irreconcilable enemies: there is no love between Sancho and Quixote, or between Frodo and Sam, in the warped modern thinking, because the relation between squire and knight or master and servant labels such unequal relationships as sinister, inauthentic and oppressive.
The appeal of High Fantasy is that it is Catholic: its mood and atmosphere and tropes hearken back to the High Middle Ages, when Europe was Christendom, and kings were not the heads of churches.
Now, to be sure, to any reader not quite carried away by the Romance of medievalism, or whom the air and atmosphere of Catholicism makes him wretch like Gollum tasting an elfin wafer of bread from the Golden Wood, will not be carried away by the appeal of High Fantasy, the epics of Tolkien and Mallory and Morris and their epigones.
But he might still like Low Fantasy, the sword and sorcery of Howard and his imitators.
I do not regard “Low” Fantasy as a low term or an insult, because I like the tastes of the common man. Low Fantasy is based on an air and atmosphere which once again, I hesitate to mention, or whose secrets to reveal, for fear that it will lose its subversive or subversive power over the unwary.
At the risk of offending my Protestant friends, Low Fantasy is Protestant and Germanic in much the same way that High Fantasy is Catholic and Gallic. Consider the philosophy and attitude, either spoken or implied, in the exploits of Conan the Barbarian. The assumptions of the modern world are cowardly and dishonorable assumptions, and Low Fantasy undermines them by showing the reader a glimpse of a world where the strength of a man’s arm decided the triumph or downfall of cities, and the honor of his word and the courage of his heart decided the strength of that arm.
After the Reformation, it was all the rage among English intellectuals and apologists for the New English way of life to demean and despise the old England. Protestant England did whatever it could to divorce itself from the reality of Catholic England, and this required an entirely new version of history, or, to use the technical term, a whopping pack of lies, to replace the memory of the land. So instead of England being part of the Roman World, and instead of the land who received Brutus as founder or whose green hills welcomed the Grail borne by Joseph of Arimathea, or whose cities sent Constantine to the Throne, the revised version of history make England a colony of a mythical race called Teutons, and all the Roman customs and Catholic attitudes and institutions, such as the free elections by which abbots and mayors of burgh were elevated, were attributed to German savages and pirate chiefs. Anyone reading these words, which are in English, no doubt has heard and absorbed the English version of history without being aware that there is any other. German scholars and Protestants performed a similar amputation of historical facts and made a similar effort to Romanticize the only elements of Late Antiquity with whom modern civilization had no trace and from which it takes no inspiration: the filth and barbarism of slave-holding savages beyond the rim of the ecumenical Empire. The romantic view of barbarism attributed to them powers they do not posses, such as the ability to overthrow civilizations. The Empire collapsed from internal rot, and the barbarians were invited in, and became Romans, and were baptized as Christians.
But we need not trouble ourselves with debates between visions and revisions of history now: all this to one side, even if the English view of history were admitted as accurate, it must be admitted also that it portrays barbaric life as the source of a healthy liberty and manly fortitude seen to be lacking, or feared to be lacking, in modern life: modern philosophers from Hegel onward often criticize civilization as weakening the nerves of discipline and emasculating the raw splendor of the Noble Savage.
A love of the savage darkness of barbarism, like a love of civilization of the Dark Ages, is subversive of the smoggy darkness of an industrialized, unromantic, and spiritually dead modernity. The appeal of Low Fantasy is that sometimes a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of splitting the shrieking skulls of brutes and crooked warlocks with an ax, while his vision turns red with invincible rage, and his ax-arm up to his armpit red with blood.
If you scoff that I call Low Fantasy ‘blue-collar’ I ask you where, were he transported to the modern day, we would be more likely to find Conan brooding over his drink: a restaurant serving fine wine from France, or a Honky-Tonk serving beer? Where would Conan have more amplitude to act like Conan, in the skyscrapers of Manhattan, or in the hills of West Virginia, where (as we all know from the true histories of Silver John by Manly Wade Wellman) warlocks still in darkness lurk?
Armed with these answers, let us turn to our final question: how can Noir and Fantasy be wed? What will their child look like, or should look like?
I submit you cannot have the one without the other, the high without the low. So if you are attempting a Noir style Fantasy, you must retain at least of hint of the high ideals now lost.
Absent the soaring ideals that illume the dawn-blazing golden minarets of some tower of an elfin sorcerer-king, you cannot with any conviction describe the filth and litter of the footpads rolling a drunk in the open sewer gutter so far down below, breaking that same king’s peace. If that high gold is not there, all you have is something like MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. A perfectly entertaining movie (and I can quote as much of it from memory than I can quote of PRINCESS BRIDE, which is considerable, so don’t accuse me of snobbery) but it is just satire. No deeper emotion than mirth mingled with wonder at the low folly of sad mankind is possible in satire, a kind of Jovial, aloof and fond contempt.
Much as I like NINE PRINCES IN AMBER, there is more than a little contrivance and conceit in the idea of plopping modern cynicism down into an age of crusades, holy endeavors, feats of arms and high attempts, or thrusting such a deliberately incongruous element into the high and misty twilight woods and haunted mountains surrounding elfland, into which realm no mortal passes unchanged, and even poets, mayhap returning sane from those far lands sublime, must weep for what they cannot catch in words.
The incongruity is the appeal of Fantasy Noir.
Incongruity comes from placing two disparate elements next to each other, such as a hard-boiled cynic like Carl Corey (not his real name) waking up in a crooked sanitarium and tossing him into a Ren Faire Fairyland where mad mages create worlds by inscribing the mystic patterns glimpsed burning in the core of magic gems with lighting and blood into the primal chaos, or where treasonous brothers, surpassing all mortals with the blade, fight their way one step at a time up the narrow switchbacking stair that guards the sacred mountain where the eternal city of gold and emerald gleams.
The writer, and the reader, must both believe in, if not love, both elements: or otherwise the tale just turns into satire, something akin to Duffy Duck joining the Green Lantern Corps. In other words, if it is not to be a satire, the fantasy element in the Noir Fantasy must be taken seriously: the City of Amber at the center of all worlds must be fair and beautiful beyond all cities of men, even if the treasonous and fratricidal princes, assassins, warlocks and schemers who inhabit it are dishonorable, conniving and, yes, even low below all men. Everything can be sullied and dirty and falling apart: but some shining dream, even if only a fugitive as a glimpse of an uncaught or sacred white unicorn, must be pure.
In closing, it occurs to me that there may be some readers who are unaware that the subgenre of Noir Fantasy has been around since at least 1970. It is hardly a new idea. To drive home my point, allow me to quote a few lines from FAREWELL MY LOVELY mingled with lines from NINE PRINCES IN AMBER, and I leave it as an exercise to the reader to see how well the voices match.
A pool of darkness opened at my feet and was far, far deeper than the blackest night. I dived into it. It had no bottom.
It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.
I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.
I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them three times.
The room grew steady.
Where the hell was I?
The room was full of smoke.
The smoke hung straight up in the air, in thin lines, straight up and down like a curtain of small clear beads. Two windows seemed to be open in an end wall, but the smoke didn’t move. I had never seen the room before. There were bars across the windows.
I yelled: “Fire!” That made me laugh. I didn’t know what was funny about it but I began to laugh. I lay there on the bed and laughed. I didn’t like the sound of the laugh. It was the laugh of a nut.
The one yell was enough. Steps thumped rapidly outside the room and a key was jammed into a lock and the door swung open. A man jumped in sideways and shut the door after him. His right hand reached toward his hip.
“It’s time for your shot.”
“Are you an M.D.?” I asked.
“No, but I’m authorized to give you a shot”
“And I refuse it’” I said, “As I’ve a legal right to do. What’s it to you?”
“You’ll have your shot,” he said, and he moved around to the left side of the bed. He had a hypo in one hand which bad been out of sight till then.
It was a very foul blow, about four inches below the belt buckle, I’d say, and it left him on his knees.
“____ ____!” he said, after a time.
I threw the bedclothes over his head and clobbered him with the metal strut I’d removed from the head of the bed.