Of Fanboys, Feminism and Fantasy

Editor’s Note: Yes, this is supposed to be a blog about the magazine distribution industry and the publications we love so much. But from time to time it’s fun to depart that little tidal pool in the mag business and think about something else in the publishing sea. It’s summer and ABC audits and filings hang heavy in the air. Tax season is long behind us, PBAA is over and football annuals are on display… So let’s pull out a fat book (or a virtually fat one) and do something different.

At lunch the other day the topic turned to what we would say if we bumped into our teenaged selves. I responded that  I’d mostly be fine with meeting my 17 or 18 year old self because by the junior and senior years of high school, I was pretty happy with who I was. High school had turned out to be a fine old time.

“Now my sophomore year self,” I demurred. “Yeesh!”

“Why’s that?” my friend asked. “Too many zits?”

“Nope,” I replied, “I spent most of that year locked in my bedroom writing very dark poetry. You know, the ‘Dark Period’”.

He asked, “Was there a girl involved?”

“Yes”, I replied. “Eowyn of Rohan.”

Source: http://www.thegalleryofheros.com

J.R.R. Tolkien’s  The Lord of The Rings saga is the grand daddy of all fantasy novels. I’ve long wondered if Tolkien is the reason so many YA and contemporary fantasy novels are trilogies. For me, reading  The Hobbit around a Maine campfire with my family was the start of a love affair with those books. However it wasn’t until I finally wrested control of the series (once my siblings departed for college and I had clear access to their bookshelves) that I fell deep into the story of Frodo, Sam and Gandalf and the great quest to save all that was good in Middle Earth.

Without the wide acceptance of Tolkien’s epic story, would we have the fantasy category as it now exists? I don’t think so because you can see Tolkien’s fingerprints on so many other fantasy tales. How elves, dwarves and other mythological creatures act in contemporary fantasies can be traced straight to The Lord of The Rings.

Bold, upright, uptight honorable northern folk? Check.

Beautiful but dwindling Elvin folk? Check.

Dour, crafty, clever, comic relief providing dwarves? Check.

Scheming, dark skinned Southerners? Check.

People who look “fair” but are, in fact, evil? Check.

A lovely fair skinned long haired noble woman looking to break from her traditional role? Check.

Like I said, Eowyn of Rohan was often in my thoughts back in the 10th grade.

English author, Laurie Penny published a thought provoking piece on the “New Statesman” website  a week or so ago entitled  “Game of Thrones and the Good Ruler Complex”and she touched off a wild storm in the comments section.

Never mess with fanboys. Source: http://www.scififx.com

As an adult, I still like to read fantasy novels. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the works of American writer, Tad Williams (who’s remarkably accessible on Facebook). I recommend English novelist Mark Charan Newton. He is going in an intriguing direction with his Legends of the Red Sun series. It’s almost as if he is tilting the whole fantasy genre on it’s side like a tired old minivan and shaking the stale skittles out.

Right now, however, Game of Thrones is the fantasy genre. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that it’s a complex, interesting and exciting read that is taking the author a very long time to complete. It also helps that it’s a successful series on HBO featuring a lot of topless women. That last point seems to be something the trolls who flocked to Ms. Penny’s article can’t seem to differentiate.

Laurie Penny is right to point out that Game of Thrones is chock full prostitutes, rape, child brides, the threat of rape, prostitutes and a bunch of other horrbile practices we shouldn’t take for granted. Without denying the hugely engrossing and entertaining aspects of the story she legitimately asks if the “default” setting for such fantasies has to involve “really a rather lot of rape.”

The answer to the question is “No. Not necessarily.” At least to most authors who’s names aren’t George R.R. Martin.

She continues on and ties in the common fantasy theme of “The Search for the Good Ruler” to the Queen’s Jubilee celebration. Many fantasy stories do revolve around that theme. We see it Tolkien’s story of the restoration of Aragorn as King in Gondor. Another example would be fellow UK author Richard Adam’s Beklan Empire series (Shardik and Maia) also revolved around the search for a good leader. The troubles that plague Westeros in the   Game of Thrones start because the continent was ruled by a king with no interest in governing.

Of course the trolls who showed up in the comments section of Ms. Penny’s commentary helpfully pointed out to her why the series is so much more than rape, prostitution and some remarkable examples of how not to lead a nation. It never fails to amaze me that some people feel that banging out a few hundred words in the comments section of a blog or a news site will actually convince anyone of anything other than the fact that you have way too much time on your hand and are far too invested in the topic.

The appeal of fantasy and science fiction novels is the simple yet complicated act of  immersing yourself in a created world and it’s unique culture. Readers identify with the story because there are elements that correlate to contemporary life, but are so different. They appreciate the authors’ ability to create a whole new world. I don’t know why the fantasy genre is so enamored of kings and queens and the search for the good ruler. But after reading Laurie Penny’s article, I’m even more intrigued with where Mark Charon Newton is going with his Red Sun series.

On the more straightforward question of misogyny, rape culture, and how women are portrayed. Well, Game of Thrones, does offer up the incredibly strong Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and of course, Daenerys Targaryen. But I’d like to add that if the scene involving Daenerys’ wedding to Drogo (in the book) isn’t cringe inducing, go get some help. But  Arya, Brienne and Daenerys seem more of an exception than the rule. In the end, the series is the way it is because that’s how George R.R. Martin wrote it. And, as Laurie Penny points out, it is “highly entertaining”in spite of it’s cringe inducing elements.

Maybe the question to ask could be, “Hey, HBO, why Game of Thrones and not, say, Williams’ Shadowmarch series?” That is a compelling story about a land in search of a good ruler which features the strong, admirable teenage Princess Briony Eddon and the Elf Queen Saqri? And no rape.

Or how about John Harrison’s Viriconium cycle. That exciting story features brain stealing robots and weirdly dancing resurrected people. But no rape.

Don’t know. But there’s a budget to contemplate. Back to work.

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