Existential fantasy

In 2000, fantasy author R. Scott Bakker wrote an article about the place of fantasy in contemporary culture. Fantasy, he said, represented “the primary literary response to what is often called the ‘contemporary crisis of meaning.’” Bakker argued that the march of science and rationalism had revealed the world to be apparently meaningless, and fantasy’s response was to present stories in invented worlds which, unlike the real world, had not been “disenchanted” — stories of the fantastic about “individuals certain of [their] meaningfulness in a meaningful world.”

Though I had some quibbles with a few details of the article, overall I found it to be an insightful and compelling piece. As Bakker said, “In a culture antagonistic to meaning, the bald assertion that life is meaningful is not enough. We crave examples.” And if there was one thing that all fantasy seemed to share, it was a commitment to meaningfulness.

But that was then. From the vantage point of 2014, the nature of fantasy no longer seems so clear.

The most significant development in fantasy in the past decade-and-a-half has undoubtedly been the rise of “gritty fantasy” — or, as some would have it, “grimdark”: a term originally used as a pejorative but increasingly becoming a simple descriptor. This is fantasy shorn of its comfortable assumptions. No good characters and bad characters, just grey characters and other grey characters. People die abrupt and messy deaths. On occasion, someone might find themselves trying to save the world; yet on another level, there seems to be profound doubt about whether the world is even savable. It’s hard to characterise these stories as being about meaningful individuals in a meaningful world — and yet, somehow, they’re still recognisably fantasy.

What’s going on?

It seems to me that fantasy is in the process of shedding its pre-Enlightenment heroism and embracing instead a kind of contemporary existentialism. The depiction of a world empty of higher purpose would have once seemed anathema to fantasy; today, it is almost de rigueur. The increasingly tight focus on character used by the likes of George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie makes clear the subjective nature of the tale we’re being told and introduces us to a hundred different forms of existential uncertainty. And many of us reach for such stories because they connect with our experience of life — and without that connection, although we might find a story interesting or entertaining, some part of us will be unable to truly believe it.

It’s important to acknowledge that “grit” is not the only avenue by which this is happening. Existentialism is finding other paths into fantasy as well — I’d nominate the works of Daniel Abraham as a prime example of an alternative, less gritty type of existential fantasy. And I don’t expect traditional heroic fantasy to disappear any time soon. But it’s clear that the palette of fantasy has broadened considerably since Bakker’s analysis in 2000. What, then, can we identify as a common characteristic across the different strands of fantasy today?

Perhaps a partial answer lies not in the “present day” of most fantasy settings but in their histories. Fantasy worlds may be increasingly “disenchanted”, in Bakker’s use of the term (the existence of magic notwithstanding), but nearly all of them still carry echoes of an earlier, “enchanted” time. Pope Francis may have recently affirmed the legitimacy of theories of evolution and the Big Bang, but in fantasy there’s still the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Eden was once a real place. Existential fantasy is thus not simply about the absence of enchantment, but about its loss. It’s about how to live in a world where the enchanted still echoes tantalisingly in quiet corners but can no longer be grasped. Sometimes, just for a moment, it breaks out again — but soon it passes once more, leaving those in its wake to deal with its loss anew.

Maybe part of the reason we feel drawn to these stories is because, on some deep level, they resonate with us in a way we can’t quite put into words — and we have no other way to mourn the meaningfulness that we sense our culture has lost.