This is one of those thoughtful posts. Sorry.
Right: in the last few years I’ve seen various arguments go back and forth about the “new” fantasy, grim and gritty and dirty and a bit nasty. Or possibly a lot nasty. I’ve seen the argument, presented in many different guises, of “but that’s how it was,” and I’ve seen the argument back of “how WHAT was, exactly” and “but isn’t that the point of fantasy – to NOT be how it was?” and I have sympathy for all three points. I’ve seen what I reckon is my favourite: “but that’s how it IS,” which I take to be an allusion to the world being an uncaring and fundamentally hostile place. Well I’m not sure it is, but it does often seem that way. One argument in particular has lingered – that the message heroic fantasy sends is that if you try and try and try and try and work really really hard to do something, you will ultimately succeed, and that’s not how the world works and to be taught that heroic fantasy message simply leads to hopelessly unrealistic expectation. I largely buy that argument but not its conclusion. I’m not going to go into it here because I’ve covered it before.
I’ve also changed my work patterns lately. This is just one of those things – every few months I take to working in a different way. It’s not even a conscious choice, more a fitting work around the rest of life in a different way as the rest of life constantly warps and mutates and changes (and it does, if you have children, by the way, because what they’re like no isn’t what they’ll be like in six months, not will it ever be that way again. It’s a constant adaptation to their constant adaptation, and it would terribly nice if I ever in any way saw the next change coming with more clarity that it’s simple probability. But that’s by the by). The long and the short is that I now work out now and then, often enough to make a “workout” playlist of stuff to listen to. Thumping stuff to get the blood moving, that sort of thing. And even if I then go and listen to Berlioz or podcasts, it’s the contents of that playlist that got me thinking. There’s some newer music in it, a few tracks that I’ve grown to like in my middle years but most of it turned out to be stuff I used to listen to decades ago and it’s all angry angry stuff (good for workouts) with a subtext of addiction and depression and powerlessness and death and you knew I was a goth, right? Oh and also quite a lot of Motorhead, which doesn’t really fit at all but then maybe I was more of an awkwardly angry hippy than a goth and…
Oh never mind. Because the world may be fundamentally hostile or uncaring but it’s also fundamentally ridiculous and sometimes you have to revel in the simple sensation of being alive by listening to Killed By Death very very loudly several times.
And it got me thinking, that playlist, of who I used to be a long time ago before I knew who I was, and also that the message of heroic fantasy, of which I read a lot at the time) – try and try and try, try long and try hard and don’t give up and in the end you’ll get a cookie, well it might not really work for our exterior struggles, but for most people who have much opportunity to read for pleasure in the first place (and I say most knowing there are people for whom this generalisation will be starkly false), perhaps the struggles that matter most aren’t the ones we have with the outside world but the ones we have with ourselves, with our own inner contradictions. In those battles, we are our own champions, like it or not, and everyone else is the plucky sidekick. Maybe that’s where stories of heroes have their worth. I can try and try and try all I want to be the best son/dad/husband/wife/writer/singer/poet/lover/ninja/muse/pigeon-whispering particle physicist/whatever in the world and with seven billion other people out there there’s a good chance I’ll never get good enough to be worthy of remark. But in my head it’s just me and my demons, no billions of other people. And maybe I can try and try and try to be happy with merely being quite good at some of those things, and maybe it’s because of all those stories of bloody-minded heroes who never give up despite the odds that I can believe that one day those might converge.
So I’ll still keep my heroes, thanks, and I might even write some when I’m done with dragons.