A few weeks ago I read Jo Walton talking about fantasy and origin stories. Walton makes two related, astute points: first, that the stories of origin that people tell themselves are flexible and often serve contemporary ends, and second, that the modern genre of fantasy may be a way to reclaim and reshape the origin myth for people who no longer have a living mythological tradition. She makes a couple of guesses as to why the modern genre of fantasy appeared when it did, concluding that dominance of the printing press and the appearance of canonical origin stories limited further development of origin myths in the West. These forced people to make newer, explicitly fantastical stories to fill that gap.
There’s quite a lot of meat to Walton’s hypothesis. In particular, it’s well-known that J.R.R. Tolkein originally set out to write a new mythos for the British Isles, being disappointed in the weak mythological foundation that the actual Celts and Anglo-Saxons left. Tolkein, more than any other modern fantasist, seems to have consciously undertaken the project that Walton describes, and Tolkein towers over the genre of fantasy so completely that every post-Tolkeinian writer has to grapple with those same issues. But at the same time, this thesis misses something. By the time the Lord of the Rings came to print, Tolkein’s literary work had changed so radically that it no longer looked much like an English mythology. And if the history of Middle Earth really were the origin story of Britain, would it be so popular with people elsewhere?
Yet I do think that Walton is fundamentally correct about fantasy’s concern with origins. I just think that the origin myth which the fantasists are telling is not the origin myth of a particular place. It’s the myth of a particular time. The era that fantasy purports to explain to us is modernity, our own time, and the story that it usually tells is that of the Fall.
There are two great Falls that have formed the imagination of people raised in a Western culture: the Original Sin that expelled mankind from Eden, and the Fall of Rome that marked the beginning of the Dark Ages. (The Fall of Rome is a historical event in the way that the Fall from Eden is not, but it still has a mythological significance for our culture’s self-understanding.) Despite his Catholic faith, Tolkein most heavily draws on this second example for his great fantasy: LotR is the story of the end of the age of the Elves and the beginning of the dominion of Men. The power of Sauron is broken, but the cost of that breaking is that the high culture and numinous magic of the Elves disappear from Middle-Earth. We are left with the mundane world of Men, stripped of magic, in which the incredible achievements of the Elves remain only as memories in Gondor and a few other outposts of civilization. This post-Elvish Dark Age is the world that we live in.
Tolkein is telling, in other words, the origin story of the modern world, structured as a tragic story of passing. Modernity is characterized by disenchantment: the displacement of the sacred, magical, and numinous cosmos by the impersonal, mechanical universe described by science and dominated by industry. The passing away of the Elves dramatizes this shift. We live in the world of Men, without Elves, without magic, and without the presence of the sacred that characterized the Elvish world. In this analogy it’s significant that the Elves didn’t just die–instead, they go across the sea to the West, a place where magic and the gods still exist, but cut off and distant from the realm of Middle-Earth. This is reminiscent of the change of orientation of popular religion in the rationalized West, away from divine healing, wards against the demonic, and other forms of supernaturalism, and towards rationalism and moralism focused on a happy afterlife. A great many people still believe in some kind of divine or supernatural power, but few expect to have any contact with it, just as most people will never see the Elves.
The second element of Tolkein’s commentary on modernity is, of course, industrialization. Both Sauron and Saruman are associated with industry, and here Tolkein doesn’t spare any disdain. Saruman’s greatest sin (and the cause of his downfall at the hands of the Ents) is his transformation of Orthanc into a hellish factory, a gross mimic of the blasted wasteland of Mordor. But the most poignant example of this is the poor Shire, where Saruman’s influence means the ruin of the hobbit-holes and the intrusion of ugly brick bastions eyesores–a change which probably reflects Tolkein’s own experience of the transformation of the English countryside. He wrote a better ending for Middle-Earth, though: Orthanc is cleansed, Mordor’s power is broken, and the Shire is saved from the encroachment of industry. The lesson for us is that our world has not been so spared. One can’t help but think of Tolkein’s rueful note that if LotR were an metaphor for WWII, the hobbits “would not have survived long except as slaves”.
Tolkein’s influence over modern fantasy is so vast that nearly every fantasist that comes after him is participating in this conversation about modernity, consciously or not. The End Of Magic is one of the ur-plots of fantasy, and you can while away an afternoon trying to name significant fantasy works that don’t have an Original Sin or a Fallen Empire somewhere in their background. And fantasy is most often about restoring the status quo ante, where even if big changes occur in the shape of the world, they usually involve restoring an earlier, purer, unfallen state. This does not mean that fantasy is necessarily reactionary–though it often is. Rather, this conversation about the origins and merits of modernity lies at the heart of the genre, and arguably is the reason why fantasy exists as a genre in the first place.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent explosion of steampunk as a subculture and literary genre. Steampunk is explicitly located in the early industrial era, and its appropriation of the Victorian mills and factories for its playthings speaks volumes of its attitude towards modernity. As a whole, this is a more optimistic take on the victory of industrialism: engines and gears are presented as elements of whimsy rather than oppression. This gives steampunk an interesting ambiguity. On the one hand, it can be seen as ratifying and celebrating industrialization. However, its creativity and wild revisionism suggest a dissatisfaction with the way things actually turned out, and an exploration of the paths not taken in the early modern period. This is a genre that is engaging critically with the roots of the modern world, without needing to retreat all the way to the pastoral vision of Tolkein and his successors.
Yet steampunk is often considered a subgenre of science fiction rather than fantasy. After all, there are no Elves in 19th-century London. But I argue that by this criterion, at least, steampunk is clearly fantasy: it tells a story of origin, which is the purview of fantasy. Science fiction is not nearly so preoccupied with the origins of modernity, because SF is eschatology.
There is no one source that dominates SF in the way that Tolkein dominates fantasy, but Star Trek comes close. And Star Trek is completely, unapologetically modern. The future, Star Trek assures us, is great. Earth is united, there is no more poverty, racism and sexism are banished, and humanity embarks on new voyages of peaceful discover. The essential features of modernity are all preserved, but the negative elements of contemporary life are purged. The future turns out to be just like the present, only better. This is one way of evaluating the telos of modernism: we have already passed through the big change by becoming liberal and technological, and what remains is a smooth progression of advancement along those axes.
This is one kind of optimistic future, one that’s fallen out of favor these days. The alternatives, however, tend to be even more explicitly concerned with Last Things. The Singularity, the “rapture for nerds”, asserts that technology will not only make us happier humans, but eventually turn us into godlike post-humans. This makes the telos of modernity into the total transformation of humanity and the world, into something more powerful and wonderful than has ever yet existed. Conversely, the post-apocalyptic genre shows us the world after it’s been destroyed–usually because of something we did. This is the pessimistic eschaton, in which we destroy ourselves whether by nuclear war or ecological catastrophe or killer robots. But this shows that turn away from straightforward, progressive futures has not dampened the eschatological fervor of science fiction. If anything, it’s been amplified and given weirder, more bombastic colors worthy of John the Revelator himself.
These are old, venerable tropes of Western literature: the fall (when magic and the old order of the Elves passed away), damnation (when our technology brings us to Armageddon), or salvation (when our technology lifts us to the Singularity). Placing the generic features of fantasy and science fiction in this light suggests another intriguing reason why these genres appeared at this time. We moderns are acutely, painfully aware of how different we are from the people of earlier ages, for better or worse. Whether or not modernity is actually a unique era of history is a different question, but we certainly want to think that we are. And if we’re so different, how did we get that way? And where are we going? The key problem that speculative fiction solves is not that old origin stories became too fixed, but that they became inadequate to explain the present.
We need new myths to orient us. This need is filled by fantasy and science fiction as new books of Genesis and Revelation.