Fantasy literature is a strange and wondrous kingdom. It’s like a football club in a particularly divided city: beloved with homicidal fervour by its fans, the logic of their love impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t actually dwell inside the city walls.
But let’s assume you share something of the fervour, or are at least open minded, curious / bored enough to wonder what gets all those isolated nerds so excited.
The more you start to walk around the genre’s endless moody forests, its dark secret harbouring caves, its flowing haired mysterious maidens, the more you start to notice a few things.
One of these is the sheer regularity with which certain tropes appear across the genre. I know every genre has its tropes: how, for example, can the world possibly need yet another cynical alcoholic detective? Yet somebody clearly thinks it does.
I want to write a genre series in which some ultra-positive Mary Poppins type gets to investigate the most heinous crimes imaginable, responding to each new atrocity with a song in her heart. I think it could genuinely stretch the capabilities of the genre, but I’ve been warned not to be optimistic about finding a publisher.
But this is fantasy! It’s supposed to be a virtually infinite landscape, isn’t it? Why then does everything have to involve a magic dragon? Why so many swords when you can presumably have people blast each other with everything from magical toothpicks to beams of mental energy?
I know, swords are supposed to be cool, but aren’t we limiting ourselves unnecessarily? Like ‘The Moonstone’ with detective fiction a century earlier, mainstream fantasy literature as we know it was effectively launched by one book.
JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of The Rings, was a devout Catholic, so in spite of Aragorn and Arwen’s taboo busting inter-species love, there’s very little dwelling on the kind of nookie that is such a staple of later works like Game of Thrones.
Fantasy might not have grown up, but it is certainly going through a rich and intense puberty. Maybe it’s the climate, the rush of death which might pop out from behind a bush any second now, but today’s denizens of fantasy land are at it with gay, straight or inter-species abandon.
And they’ve been at it a long time as well. Many fantasy plots borrow heavily from the likes of medieval history or legend, relying for much of their premises on the fact that Lord So and So ran off with the daughter of a swineherd who was really a quadruple breasted sorceress in disguise, or something.
But a new arrival on Planet Earth – contemplating the ever mushrooming fantasy canon – might be confused about why everything kind of looks like everything else. He, she, it or other might be led astray by the term ‘fantasy,’ taking it to mean a tabula rasa, a glorious blank canvas on to which literally anything can be poured. Why not thinking blobs of lights that pursue other thinking blobs of light through the quantum tunnels that honeycomb the entire Multiverse?
Why not a genius kid with homicidal tendencies who keeps fashioning clones to replace characters who have displeased him? Why not an isolated religious sect on some undisturbed island who have gained mastery over other dimensions?
The sad truth is that entertainment functions just like any other consumerist industry. Capitalism isn’t nearly so dynamic as people imagine. Really new ideas are allowed to appear only sparingly: what capitalism really wants to do is spin out endless repackagings of earlier successful ideas.
The market is also conscious of the fact that, while ‘fantasy’ in theory means anything goes, their consumers like things to look safe and familiar. If the large breasted maidens and wisecracking sociopathic dwarves were to suddenly disappear from the landscape, then large elements of the curious comfort these tropes offer to fans would be lost.
The grim little lives of all those nerds would be about to get even grimmer.
In the case of fantasy, one brilliant, highly original idea which never gets anywhere near enough posthumous credit for the way its carcass has been mined by later writers is Frank Herbert’s incredible ‘Dune.’
The novel (the first of six) was written in the 1960’s, a time when completely new ways of doing things seemed possible, however briefly. As well as being a rollicking, epic page turner (the succeeding five books were curiously very different), ‘Dune’ explodes with ideas on virtually everything from planetary ecology (then a concept unknown to everybody except, er, planetary ecologists) to the possible far end of human evolution.
Herbert was also incredibly clever and prescient in the way he somehow moulded a medieval swords and monsters tale into a story about the very far future.
It shouldn’t have worked. He shouldn’t have been able to do it. George RR Martin began as a science fiction storyteller somewhat in the vein of Herbert, but any overt sci fi is carefully missing from the ludicrously successful Game of Thrones franchise.
But a combination of storytelling skill and Herbert’s incredible perceptiveness about human nature (something he has never received due credit for) meant that it worked. The society of Dune is a feudal one, with Great Houses and Lords and vassals, blood feuds and powerful covens of magicians holding on to secret knowledge. Sound familiar? Oh, it even has dragons, except they’re called sandworms.
Dune was Frank Herbert’s Mother Lode. It gave him, I suppose, the security to do the other things he wanted, and like poor old Douglas Adams in another context, he never managed to reproduce it.
He was, like Philip K Dick perhaps, a writer always more fascinated by ideas than stories. I’ve always been interested in scribes like that, but this is another curious fact about latter day capitalist publishing: having ideas about things tends to make you a little toxic.
If Dune had been his own, self-created Aladdin’s Cave, Herbert could be forgiven for quailing at the way others unashamedly plundered it.
Longtime fans of Dune will know that hip director David Lynch got the gig of transferring the epic to the big screen in the 1980’s, and that he made an absolutely sublime balls of it. But in a preface to a 1980’s edition of his short stories, Herbert commented ‘David had a lot of trouble with the fact that Star Wars used up so much of Dune.’
Herbert goes on to say that he, Lynch and the team tried to figure out the odds of plundering at this level having been a coincidence, but came up with a number greater than the total number of stars in the Universe.
Frank is no longer in this dimension these days, and George RR Martin seems like a generous enough fellow, so one assumes he won’t mind acknowledging the debt that Game of Thrones (or, to be accurate, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’) owes to Dune.
Although Dune officially belongs to sci fi, the number of tropes it has bequeathed to the current brand leader in fantasy lit is truly staggering.
We’ve already mentioned Great Houses and dragons, ancient vendettas, but how about climactic extremes and the sexual depravity of certain elements of the nobility? For the militaristic idealism of House Stark, simply take a little look at House Atreides, who initially suffer a similar fate to the Starks.
For the wealth, treachery and taboo busting sexual proclivities of House Lanister, it’s hard to see the similarities to House Harkonnen in Dune as being just a coincidence.
As to where the Dothraki came from, do you have to look much further than the Fremen, the half-savage band of super-warriors who eventually propel Paul Atreides into power?
Like Daenerys Targaryen, Paul Atreides is also the product of selective breeding which has caused him to attain abilities beyond the ken of mortal humans.
As mentioned already, instead of dragons, Dune is the home of sandworms, fantastical creatures with both chemical and mystical power, and the ability to ride them becomes a crucial military asset.
As in Game of Thrones, members of Great Houses have to be constantly aware of the possibility of assassination. The pharmacology of the various poisons is treated in some depth. Dune even features a version of the ‘irreversible poison’ used to assassinate key figures in Game of Thrones, with the difference that you have to keep taking an antidote in order to stay alive.
Dune was written in 1965, so it was impossible to treat of the sexual depravity of Great Houses in GoT like detail, but it is a constant presence. There is, for example, the obscure revelation that the young Paul’s education included specific training against sexual seduction. We’re obviously not told what this involved, though presumably it didn’t consist of cultivating the ability to fart very loudly at inappropriate moments.
Dune is also replete with the kind of set pieces that form some of the most memorable moments in Game of Thrones. Like Game of Thrones, Dune sometimes sends its readers on bum steers.
A long, brilliantly realized chapter involving a tension filled banquet inside the Atreides family keep crackles with the possibility of imminent violence, but this passes off quickly, only to be followed almost immediately by the long awaited Harkonnen assault.
Many of the most memorable battles and confrontations in Game of Thrones are incredibly reminiscent of the banquet scene in Dune. They are not signalled, so the characters are in full blown violence and death before the audience has fully woken up to what’s happening.
Game of Thrones has a caste of medicine men and all round knowledge heads known as the Maesters. Dune has two of exactly the same thing, Mentats (human computers) and a Sisterhood of enigmatic ‘wise women’ known as the Bene Gesserit. The all embracing conflict between Great Houses is shadowed by amoral, unaffiliated mercantile organisations. In Dune, they’re called the Spacing Guild, in Game of Thrones they’re the Iron Bank.
The list goes on. It’s kind of sad that Frank Herbert’s stock isn’t as high today as, say, Philip K Dick’s, because he is a giant on whom a lot of successful people are standing.