Tradition and liberty in science fiction and fantasy: Part Three – Subgenres of fantasy
By Mark Wegierski
There was, in the early to mid 1980s, a brief boomlet of movies of the sword & sorcery type, including the two aforementioned Conan movies, as well as Red Sonya, and The Sword & the Sorceror. Although ostensibly based on Greek mythology, The Clash of the Titans (actually an adaptation of the Perseus/Andromeda story) could easily be classed in this category. There was also the well-produced, but very clichéd Krull, which although visually stunning, failed because of its laughable implausibilities and maudlin plot. There were also at least three prominent children's fantasy-oriented films around this time, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth (with rock-singer David Bowie playing the role of Jareth, Prince of Goblins), and The Neverending Story.
Many of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, such as the Barsoom (Mars) series (featuring John Carter, Warlord of Mars), as well as the 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, could probably be classed as somewhat akin to "sword & sorcery" -- and certainly as "sci-fi" (i.e., unserious science-fiction). The more recent television revival of Buck Rogers -- was sci-fi with few fantasy elements. Apart from the rude parody, Flesh Gordon, there was also a more serious, if campy, rendering of Flash Gordon in 1980. Indeed, this subgenre is especially prone to all kinds of "vulgarization". The voluptuous warrior-women depicted by artists such as Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo are typical of this. A rather comic and bawdy fantasy was that represented by Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories (focussing on the daredevil duo of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser). The apotheosis of such vulgarization was probably reached in the works of Lin Carter (e.g., Tara of the Twilight), and John Norman (the interminable “Gor” series, with its portrayals of the ritualized humiliation of women in the “bondage” style). Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Eternal Champion series (he also wrote Conan and John Carter pastiches) often tended to philosophical nihilism.
Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons seem to be derived from a slag-heap of many of the most stereotypical and unnaturally florid elements of this literature. However, books based on D & D scenarios, such as the Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Dark Sun series (which would appear to be uninteresting pastiches) have sales comparable to those of "serious fantasy". In October 2001, it was announced that there would be a live-action television series produced based on Forgotten Realms. Apparently, over 150 novels (some of which were New York Times bestsellers), and over 100 game books based on Forgotten Realms, have been produced to date. Previously, there had been a short-lived live-action television series, as well as a fairly poor animation series based on Dungeons & Dragons. In the year 2000, there was also a big-screen film based on Dungeons & Dragons, which was not especially well-received. It has been said that the DVD release of the movie, where extensive extra footage is included, improves it significantly.
There can be no doubt that true high-fantasy offers a far nobler vision. Since Tolkien is the unquestioned master of the entire fantasy genre, for many people their acquaintance with the genre begins and ends with Tolkien. Tolkien can obviously be seen as cherishing a traditionalist vision. Among the many successors to Tolkien are Terry Brooks (Shannara series); Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time series); Raymond E. Feist (the Magician series); David Eddings (The Belgariad); Stephen Donaldson (the anti-traditionalist Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever); Guy Gavriel Kay; and George R. R. Martin. A recent new series which typifies a very well-written, but largely de-ethicized fantasy, is that launched in Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon: A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.
A high-fantasy movie boomlet coincided with that of sword & sorcery, including Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of the Rings, Part 1 (which remains unfinished to this day); Legend (an archetypal “fairy tale”); and Willow (with its faux-hobbits). There is now in existence Peter Jackson’s huge, three-part Lord of the Rings live-action film epic – which is even longer on the generally available DVDs. There were also the fairly successful earlier U.S. television animations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King (the third volume of The Lord of the Rings). Related to this Eighties’ high-fantasy mini-wave is probably the strongest rendering of the Arthurian legend yet seen on the big screen, John Boorman's Excalibur. The more recent First Knight, also based on the Arthurian story -- focusing on the central romantic conflict between Arthur, Guinevere, and Launcelot -- was less successful. There was also a more recent Arthurian movie, which was set in the Late Roman period, which claimed to show a more authentic rendering of the story of Arthur.
A recent, very successful TV series is George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. However, the ethos of the series could be characterized as highly violent and nihilistic.
A rather interesting but ambiguous movie was Dragon Slayer, which portrayed the fading of "magic" and the concomitant rise of Christianity in the Dark Ages with a sense of criticism towards the latter. The movie was also notable in that the hero, a bookish wizard's apprentice, was portrayed with discernible geekish elements, and was not the one who actually killed the dragon. It was his mentor, who died in the process. The apprentice and his lady-love were forced to flee for their lives at the end, as an all-powerful King and Church claimed credit for the destruction of the dragon, and established their medieval hegemony. The more recent Dragonheart, which featured a talking, "humane" dragon, was also somewhat "revisionist" in regards to the "slaying-the-dragon" legend, but ultimately offered little except the special effects.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.