Home > roleplaying, Uncategorized > “What makes a classic fantasy setting work for you?”

“What makes a classic fantasy setting work for you?”

October 30, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The discipline of writing is, before anything else, the business of ordering and formalizing your thoughts so that someone else can be let into them. The under-appreciated truth behind this is that the first someone else also lives in your own head.*

When you have a revelation about something it’s often just that a bunch of sense impressions and partial realizations in dusty boxes in the attic of your mind suddenly tumble out into a coherent sentence that the linguistic, formal-explaining part of your mind can understand. Your pre-linguistic mind already groks it in its own way, but it can’t tell you directly, it just gossips with your habits and preconceptions, out of sight of the ever-seeking Ego. But those pre-linguistic attic goblins are terrible at thoroughness – they leave holes all over the place, they don’t care about argument or refutation. They love the memory of something shiny buried under the accreted muck of experience.

On the one hand, when your linguistic mind gets it and you can say it to yourself, it feels great, like you’re really clever. On the other, your critical mind has a hard time cutting through that euphoria because you already recognize it as something you’ve long considered to be true, even if you didn’t know it.

I had one of these today. +Brendan S asked “What makes a classic fantasy setting work for you?” and the responses caused an attic quake. First +Scott Martin said an enmagicked world… “it’s opening up all this romanticist baggage around the frühe and the völkisch.” And then +Ian Borchardt added “the character is freed from the constraints of their normal life. They cross a threshold – a moment of realisation that they are not in Kansas any more – and are free to develop and grow – or fail and die.”

And that set a chain reaction going.

First, the Romantic: for any fantasy to really work for me, it has to mean it, it has to include a spark of untrammeled imagination or indigestible emotional meaning that’s taken seriously enough to have consequences. A frisson of emotional groundedness straight from the author’s fear/desire well that isn’t, at root, about the kinds of things they’d discuss with their neighbours at the supermarket checkout.

Second, the adventurous: Ian’s protagonist breaking the vessel of habit is of course the reader’s traveling companion – someone through which the author can convey their sense of dislocation and surprise as they encounter their own creative world… kinda for the first time.

So then why the dwarves and elves and so on? Well, they still fulfill a signifying function that this isn’t Kansas and we’ll be going down some dark emotional holes. In one way the recognizability of the fantasy world is a children’s tv presenter saying “ok kids, today we’re going on an adventure. We’re going to see some different things and you may not know what to think about them. But that’s ok, discovery is part of the point.”

But why dwarves and elves initially? Why was Tolkien dusting off those old Mabinogion stories – and why did Morris and Wagner and the Grimms before him?

And that was my second attic quake for the day. Fantasy is Romantic modernism.

OK OK you’ve heard this one before – it’s the 19th century, everyone’s scared of the Brave New Mechanized World, people are wondering how we’re going to survive the population explosion and urban sprawl and smogs and Dark Satanic mills and proletarian work days and cholera and public housing. This is where popular wisdom says “on the one hand there was the Enlightenment and a Scientific Revolution which led to electric light bulbs and Einstein, and on the other hand there was a dark, reactionary impulse that led away from the future, toward Romantic poetry, German angst and Freud and, eventually, Hitler.”

And there’s probably some narrow slice of the historical population for which that simple dichotomy works, but much more generally, NO.

I don’t think Romanticism is reactionary, in the sense of rejecting modernism and its works. I think it’s a thoroughly modernist response to the question so what are we going to do with this Brave New World? Or maybe more specifically, what will we do with our hands in this Brave Mechanized world? For Morris and Ruskin and William de Morgan the answer was use them more deliberately than we ever have before, knowing that the haptic senses are endangered. Where angsty German romantic authors agonized about the soul or spirit, my contribution is that they were really asking what’s it going to be like, being a spirit among the machines? What has it always been like, being a spirit in a meat machine? It’s a trajectory from Hegel and Herder to Arthur Koestler with windows into Italian Futurism and Rudolf Steiner’s magickal empiricism along the way.

And it’s tempting to see Gothic Revivalism as a physical manifestation of the Wagner impulse, valorizing an imaginary medieval ur-folk when men were real men and plague was real plague but the best real men were real Germans etc etc but consider instead the medieval as an imaginary ground state – a world built to be unchanging in itself so that when change comes it is immediately apprehended as a thing from outside. An irruption. Then the roots of classic fantasy start to take shape. Wagner’s dwarves and elves are expressions of the human spirit shrunk back into the shadows, eyeing the challenge of the new from a distant vantage point, from which they can still see other possibilities beyond the evident, imminent danger of being sucked up into the vortex, made pistons in the social machine. Yggdrasil’s a campaign map of a bigger system than the steam engine – in fact it contains the visible outline of the mechanical u/dystopia pumping out of Svartalfheim.

In short, fantasy wasn’t supposed to stand as an escape from or alternative to modernism, but a set of imaginary mental tools for dealing with it. Seen from this angle, spirited Hegel is an elf caressing the gold and silver leaves of the sun and moon, taking a long view with one eye on God. Marx, who knows the fear of becoming a machine, has the work ethic and material, architectural sensibility of a dwarf. And if there are manifestations of the völk among the humans (and god knows there are, with Tolkien’s Geats of Rohan and aspirational Numenorean Rotwangs), still their main challenge is growing up into the Fourth Age, where they will no longer have elves and dwarves to guide them.


*Coda: the link between writing and critical thought is what bothers me most about the intensely formal way my son is being taught to write essays. It’s called the PEEL System, which I find ironic, because it has nothing to do with peeling away surface ideas to get at the kernel of truth, nor the pealing of bells that might go with a moment of realization. Instead it’s all about packing your nuggets of criticism into neat little boxes, with a Topic Sentence at the bottom and a link to the next box on top, so the containers will all stack up on the ship and sail with you into your college application. I’m not against boxes – you can do all sorts of things with modular containers. Structure is probably good. Training wheels help people to surpass them. What I fear about this system is not so much that it will format my son’s critical faculties into an easily satisfied bonsai shape, but the modules of argument he’s forming as he writes the essays. Portable little modules that he could use to bricolage moderately-convincing arguments together on any topic. Modules just big enough to fight twitter wars. Have you ever read Kapital? Most of it’s a carefully argued (although under-referenced) description of capitalist systems that clearly fits into a Smithian/Ricardian continuum. But the first chapter, where he sets out his philosophical assumptions about the Nature of Man, is pure ecstatic stream, like the Revelations of St. John the Divine. I don’t love that whole school of writing myself, but my point is, no PEEL-trained writer is ever going to reproduce something like that because it’s not how you write. Any more. The machine is here. Everything on the black square has become red.



  1. trey
    October 30, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    I think you are on to something.

    • October 31, 2018 at 8:58 am

      My thoughts are just as elaborate: Yes.

      • October 31, 2018 at 12:41 pm

        I just saw your blog and the post about Polynesian Mad Max!
        ….would you be interested in playtesting some sailing & fighting rules? They include Polynesian multi-hulls, and I can’t promise that they capture the fun of sailing at 18 knots, but the korakoras and proas do get a significant speed advantage over pretty much everyone else (clippers go as fast but are much less maneuverable).

  2. Arnold K
    October 31, 2018 at 10:01 am

    Thanks for making me google some names.

    Does your son read your blog?

    • October 31, 2018 at 12:28 pm

      I just reviewed the names in here and… I regret nothing!
      I occasionally ask my son to read stuff I’ve blogged when it’s relevant to something he’s talking about. But he really doesn’t have to read this blog because I talk like this all the time. It’s pretty wearing for everyone.

  3. November 1, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    This was a nice read, and I think you might be onto something …

    • November 1, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      I keep thinking of ways it could be much clearer. I don’t explain, for instance, that “the Wagner impulse” is a sort of transcendental nationalist myth-making, meant to flatter Ludwig II.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: