Old Power, New Power

We’re watching bits of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy on TNT today (right now it’s Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep, as J.D. calls it), and I’m reminded of something that always seems a little odd to me about fantasy stories.

A basic element of fantasy seems to be a tendency to look to the past: In the past, there were great wonders (and great terrors), creatures with fantastic powers, but over time those creatures and powers have gone away or fallen by the wayside, and the remnants of those powers are known only to a select few. Often there’s a tacit understanding that even these, too, shall pass.

The Lord of the Rings (both the novel and the films) is rooted in this notion, the passing of the ages of greatness and the rise of mortal men. Tim Powers’ terrific novel The Anubis Gates also uses this as a fundamental principle of the plot. And a panoply of fantasy stories in between are full of quests for lost powers, or filled with characters who know of forgotten lore. But how often does fantasy depict the creation of great powers in what is presented as “the modern day”? Surely there are some, but they’re the exception, aren’t they?

What I find interesting about this is that this is very much at odds with our observation of how the world works: Technology and power increases over time, not decreases. While the ancients built pyramids and great walls, what’s remarkable about their accomplishments is not that they achieved them, but that they achieved them given the tools they had at hand.

Science fiction embraces the notion of improving technology, of course: Charles Stross’ Accelerando is merely an extreme example of this philosophy, but science fiction assumes that we, humans, are the creators of great wonders, and not that we’re simply trying to rediscover or recapture glories of ages past. Where science fiction does portray great dead powers, it’s more with an air of those powers having simply had a head start on humanity, not that we won’t get there eventually (or that we’re going backwards).

I suppose fantasy is rooted in myth and religion, which were shaped in days when humanity was trying to figure out how things came to be that not only it couldn’t understand, but it has precious few frameworks for trying to understand them. So it seemed like the world was shaped by great old powers which had faded into history. Whereas science fiction developed in the industrial age, when our frameworks for understanding the world had developed to the point that we could shape it and use it.

I think this is a fundamental difference between the two genres. I don’t know if it’s a major slice of why I prefer SF to fantasy, but I do read fantasy stories and think things like, “Why can’t humans figure out how to live as long as elves? Or create magical wonders like those that once existed? Why must magic fade into the past?”

Does this bother other readers of fantasy, I wonder?

4 thoughts on “Old Power, New Power”

  1. I know it’s something that bothers David Brin too, from reading his weblog. The other aspect of fantasy that really bothers him is that it tends to support the whole concept of the “divine right” of kings or other leaders.

  2. The divine right of kings is complete malarky, of course. But people tend to remember the great leaders and forget all other save maybe the very worst leaders. But heredetary rulership has been around for so long that statistically speaking there were bound to be some great kings, even if it’s less likely that any given generation would produce a great king than a great leader chosen on some sort of merit (even as flawed a system as democracy).

    Heroic fiction naturally tends to skew towards the great figures rather than the mediocre ones, which probably explains what Brin observes.

    Watching The Return of the King now, I’m struck by the overwhelming feeling of trying to live up to the standards of kings and heroes of years gone past. Denethor, Theoden, and especially Aragorn are haunted by this feeling. The Hobbits, by contrast, have no great heroes in their past and are thus free of that particular ghost (it helps that Gandalf bends over backwards to make them see their own self-worth).

  3. I think a lot of this thinking comes from the Middle Ages, when people knew of, and could even see the remnants of, the great Empires and cultures that preceded them. Think of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They knew that a lot of knowledge and technology had been lost. But they couldn’t even read the Greek texts that described them.

    It wasn’t until Victorian times that we could again build a dome as great as the Pantheon.

    So technology and knowledge do not increase monotonically. They are periods of lost and backwards movement.

  4. The modern Western world is based on the Myth of Progress — that everything always gets ‘better’ (whatever ‘better’ is supposed to mean) and that the past was dirtier, poorer, dumber, and generally less shiny. This was an Enlightenment idea that the Victorians grabbed and ran with and that we still have firmly embedded in our collective zeitgeist.

    Before that, tho’, the Mediaeval mindset was always that the past was shinier and better, going all the way back to the Garden, and has been all down hill from there. When you come down to it, this was true even for many pre-Mediaeval cultures — the Greeks and Romans and Norse all ‘remembered’ a time when the Gods actually walked the earth, but since the Gods were rarely to be seen so overtly today, today must be worse than those days somehow.

    Large chunks of fantasy cast their characters in this mindset because they’re drawing from those periods for sources of story.

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