Fantasy is dead. “That is quite a bold statement,” you may say by way of reply. “It is a bold statement,” I would then say to you. “Does it make it any less true?”
The sad fact is, I believe it is true. As a genre, fantasy is in its dying throes, or at the very least, it is starting to look really rather sickly. Everything that has happened before will happen again and the fantasy genre (if you want to narrow the focus down even further, you could say I’m shining the spotlight directly on the high fantasy subgenre) exemplifies this notion. There are several reasons I use as my rationale for this aforementioned bold statement. Here goes.
While the recent (and obvious) success of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, being the second part in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, may cause some to question my main points, to them I would caution jumping to conclusions too quickly. The legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien has a built-in fan base that was only strengthened and solidified by the mass-market release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy from 2001-2003 and the massive glut of merchandise that accompanied the theatrical release of the films. The Hobbit trilogy has been able to reach out to that fan base, as I am sure the Authorities at the Studios behind the films know all too well. Taking the success of The Hobbit trilogy as rationale for the vitality of the fantasy genre may, in fact, only be erroneous.
Part of the blame for the demise of the fantasy genre can in actuality be traced back to the gargantuan success of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien is often called the “Father of High Fantasy” and for good reason, as arguably his works created the foundation that every fantasy author has only built upon since. That’s right, you can argue that without Tolkien, Lewis, Martin, Rowling, Pratchett, Jordan, and so many others never would have achieved the widespread success they now enjoy. However, since the film trilogy, I personally have noticed there has been precious little innovation in the genre as a whole. Once the Harry Potter series concluded (and not in the manner I had wished; I hold to the opinion Rowling’s resurrection of Harry at the end of Deathly Hallows cheapened the entire series and specifically the special relationship between Harry and Voldemort), it seemed the era of fantasy had begun to fade. I believe that was the beginning of, well, the end.
Again, I have seen very little innovative ideas within the fantasy genre since the greats published their works. Yes, we did get George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and while I am a fan of that franchise, without Tolkien, Westeros would have never seen the White Walkers encroach on its lands. Or dragons. Or Emilia Clarke stark naked, surrounded by fire and fledgling dragons. Where was I? Ah, yes. J.K. Rowling did, as it were, pen an interesting series but much of it borrowed from what came before. This is an issue I have run into all too frequently. It has become widespread enough, this lack of innovative ideas, that although I very much want to write a fantasy novel myself, I find it nigh impossible to do so at the present time. Therefore, I have had to devise novels and place them in settings that are not secondary worlds, but rather in some related but still distinct portion of our own reality (such as a world in an alternate timeline or a reality akin to but somewhat skewed from our own). Neil Gaiman, in his seminal piece American Gods, is one of the few authors who I believe has been able to break out of this mold and write a fantasy novel totally unique in its own right while also brilliantly tying in ancient mythological pantheons from the world over.
Much can be made of similarities within plot threads in the fantasy genre and this is the reason why I feel there is a strong lack of originality inherent in the system as it stands at present. Just take a gander at Wikipedia’s page on high fantasy if you disagree. There, they succinctly and helpfully point out how similar so many stories are. Although not the very first to take this road, Tolkien was one of the most influential and, as will be obvious below, these plot points often follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, as outlined in the fantastic The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The plot of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope rips off the hero’s journey nearly wholesale, as it were, in addition to strong influences from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.
First, there is a hero, usually an orphan. He usually comes from some sort of magical or royal heritage, has a legacy, and there is most likely mysterious elements in his past (often related to a relative thought dead) and these mysterious elements will play a crucial role in the resolution at the end. This hero is often living a relatively ordinary life before the Big Bad Evil comes in, interferes with everything, and forces the hero to abandon his homestead and embark on a grand adventure.
Second, there is a wizened old man who acts as a mentor for this hero. Often, this mentor has to die for the hero to “fulfill his destiny.” A personal pet peeve of mine is when any variation of the following appears in any work of fantasy: “This is, and has always been, your destiny.” If there is a more cliché phrase in all of Fantasydom, I do not know of it.
Third, there is quite likely some sort of Dark Lord/dark power/evil god who is the main antagonist and must be felled. His destiny is likely intertwined with the hero/orphan and possibly also to that of the old man/mentor.
Fourth, if this is within the usual fantasy secondary world, there are probably tall, lithe elves who enjoy Mother Nature and probably trees, squat, gruff dwarves who enjoy mining and probably harbor grudges towards the Elvenfolk, more versatile men who are often called Rangers/Scouts/something akin to that and roam the countryside hunting evil monsters and their ilk, and so on and on. Again, much of current fantasy seems borrowed nearly directly, or indirectly, from the writings of Tolkien.
There are literally dozens more of these tropes I could ramble endlessly about (rant is a more appropriate term actually) but I do think you get the point I’m trying to burn into your consciousness.
On this same subject, when was the last time an original fantasy franchise was wildly successful on the silver screen? The Hobbit trilogy is an established franchise, of course, but there have been precious few original franchises that have been lauded as of late. The same can also be said for original science-fiction works, as the only successful ones have been already established series (e.g. Star Trek: Into Darkness and I harbor no doubts the Star Wars sequel trilogy will also be enormously popular). Avatar does not count, lest you bring that up, as it is without a doubt the most beautiful, gorgeous, yet vapid, shallow, and atrocious piece of drivel I have seen come out of Hollywood in a very long time. I would personally equate James Cameron’s Avatar with a tall, fit, blond supermodel whose IQ is 5 and possess the mental faculties of a decaying log in the depths of a jungle nestled within the most remote region of Burkina Faso. That is the extent to which I have an intense, overbearing, black hatred of that franchise.
What will resurrect fantasy or bring it back from the brink of becoming a cold, lifeless corpse? Originality. Innovation. Thinking outside the box. I wish I could tell you exactly how that could be done, but, like obscenity and pornography, I will know it when I see it. There are some bright rays of hope on the horizon; Neil Gaiman being one of them. I am sure there are more I just haven’t stumbled across yet. And although I have yet to professionally publish a novel, I do have it carved in granite on my personal bucket list: PUBLISH A NOVEL BEFORE YOU ARE 30. Nine years left to work on that…
My point is, I try to write novels I would want to read. I want to read a fantasy novel that takes the genre and rips apart all the usual tropes, jumbles them up, and then throws them in the face of the reader. Perhaps, if the idea ever comes to me, I can write that fantasy novel. Until such time, or until such time as some other enterprising storyteller embarks on that peril-laden voyage, the road goes ever on and on…
Footnote: Do not get me started on my rants about Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle. If I have ever read a more blatant ripoff of both Tolkien and Lucas, I cannot remember it. And yes, I suffered through the incessant torment of reading all but the last novel. Paolini also has no idea how his constant overuse of deus ex machina renders his storytelling completely ineffective.
Footnote #2: I do not, never have and very likely never will, count The Hunger Games as either a work of fantasy or science-fiction literature. Young Adult fiction is one of the worst genres I have ever had the misfortune to dabble in, I am sorry to say to you. It is tripe, intentionally watered down (no, dumbed down is more accurate), full of absurdly contrived plots, ridiculous and ludicrous dialogue, and unrealistic and atrocious characterizations, not to mention shoved-in romances that merely serve to cause the reader to ponder whether gouging out his own eyeballs would be more pleasurable than finishing the YA novel. To all YA authors: STOP. You’re demeaning yourselves and literature as a whole. They are young adults and they can read adult fiction and if they are unable to, you really don’t want to write for their demographic as it is. I rather firmly believe if authors wrote for adults and not for young adults, then those latter individuals would gravitate towards higher-quality literature rather than the lukewarm, flimsy oatmeal that currently passes as YA literature on library and bookstore shelves.