Fantasy and High Fantasy
Alyssa Rosenberg and Adam Serwer both have responses up to my post on fantasy and the Anglosphere. Adam correctly notes that what I’m writing about in particular is “high fantasy” – a sub-genre of fantasy more broadly. I admit to not making my argument as clearly as I should have. So let me point out two things.
First, I was responding to D.G. Myers whose piece focused on the Christian themes and Christian roots of fantasy. In particular, Myers and the material he was working with, focused on fantasy stemming from the Tolkien tradition. The argument of Myers and others was that fantasy is uniquely Christian in nature, and doesn’t work so well for the Jewish tradition.
I actually disagreed with this notion, and said that this particular sort of mainstream fantasy – or high fantasy, as Adam correctly defines it – is not rooted so much in Christianity but in the British experience – its myths, faeries, and feudal history specifically, but also possibly its Anglicanism.
Second, I don’t think that Jewish fantasy is impossible. Adam writes:
To briefly address Kain’s other point about the supposed absence of Jewish fantasy writers (actually untrue), the fact that medieval Europe was incredibly hostile towards Jews might explain why there aren’t a really large number of Jewish writers who specialize in that particular sub-genre of fantasy. But Kain seems to buy the notion that Jewish authors are hostile to fantasy in general, a theory which, as Spencer Ackerman pointed out some time ago, fails rather spectacularly in the face of the existence of the American superhero. To exclude other cultures’ fantasy offerings is to define the genre in a uselessly narrow fashion, and to ask why Jews and Muslims, Japanese and Ghanians don’t come up with fantasies that resemble exactly those of British writers is to ask a question with a profoundly obvious answer.
I’m not sure why Adam thinks I am arguing this at all. I’m not. I’m very specifically responding to the notion that fantasy is Christian in nature and disagreeing with that claim. I think the lack of clarity on my part – that I am specifically referring to the mainstream, Tolkien-esque fantasy, may be responsible for the confusion. But even there I think the roots of high fantasy strike deeper than Christendom, into the old myths and old magic that preceded it.
There are of course many other genres of fantasy out there, with different roots and different traditions. Asian fantasy, Islamic fantasy, and yes, even Jewish fantasy, all help create the vast and growing pantheon of fantasy literature. And I think that’s great. High fantasy gets boring after a while.
But I think Adam is misreading my argument here in a pretty fundamental way. I blame myself for that, but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless. As Alyssa notes:
I think the point is more that, as a modification of how Erik puts it, that the fantasy that we see on the American market is “not founded in Christian themes so much as it is rooted in distinctly Anglo-Saxon mythology. And not just the mythology of the Medieval, feudalistic period, but the pre-Christian myths of the faerie-folk as well.” That we see certain things on the market doesn’t mean that fantasy is limited to those things, or inherently grows out to those things. It just means that we’re reliant on old patterns.
This is a smart point and one that I was driving at by focusing on the market for fantasy, and how it has been traditionally dominated by this particular breed of the fantastical, rooted in Anglo-American shared mythologies. I think it’s basically true that fantasy as a genre of popular literature was born and raised in the Anglosphere, and that the form has been adopted in other non-English-speaking cultures – for whatever reason and perhaps simply because of the respective economic empires of the UK and USA.
Hopefully as nerd culture expands further into the mainstream, fantasy will continue to expand alongside it, bringing the fantastical traditions of many other cultures into the mainstream body of fantasy literature.