The Standard Setting
We’ve seen it a hundred times, the setting is almost the same each time, a lush and green gaming world where elves and dwarves exist, knights and castles rule the land and wizards bend the laws of reality to cast great spells. Of course there are also dragons in the air, and all sorts of races burrowing out the deep places of the earth. It can get old sometimes, but we keep coming back to it, like we keep reading the Lord of the Rings, or plugging in the DVD. The question posed is why? I shall endeavor to answer just that question.
The Call of Fantasy
Fantasy as a genre offers first and foremost an indulgence in Escapism, a chance to ignore the rising gas prices, political turmoil, and day to day hassles of our modern lives. When we create a fantasy character, be it a berzerker or a urbane cleric, we are turning off the modern aspect of life and stepping into a different place. While no one wants to simply walk into Mordor, quite a few would be willing to head down to the Green Dragon or the Prancing Pony to toss back a few cold ones, or research a new sorcerous spell rather than answer the nth business call of the day.
Fantasy generally uses broad strokes to paint in colors of good and evil, the evil oppress and destroy while the good rise up to overthrow those who are wicked. Heroes are heroes, villains are villains, and at the end of the day the heroes rescue the damsel in distress, defeat the dragon, and are cheered when they return to the village.
The races of standard fantasy are solid and well established; humans are versatile, elves are aloof and long lived if not immortal, dwarves are dour and filthy, orcs are bloodthirsty and violent. A dragon is a dragon, a demon is a demon, and so on. While sometimes this familiarity breeds contempt for these races, other races have been brought up into the gaming milieu, each only lasting about as long as the material supporting it but never really escaping that single base. The three races, elves dwarves and orcs, even show up in other genres. The Vulcans and Romulans have the elven look and arrogance and greater lifespans, while Klingons are orcs with an honor bound society and starships.
Para-Feudalism is familiar, the concepts easily understood and since it was centuries in the past, it doesnt change. The structure of nobility and feudalism is a stable system, allowing for long term survival of kingdoms, knightly orders, societies of merchants and magi and all sorts of other nifty things that are popular in gaming circles. In many ways this could be a rejection of more democratic forms of government, characterized by incessant arguement and bickering and politicking. The King makes a decision, those who support it are loyal, those who oppose it are criminals, and that is that.
The Tolkien-esque milieu is solidly represented in the media, from the original books, to the cartoons of the 70s and the LotR trilogy released recently. On top of this, there are thousands upon thousands of paintings of Middle Earth, generic dragon and unicorn pictures, as well as massive amounts of wizardly art and so on. The genre is vibrant and the amount of material supporting it grows daily.
"Heroic fantasy" is the name I have given to a subgenre of fiction, otherwise called the "sword-and-sorcery" story. It is a story of action and adventure laid in a more or less imaginary world, where magic works and where modern science and technology have not yet been discovered. The setting may (as in the Conan stories) be this Earth as it is conceived to have been long ago, or as it will be in the remote future, or it may be another planet or another dimension.
Such a story conbines the color and dash of the historical costume romance with the atavistic supernatural thrills of the weird, occult, or ghost story. When well done, it provides the purest fun of fiction of any kind. It is escape fiction wherein one escapes clear out of the real world into one where all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple, and nobody even mentions the income tax or the dropout problem or socialized medicine.
L. Sprague de Camp, introduction to the 1967 Ace edition of Conan.
It is easy to say that this is all the fault of Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But the roots of the standard fantasy genre are so much deeper than that. Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings are just the two most visible and recent influences of a tradition that is more than a millenia old.
When Professor Tolkien hammered out Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion he did so in support of a language he was wanting to create, Quenya. He did both, and Quenya is one of the two recognized fantastic languages, the other being Klingon. We are introduced to the Epic in the form of a young hobbit who is entrusted a powerful relic to bear to a strange and hostile land in the face of great opposition to destroy at all costs. We see themes of terrible heroism in the desperate defence of the Hornburg where a scant 300 hold out against 10,000, or when Gandalf the Gray holds a staff and a sword to fight an ancient demon made of living flame and darkness, uttering the line ‘You Shall Not Pass’. Friendship, valor, sacrifice, good, evil, life, and death are all incredibly strong themes. All of these things are largely absent from our daily lives, assuming you arent a firefighter, police officer, or soldier.
But the Professor isnt alone, Robert E. Howard brought us Conan the Cimmerian in 1932, a sullen eyed moody barbarian with a penchant for killing kings, looting for personal gain and generally being an anti-hero.