Are fairytales fantasy?

Jo Walton has an interesting piece on Neil Gaiman’s Stardust in which he argues that while the book is indeed fantastical, it isn’t fantasy – at least not in the modern sense of the term:

Of course Stardust uses some of the worldbuilding techniques of fantasy, and any book about a young man going on a quest for a fallen star and encountering witches and magic is inherently fantastical. But genre fantasy post-Tolkien has become connected to specific imaginary history and geography in a way that Stardust scorns. This is not only a book without a map but a book where the very idea of a map would be ridiculous. The geography makes sense in an intuitive magical way that works for the plot. The same goes for the history and the social systems. This isn’t a book that you can consider comfortably in the same genre as Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet or Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. It’s just not interested in doing the same kind of thing — it’s coming at the numinous from quite a different direction. It has different ancestors and works by different logic.


Stardust is very short and very beautiful and it reads just like a modern fairytale should.

If Stardust isn’t fantasy because it isn’t like Rothfuss or Martin or the other world-building fantasy epics, than none of Gaiman’s work is fantasy. Anansi Boys and American Gods certainly don’t qualify. Even Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia would not make the cut. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians might not either and Harry Potter is a close call at best.

And if fairytales aren’t fantasy, then we must also strike Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell from the canon, as well as Little, Big and any other modern fairytales we can root out.

Post-Tolkien fantasy is, of course, deeply infused with fairytales if only because Tolkien himself was fascinated with faerie and fairytales. Sure, the Dragon Lance books may be your typical party-of-heroes world-building narrative type fantasy, but it is no more the heir to the genre than Stardust or Jonathan Strange. These are all very different sorts of books, but I think they all belong on the fantasy shelves.

Fantasy is a big tent. We should make sure it stays that way.



I’ve long lamented the fact that we’re probably not ever going to get a movie series or television show based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy because it’s too big, and too deeply rooted in discussions of science, to translate for a mass audience. But it sounds like Neill Blomkamp’s post-District Nine project, Elysium, in addition to boasting a cast that includes Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, and Sharlto Copley, may be exploring some of the same things I’d hoped we’d get out of a Mars project. A viral teaser for the movie comes in the form of an advertisement for a fictional company called Armadyne advertising for folks who work in everything from “zero g welders, mega-structure engineers, quantum networkers” to “zero g coupling and multi-generational planning”.

I regret to say I have never read Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Maybe when I’m done with Dance with Dragons I’ll pick it up. Or when I’m done with the Abercrombie books.

I need to spend more time reading and less time…sleeping I guess. But Elysium sounds fascinating. I was a big fan of District 9.

Hermione Granger and the Deathly Hallows

Via Jason Kottke, Sady Doyle imagines an alternate universe:

So, before she goes away for good, let us sing the praises of Hermione. A generation could not have asked for a better role model. Looking back over the series — from Hermione Granger and the Philosopher’s Stone through to Hermione Granger and the Deathly Hallows — the startling thing about it is how original it is. It’s what inspires your respect for Rowling: She could only have written the Hermione Granger by refusing to take the easy way out.

For starters, she gave us a female lead. As difficult as it is to imagine, Rowling was pressured to revise her initial drafts to make the lead wizard male. "More universal," they said. "Nobody’s going to follow a female character for 4,000 pages," they said. "Girls don’t buy books," they said, "and boys won’t buy books about them." But Rowling proved them wrong. She was even asked to hide her own gender, and to publish her books under a pen name, so that children wouldn’t run screaming at the thought of reading something by a lady. But Joanne Rowling never bowed to the forces of crass commercialism. She will forever be "Joanne Rowling," and the Hermione Granger series will always be Hermione’s show.

The problem, really, is that nobody knew how to pronounce Hermione’s name until the movies came out.

Can anyone think of a young adult fantasy series with a female heroine that’s done remarkably well in recent years?

I can. I can think of other speculative fiction hits with girl leads as well.

A Game of Thrones and the ambiguity of history

Over at The American Prospect a number of smart bloggers have joined in a roundtable headed-off by former Gentlemen, Jamelle Bouie. The subject is A Game of Thrones in both its TV and book iterations.

The subjects range from the role of women in the series to the lack of clear moral divisions and hero archetypes. Adam Serwer has an interesting bit riffing off of this interview with Martin, who discusses the scouring of the Shire in Tolkien’s:

I was very satisfied with the end of the Lord of the Rings, let us say. Talking about predictability here–I had a sense, even as a kid, that the ring was going to go in the volcano. They weren’t going to let Sauron take over the world. But he surprised me in that Frodo couldn’t do it. Bringing in Gollum the way he did was an amazing part of the ending, and then came the scouring of the Shire. And when I was 13 years old, reading this, I didn’t understand the scouring of the Shire. They won–why are there all these other pages? But I reread these books every few years, and every time my appreciation for what Tolkien did there grows. It was this kind of sad elegy on the price of victory. I think the scouring of the Shire is one of the essential parts of Tolkien’s narrative now, and gives it depth and resonance, and I hope that I will be able to provide an ending that’s similar to all of that.

I will never forgive Peter Jackson for cutting this from the films. Ever.

But that’s beside the point. Serwer writes:

Martin is talking about the conclusion to the series here, but the series itself dwells on the concept of what happens after the war in which “the good guys win.” Game of Thrones is like if Tolkein had gotten involved in the messy politics of post-conflict stability: Imagine Middle Earth being flooded with Hobbit refugees whose home no longer produces enough food to sustain them, or King Aragorn facing a crisis of legitimacy as the aftermath of the war causes an economic downturn he’s powerless to ameliorate.

Indeed, the story in A Game of Thrones is set years after Robert’s rebellion in which the “good guys” won. But of course, it’s much more complicated than that. As we know from the current line-up of characters, there is a good deal of gray area between “good” and “evil” and such was the case when Eddard and Robert rode to war against the Mad King. We know that Aerys was insane and cruel – as evil as they come – but what of his son, Rhaegar?

The ambiguity of history is present in Martin’s books as well. We don’t know what happened, not really, not everything. Certainly not enough to make strong moral judgments about what’s happening now, about whether justice has been done. Unlike many fantasies, there is no glorious war between good and evil sitting as the backdrop for current conflicts. The rebellion was a bloody affair, but the victors were not just the Starks and the Baratheons, but the Lannisters, too. The truth of it all, I suspect, will be very ugly, but it won’t shine any brighter a light on questions of justice or honor.

The return of magic

weirwood One thing I’ve noticed both in Dance with Dragons and in earlier books as the series has progressed is the emergence of magic in Martin’s world. At first, there is very little magic at all. It is all but absent from the world and the dragons are all long-dead.

Then Melisandre comes with her fire. And the healings begin with Beric Dondarrion’s outlaws. The dragons are born. White walkers and direwolves roam the forests. Magic seeps up out of the dirt and into the places and people of Westeros and the Free Cities.

This, in itself, is an interesting twist on an old theme. In Lord of the Rings and many other fantasies, magic is seeping from the world not the other way around. In many fantasies we are the tail end of a golden age of magic, when it has all but faded from the world and the old glories of distant eras are little more than memories and myths. This is true, also, in Game of Thrones. The difference is, in Martin’s stories the magic is returning, the old gods are waking from their long slumber – for good or ill.

White Walkers


I started reading A Dance with Dragons last night. I’m only barely in, but it’s good so far.

I was thinking about the TV series again, and it’s interesting that they chose to call the Others “White Walkers”. I wonder, if Lost hadn’t been so recent or so popular, would they have called them Others as they’re called in the books? I can see why they’d change it for the show, even though I think it would be kind of cool to have Ben and the smoke monster north of the wall.

And I just stumbled on this, which is hilarious. This is how we get from Game of Thrones to The Goonies in three paragraphs.