Not Last Long, Even as Slaves

I was reading a guest post at Blood of the Muse called Slums of the Shire by Daniel Polansky. (Read his piece here: 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.



  1. Comment by deiseach:

    “your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches”

    Dear foolish young man, up until the mass production of antibiotics (chiefly penecillin) in the immediate run-up to and during the Second World War, you either got better from your fever by the natural strength of your constitution or you didn’t.

    I’m not saying mediaeval times were a barrel of laughs, but it is only comparatively recently (within living human memory; two of my aunts, my mother’s sisters, died in their 30s from illnesses that nowadays are easily treatable and left my grandmother to raise her granddaughter alongside her own younger children) that Pestilence, Famine and Death were wrestled to their knees (but still we 21st century humans have not managed to conquer War).

  2. Comment by deiseach:

    I also take mild exception to his boast of being a history buff; he says “If elves existed, our ancestors would have hunted them down to extinction and erected a monument to the accomplishment.”

    To which I say: yep, you got that much right, brother. The 11th century compilation named “Lebor Gabála Érenn” (Book of the Taking of Ireland, commonly known as the Book of Invasions) recounts the successive waves of invaders and settlers in Ireland, and ends up with the Milesians versus the Tuatha Dé Danann for the lordship of Ireland (précis from Wikipedia):

    “The story of the Gaels, which was interrupted at the end of Book 2, is now resumed. Íth, who has spied Ireland from the top of Breogán’s Tower, journeys to Ireland to investigate his discovery. There he is welcomed by the rulers, but jealous nobles kill him and his men return to Iberia with his body. The Milesians, or sons of his uncle Míl Espáine, set out to avenge his death and conquer the island. When they arrive in Ireland, they advance to Tara, the royal seat, to demand the kingship. On the way they are greeted in turn by three women, Banba, Fodla and Ériu, who are the queens of the three co-regents of the land. Each woman welcomes the Milesians and tells them that her name is the name by which the land is known, and asks that it remain so if the Milesians are victorious in battle. One of the Milesians, the poet Amergin, promises that it shall be so. At Tara they are greeted by the three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who defend their claim to the joint kingship of the land. It is decided that the Milesians must return to their ships and sail out to sea to a distance of nine waves from the shore, so that the Tuatha Dé Danann may have a chance to mobilise their forces. But when the Milesians are “beyond nine waves”, the druids of the Tuatha Dé Danann conjure up a ferocious storm. The Milesian fleet is driven out to sea but Amergin dispels the wind with his poetry. Of the surviving ships those of Éber land at Inber Scéine (the Shannon estuary) in the west of the country, while those of Érimón land at Inber Colptha (the mouth of the Boyne). In two ensuing battles at Sliabh Mis and Tailtiu, the Tuatha Dé Danann are defeated. They are eventually driven out and the lordship of Ireland is divided between Éber and Éremón.”

    Other versions of the story have it that as a condition of surrender, the Tuatha Dé Danann retreated within and under the land while the Milesians were left with the surface:

    “As part of the terms of their surrender to the Milesians the Tuatha Dé Danann agreed to retreat and dwell underground in the sídhe (modern Irish: sí; Scottish Gaelic: sìth; Old Irish síde, singular síd), the hills or earthen mounds that dot the Irish landscape. In some later poetry each tribe of the Tuatha Dé Danann was given its own mound.”

    This is why Áine, the Fairy Queen of Munster, is believed to live in Knockany (Áine’s Hill) in County Limerick, and why the mounds and fairy forts open on Hallowe’en to let the Fair Folk walk once again in the surface world, and why a Munster poet of the mid-eighteenth century named Seán Ó Seanacháin mentions the Fairy Queen of Thomond, Aoibheall of the Gray Rock, in his poem/song “An Buachaill Caol Dubh”.

    Some of us actually do come from places that have these very monuments, Mr. Polansky :-)

  3. Comment by bear545:

    One of the things that I find odd about the middle ages is how happy the artwork and poetry of the period is. In the era of the Black Death, and the Hundred Years War, and Famine, and Pestilence, and the Danse Macabre, Chaucer and Gower and their thousand brothers Anonymous all wrote and celebrated life and a good joke, reminded their readers to seize the day, and seldom meditated on misery, unless it were to remind themselves that all things pass. Today, our so-called poets, the ivory tower variety, have lives that immeasurably better materially than the wildest fantasies of the people of the Middle Ages, and yet they whine endlessly about how miserable they are, and how rotten life is.

    • Comment by deiseach:

      It strikes me, as well, that his Low Fantasy noir tale is just as unrealistic (that is, removed from the ordinary, everyday experience of the readers) as the High Fantasy tropes he is opposing.

      Those who have real lives in the real world which really involve contact with low-lifes, drug dealers, criminals, slums, thieves, and corruption (whether it is simply living on the wrong side of the tracks, being one of the gang members or being one of the cops who has to arrest the gang members) are not likely to read this tale – why should they? They’re living it already.

      The people who will read it are those who will not or do not experience it; they aren’t out there with knives or guns on the streets, wearing gang colours, or standing under a street lamp trying to peddle themselves for the price of a night’s lodging, or living in terror on a council estate under the rule of a criminal family. They’re reading the story for the frisson of the strange, the unusual, the different to their day-to-day life of working in an office, just as much as if they were reading it for daring knights and fair ladies and dragon slaying.

      Now, if Mr. Polansky is having a go at the legions of sub-Tolkien and sub-sub-Tolkien imitators who churn out multiple-volume fantasies of cardboard cut-out types, then I would say “Have at them!” and sit back to enjoy the carnage. But dash my wig, he has no right to insult hobbits or disrespect the Professor! As Mr. Wright points out, we know the shady side of Gondor already; to say that “On a somewhat broader level, the tendency of fantasy to focus on world shaking events often renders it irrelevant to the average reader…noir is concerned with the individual, with greed and lust, sins all of us can comprehend to some degree” is mistaken, at least with reference to “The Lord of the Rings”, where the sins and failings of all the characters as individuals, as well as the faults of the various races on the grand scale, play a part: Galadriel’s former ambition and self-will set up the real temptation that she faces from the Ring, Saruman started out with good intentions, Gondor as a whole (and not just Denethor) has lapsed into a place that dreams more of the glories of the past and so is a city of empty houses that should be filled with families and streets that are deserted by day; even the bucolic Shire knows about tragedy – when in the early chapters the hobbits in the pub are talking about Frodo’s parents and how they died in a boating accident, Ted Sandyman chimes in with the nasty rumour-mongering that “Some say she pushed him in and he pulled her in after” – so they’re not unfamiliar with the darker side of human nature!

    • Comment by John Hutchins:

      Those that are familiar with facing darkness and tragedy tend to write hopeful tales filled with heroes and morality. Those that have lived nice comfortable lives free from war, plague, loss, and want are more likely to write “dark” stories. The dark loses all appeal when its results are seen up close but seems appealing from a distance.

  4. Comment by Mary:

    I generally finesse the problem with copious amounts of magic. 0:)

  5. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    Very interesting, they comments by you and Mr. Polanski about high and low fantasy, and how the latter fits most easily with either the Robert Howard or noir types of fantasies. And I also see how high fantasy can be so easily thought of as Catholic. But I do query whether “Gallic” truly applies to high fantasy. Not if that high fantasy is thought to contain as well ancient and powerful (or once powerful societies and realms). Would not analogies made witth the Roman/Eastern Roman Empire be more plausible? If the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire had remained with the kings of the West Franks (France), then “Gallic” might have legitimately be applied to high fantasy.

    Mention was made of JRR Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS. And, within the framework he devoloped, the roots of that tale is indeed ancient, going back to the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth.
    I am reminded of this bit from Tolkien’s letter to Milton Waldman (quoted from page 127 of THE LETTERS OF JRR TOLKIEN): “In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Numenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium. The watch upon Mordor is relaxed. The pressure of the Easterlings and Southrons increases.” And “deiseach” quite properly alluded to Faramir’s disapproving remarks to Frodo on how childless lords sat in aged halls musing on the great deeds of their forefathers instead of striving to defend and preserve the greatness of Gondor (AND marrying and having children of their own!).

    This sense of history, with its phases and stages, can be found as well in the best works of science fiction. One of the clearest examples to me being the Technic History stories of Poul Anderson. He assumed that sometime around the 22nd century AD, mankind on Earth both managed to solve their well enough to prevent collapse and discovered a FTL means of reaching the stars. The result was first the rise of the Solar Commonwealth and the Polesotechnid Leage, and after their collapse, the restoration of order by a Terran Empire.

    Anderson never hid or denied how both of these phases or stages had their dark sides. But, along with the crimes, follies, stupidities, etc., of fallen sophont races, there was beauty and greatness. I’m reminded of this passage from Chapter VI of WE CLAIM THESE STARS! after Dominic Flandry had finished dictating a report: “He leaned back, cocked feet on desk, trickled smoke through his nostrils, and looked out the clear wall of his office. Admiralty Center gleamed, slim faerie spires in soft oolors, reaching for the brigt springtime sky of Terra. You couldn’t mount guard across 400 lightyears without millions of ships; and that meant millions of policy makers, scientists, strategists, tacticians, co-ordinators, clerks…and they had families, which needed food, clothing, houses, schools, amusements…so the heart of the Imperial Navy became a city in its own right. ‘Damned company town,’ thought Flandry. And yet, when the bombs finally roared out of space, when the barbarians howled among smashed buildings and the smoke of burning books hid dead men in tattered bright uniforms–when the Long Night came, as it would a century or a millennium hence, what difference?–something of beauty and gallantry would have departed the universe.”

    It was that sense of foreboding, the mortality of all merely created things, the apparent futility of striving to preserve one’s society, which struck to the hearts of many in Flandry’s time. And hence the same kind of slow decay mentioned by Tolkien and Faramir for Gondor.

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  6. Comment by John Hutchins:

    “The appeal of High Fantasy is that it is Catholic: its mood and atmosphere and tropes hearken back to the High Middle Ages”

    I would say that the appeal of High Fantasy is that it hearkens to Zion, the celestial city, and recognizes Babylon for Babylon. That I guess is not necessarily a disagreement though, the ideal of Zion is the heights that are always trying to be reached.

  7. Comment by Ashley Yakeley:

    (Following in from David Brin. Hello.)

    I must disagree with you (and John H. above). The appeal of high fantasy comes not from Catholicism, nor from some celestial Zion. The appeal of high fantasy comes from ideas about pre-Christian paganism. High fantasy asks the question “what if the old heathen mythology were actually true, and Christianity never happened?”. And it gives an appealing answer.

    This is where the elves and dwarves and wizards come from. This is also why the hobbits are so jolly: because joviality is a pagan virtue. You’ll notice there are no monastries in Middle Earth. There is no renunciation of worldly things, instead, “this world” is wonderful and magical. There are no churches in Middle Earth. Aragorn and Gandalf have a sense of right and wrong that comes from their own honour: they are a demonstration that we as humans are capable of coming up with our own values.

    The kings of Middle Earth are not head of churches because there are no churches. When you have magic sort of oozing out of the landscape, why would you need churches?

    Of course Narnia is rather the exception that proves the rule. Precisely because it has Christian themes, it is considered unusual as a fantasy setting, a bit too preachy.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      High fantasy asks the question “what if the old heathen mythology were actually true, and Christianity never happened?”
      E.R. Eddison possibly fits this description, but not WIlliam Morris, who invented the genre. JRR Tolkien’s world is written according to the same rule as Beowulf: a pagan world treated with respect, but treated as pre-Christian, not alternate to Christian.

    • Comment by John Hutchins:

      Have you read the Silmarillion?

    • Comment by The Ubiquitous:

      Absurd. From the pen of the selfsame Tolkien:

      “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”

      Now, insofar as the source of the appeal is, we cannot but agree that it has something to do with the book itself and what kind of a book it is. Strong presumptive evidence for this is in the quote above. Neither you nor I can go any further to say that this or that pagan influence — putting aside whether said influence exists at all, or if it was if it was also baptized — had a particular effect to increase readership; we cannot say so very well, at least. When you read the minds of Tolkien’s fans, let me know.

      I would guess, however, that it has something to do with the American re-printing of the book in the sixties and the absurd readings of it as being against The Man or of the Ring as being a Bomb metaphor, but that is only the efficient cause of the initial wide popularity. It does not have much bearing at all on continued success, which is demonstrable by way of the first datum of hippies dying out and the second datum of a very wide continued readership not including hippie-like people.

    • Comment by Mary:

      This is also why the hobbits are so jolly: because joviality is a pagan virtue.

      Witness the amazing joviality of the pagan countries of the current day, such as Japan and India.

      You’ll notice there are no monastries in Middle Earth. There is no renunciation of worldly things, instead, “this world” is wonderful and magical.

      Tell that to Frodo. For that matter, tell that the elves, who fight and risk their lives for a world that has no place for them.

      There are no churches in Middle Earth.

      Very unpagan, that. Pagan lands swarmed with churches, because you never knew when a god would be angered by the absence.

      Aragorn and Gandalf have a sense of right and wrong that comes from their own honour: they are a demonstration that we as humans are capable of coming up with our own values.

      Gandalf isn’t human but an angel, you know. Aragorn is human, but that’s his conscience speaking.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        “Aragorn and Gandalf have a sense of right and wrong that comes from their own honour: they are a demonstration that we as humans are capable of coming up with our own values.”

        I notice that there is nothing in the text of the LORD OF THE RINGS, not one word, not one jot or tittle, which supports this everything-is-relative interpretation that Gandalf and Aragorn come up with their own “values.” I ask for any reader to quote me one word of defiance or even disrespect which the Istari or the King of the West utter against Eru, or his Valar or Maiar, or the statutes, commandments, or judgments of the lawful authorities of the world?

        Indeed, the whole point of the book is that virtue and vice are innate in the fabric of nature, as everyone who compromises and yields to temptation, Boromir and Denethror and Smeagol, ends up wretched, whereas those who prevail to the end resisting temptation can return from the dead or walk through the paths of the dead unscathed.

        Ashley Yakeley should perhaps read BEOWULF, in order to understand how the Christian poet deals with the pre-Christian world respectfully, without bringing on-stage the jarring anachronism of Christianity. Tolkien was following the forms of BEOWULF.

        To read the Hobbits as pagan, rather than as bucolic English squirarchy, is cross-eyed: where are the sacrifices of kine and sheep? Not even a pair of turtledoves are sacrificed at the great Took temple. Where the rustic Maypole dances where hobbit lasses fornicate with the first stranger, or the wicker baskets for burning captives to Mother Middle Earth? Maybe they still keep those old practices in Buckland. Folk of that sort were always a bit queer.

        When someone tells me how jolly the pagans were, I direct them to the speech by the ghost of Achilles in Hell, where he laments it is better to be the slave of a dirt farmer than to be a shade, even of a man whom fame has made immortal.

        I am also reminded of the words of Chesterton on this point:

    • Comment by Mary:

      “The Cliche Came Out of its Cage”

      You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’.
      Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
      Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
      And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
      Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
      To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
      Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
      The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
      Tended it By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
      Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. At the hour
      Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
      Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
      Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
      Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
      Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
      Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
      Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
      Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
      Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
      Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
      Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
      Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
      You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.


      Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
      Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
      Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
      Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
      Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
      But the bond wil1 break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
      Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
      Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
      To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
      For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
      His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
      Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
      And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
      Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
      Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
      Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
      Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
      Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
      You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
      Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

      C. S. Lewis

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        My favorite poem by Lewis. It was because of my loyalty to pagan virtues like those here described, and I mean real pagan virtues, stoicism and courage and moderation, not the make believe ‘RenFaire’ ‘values’ of neopagans, like toleration and diversity and eco-awareness, that I became a Christian.

  8. Comment by Scholar-at-Arms:

    In line with what you point out, Mr. Wright, two of the most successful Fantasy Noir series’ to be published recently intentionally call on nostalgia for lost innocence. Glen Cook’s ‘Metal Mysteries'(every title follows the formula “adjective-metal-plural noun”) go so far as to pay direct homages to Chandler and Rex Stout. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files likewise starts with a tarnished hero who is looking for redemption and doesn’t know where to find it. One of the things I think Butcher got right in that series is Dresden does come to grips with his past failures over time, and also commits new ones, so the sense of loss is perpetual.

  9. Comment by Paul Weimer:

    Hi John!

    I thought you should know, if you didn’t already, that Mr. David Brin has read your piece and has a response to it:

    • Comment by The Ubiquitous:

      Reading David Brin’s post, I wonder if we should set out the OFloinn signal. Lacking him, trusty fan I left this comment:

      Methinks you have confused Intelligence with Wisdom, a distinction any DnD geek knows. I read a story about the Head of Vecna once which has that particular side effect.

      I think your claim that there is greater wisdom now rather than then is a far more extraordinary claim and needs far more extraordinary evidence. When was the last time you talked to someone who doesn’t read science fiction?

      Among the literati, literati were wiser in the days of Christendom. Who among men today is trained in logic? Assuredly, there are programmers and the like — but all literati in pre-Renaissance Christendom were trained in this, compared to a select few today, in addition to their classical-liberal quodlibets. And even today’s select few are engineers more than philosophers, lovers of utility rather than wisdom.

      Turning the question on its head, we see more substance in Wright’s admittedly wistful reflection and less in what you rightly call screed.

      • Comment by The Ubiquitous:

        From Mr. Brin:

        Oy, what utter nonsense.

        Did any other generation study the harm that it does to the Earth we’ll leave our kids? That’s wisdom.

        We have fought down ruthlesslyu cruel and stupidly unwise habits that EVERY preceding generation took for granted, cliches about women or other races or nationalities that cauterized hope.

        We have fought down the filthy habit of assuming that children inherit the character and worth of their parents, in favor of the notion that each person might create himself anew.

        Every decade our cops are forced to behave more like circumspect professionals than thugs with clubs and guns. And this will accelerate as cameras spread.

        I could go on forever. But it is wasted time. Nothing convinces grouches. They are addicted to smug-retro thinking. Denying the possibility of progress is far easier than admitting it has happened.

        The latter admission behooves us to keep trying hard. Because it works.

        If by we, you mean Christendom, then I agree. The Modern Era, however, beginning with the Renaissance, was largely a regression into Classical vices. For example, before Italians rediscovered Roman Civil law, Women had phenomenal liberties.

        Fearing that you missed the point distinguishing intelligence with wisdom, I note environmentalist impulses chiefly measure human utility from a thing, or at least the case for environmental causes uses such language. Perhaps this illustrates my noted distinction between a love of truth and a love of knowledge of utility.

        This denial of a distinction between wisdom and utility is indeed a fruit of the Enlightenment, but the distinction is crucial to understanding what Wright actually means.

        You attribute the better behavior of cops to technology. It seems to me that does not so much turn down the heat as much as put a lid on a boiling pot. Cops will behave better, but it does not necessarily follow that they want to. Also, the essential worth of each human being was, if nothing else was, the central contribution of Christian theology to the West.

        Though I admire several of your books, based on how you responded to me you could not be more wrong. If I here wrote something false, I hope you would correct me. (Please note each of my attributable claims has something to back it up.)

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Mr Brin was kind enough to drop me a note informing me. He says he had trouble logging on to my site to leave a comment, which worries me.

    • Comment by CPE Gaebler:

      Did Mr. Brin really read the phrase “we have lost something” and assume that Mr Wright thinks our losing something was as inevitable a consequence of technological advancement as losing money is a consequence of buying things?

      It is as if the only forces that shape the destinies of mankind are inevitable and irresistible. I can’t think of another reason, short of a sort of disappointing ignorance, that he would have overlooked the possibility that perhaps we may have lost something not because losing things is an inevitable consequence of acquiring technological knowledge; rather, technological knowledge gave mankind the opportunity to choose greater deeds than could previously be imagined or greater sloth than could previously be imagined, and many chose the latter.

  10. Comment by Sean Michael:

    I deposited a previous note about this essay by Mr. Wright, but alas, it seems to have been trapped by a spam filter. So, rather than repeat what I previously wrote, I’ll touch on a related topic.

    Professor Tolkien himself once made an abortive start at writing a tale set in the dark side of Gondor called “The New Shadow.” The story is set late in the reign of Eldaron, the son of Elessar Aragorn. And elderly man is more and more concerned by things like boys playing Orcs and indulging in petty vandalism. He eventually comes across hints concerning a new cult worshiping Morgoth or Sauron. The fragment of “The New Shadow” ends with this man resolving to take steps to investigate these rumors.

    Tolkien abandoned what we might have called a “low fantasy noir” tale because he did not want to write what he dismissed as a mere “thriller” along the lines of the James Bond books. I regretted his choice because “The New Shadow” definitely was interesting.

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  11. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    “Farewell, Romance!” the Cave-men said;
    “With bone well carved He went away,
    Flint arms the ignoble arrowhead,
    And jasper tips the spear to-day.
    Changed are the Gods of Hunt and Dance,
    And He with these. Farewell, Romance!”

    “Farewell, Romance!” the Lake-folk sighed;
    “We lift the weight of flatling years;
    The caverns of the mountain-side
    Hold him who scorns our hutted piers.
    Lost hills whereby we dare not dwell,
    Guard ye his rest. Romance, farewell!”

    “Farewell, Romance!” the Soldier spoke;
    “By sleight of sword we may not win,
    But scuffle ‘mid uncleanly smoke
    Of arquebus and culverin.
    Honour is lost, and none may tell
    Who paid good blows. Romance, farewell!”

    “Farewell, Romance!” the Traders cried;
    “Our keels have lain with every sea;
    The dull-returning wind and tide
    Heave up the wharf where we would be;
    The known and noted breezes swell
    Our trudging sails. Romance, farewell!”

    “Good-bye, Romance!” the Skipper said;
    “He vanished with the coal we burn.
    Our dial marks full-steam ahead,
    Our speed is timed to half a turn.
    Sure as the ferried barge we ply
    ‘Twixt port and port. Romance, good-bye!”

    “Romance!” the season-tickets mourn,
    “He never ran to catch His train,
    But passed with coach and guard and horn —
    And left the local — late again!”
    Confound Romance!… And all unseen
    Romance brought up the nine-fifteen.
    His hand was on the lever laid,
    His oil-can soothed the worrying cranks,
    His whistle waked the snowbound grade,
    His fog-horn cut the reeking Banks;
    By dock and deep and mine and mill
    The Boy-god reckless laboured still!

    Robed, crowned and throned, He wove His spell,
    Where heart-blood beat or hearth-smoke curled,
    With unconsidered miracle,
    Hedged in a backward-gazing world;
    Then taught His chosen bard to say:
    “Our King was with us — yesterday!”

  12. Ping from What I Love About John C. Wright… | Catholic and Enjoying It!:

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