Problematic Fantasy – and reality – Tropes

In my previous post on the problematic villains of fantasy, I promised another rant. Well, actually a few. But here is the first one. As anyone familiar with fantasy, or specifically epic or high fantasy, knows, there are classic tropes which make the plot lines of fantasies so unoriginal. My post on villains only confirms this.

But the problem goes more deeper than that. Unfortunately, fantasy worlds often reflect the real world. This in itself is a problem. How can fantasy have any claim to being fantasy if it is not – for most fantasies are effectively allegories? Now I am not criticising the masters of fantasy – nor the master of masters: J.R.R. Tolkien. No, I love them. I love Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the blatant copy of those – David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean.

I love immersing myself in these fantastical worlds. But the problem comes in when one is so immersed that the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. And this is too often the case. In fact, most readers don’t even realise it.

To unpack this, let me elaborate on the tropes of fantasy. This is simple to do. Fair skinned and beautiful good versus darker skinned and ugly evil. Good west versus evil east. Highly civilised west versus barbaric east. I could go and on. But the fact remains that the maps of worlds like Middle Earth and David Eddings’ sagas too often reflect the problems of the real world – civilised west and barbaric east. The other tropes fit this almost perfectly.

Let us not forget Game of Thrones. It also reflects the above, all the while making it abundantly clear that the east is a place of mystery and barbarity. Slavery is abundant in the east? Reality check! Europeans invented slavery!!! The hordes of Dothraki?? That is a blatant misappropriation of the Golden Horde of the descendants of Genghis Khan. And in portraying them as savage people only skilled in horsemanship plays on the classic belief that Genghis Khan was only effective in savagery and not in his actual civilisation. Oh, and the treatment of characters of colour on the TV show is pathetic. I could see the racial hatred on the faces of the Westerosi in Winterfell as the foreign queen marched in with her coloured warriors. Don’t even get me started on the painting of Arya Stark as the Columbus of the world of Game of Thrones. What is west of Westeros? Well, who knows? It is probably a place that has never deserved the attention of the advanced races of Westeros who were too focussed on the barbaric east. It is in the name. Nothing is deemed worthy of being considered west of Westeros because it simply doesn’t matter. Well, let us leave it to Columbus to ‘discover’ the new world.

I could go on and on. Even Rick Riordan makes it plain that the location of Mount Olympus is wherever Western Civilisation is. What about Eastern Civilisation? What about the fact that some of the most sophisticated cultures, ancient civilisations, and advanced scientific discoveries like the number zero and the system of numbers all sprung from the East?

As I said, I could go on and on. And I can tell you this, my views are inflammatory. No one likes to read these kind of things. But it is a topic which needs discussion. Why are most fantasy worlds based on medieval Europe? Medieval Asia and Africa were far more civilised places. Why are most fantasy worlds predominantly featuring white characters?? Many people say that people of colour do not belong in these fantasies because the fantasies are based on medieval Europe. Well, news flash, the Europeans have traded with people of colour for eons. People were not isolated in their worlds that is depicted in fantasy and period dramas. Well, perhaps only the natives of America were. But even they could not keep their identity. Because Columbus was too stupid to know where he was, he called them Indians. Also why do you think their (European) food is so bland? Because the only Eastern spice that they could handle was salt and pepper. Oh, and for those who say colonisation brought civilisation, let me remind you that colonisation was the expansion of slavery and religion. The Europeans had no care for the natives. If they had, well, Africa would not be where it is today. The Europeans did not share their civilisation. They took new lands and practised civilisation while only allowing the natives to watch. Oh, and before I forget, the means that Europeans used to conquer lands was acquired from the East. Gun powder and ammunition.

For too long people of colour have been inferior to white people in real life and in fiction. I have even been told that my culture has contributed nothing to science. You would think that these civilised people would at least have scruples. Well, they don’t. For all their civilisation, they lack humanity. So, who should the villains in fantasy be? The ones who have humanity or the ones who lack it? That question needs no answer. At least not for anyone who has the attribute of rationality.

The Problem with Modern Villains

So this is another one of my impassioned rants. And expect another one in the next few days. So, today is my short exclamation of discontent with villains gracing the stories of the 20th and 21st centuries.

I won’t beat around the bush. First, let me list these villains to which I refer. Sauron, Torak, Voldemort, Thanos, The Night King.

As any geek, dork or nerd should know, Sauron is the overarching antagonist of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings world of Middle Earth. Of course few people have dared to criticise the great J.R.R. Tolkien. Neither shall I. Only, his villain is so problematic to the world of fantasy, at least in the legacy it has left behind. In creating Sauron, he created the archetypal ‘Dark Lord’ who has no good in him and who meets a satisfying death – one that is reflective of his power. Rather than dying as any person should, he crumbles.

If I remember correctly, so does Torak, the Dragon God of the Angaraks in David Eddings’ world of the Belgariad and Mallorean (edit: Torak does not crumble. His body remains intact. His death is also human as he realises and laments the fact that he is loved by none. His death is even mourned by the good Gods, his brothers. For all of David Eddings’ appropriation of J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy tropes, this is where he deserves applause). So does Voldemort, at least in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. So does Thanos at the end of Avengers: Endgame. So does The Night King of Game of Thrones’ Season 8.

Here is the problem. These stories have dehumanised their villains, setting the precedent for creating unrealistic stories where the villains have no humanity. This is contrary to the reality of villains, even Hitler himself. Okay, shouldn’t a fictional villain have fictional characteristics? Well of course. No one is calling for their powers to be stripped off them. And yet it remains a firm principle that fantasy worlds are inevitably based on the real world. Looking at every one of the stories above, there are all many uncanny reflections of the real world. Such are stories.

But these villains disappoint the fundamental substance of any story – that it should be relatable to its audience. Villains are made to be great. To be dark. To be powerful. And to meet deaths that are certainly not deaths that their victims would meet.

So on Voldemort, even though the movies made a royal mess of his death (books are better than their film adaptations!!), J.K. Rowling put is astutely when she gave Voldemort a human death in the books and when she said that there are no completely good and completely evil people in this world – we all have light and dark in us.

And yet the majority of stories fail to portray this. Their villains are almost godly in their evil, detached from humanity and thus unrelatable. In my opinion, as villains are mortal, they should be burdened with the same aspects of mortality that burdens protagonists. The best villain is one that the reader or watcher may slightly agree with. Black Panther did this perfectly with Killmonger. So did Avengers: Infinity War. But ultimately, Thanos was the perfect villain – so immortal that his death had to be that cliched disintegration.

So this is my issue. Villains should meet mortal deaths. And, they should at least have some good in them. Otherwise, we slip into the further problematic cliches of the fantasy world that I will speak to in a post next week. This is why, in The Monk’s Curse, I made a compelling past for my villain – one that makes a reader almost pity him even as he commits murder. As the world of fantasy parallels reality, so should its villains.

Mughal-e-Azam: Truly a wonder to behold

Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam

Mughal-e-Azam is one of the most iconic films of all time. I had the distinct pleasure of watching it for the second time a few days ago.

But for those of you who have never heard of it, here you are.

Mughal-e-Azam is a Hindi language film. As one of the most iconic films in Bollywood (the largest film industry in the world) history, it is known to millions of people today.

It remains an enduring tale much like Romeo and Juliet as it depicts the struggle of the love of Prince Saleem (who would go on to become Emperor Jehangir of Mughal India) and Anarkali (a courtesan – a dancer in the Mughal court). The antagonist in this film is the Prince’s father, Akbar the Great – the finest Emperor that the Mughal dynasty ever produced. Akbar struggles to allow his son the freedom to love as he is bound by duty as Emperor to never allow Saleem to marry a woman of low birth. Such is Mughal custom.

And yet their love endures. The greatest love in Mughal history.

Now, in history, it is not known if Anarkali ever existed, but Mughal-e-Azam firmly imprinted her identity in the minds of millions of Indians.

Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya

It was originally made as a black and white film with a few colour scenes, notably the song of Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya:

The song is a song that strikes the heart of many for its powerful meaning. Translated to English, the song’s title roughly translates to ‘Having loved, why fear.’

In the film, it is a powerful image of the defiance of Anarkali to the customs of Mughal India as she overtly challenges the Mughal Emperor himself. In one part, she even lays a knife at his feet, daring him to kill her – not fearing death for she has loved.

The song is made even more powerful by its set. As one of the few scenes shot in colour, the set of the song was made with no expense spared. Displaying what would have been the full splendour of the court of Akbar the Great, it forms an eye-pleasing set that matches the grandeur of Anarkali and her love for the Mughal Prince. The set was so iconic that at the film’s premier in Mumbai, the set was installed as a feature that certain ticket paying film goers could explore. This privilege is one I would have thoroughly enjoyed. Alas it was over fifty years ago.

Madhubala

But the set aside, the song is made even more powerful by the dance of Anarkali. The valour of a poor servant aside, it depicts one of the finest actresses in Indian history in her prime – Madhubala.

Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam

A beauty unrivalled, Madhubala remains an iconic Indian actress shrouded in the tragedy of her life. As beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, she too shared Monroe’s fate when she met her untimely death at the age of 36. This would be strangely akin to her fate in the film – one left woefully unfulfilled.

James Burke, a photographer for Life Magazine called her the biggest star in the international film industry. Beholding her beauty, it is not hard to see why. Her beauty is matched by her prowess as a dancer – a skill masterfully captured by Mughal-e-Azam’s most remembered song.

As a whole, the film of Mughal-e-Azam proves to be a potent concoction. With no expense spared on its set, it tells an enduring tale in poetic verse and beautiful songs and dance, performed by the all-star caste of Prithviraj Kapoor (the progenitor of the famous acting Kapoor family of modern Bollywood), Durga Khote, Dilip Kumar, and Madhubala herself. Even in black and white, the tale is not dimmed. So much so, that even the colour reproduction done in the 1990s dims in comparison to its original production.

But for all its merit, Mughal-e-Azam appears as little more than the masterpiece made solely to show off the brilliant personality, beauty and grace of Madhubala.

It is a beauty and a grace that everyone should see, and if not in the whole film, then at least in the song ‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya.’ It is on Netflix (in the original black and white form) for anyone who wishes to watch it.