Fantasy: Challenging the Tropes

Fantasy Map of Clichea by Sarithus

Wow. It certainly has been a rocky few months. From the publication of my first novel at the end of April to the publication of another – much shorter – one during the middle of June, and yet further into failed attempts to deliver on promises on weekly blog posts and more publications. I have learnt that writing is unpredictable. Never chained by schedules (even my detailed promo schedule).

But, I may or may not have mentioned a new venture of mine in previous posts. To remind you (or inform you), this venture is into the boundless world of fantasy. Like other popular fiction genres such as romance, historical fiction, mystery, and thrillers, fantasy is a saturated one. And, with the advent of self-publishing, even more so.

I must admit though, I am riding on the wave of the supposed successes of the self-publishing industry. That is, trying, and like a novice to surfing, failing – not out of any fault of mine. Like the saturation of genres, the industry of self-publishing is saturated. But that is not all that is saturated. Gone are the days in the late modern period when authors were few and libraries were scarce. Nowadays, libraries – public and personal – are so common. As are books in general – literature itself is saturated.

This saturation, and my poor navigation of the industry – listening to none of the advice on promotion – has resulted in this rocky journey. Nevertheless, as always, it is exciting. Now, I shall not make any promises here. I have noticed that I am far too eager to make promises in my posts and newsletters. And, I rarely meet them. Well, I’m done with that.

The Problem

Nevertheless, I am excited to talk about this today. I have already made it clear – I hate the classic fantasy tropes. To remedy this, I shall be joining the far rarer breed of fantasy authors challenging them. That is certainly an unsaturated market. Two birds with one stone. Now, I can’t give too much away. Not only would they be spoilers but they may feed my irrational fear of another author stealing my ideas. That would be killing my two birds with one stone.

But, as always, I can’t keep mum. Fundamentally, fantasy is a reflection of the real history of the world. Unfortunately, it has all too often been the case that fantasy authors distort this history much like Europeans always have. In their world, Europe is the centre. Like few other authors before me, I want to remind readers that there is a world beyond Europe. That is not to detract from the successes and critical acclaim attributed to fantasy authors: J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and David Eddings among my favourites. They have truly gone beyond what is possible for the ordinary author. The many languages penned by Tolkien is testament to that.

The One Ring Inscription in Black Speech (Fantasy Language)
The One Ring Inscription in Black Speech

They are who I aspire to. But I also aspire to show colonialism. I aspire to show slavery. I aspire to show racism. I aspire to show that Christianity and the West is not the norm – not with the plethora of inspiration from the East, from Africa, from Hinduism, from Islam, and so much more. As always, I cannot give too many spoilers away. This has constrained me in my Behind the Scenes of The Monk’s Curse posts.

Unveiling…

What I can say is that there are three continents. One unspoiled. One reflecting Europe. One reflecting the victims of Europe. There are a few gods. A complex ontology. And this faith has direct reflections in its world. There are other worlds – also unspoiled. There is magic. There are different levels of this magic. Each is accessible only to those worthy, wise, or otherwise experienced. These forms of magic not only emerge from the existing magical systems of fantasy but from the real history of magic in paganism and Wicca. There are complex political systems and histories – after all, every nation has a history. Why then should fantasy locations be constrained to only whatever detail serves the plot? There are nations which shun heteronormativity.

I shall not go on. Perhaps this challenge is insurmountable. Perhaps not. But it is certainly not made easier by my desire to develop languages for my world – perhaps an exercise years in the making. What I can say is that despite this seeming insurmountable challenge, what I have thus far explored has been like a playground. Creating worlds is certainly more interesting than creating characters and plots to fit the real world. Hopefully, this will reveal a piece that goes beyond the saturation of its markets. After all, is that not the mark of artistic beauty? Certainly in the present day.


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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.

Can Peace Prevail?

I promised myself that this website would be what I call my ‘author website’ when I created it. I dedicated myself to sharing my literary journey in its entirety. But, today, I come with a very different message. And, heck, I know it’s totally off-topic, but I simply must share it! Yesterday, the world, or the Western World, shook yet again by another act of terror in London. This follows a series of attacks which began with a man driving towards the Palace of Westminster, and with a recent bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. Amidst this chaos, especially after last night’s events, I ask myself this: can peace prevail in this world of ours?

My thoughts on this are not just isolated to terrorism. I am taken back to the harsh inequality and inhumane treatment inflicted on the world by colonialism. I am taken back to the subjugation of people of colour. I am taken back to the racism of Apartheid-era South Africa. I am taken back to the murders of two Indian men in a bar in Kansas simply because of the colour of their skin. I am taken back to any of the moments in recent history where one man was thought or shown to be inferior to another because of his race, his creed, his religion, his place of origin. And, I realise through all of this, is that this world is ruled by something very close to racism – but not racism itself. It is ruled by the pride, arrogant feeling of superiority that one group of people have over others. This could be a white supremacist who disregards the rights of a black person. It could also be the cowardly terrorists who show a disregard for freedom and liberty. It could be a politician declaring or implying that all whites are racist (yes, that’s you, Jacob Zuma) or it could be another politician encouraging anti-Islamic sentiments (I won’t say any names here). On that note, I should just declare that Islam, like any other religion, is a religion of peace, and so the answer to terrorism is not an attack on Islam. For more details on the nature of Islam, I refer you to a Ted Talk by Lesley Hazleton (a Jewish personality of great intellect).

Have I (or Lesley Hazleton) convinced you to accept the beliefs of all people, including Muslims? I should hope so, but if I haven’t, here’s my message.

Let us stop blaming groups of people for acts against humanity. Instead, let us unite. Wait, I can hear people screaming ‘close the borders!’, ‘don’t let in immigrants!’, ‘cultures should not be allowed to mix!’, or something else of that sort. If I may, let me stop you there. In terms of diversity, I come from South Africa. Here, I have witnessed first-hand the brilliant capabilities that diversity has. I have witnessed the peace with which the South African melting pot of culture continues to live.

Now, this may not even be enough to convince all the naysayers to accept diversity. But if you take away one message from this blog post, let it be my final plea.

Let us be honest with ourselves, all discrimination of all forms needs to stop! We should not frown on Christians or Muslims or Jews or Hindus. We are all human, and no religion teaches terror. No race teaches terror. We must accept and forgive even those who harm us – this is humanity, and yes we can protect ourselves against terror, but we must never act like the terrorists by attacking people because of their affiliation with any group be it Islam, or the West. I believe that we have forgotten what peace means. We have forgotten what humanity means, and we must rediscover both! I just don’t see why we as humans cannot accept other people who are different from us – is that so wrong?

But I believe that we are just proud to unite, too vain to unite, feel too superior to unite. We always want to be and feel better than someone else. Why can’t we all be our best together? Now I am not a communist if it may sound like I am, but I just think that we should learn to respect difference and then many issues will dissipate, in a time of course.

And yes, vanity and pride are natural characteristics which we all bask in. But, we should not let those feeling make us think that others are wholly lesser than us. We are better in some ways, and they are better in other ways. That is what being human is – being flawed, and being talented in multiple facets. I believe that humanity is the acceptance of that, it is the peace with that. It is when terrorists will respect the sanctity of life. When they will respect the values of liberty and equality. It is when white supremacists or Islamophobes will accept people of colour, or people of different religions, and will allow them to live alongside them. This is what is needed: acceptance, and respect.

Now, I know that I am an idealist, and this will probably never be achieved. In fact, I am sure many readers of this will abandon the post if they haven’t already, but I believe that every change we make – accepting our crimes of the past, recognising how those injustices have shaped the present, and showing humanity to build a better future – will make a difference at the end of the day.

I leave you with that message, and I hope that you take it out and into your life and daily practice.