Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fantasy genre paradigm shift

I was having a conversation with a fellow fantasy fan recently, who also likes to write, and we were laughing about the way some people compare all fantasy to Tolkien's work. Don't get me wrong--I think The Lord of the the Rings is a phenomenol series and I loved the movies. On a certain level, it makes sense to compare other epic fantasy writing to arguably the most famous epic fantasy series ever written.

But here's what my friend had to say about someone who was reading his writing:
"It's funny how we perceive things, especially when we're so close to the issue. She compared it to Tolkien and I had to laugh out loud! I don't think she's ever read all the way through The Lord of the Rings."
And I replied:
"Yeah well people who don't know much about fantasy usually do compare any fantasy they do come across to Tolkien. It may be a valid point or it may not. It's kind of like if someone had never seen any flowers before, except a bird of paradise and a rose. Then one day they saw a dandelion and said it was like the rose. The thing is, a dandelion may be more like a rose than a bird of paradise, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of other flowers that are even more like it than a rose."
My friend is probably being too humble about his work in the above conversation, but the point remains that people will compare one work to another even though such comparisons are skewed by the limitations of how much reading they have done in the genre. I read a lot more fantasy than the person my friend was talking about, but even so, I admit to not having a broad enough perspective to be able to make the best comparison between one fantasy work and another. All I can offer is a limited viewpoint.

When it comes to my series, The Astor Chronicles, I would consider it an honour to be told it was like Tolkien or Lewis, but I would also have a sneaking suspicion the person making such a comparison was not very well read in the genre. Fantasy has come a long way since those two great epics, and there are countless thousands of great books to choose from, some more epic than others.

Another problem with comparisons is that the series you would most like to compare another series with may not be as famous as The Lord or the Rings, and what point is there in making comparisons for people if they've never heard of the work you're referring to? For example, I could say that The Astor Chronicles is somehwhat like The Chronicles of the Cheysuli meets The Chronicles of Narnia. But that comparison would only be useful to someone who was familiar with the latter series by Jennifer Roberson.

It occurs to me that what I'm writing about here is a paradigm shift. "Paradigm" is one of those wonderful words you generally don't learn until after High School and then you can't seem to have an academic conversation without it. Pronounced "PARA-DIME", it refers to a class of elements with similarities--a philosophical or theoretical framework of some kind. See the Wikipedia definition for "Paradigm" here.

A shift occurs when the rules that were set down for a paradigm are changed, such as when Einstein's special relativity challenged Newtonian physics. Perhaps with the fantasy genre, The Lord of the the Rings was the most well-known, mainstream story for such a long time that it posesses the Ring of Power over the paradigm for this genre. But with such a proliferation of fantasy books, and especially movies, in the last ten years, the paradigm for the fantasy genre is being transformed.

For today's generation, the fantasy genre is starting to conjure up all manner of stories in people's minds--from Harry Potter, Eragon and Twilight to Underworld, Pirates of the Carribean, Beowulf and Stardust. In movies, fantasy is largely a genre for kids, which is probably having an effect on the paradigm as well, but in time we will see more serious attempts at adult fantasy. With such a wealth of fantastic books out there, it is only a matter of time before the fantasy transforms itself again in the mainstream imagination.

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