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.

Dido Belle: England’s Eighteenth-Century African Enigma

Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle

The Story of England’s First Black Aristocrat: Dido Elizabeth Belle

Would you believe it if I told you that there existed a black aristocrat in eighteenth-century England? No, of course you wouldn’t because this seeming conundrum was certainly not allowed to happen. Even more perplexing was that she, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay – son of Sir Alexander Lindsay, 3rd Baronet – and great-niece of William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice for 32 years. Her blood was certainly noble, at least in the view of an English aristocrat assessing her father’s genealogy. However, look at her mother’s genealogy and she was no more than the daughter of a slave. She was also the illegitimate daughter of a slave as her parents were never married.

Yet, what set her apart from other illegitimate children was that her father accepted her as his daughter and made sure that she grew up under the guardianship of Earl and Lady Mansfield in Kenwood House. Although she grew up with the Earl’s other niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, it is not certain in what capacity she did so. Was she the little Lady’s playmate, attendant, or cousin? Since there is no definite account, most people look at the painting featured above and assert that she was a companion equal to Lady Elizabeth. Others look at it more critically saying that she is portrayed as a Lady’s companion. Either way, Amma Asante’s 2013 movie, Belle, certainly illuminates her relationship with the Earl, with John Davinier (who would eventually marry Belle), and how that all culminated in the Earl’s monumental ruling against slavery.

The Movie: Belle starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Belle meets the young Frenchmen, John Davinier, when he is under the Earl’s apprenticeship for law. Through him, she hears about the Zong massacre where insurance had been taken out on the lives of slaves as cargo. Following mistakes in navigation, there was a shortage of potable water aboard. So as to save the crew and to retain their investment on the slaves, the crew threw the slaves aboard to drown them. Doing so would enable them to get paid out for insurance because if the slaves had died of thirst then they could not be sold and no insurance could be paid out. Belle then proceeds to pass correspondence to Davinier which brings his apprenticeship to an end.

I will skip the romance and depiction of high society that frequents the movie. However, it allows the audience to see exactly how people of colour were treated in England in that era.

The End of the Slave Trade in Sight?

Eventually though, Belle rejects a most amiable proposal. One of the reasons for this was the affection that she had begun to hold for John Davinier. Either way, the story progressed as the Earl became painfully aware that his attempts to give Belle a suitable life, one in which she fitted into English society, had dismally failed. His own reluctance to rule against the crew on the Zong exacerbated this. Furthermore, he could not even rule against them without drawing criticism from every part of English society – royalty, aristocracy, and commoners – as they were too aware of his relationship with Belle. If he ruled against them, it would seem like an unfair judgement. But, realising that his wish to see Belle’s happiness in English society would never be achieved as long as people who shared her skin colour were brutally murdered and slave trade continued, he ruled against the crew of the Zong in a monumental way. As such, he became remembered for respecting the lives of slaves, and thereby as a man who was instrumental in the abolition of slavery.

It cannot be known for certain what drove him to this judgement, but, the movie certainly makes the case that Belle and Davinier were instrumental. And so, the simple story of Dido Belle becomes more fascinating when we realise that not only did she defy social conventions but she possibly played a pivotal role in bringing the English slave trade to an end.