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“One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries. A thumbnail history would go like this: in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Wagner’s Ring melodramas spoke to a great many people about a particular northern-European cultural identity; about a group of linked, potent emotional attachments to history, landscape, to the numinous and the divine, to matters of heroism and everyday life. I am trying not to sound sneery as I say this (I mean melodrama in the strict sense of the word), because these things did, and do, matter intensely and genuinely to many people. But there is a reason, a room-filling elephant of a reason, why Der Ring des Nibelungen no longer has this general resonance. It is because the cultural reservoir from which it draws much of its power also supplied cultural capital to the worst regime ever to take charge in Germany, and therefore lubricated the most catastrophically destructive war ever to be waged in the world.

In saying this I am not, of course, blaming Wagner for the Nazis. Indeed, the endless debates about Wagner’s own ideological ‘purity’ (‘was Wagner an anti-Semite?’ Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, like just about every other gentile in 19th-century Europe) seem to me to miss the point. The restless churning through this question happens because we’re desperate to acquit Wagner so that we can enjoy his music with a clean conscience. We ask the question, get the uncomfortable answer, and ask it again. In our guts resides the queasy comprehension that Wagner can’t be acquitted. Politics can’t be neatly separated out from the Ring cycle, leaving only a washed-and-scrubbed sequence of pretty orchestral tone poems behind. I love the Ring cycle, and listen to it regularly; but I would never try to deny that it is political all the way through, down to its very marrow. It is, to be precise, about the notion that history and myth are in some sense the same thing—a very dangerous notion indeed.

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well—resonated so powerfully with so many people—in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.”

– Adam Roberts, “From Wagner to Tolkien.A Mechanical Art. August 1, 2018.

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“One defence for all this Sadean excess might be the same one a couple of late-20th-century philosophers advanced with respect to de Sade himself: not that he was a nice person (since he very clearly wasn’t) but that his fantasy, by manifesting the oppressive logic concealed in all sexual interchanges under patriarchy, can be recruited to revolutionary ends.

In The Sadean Woman (1978) Angela Carter argued that de Sade was ‘a terrorist of the imagination’ whose works ‘turn the unacknowledged truths of the encounters of sexuality into a cruel festival at which women are prime sacrificial victims’ (‘the pornographer as terrorist may not think of himself as a friend of women…but he will always be our unconscious ally because he begins to approach some kind of emblematic truth, whereas the lackey pornographer, like the devious fellows who write love stories for women’s magazines, that softest of all forms of pornography, can only do harm’). For Carter de Sade functions as a sort of way-station on the road from oppressive-repressive sex to a more inclusively pornotopian vision of ‘a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders’. Not everyone was convinced: Andrea Dworkin threw shade on Carter’s book by calling it merely ‘pseudofeminist’. For Dworkin, Sade’s rape fantasy was all about the rape and not even a fantasy, because for her there is nothing hidden or, as it were, aspirational about male rape. It’s all front and centre all around us all the time; it’s written in letters of fire on the forehead of the patriarchy.

A more nuanced defence of de Sade is Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ (1952), which argues that de Sade ‘posed the problem of the Other in its most extreme terms’. Beauvoir has interesting speculations about the extent to which cruelty establishes the relationship between the self and the other (‘cruelty reveals us to each other in the particularities and ambiguities of our conscious and fleshed existence. The tyrant and victim are a genuine couple. They are united by the bonds of the flesh and freedom’). She does concede that de Sade fails to work through this dynamic, becoming snared in his own erotic self-absorption and moral myopia, but refuses to give up on, or censor (‘burn’) him. I’m not so sure.

And actually, to be quite frank, I could care less about de Sade, who has always struck me as plain dull (other people’s monomaniacal obsessions are almost always boring, of course). But I am interested in, and I do care about, the Sadean turn in modern culture. Because although I take the force of Beauvoir’s attempt to renovate his reputation as a radical thinker of Otherness, the fact remains that his mode of fantasy is of an interaction with the Other that cannot comprehend the Other as anything other than a reversion of the subject’s erotically intensified cruelty of affect. It’s not that de Beauvoir is wrong to suggest that ‘Sade is trying to communicate an experience whose distinguishing characteristic is, nevertheless its will to remain incommunicable’; it’s just that his incommunicable is never God—the least compelling and most adolescent elements in de Sade’s writing is his febrile fist-shaking at God—and always only the Other as projection. It’s not even, really, that de Sade hates women; you can’t really hate something that barely impinges on your egoism. De Sade desires to do certain things to, never with, women (and men) but de Sade cannot comprehend women and men, and so not only his erotic energy but his whole universe reverts into an close-walled existential echo-chamber. His works are masturbatory not just in the instrumental sense that they have been used as handbooks for that harmless human activity, though I’m sure they have, but in the formal sense that they construe an aggressively hostile withdrawal from the Other as such.

That’s the worrying aspect of the modern Sadean Fantasy. De Beauvoir is quite right to identify something cruel about the Other, or more specifically something cruel about the ethical and practical demands the Other necessarily places upon us, whether we like it or not. The pain of the other—the weeping child torn from her mother and placed in a camp, say—cannot make allowances for your convenience or ease. But de Beauvoir is not suggesting that cruelty is the whole theatre in which our encounter with the Other takes place. Grimdark, in effect, is suggesting that. This, it seems to me, doesn’t critique the contemporary political turn to the right so much as translate it into the representational logic of fantastika. The one thing that unites today’s Brexit agitators, and Trumps, and Viktor Orbáns, the basic Brexitrumpbán premise, is that the world is dark and full of horrors, and that the polity must pull up the drawbridge and arm the cannons in the face of these things. Hobbes is very much back in fashion nowadays. And TV SFF, the Game of Thrones and Westworld and True Blood and Altered Carbon vibe (something also true of recent rape-and-sandals hit epics like Spartacus and Rome) embroiders a fundamentally Sadean-Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and sure-to-include-female-nudity.”

– Adam Roberts,

Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Violence.” A Mechanical Art. June 21, 2018.                                                                                        

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“There is a famous dictum by Alfred Korzybski: the map is not the territory. Medieval maps look only vaguely like what we can see in satellite imagery today. But fantasy fiction deliberately acts like there is no difference. In Game of Thrones, the opening swoop is not across the territory of Westeros, but over its map. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers — the second movie in Peter Jackson’s original trilogy — similarly features a moment in which the characters peruse a map of their own world. It is recognizably the very same map that comes with the novel, just a bit more crumpled, and covered with some prop-department soot. The map is that rare totem that is identical in their world and ours. When you look at the map, you meet the characters eye to eye.

For centuries, fantasy didn’t require maps. Sure, some speculative works included them — think of the map of Utopia that furnishes the frontispiece for Thomas More’s fictional travelogue. Usually, when an invented map showed up in a novel, it served as an attempt at realism. From Anthony Troloppe’s Barsettshire, via Sherwood Anderson’s map of Winesburg, Ohio, to William Faulkner’s schematic of Yoknapatawpha County, these maps were supposed to convince you that, though the specific place the novel described was fictional, it had its place in your world. You didn’t armchair-travel from Varner’s Corner to Sutpen’s Hundred. You wouldn’t want to be a tourist in Yoknapatawpha, even of the armchair variety.

Nothing like this was required in what would become fantasy literature set in “secondary worlds.” William Morris’s mock epics The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896) were sumptuously designed and illustrated, much like the collections of real-world myths of their day — but that design omitted any maps of the fictional world. Edgar Rice Burroughs published 11 volumes of fiction around John Carter and the invented Barsoom. He’d come up with Martian measurements and jotted down a rudimentary map, but never bothered to include either in any of his books. Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria, Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea: maps exist for all of these, but at the time no one thought readers needed to see them.

Part of this could be due to the fact that early pulp fantasy appeared in publications that were ill-equipped to reproduce a full-page map before each installment of the story. A hardcover children’s fiction like The Hobbit had a much better reason to get fancy with its design. children’s books traditionally came illustrated anyway, while pulps, at least initially, did not. The map entered fantasy literature as one illustration among many; it attained its status as the most important (and often, only) illustration in the book later on.

It’s equally possible that until Tolkien, fantasy authors just didn’t feel like they neededmaps. Tolkien did. For the Oxford professor, maps were a natural part of the faux-scholarly apparatus he prepared to keep control of his fictional world. Tolkien himself said that he “started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances).” Through map design Tolkien could telegraph some of the complicated culture he had dreamed up for Middle Earth: the maps for The Hobbit were full of Runic inscriptions and historical notes, to the point that several scholarly books have devoted chapters to a detailed reading of these maps alone.

Tolkien was fine withholding the massive background mythology, most of it wasn’t available until his children decided to cash in on it after the author’s death. But he felt it was necessary to share these maps with readers. “Look at the map at the beginning of this book,” Tolkien’s narrator advises in The Hobbit, “and you will see there the runes in red.” Tolkien began experimenting with what would become Middle Earth in the 1920s, after the Great War had transformed people’s relationship to tracing the outlines of other people’s paths across unfamiliar terrain. During the war, Tolkien had sent his wife, Edith, coded messages in his letters, messages she could keep track of on a map at home. I’ve come to wonder whether her anxiety following her husband across the map of Flanders became a forerunner to the anxiety with which later readers would track Frodo’s frustratingly slow approach to Mount Doom.

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo and Sam reach the Black Gate to Mordor, but are forced to turn around and try a different route. If you’ve seen the movies, you encountered it as one way station among many on their quest. But I can still recall that scene from my first reading of the book. Glued as I was to the map, I experienced the scene as a visual gut punch: barely an inch lay between the characters and their goal, and I could feel the visceral frustration as they suddenly and decisively had to move map-inch by map-inch away from it again. Perhaps mapping progress was for J. R. R., as it had been for Edith Tolkien, about managing wartime anxieties.

But anxiety is only part of the story. For every moment when we take in glumly how far our heroes still have to travel, there are ten moments of the opposite: of luxuriating in how much world is yet out there for our heroes to traverse, a burning desire to see the lines and shadings filled in with people and story. This, too, is part of Tolkien’s maps. Between the world wars, the British Isles were seized by a hiking craze. Maps, organized tours, and walking guides proliferated during the years Tolkien began charting Bilbo’s great hike towards the Lonely Mountain. Thror’s Map, which Tolkien himself drew and which his characters use as a guide to get into the Mountain, may look like the map of Treasure Island that Robert Louis Stevenson included as a frontispiece in his 1883 novel. But the paths and pointers, the famous sight at the center, and the reams of text and historic markers make it feel like a hiking map.

To some extent that’s been true ever since. While cartographers have developed so many ways to present geographic information, the maps that accompany fantasy novels don’t vary a lot in terms of the information they display. They are about location, distance, and terrain for characters to hike through and for us to follow along. They are rarely political maps. They focus on geography over borders and on movement over status. The scholar Stefan Ekman suggests one reason why that may be: a lot of the borders and boundaries around fantasy realms are dictated by natural or supernatural features and have to do with states of being rather than simple movement in space. The kinds of borders we are familiar with — the result of historic processes or Gertrude Bell-style whim — are mostly banished. Concepts that we have grown distrustful of in our world — border, nation, identity — are magically appropriate in describing elf kingdoms, misty isles, or corsair ports.

Fantasy maps suggest that history and habitation follow much more cleanly from geography than they do in our world. And their geography is not the result of blind physical processes. In a recent essay, geologist Alex Acks called the map of Middle Earth a “geographical car wreck”: Tolkien’s mountain ranges meet in right angles, but, as he points out, “mountains don’t do corners.” Middle Earth’s geography suggests another kind of history than the one we see reflected in our landscapes. And why not: Tolkien came up with the map as part of Middle Earth’s mythology. Frodo and Gandalf’s moment isn’t some random point along millions of years of geologic time; the very continent they traverse has evolved along with the story in which they play a part.

4.

All that is required for a good fantasy map are some evocative names distributed over vaguely geographic-looking splotches of grayscale shading or color. The novelist Ursula K. Le Guin acknowledged many parts of her Earthsea-series map “were, when I wrote them, merely words — ‘empty’ nouns. I knew that if my story took me to them, I would find out who and what they were.” In the same way, she adds, “I drew the map of Earthsea at the very beginning, but I didn’t know anything about each island till I ‘went to’ it.”

It’s strange, then, that we can detect clear conventions and preferences when it comes to how kingdoms, oceans, islands, and mountains are distributed on these maps. Authors who are free to use their imagination any way they choose somehow seem to imagine along the same stringent lines. Le Guin writes that fantasy “has rules,” that it “asserts a universe that, in some way, makes sense.” Fantasy maps make sense in a highly specific, and for that reason highly interesting, way.

Think of the ubiquitous great western oceans: Diana Wynne Jones’s satirical travel guide from 1996, The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, points out that most fantasy worlds have one, “but it is out of bounds for the Tour.” No one knows what’s beyond it, “and the Cartographer felt free to doodle in the space.” Fantasy that wants to unsettle the Western-Europe-with-elves-and-dragons mode — Le Guin’s Earthsea, Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for instance — also resists giving totemic significance to east and west, north and south, or to having a forbidding ocean on the left side of the map. I recall a profound sense of disappointment when, as a young teen, I first cracked open one of the Earthsea novels: It’s just a bunch of islands, I remember thinking. I didn’t know where to focus; I was looking at a picture without being able to say what it was a picture of. I recall a feeling of vertigo at the fact that I couldn’t tell whether the edges of the map were perhaps also the ends of the world. The atoll could’ve been surrounded by endless ocean, or just by more islands. I couldn’t say which possibility frightened me more.

Was the anxiety I felt, in a comparatively small nation on the western shore of a large landmass, that of not seeing myself mirrored in a small nation on the western shore of a large landmass? In most fantasy novels this is where the smaller nations cluster and where the story takes place. Perhaps generations of map designers simply had Tolkien in mind when they emulated his geography, the haunting mystery of Frodo’s final voyage to the hazy west. Or perhaps they felt the same sense of anxiety I did. Perhaps the two are not even distinct. Middle Earth has a western neighbor, but it doesn’t have to be penciled in: going there means that the story is over. Meanwhile, venturing into the sketchy east and figuring out what it looks like is the story. There is an Englishman’s moral geography overlaid onto a continent that Tolkien positions as an oblique ancestor to Europe: the Shire, too sensible to take much interest in the dark east or the shining west, occupies a quintessentially English position.

Its middle-ness, its immunity to the charms of east and west alike, is both a necessary condition for adventure (both Bilbo and Frodo venture forth from this middle position against their will), and an assurance that the adventure can at some point come to an end: The Hobbit is subtitled “there and back again,” after all. It’s a place that launches you into adventure, but also promises a safe harbor once all the questing is done. Perhaps this is why the middle position between an ethereal west and an ominous east has proved so irresistible to fantasy mapmakers.

Still, it’s hard to detach that middle position from its obvious Eurocentrism. The fantasy genre, cribbing as it does from our imaginary version of medieval Europe, seems wedded to an Atlantic Ocean setting firm limits to human curiosity to the west. There are clear remnants here of a colonialist mental geography. Think of all the maps of fantastic continents you know where the eastern lands are bigger, more savage, more mysterious. On every foldout map of Middle Earth there is a place called Rhûn (which is the word for “east” in Tolkien’s Elvish) on the eastern margin: the circumflex alone already signals that we’re far removed from the familiarity of the Shire. We learn nothing of it, other than that the people who live there are “Easterlings” in league with Sauron. As we get to the right-hand edge of fantasy maps, things get rather hazy, and not a little racist.

George R. R. Martin’s Westeros is a surprisingly navigable space — Littlefinger, Varys, and Euron Greyjoy pop about at astonishing speed in the show, and Catelyn Stark does likewise in the books. Meanwhile in Essos, Daenerys Targaryen spends five books roaming about in endless steppes, deserts, and seas. Her travels are a trip into something far more mysterious and otherworldly than anything the reader encounters in Westeros. But her travels also represent a trip back in time: with its abandoned cities, shadowbinders, and an upstart queen conquering foreign cities, Martin is riffing on early fantasy literature — above all the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard. At least one of the city names in Essos, the Eastern continent Daenerys traverses, has direct antecedents in Howard’s novels.

The west coast of fantasy continents is differentiated and densely textured. In countless continents invented for D&D, the east usually contained mysterious, massive kingdoms stretching into the unknown. Khanates, hordes, red wizards, warlords, and dragons populated them, and they were off-limits for all but the most advanced player characters. East is where Daenerys Targaryen can play white savior and practice being queen, but her destination lies to the west.”

– Adrian Daub, “Here at the End of All Things,” Longreads. August 2017.

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