Worlds of Fantasy: fantasy… “…the biggest thing in our modern culture”??March 17, 2008
So, the final episode of BBC4’s Worlds of Fantasy series aired on Wednesday night (I caught it on the recently cracked BBC iPlayer) and it was easily the most interesting of the lot, managing to pack pretty much everything I complained about the absence of in the first two epsiodes. Under normal circumstances I’d have moaned about the overabundance of Terry Pratchett (as a teen I preferred Piers Anthony’s Xanth series) but in his favour he’s done a good job of popularising the genre and given that he just donated $1 million to Alzheimer’s research and is sadly suffering from the disease itself I think he deserves all the attention out of sheer respect, if nothing else.
It all began very well with some clips from World of Warcraft at long last, then drove straight into the subject of the post-war fantasy boom, with interviews from Michael Moorcock, who explains that coffee and sugar where his drugs of choice during the 60s, and, get this, Lemmy! While discussing the hippy movement’s love for Lord of the Rings the narrator, quite unintentionally states the funniest line on the whole series, when he says that ‘fantasy thrived in an underground scene of radical thinking, wild imagination and the kind of drugs that made people want to befriend elves’.
Moorcock draws an interesting parallel between rock’n’roll and fantasy genre, a point he explores in more depth in Wizardry and Wild Romance, the emphasis being on the ‘romance’ element. Given the penchant for fantasy imagery amongst ‘power metal’ bands like Blind Guardian, Doomhammer, and my personal favourite Crystal Viper this seems particularly relevant. We finally get to see some D&D in action with what appears to be a very young Steve Jackson and some very dodgily painted miniatures. We get a bit of Hollywood in here too in the form of Guillermo del Torro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and even MMO’s own great grandfather Richard Bartle.
But the statement quoted in the title of this post is what surprised me most. Maybe I’m a bit out of touch here, but despite the popularity of The Lord of the Rinsg films and Harry Potter I thought that being a fan of this genre was nigh on the worst social stigma conceivable. Okay, so commuters unabashedly read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings on the tube, but this falls a long way short of encompassing the genre as a whole. Perhaps it would be fair to say that ‘fantasy’ in the broadest sense is having a major impact on our entertainment preferences, especially if we count superheroes, supernatural horror and the ‘magic realism’ of shows like Pushing Daisies as well as the continuing production of more conventional fantasy releases like The Spiderwick Chronicles and the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that most of the conventional fantasy films are aimed at younger audiences, I’m doubtful we’ll see an Elric or Cugel the Clever film anytime soon, more’s the pity. MMOs are used to illustrate that people want to do more than just read about fantasical quests, they want to do them. We get lots of nice shots fro World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, but again, in the UK at least there is still social stigam attached to these games, even more so than single player games. This isn’t to say that fantasy isn’t appealing, I’ve noticed the strange gleam in friends’ eyes when I show them my Dungeonquest and Talisman boardgames, I’m sure I can see their inner struggle, their curiosity to know if it will be just as exciting to pretend to be a barbarian or magician as it was when they were kids, so perhaps the fantasy is better described ‘guiltiest pleasure’ in our modern culture.
The last part of the programme briefly discusses ‘The New Weird’ and its more gritty take on the genre, asking the question is fantasy popular because of some millinerian anxiety, a need for a escapism or an abstract lense through which to view the great fears of the day? It’s a difficult call really and I’m dubious that a single factor alone can have such impact. The Harry Potter series began in 1997 four years before 9/11 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy began its run in cinemas a year before that, so fantasy was rising in popularity before our fears became apparent. Could it have been a general response to the turn of the millenium? Well, give that prior to 2001 the greatest conceived threat was the ‘Millenium Bug’, a disaster movie concpet so unconvincing that even the most desperate Hollywood studio wisely ognored it, then I would say, no. Harry Potter probably has as much in common with The Famous Five as it does Lord of the Rings, maybe even more, and I think its popularity has as much to do with the reclamation of romanticised British culture from nationalism (and football) something ex-colonies, and probably most of the globe can appreciate. The Lord of the Rings films made the most of the amazing special effects available today and conicided with two other epic ‘fantastical’ trilogies (Star Wars prequels and the Matrix films) and is as much a part of their heritage as fantasy litertaure. Likewise the popularity of MMOs has as much to do with improved computer graphics, simplification of gameplay and the rapid spread of broadband than some underlying ideological pressure. Fantasy will probably always be there, it’s popularity like that of sci fi will wax and wane depending on the quality and relevance of media to societies tastes and preferences. Whether it will ever be accepted in the world of formal institutions is up to the next generation of those who find themselves in a position to champion its cause. I know I’ll be doing my best.