Hope and anti-utopianism in GoT-era fantasy

While taking a break from work this week, I’ve really enjoyed attending an online workshop hosted by my research centre at the University of Brighton, the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories: Antiutopia as an Enforced Dominant Horizon of Mass Culture: Causes and Consequences for Personality and Utopianism, organised and led by Dr Patricia McManus and Prof Darko Suvin. I know this sounds like work, but trust me, a workshop on the social politics of fantasy and sci-fi literature is far from work for me, and is much what I would have been thinking about anyway; so it was a joy to take part.

Taking the Game of Thrones TV series as their starting point, the presentations and discussion raised a very pertinent question: what does it mean for the society that soaks up narratives such as GoT, that its ultimate message is in many ways one of pain and despair? As Dr McManus pointed out, the more moral protagonists are mostly not just defeated but topple one by one, dying horrific deaths as they fall to the relentless cruelty and self-interest of the political system. It’s not a story that tells us we can change the world for the better. Prof Darko put this in the context of present-day culture and politics, arguing that it represents not just an anti-utopian message, but a means of capitalist subjugation: such programmes are inherently driven by commercial imperatives, and this one appears to find its success in a worldview that discourages anyone from fighting against the status quo. In light of the wider rise in “grimdark” fantasy and sci-fi, it seemed very important that we were asking: where has the hope gone in speculative fiction? Has it been put out more generally in western culture too?

This argument is explored in much more detail in the reading for the workshop, kindly available as a reading list and a linked essay here (scroll down). It was also situated as part of a turn away from Tolkien’s approach to fantasy, in which some of the complicated social questions are blurred away under the grander, more mythic symbolism of the events. George R.R. Martin, author of the novels on which GoT is based, is famous for saying that, much as he admires Tolkien, there are interesting questions that The Lord of the Rings overlooks, such as how did Aragorn get on with the messy business of ruling once his happy ending had taken place? Terry Pratchett had in fact raised just this point some 30 years earlier (“The Roots of Fantasy: Myth, Folklore & Archetype”, 1989, repr. in A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction, London 2014, 131) – and, I learned from Dr Gerry Canavan at the workshop, Tolkien had in fact attempted to write a story addressing just that, but given up because of the inevitable failings that he felt humankind would lead Middle Earth into. It was very interesting for me to put the anti-utopianism of GoT (the series, if not the books) in the context of this questioning of the master. Just like Pratchett and Martin, I have no wish to criticise The Lord of the Rings for dealing in mythic symbolism – it’s an emotional achievement that is much needed in human life, helping us to address the biggest, most fundamental and most challenging parts of existence; and it is a large part of what makes a story timeless and universal. But I too, as with many other fans of many other established canons, have had my questions about how the world of Middle Earth would really work in real life – I hadn’t thought about politics beyond the happy ending, but have long worried that the Kingdom of Rohan, as presented in the books and the films, isn’t an economically viable society. And what about Bree, isolated in an apparent expanse of troll-infested wilderness? Where are all the travellers at the Inn of the Prancing Pony travelling from or to? Where’s the economic basis for these people?

I made some contributions to the discussion at the workshop, but it was only this morning that I realised exactly what it was that I was trying to say. So I have written it up in what follows, not as a rebuttal to the position at which we began, but as a contribution to an ongoing conversation. The anti-utopianism of much modern speculative fiction has worrying and, therefore, important implications for whether and how we address the difficulties in modern western politics. So here are some thoughts of mine as to how we might have got here, and where we might go next.

I think, regarding the grimdark and/or anti-Tolkien turn, that we shouldn’t overlook the readers/audience themselves as active agents. While Prof Suvin and others are quite right to look at the wider structural issues, and the inherent capitalist exploitation involved, at the same time what creates a desire (and indeed a market) is often that the recipients (customers) are already looking for something that isn’t yet there. We (and I’m saying “we” deliberately) have a power and an agency which initiates trends as much as it can be exploited by them (for more on this, see eg Eric Hobsbawm on post-WWII changes in UK working-class culture, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the present day, London 1999 [1968], 265-273) . And from my perspective (which, from my work and research background, is generally about why we seek the stories we tell/retell, and what they mean to us), I think there is something positive here that should be considered about the identified turn away from Tolkien and towards the morally ambiguous and the gritty, towards wanting to ask the difficult questions and not have them smoothed over. I myself have been a fan of genre fantasy since the 1980s, and have wondered sometimes at the grimmer and gloomier excesses that characterise much of the last 20 years, but I have also been part of questioning established tropes and yearning for something different, and so what I would suggest from my own experience is this:

I feel that Martin’s (and Pratchett’s, and my own) questioning of Tolkien above is not a rejection of the simplicity of myth necessarily, but is part of a wider swing towards wanting realism in our fantasy. We’re picking at points like the reign of Aragorn, or the economic stability of Rohan, because we want these stories to be internally consistent – but that starts from our emotional investment in the stories, our positive commitment to them and therefore our wish to be able to believe in them more fully. You often don’t get to that attitude in regard to media that you like, without giving them a lot of time and thought and taking their implications seriously. And I feel there was a trend from the late eighties onwards to wanting to see some more realism in these stories, because the simpler, mythic tropes of Tolkien-inspired fantasy (much of which was, let’s be frank, getting thinner and shallower and more derivative) no longer held weight in light of what we’d learned about life. We wanted worlds to stand up to scrutiny, and so we wanted them to be more internally consistent – but as a result we also wanted to see in them the challenges that life actually holds when you try to live by simple, mythic moral standards.

That in itself doesn’t have to be cynical or negative: for me, the beauty and the emotional tension comes from trying to live by those standards even though it’s very difficult – the gap between the flesh and the fantasy, to paraphrase Springsteen (this is the reason why I love his music so much, and the MCU Captain America too, despite having always thought Cap was deathly boring in the comics). One of my favourite authors, Katharine Kerr, was in fact writing novels from the early 1980s that take just as much of a gritty, socially-realist view of medieval fantasy as GoT, addressing all the moral complexities and difficult choices, but in Kerr’s stories the hope never disappears – the worldview is ultimately one of there being value in aspiring to redemption and healing. So social realism in fantasy doesn’t have to lead to despair. To give another example, it’s also why I think, in the 1990s, the X-Men comics became Marvel’s biggest franchise (something that arguably only changed in the 2000s when the newly-established MCU couldn’t use X-Men properties, nor Spider-Man, and thus emphasised the Avengers instead): as a reader at the time, the X-Men represented an acknowledgement that life isn’t perfect, but could be. Their stories of social persecution and prejudice recognised that there is rejection in modern life, and a human failing to live up to the moral standards that society promises; but in the utopian dream of Professor Charles Xavier they offered hope that, despite the challenges, we could still get there – it might take effort, but the difficulties can be overcome. In fact the difficulty of maintaining that hope was acknowledged in Professor X’s artful juxtaposition with Magneto, who felt instead that conflict and separatism were the answer – and who at times appeared to persuade protagonists to his cause. But for the most part the moral compass of the books was that “Xavier’s dream” was worth hanging onto.

But it clearly is also very possible to take this social-realist turn in an anti-utopian direction, by emphasising the rejection and the failings, and ultimately focussing on violence and nihilism – and for a lot of people that is also part of the appeal. This is also, on an immediate level, actually quite innocent in its way: this shift in tastes is in many ways about rejecting established tropes that no longer mean as much to you, and so there is a large element of rebellion here and wilful transgression of what parents and authorities would want for you. But that said, as I got older in the 2000s, I realised that I wasn’t reading the same stories as the new, young generation of fantasy fans, and there was something of a change taking place. This could be seen again in the X-Men franchise: in both comics and movies, it had become increasingly de rigeur to undermine Xavier, to posit that he wasn’t actually that noble or wise after all, that he had sacrificed or abandoned innocents in the name of keeping his dream alive. By the 2010s, he’d become such a compromised character that, within the world of the stories, it was hard to see him as any positive alternative to Magneto’s violence. It could also be seen clearly in games such as World of Warcraft and D&D: when I was young, the very Tolkienesque elves stood out as a major presence, with their virtuous nobility and affinity with nature; in WoW, the focus instead was on the night elves, a grittier, gothier take on forest-lovers who lurk in the shadows ready for the hunt. Likewise, in D&D’s 2008 fourth edition rules set, tieflings were a popular addition to the gameworld: beings touched by demonic heritage and granted infernal powers (their logical corollary, beings of angelic heritage, were not introduced until a non-core rules supplement in 2016); and the previously ‘evil’ dark elves were becoming an ever more normalised character choice. That said, it must be noted that these subversions of tropes were accompanied in WoW and, to a lesser extent, D&D, by a more open and accepting approach to ‘monstrous’ races such as orcs and, in their way, dark elves: this marked a move away from the reductionist racial profiling that implied that members of one culture could be, for example, universally ‘evil’ (for more on race in fantasy, see eg Eugene Marshall, Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5E, Arcanist Press 2020, 5-7). My point here is not to ignore or challenge such positive steps, and were time and space allowing I think it would be valuable to consider further the extent to which they are intertwined with the grittier, socially-realist and/or morally ambivalent turn in fantasy.

But for the purposes of this post, as a response to this week’s workshop: the discussions in the workshop emphasised that this turn to not just a realist but a darker tone in fantasy, can be something of a self-reinforcing vision: if the stories ultimately reflect only our disillusionment with moral sureties, they offer us a world in which anything other than disillusionment is hard to sustain. And as Prof Suvin and others pointed out, this is also ripe for capitalist exploitation. Blood and sex will always make headlines, and therefore sales. My key point, though, is that the readers and audience have an agency in deciding what stories they want to be sold – and indeed, to create: it’s also worth remembering that writers, directors and producers are often fans themselves, and might be following an artistic impulse to share the stories that they want to see told. So while it was incredibly valuable and necessary at the workshop to be reminded of the wider systemic context (the commercial intentions at play, and the dangerous implications for audiences when it is underlined to us again and again in vivid storytelling that there’s no point aspiring to utopia and that power always wins) I think we should see these dynamics not so much solely as oppressive structures subjecting passive audiences to neo-feudalism. It is more of a two-way, reciprocal process, much as Raymond Williams implies in his discussion of “structure of feeling” (The Long Revolution, London 1980 [1961), 61-68): readers and audiences select from the culture around them, but by doing so feed back into that culture and thus establish new cultural forms and new norms, which in turn reinforce certain perceptions and ways of being. This isn’t to say that the end result, as we currently stand, is any different from that described in the workshop; but I think this is a fuller understanding of how we got here, and crucially it affords us, the readers and audience, an agency and power. We are not just the recipients of culture, we are also an engine of it.

And to an extent, I think these trends always go in cycles: most people, to an extent, at least partially want novelty in literature and entertainment (or at least, a combination of the familiar and the exciting); and so the established tropes eventually become stale and constricting, and people try something like the opposite. But then in time that will become the established trope in itself, and so maybe in the future we will see a turn back to simpler, “cleaner” moral symbolism in popular culture. (That said, the potential for that itself to be exploited by the hard right is an alarming prospect.) But also, if stories are a product of our experience, we should not only look at anti-utopian fantasy and ask “Why are we being sold a disempowering vision of life?” We should also ask, “Why did we lose our faith in social change?” If our stories reflect a sense that the powers that be don’t listen, and that the great and good are corrupt, what has happened in the world to encourage these views? And when we look outwards from the stories, at the actions perpetrated by successive western governments and capitalist corporations, it is not hard to see where the blame lies. Yes, we have a role in creating these stories, and that is empowering. But we have been let down by the arbiters of moral standards in society – and to highlight their responsibility for the cynicism in today’s stories, is empowering of us also – as readers, audience, customers and voters.

As a post-script, on the lack of inspiring leaders, once again Katharine Kerr was here years before us: quite often when looking despondently at the electoral choices in front of us, I have found myself remembering her concept of the longed-for“dweomer leader” (Dawnspell: The Bristling Wood, London 1989, 56) – someone who commands and deserves respect, whom you can believe in because their very person inspires belief, whom you trust to overcome shattered circumstances and social divisions because they always do the right thing like a hero in a song. Such is the wisdom of Kerr’s storytelling that she manages to explore whether or not such a dream can ever be met in reality, while still offering hope that it might be achievable enough in the end. In real life I look at various politicians and think, we’re desparately in need of one right now. I dunno – maybe Sanders could have done it, I don’t know enough about him. Maybe Corbyn could have done it, but it’s hard to see through the smearmongering from both sides. Jacinda Ardern looked like she managed it from the outside, although it was sad to hear how unpopular she could be at home. Worryingly, I suspect that this isn’t a problem for the hard right: they already have their dweomer leaders in Trump and Johnson and the rest, who in their own way deal in myths and symbolism. We just don’t seem yet, in the UK at least, to have a progressive leader who can command both hearts AND minds – who can square the rhetoric with the reality and meet the demands of our time. And Christ knows, it shouldn’t be that hard; I’ve seen it done, when President Bartlet in The West Wing refused to give a dishonest but simple answer in a TV debate, instead saying, “That’s what my team were trying to come up with all week- but I won’t do it; I won’t do you the insult of trying to sell you simple answers.” That was fiction; but it’s the script that anyone can follow if they’re brave enough. (We select our lessons for life from culture, after all!) Instead, UK Labour leaders at least seem more likely to try to avoid offending a notional swing voter, without actually thinking about what real-life voters think.

And to bring this back on-topic: on the subject of preaching to a notional, hypothetical lister – another thing that’s occurred to me which I think is interesting, is how productions like GoT and House of Dragons can end up becoming their own stereotypes. In terms of the cultural loop I’ve described above, in which we might see the showrunners as fans themselves, it’s curious that nevertheless I don’t think I know anyone who actually enjoys the extent of misogyny and violence that the programmes reach. It might have begun as an artistic/storytelling style, showing us life in it’s gritty uncomfortableness in a way that (okay, let’s say) Tolkien doesn’t – but because blood and sex sells, it then became what the programmes were known for, and the showrunners started constantly trying to top their own excesses, to give us more of what (if the sales are to be believed) we wanted, to shock us AGAIN once we’d got used to the level of harm they’d already established. But everyone I speak to always says that it reached a point when it was just turning them off instead, and they were watching for the story DESPITE the blood and sex, not because of it. Maybe this is a self-selecting sample, because I’m talking to friends who are broadly like me, and reading critics who share similar views. But it’s interesting to consider that the showrunners, in trying to live up to the imperatives working on them (both purely commercial, and in terms of artistic reputation), seem to have become locked into a cycle of producing what it was assumed the audience wanted, but which actually was far from it. They are serving an imagined audience, but experience suggests this is very different from the actual audience. Perhaps again, we have some power here, in that if we turn away from their violent excesses, or criticise them publicly, we can steer a trend away from that cynicism and voyeuristic anti-utopianism. Maybe.

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