‘Fantasy Is About The Past.’

No, it’s not.

This is an idea I’ve seen trotted around in response to the Dragon Age: Inquisition stuff today, with Bioware warning a woman for pointing out the transphobia in their work. I don’t actually have any dog in the particular fight of Dragon Age, because it’s a franchise I’m still not into, despite owning Dragon Age Origins, and its logo being a dragon made out of blood, something that probably should have pulled me in earlier. Despite that, I do have opinions on stories, and so I got involved when I saw someone saying this:

Fantasy Is About The Past

Alright, no, it’s really not. It really isn’t. Fantasy stories – and we can get into how silly that term is because almost all stories are some part a fantasy in another blog post sometime – aren’t about the past. They’re about people. Almost all stories are about people, but in the case of fantasy storytelling, they are not about the historical people, but about the people now.

Fantasy storytelling in the Western European tradition is, essentially, a genetic lineage that traces through Tolkein and Moorecock back through Arthurian Myth coloured with invasive Christian mythological structures. And we have done it so much that we have managed to make fantasy, the world of infinite possibility, standardised. We have made it dull. We have a shared cultural world where Dragons broadly speaking behave in a particular set of ways. We have in this space a set of tropes and rules and ideas that we tell ourselves are about ‘the past.’

Because the past had to deal with fucking dragons.

Monsters in fantasy are essentially incarnated, physical expressions of things we can’t adequately put a human element to. Owlbears and Displacer Beasts are at their core just ways to point to the woods and say there’s scary stuff when you’re not in the middle of a city. Vampires (as monsters) are sexuality and death tangled up in a walking form. Dragons… jesus, Dragons are mostly an emblem of existing power structures – of the fear of the immensely powerful systems around us that can crush us when they want to, but tolerate us out of apathy. Scrape any ‘monster’ and you’ll find at their core there’s something else there, something basic that works for humans today. Lovecraft’s monsters were as much a fear of the ocean and the Not-White-Enough as they were alienism.

We deal with dragons all the time. Fantasy stories are about running from, learning about, fighting and overcoming our dragons. They’re about what if cultures were more physically tangibly different. They’re about what if the bad person in our midst literally transformed into an animal to blame their sins on. If the monsters are about taking things we deal with daily and making them something that is somehow more obviously horrible, something we can fight and kill, then what does that tell us about the stories in general? What does this tell us about stories that, supposedly, are about our pasts?

Fantasy stories are not about our pasts; they’re about us, here and now, wanting tangible ways to interact with horrible things. It’s about wanting magical powers to solve problems rather than dealing with the deeply despair-inducing world of modern politics. It’s about kings and queens because Being A Good King in a story is easier than Campaigning Hard Enough To Earn Enough Votes To Elect The Right Person Whose Cloud Of Personal Connections And Small Amount Of Personal Power Can Lead To The Least-Bad Outcomes In These Areas.

Fantasy novels are about everything we already want to deal with, boiled down, simplified, made into symbols and totems and things that we can examine, that we can learn from, and, in some cases, that we can kill.

Don’t tell me that allowing transphobia in our fantasy fiction is about realism. That’s about us now. That’s about us putting into a story something we think is acceptable now. If you’re not going to do anything with it, then all you’re saying is that you’re okay with it, and you’re okay with it, now.

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