Friday, 10 December 2010

The Fantasy Genre: Magic, Maps, and Mystery

"In mysteries what we know, and our realization of what we do not know, proceed together; the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder."
-Huston Smith, The World's Religions.

I have a number of thoughts about the fantasy genre which I intend to explore here. (I should instead be using this time to read and think about The Loves of the Plants and The Seasons.) In this post, I will be thinking about fantasy and mystery.

Dr. Richard Beck at Experimental Theology has written a post about Harry Potter, Twilight, and modern horror and fantasy movies. Beck locates a new trend in fantasy which emphasizes the biological over the metaphysical or magical. As always you should read the whole post because any summary will by necessity fail, but the gist is that the titular examples do not so much use metaphysical versions of wizardry or vampires as their forerunners would have, but instead are interested in biology. Vampirism is less a curse than a disease; magic seems genetic and the problems of Harry's world seem racial and racist in nature, following the pseudo-scientific rhetoric we are used to in Nazism and anti-abolitionist literature. Of course, these two books are not the only ones doing this; Beck uses them as emblems of a growing trend.

I agree with Beck that this biologism is a trend, as I'd been charting (and at that time participating in) it since high school. However, I think that Harry Potty has a slight redemption to it, which is this: magic is never explained in the text. We as readers are made aware that there is a foundation to it. Hermione insists that learning the theory will help Harry improve his skill as a wizard, but we never know what that theory is. This missing piece of the picture explains how wizardry can be a skill learned and improved through practice. Otherwise it would seem awfully silly that someone could be no good at flicking their wrist and repeating pseudo-Latin. So long as you were born with magical ability, you should be able to figure out Wingardium Leviosa in minutes.

This missing foundation is not enough to rescue it from the biologism than Beck sees in it, but that's neither here nor there. It's still a perfectly good series. What interests me is how frustrated some people I know get about not knowing how magic operates. "I already suspended disbelief once," they say. "I don't want to have to do it again and again." This should not be surprising: Wikipedia offers extensive explanation of how magic in fantasy can operate. It seems natural that people who like fantasy should want to know how the magic works. People are curious, and people are increasingly interested in understanding how things work. Why should magic in fiction be any different?

To me the answer to that is simple: it would cease to be magic. If we understood magic, it would be physics; the manipulation of it would be a sufficiently advanced technology. Magic is not reducable to a sufficiently advanced technology, or at least it isn't in fiction if we happen to know how it works. That which is magical (numinous is a worth-while word to think about in this case) is to some extent or another inexplicable. I should note that this doesn't need to tax our suspension of disbelief. Most of us don't understand how airplanes stay in the air or how we get oxygen though our lungs or how the postal system works, but we go with it anyeway. There is no reason that we can't put questions of understanding aside when deciding whether or not to suspend our disbelief in fiction. (Besides, it's good for us.)

Does this mean we are wrong to want to understand? No, I do not think so. Curiousity is a good thing by most accounts. What isn't such a good thing is getting angry and putting the book down when our curiousity is not always satisfied. For one thing, it's a very childish attitude. If you are curious about a friend's private life and get indignant when they won't tell you about it, you are failing at friendship because you are failing to respect their privacy. For another thing, you would miss a lot of good fiction. And for a final thing, you will miss the pleasure of mystery.

When I read a fantasy novel that I love, I want to know more. I have scoured the Internet for details about marshwiggles, for instance. There isn't much information to be had. I loved to read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings: there is a section on the presumed origin of trolls and the troll language, and there is a section on how it came to be that Gandalf took the dwarves to Bilbo Baggins' door. There is a brief mention about why the dwarves were mainly absent from the book, and that explanation was that they were busy fighting against Sauron's goblins and dragons in the north. That's right. There's an entire military campaign, in which the villians have dragons, going on off-stage during The Lord of the Rings. This roused my curiosity. I wanted to know more.

And yet I realized that this is happened before. Once I know all that I want to know, I am not satisfied. I am disappointed. The fantasy world cannot ever live up to what I would imagine it to be. Fantasy books often have maps, so if you have one handy go and look at the map. Do you know what is going on everywhere on that map? Are there any blank spaces? I don't mean gaps in the image; I mean place names which never appear in the novel, mountains which are never described, islands which remain dark and haunted. Are there these blank spaces? I want to go to those spaces, to fill them in, but as soon as you do go there the interest in them is gone. It is only when the blank spaces remain blank that they remain interesting.

([EDIT: Reading this paranthetical again I realize that I am making too broad a gesture and too bold an assertion for my current ignorance. I won't change it but I will add that I realize there is a complex discourse about the African continent. The trick is that I don't see how I can conscientiously avoid mentioning that this sort of "mysterious geography" has had direct reprecussions on real history, and those have not been universally good. There are problems when you apply literary stuff directly to the real world.] This is directly related to colonialism: it is only because the Dark Continent is Dark that it is of interest. If you feel like you have penetrated it, that you know it, then it becomes uninteresting. And it is only when you realize that Africa is not a homogenous nation of homogenous peoples but rather a section of the world which, like every section of the world, will constantly elude complete understanding that it again becomes interesting--and worthy of respect. Of course it had always been both, but so long as we thought we knew it, we could not know that.)

I don't require that all fantasy maintains the balance between giving enough details to evoke a greater picture and never giving enough to satisfy our curiosity. I am, however, disconcerted by those who do expect complete explanations of magic in all fantasy series, since this would destroy one of the best things the fantasy genre has to offer: a mysterious cosmogeny (versus a rigourously explained cosmogeny in hard sci-fi). This is the pleasant tension, that we do want to know more about these favourite worlds but that to satisfy that desire would in the end fail to please us. It is only when we are required to wonder that it is wonderful; it is only when we can desire more than we can have that that desire is endless.

(I also think that learning to live with not understanding while maintaining the desire to understand is a habit necessary to good character, but that argument perhaps belongs elsewhere.)


yolanda said...

1. if only i knew how the postal system works...
2. i like that there's a pre-raphaelite painting in this post
3. i'm not going to comment on the maps/africa part of the post, even though i studied historical geography, with certain regional emphases. - i realize saying i'm not going to comment, and then going ahead and writing this comment defeats that purpose, but i want my not commenting on it to be noticed somehow
4. i didn't say it at the time, but i really appreciated the post on suspending ones disbelief
5. i regularly hear stories about "magic/sorcery" here in burundi - for example driving past a small land slide (that looked as though it started as a slump) other passengers in the taxi started explaining that it was due to magic after a dispute over that land and prediction that if a man went to live there after the dispute, the house would fall on him. the guy sitting beside me in the cab explaining all of this was a geographer who had studied at the national university and who knew better than i did all of the scientific explanations - it really is easily identifiable as textbook prime landslide/slump area - yet chose the supernatural, the "unexplainable explanation" to propagate.

Leah said...

One of the reason that I want to know the 'rules' of magic in a particular fictional universe is because it makes the plot and the characters more interesting. Character is defined by reaction to constraint, and, if the rules of magic are only lightly explained, it's hard to understand what constraints exist in the fictional world, particularly when magic has clearly eliminated some of the constraints of our world.

Understanding the rules lets us appreciate the heroism of the protag, since we know what s/he's up against. When the rules are weakly defined, everything feels like deus ex machina.

Christian H said...

Yolanda: There is a lot to be said about the relationship of perceived knowledge of Africa and treatment of it, and I realize that I probably made a fool of myself in a parenthetical treatment of it. I would rather do that, though, than fail to acknowledge that there can be problems with leaving geography mysterious in the real world, at the same time as there are problems in assuming that there is nothing left unmapped/unknown. The very term Dark Continent plays into this question. I note your lack of comment (though I would have anyway, knowing perfectly well what you studied).
The final anecdote you give is interesting. Somewhere in my RELS classes I read a passage in which villagers somewhere explained huts collapsing on people and killing them in terms of sorcery. When asked, they said they were quite aware that termites had eaten away the supports. That was how the huts fell; what interested them was why they fell at that moment.

2. Leah: You can establish rules and still leave things mysterious. They needn't be mutually exclusive. However, spending too much time elaborating these rules may deplete that mystery, may make it mechanics instead of magic. (Alliteration not intentional.) I am entirely unsurprised that you respond in this way, though; this was not written as a rebuttal against a previous post your wrote, but I did remember it.
There might be a notable distinction between whether the protagonists are magic-weilders or not. When they are not, facing the unknown is perhaps the more interesting test of their mettle. When they are, I can certainly see your point.

yolanda said...

ha, i didn't mean to "not comment" as any sort of critique, nor to precipitate edits. i just wanted to note that i noticed that part in particular, found it interesting, but had no particular comment. really, there's nothing wrong with parenthetical references to such issues, its just that it is difficult to respond to them. to be fair, i don't entirely follow your assertion about interest in the continent waxing and waning based on perceptions of "mystery." but i don't really have much else to say since the comment itself wasn't really central to your argument. and actually, none of my comments were around your central argument... sorry. i'm easily distracted.

Leah said...

I am so delighted that your blog is a source for theology and discussion of scifi and fantasy. :)

Christian H said...

Yolanda: It was more that your lack-of-comment made me look at it again and I didn't like it. I find I go off on tangents that are more certain than they ought to be; I need to check that more often.
I was thinking of how people, when Africa is exotic to them, are fascinated with it. (Like me as a child, or the sort of African diamonds passages in Arthur Miller plays.) But there are also people I have encountered who think they know everything there is to know, or at least everything they care to know, about Africa, and then dismiss it. (These are the ones who have solutions for Africa, like it's itself a problem.) And then there are people who are aware of their own ignorance (even if they do know more of the others), and to those people Africa is (or can be) fascinating again, but for different reasons. (Like you?) I find other things than Africa interesting, at any rate, in direct proportion to how much I know I have yet to learn.

Leah: Thank you. I write about what interests me; I'm glad it interests someone else.

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