A long time ago (two novels ago, in fact), I conducted a brief survey of Hamsterites’ thoughts on fantasy tropes in preparation for a panel at SFXWeekender3. There were not too many surprises when one considers the results and looks at the fantasy books on the shelves these days.
The current trend in fantasy is for realism, with a definite move away from the ‘traditional’ fantasy of elves and dwarfs over the last twenty years. As with a lot of SF, characters and plot have taken over from concepts and images, the pure escapism that was fantasy has been replaced by a more solid fayre, for better or worse.
All too often we see elves and dwarfs and orcs and dragons as old hat, a fantasy tradition that has been done to death. It’s easy to forget that there was fantasy before Tolkien. For me one of the fantasy heydays was the rise of swords and sorcery authors like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. These were definitely not worlds populated with fey wood-dwelling point ears and bearded gold-loving miners.
These were worlds of men (and particularly men, rather than women, unlike the more modern gritty fantasy of today) where strange creatures existed, but not really as distinct species, but rather ephemeral story elements as they were in old myth – most non-human creatures are distinctly magical in origin, being djinn and demons and strange children of demi-gods. Those mortal creatures that were not regular humans were often off-shoots, and half-breeds, manifestations of regressive fear or divergent evolution.
And then the Professor wrote a huge literary mythology, reinvented the old legends of elves and dwarves, and a new type of modern fantasy was born. And after The Lord of the Rings came a slew of imitations, some better, most terrible, and the wagon started rolling. Wizards had pointy hats, elves were mysterious and cool, dwarfs became beer-swilling party machines. Sort of.
There was an awful lot of it, and a lot of it was awful. This type of fantasy spawned a sub-genre of fantasy romance (not romantic fantasy, that is a different tradition altogether) where princesses fell in love with dragons that turned out to be cursed handsome princes. Lacking the morality of fairy tales, these insipid stories pushed the fantasy genre to heights of popularity – amongst middle-aged women of a certain disposition. Yes, the average fantasy reader was not the spotty D&D player, or the bookish librarian, but your mum. My mum, if I am being honest. Mums were the demographic of fantasy and more and more of semi-romance drivel hit the shelves.
At some point the genre was bound to spring back, with all the power of the pendulum in the pit.
So we have a fertile ground for new authors in the late eighties, early nineties. There is still some good stuff about, enjoyable if not ground-breaking, and there are a few powerhouses leading the field like Terry Brooks, David Gemmell, Raymond E. Feist and David Eddings. Tad Williams comes along, and Robert Jordan, and others, starting these huge arcing epics that would last for decades, in the real world as well as in their imagined universes.
The elves were booted out, the dwarfs sent back to the their tunnels and men (and women this time) stride onto centre stage. A Song of Ice and Fire begins, slowly revealing these traditional tropes but in a different way.
The romance fantasy doesn’t disappear, and over time the meerkatters work out how to compensate for the growing blood and guts of the fiction being demanded by a changing readership – a lot of books that would have traditionally been labelled fantasy, and back catalogue that was, starts to slide in to the Young Adult section. Young Adult is the place for fairies and dragons and princesses now.
Now there’s barely an elf to be seen on a cover in Waterstone’s; nary a dwarf pops his bearded little face into view on Amazon. Joe Abercrombie, China Miéville, Adrian Tchaikovsky create empires of men, where culture and society replaces species as the divide.
And I have done the same. The Crown of the Blood is a very modern fantasy. Hell, I don’t even have knights and castles in it. It is the ambitions and wars of humans that drive the plot and world, against a backdrop of a universe where a sort of dangerous, subtle magic exists. The only non-human sentient are the nemurians, a race of large mercenaries that would likely batter an elf or dwarf if they saw one. It’s a dirty, squabbling, backbiting tale of treachery and self-promotion, without a hero or dark lord in sight.
I didn’t decide deliberately to turn my back on that Tolkienesque fantasy that I grew up with, and still love deep down. My influence was not the Professor or his contemporaries, but later writers like Gemmel, the founders of swords and sorcery like Howard, and modern TV like HBO’s Rome and Starz’ Spartacus. This is modern fantasy for a modern audience and I am part of that audience.
But the elves still live. The dwarfs continue to dig. My heart is with these races, who were as much a part of my teenage years as Sonic, Space Marines and Judge Dredd. I yearned to write a Tolkienesque fantasy. And then I had a moment of clarity, provided by the veteran Bill King at a seminar for Black Library Live! 2012.
Warhammer has its cake and eats it. It has orcs and dwarfs and elves, and treemen and dragons and goblins, and daemons and vampires and giants and barbarians and sorcerers and necromancers and yes, even Halflings and dark lords. By the nature of its original purpose and slow evolution, Warhammer is chock full of pretty much every traditional and not-so-traditional fantasy trope one could throw at a world.
And it also has realism. It is gritty and dark, with themes of power and ambition (the lure of Chaos) as well as a blurred sense of good and evil. Heroes abound, of both the knightly charging-about-slaying-dragons variety and the more modern flexible-morality-fighting-to-survive kind. It has villains of equal diversity. And it does this with depth, humour and a very British sensibility. It is both High and Low fantasy, of epic battles and desperate sewer struggles.
For those not initiated into the fandom, Warhammer seems nothing more than a derivative mish-mash of ideas thrown together to sell some toy soldiers. That is, after all, how it started, blending fantasy and historical at a time when that was not the vogue. Yet it has become much more, and its success makes the novels far more than simple tie-in pulp for Games Workshop. That success has gone beyond the bounds of gamers to create a readership amongst the fantasy-buying public. What some see as reason for denigration is in fact the great strength and appeal of the setting and the stories. It is with Warhammer that fantasy fans can find all the dwarfs, orcs and elves they can handle, while the ‘mainstream’ lets loose another faux-medieval landscape populated by backstabbing bastards and conniving princesses who would sell a dragon quicker than fall in love with it.
I get to write Warhammer novels, and I am proud to do so. It draws on all of that literary pedigree I’ve just buzzed through, as well as the vastness of real world history. Traditional fantasy may not be quite what it was thirty years ago, but it has not died out. It just has a different name.
In my lightning-fast and basically amateurish flashback through fantasy I have mentioned only a few puddles in the great ocean that is fantasy of the last century. It would be remiss not to mention the likes of Gene Wolfe and Anne McCaffrey, Michael Moorcock and Jim Butcher, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – all them also influences on Warhammer to greater or lesser degree. The focus at the moment is on the human-centric dark epic, but times will change and tastes will move on. Fantasy is such a broad church there are only ever swells in the seas, never tidal shifts.
I am planning to do something on the far end of the fantastical if I can. I want to create a world that is not an analogue of our own, but exists purely by its ability to provide rich and colourful stories and characters.
Humans may even be in the minority. There’s a thought.