I went to see The Hobbit this past weekend, and it got me thinking. Modern fantasy has tons of magic. Characters, heroic and villainous, throw it around like it’s going out of style. Ancient orders cast world-shaking spells, a dark lord changes the world forever, wizards and sorcerers have flashy duels where they fling fireballs at one another’s feet.
Yet, as I look at it now, none of that feels magical to me anymore. Sure, they can violate the laws of physics with flagrant abandon and do things that no mortal could ever hope to do (absent some napalm or a grenade launcher, perhaps), but it doesn’tfeel magical.
Watching The Hobbit, I got a taste of what that old magic used to feel like. Locations that actually feel wondrous, unlike the congested cities and dirty roads of modern fantasy. Swords with names, like Glamdring (the Foehammer) and Orcrist (the Goblin-cleaver) that strike fear into the hearts of their enemies simply by being drawn, lost for centuries and rediscovered in a troll’s burrow. A vast, empty landscape dotted with civilization that barely holds against the wilds and the remnants of greatness that has gone before. A wizard who never once so much as throws a fireball, but provides guidance, insight and the occasional giant eagle bomber/rescue mission.
I think the advent of tabletop gaming may have had something to do with the slow decline of wonder in fantasy. It forced us to think of magic in democratized terms. Because there had to be a feeling of progression, and everyone wanted to be the wizard, magic became things of cantrips and magic missiles and burning hands and stopped being real feats of wonder. Our fantasy worlds became more crowded, grittier, ‘darker’ in the name of ‘realism’, except the point of fantasy is that it isn’t real. (Mind you, I’ve got no room to be talking, because I loveA Song of Ice and Fire as much as you do.)
I’m not saying there’s no place for the new, gritty, ugly, realistic fantasy like Martin’s epic saga. To be fair, the magic in Westeros is abstract and ephemeral, much closer to Gandalf’s brand than the democratized-RPG-lite version of magic. Still, there is little sense of wonder in Westeros. Just people, doing what people do, while magic happens in the background. Westeros is not a magical land–it’s a harsh, terrible place all too like our own history.
The Hobbit felt like a callback to a sense of wonder that I’ve forgotten how to even think about. When I think about fantasy, I think of something crowded, something akin to medieval Europe, because that’s the fantasy that I grew up on. I think of politics and shifting alliances, because that’s what my studies of history have shown it to be like. As I mentioned in my old post The Winds of History, trying to make fantasy feel historical is like trying to… I don’t even know what. It’s not entirely a futile endeavor, but it results in something like ASoIaF.
Is there any room left for the old type of fantasy, the one that leaves us breathless with wonder? Don’t get me wrong, I love me some swords & sorcery (I write it, for cryin’ out loud! but the nihilism and brutality of S&S doesn’t inspire that feeling of wonder. Is it possible to strike a balance between the gritty realism desired by today’s readers and the wonder that we felt reading a tale like Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I’m curious to know what others think. Does anyone still look for the real Tolkien-esque fantasy? Does anyone still write it?