Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

What's Wrong with Medievalism? Tolkien, the Strugatsky Brothers, and the Question of the Ideology of Fantasy

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

What's Wrong with Medievalism? Tolkien, the Strugatsky Brothers, and the Question of the Ideology of Fantasy

Article excerpt

Medievalist fantasy works, which I have always greatly enjoyed, have always struck me as somehow wrong: enchanting, addictive, but also somehow obscurely corrupt or embarrassing. (1) This is hardly an objective statement. Yet I suspect that I share this vague sense of fascination and revulsion with several critics and defenders of the genre. Indeed, the very frequency of critical defenses of fantasy is suspect. The problem, moreover, is not only that the genre is associated with "escapism, pulp fiction and fandom" (Finander 10). It is also an issue of ideology. One known aspect of fantasy's problematic ideology is a frequent charge of racism or at least racialism leveled at Tolkien. Indeed, as Dimitra Fimi has shown, Tolkien, a major influence on the genre, absorbed a great deal of the evolving ideas on racial purity common during his time, and the problem goes beyond Tolkien. Brian Attebery, in his defense of the genre, tells how at a lecture in an Italian university, students interrupted his enthusiastic defense of fantasy and insisted that "in Italy, fantasy is something that comes from the far right, and science fiction from the left" (7). Attebery sees this view as a failure to account for the ideological variety of fantasy fiction and the subversive nature of the genre, but the comment invites further discussion. It suggests that fantasy as a genre is easily compromised by its fans, absorbing the readers' political views, blurring the authors' intentions, and in turn influencing the production of other works. The students' description of the political leanings of genre readers must not be taken at its face value. It would be a crude generalization to say that fantasy fans always tend to vote right, in Italy or elsewhere; as is well known, in the U. S. Tolkien was adopted by the 1960s counter culture. (2) Yet the genre itself, it seems, is imbued with an ideology that outstrips both its authors' intentions and its readers' ostensible desires.

Fredric Jameson's remarks on the ethics of fantasy come close to identifying the problem. Jameson's political approach to reading involves looking at texts not only in terms of their genre, but in terms of their "ideologeme," namely, "a historically determinate conceptual or semic complex which can project itself variously in the form of a 'value system' or 'philosophical concept,' or in the form of a protonarrative, a private or collective narrative fantasy" (The Political Unconscious 115). According to Jameson, in addition to its strong affinities with medieval content and the fundamental role that it assigns to magic, fantasy is organized "around the ethical binary of good and evil." Jameson sees this organization as an ethical deficiency, which becomes apparent if we consider Nietzsche's point that "the concept of good and evil is a positional one that coincides with categories of Otherness" so that evil "continues to characterize whatever is radically different from me, whatever by virtue of precisely that difference seems to constitute a real and urgent threat to my own existence" (The Political Unconscious 115). Jameson's judgment of fantasy as a genre that is built on the suppression and demonization of the Other is formed by his readings of others: Sartre, who sees "the function of the ethical binary itself as a way of securing the centrality of the self and its ideologies and literally marginalizing the other, who becomes the locus of evil," Foucault's point on "the policing operations inherent in the opposition of good and evil," and Freud's remarks on the infantile narcissism of such binary opposition "between heroes and villains" (all quoted in Archaeologies of the Future 58).

However, this is not the final word on the matter, and not only because of Jameson's negative bias against the genre. More questions remain: Does removing this ethical binary (as in the more recent fantasy works, such as by George R. R. Martin) break the boundaries or "rehabilitate" the genre? …

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