Nildungsroman

by Dan H

Dan finally identifies something that has been bugging him.
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I've always had a problem with Modern Fantasy. Not in the sense of "published within the last five years" (although there is also that) but in the sense of "set in the real world, only with magic and shit, which most people don't know about". Possibly that's Urban Fantasy.

This whole thing struck me while I was reading Cassandra Cla(i)re's City of Bones, which funnily enough seems to have a lot of traits in common with a certain other modern fantasy series that the author may or may not have heard of, and which I may or may not have said a few things about in the past, so these comments are slightly biased towards those two august tales, but I'll also be talking about other elements of the Geek Canon, including Buffy, Tolkein and Star Wars.

As ever, contains spoilers.

The Hero's Journey: Ur Doin It Rong

For what it's worth, I'm not actually a big fan of Joseph Campbell. I think the observation that lots of different myths have lots of things in common rates somewhere between "dog bites man" and "Bishop of Rome Espouses Nicene Creed" on the duh-o-meter. On the other hand, the Hero With A Thousand Faces One Of Which Is Luke Skywalker does nicely identify a basic structure which can, at the very least, make sure that a mythically-slanted story doesn't suck donkey balls.

Very broadly, the Hero's Journey has three stages: the departure, the initiation, and the return. The hero starts out as Joe Ordinary (or possibly as Joe Destiny), then goes off into the Crazy World of Magic Shit, then comes back a better and more complete man. Along the way he has to get eaten by a whale and meet a goddess, but that's basically the deal (any inaccuracies can be attributed to my not actually having read The Hero With A Thousand Faces and thus getting most of my information from Wikipedia).

Star Wars, as you probably already know, was based very, very, very (very, very, very) closely on the classic Campbellian journey (right down to including the trash compactor scene pretty much entirely to tick the "hero goes underground and bad shit happens" box). Early season Buffy actually holds fairly closely to the model as well, both in terms of its overall arc (at least in seasons 1-5) and the structure of individual episodes. An episode of Buffy usually opens with our heroine facing a Typical Teenage Problem, then getting drawn into a supernatural event which allowed her, at the end, to resolve her Real Life problem as well as lay the smackdown on some vampires. As I've argued before on Ferretbrain, I think Buffy lost its way around the point it stopped bringing everything back to the real world.

And that, in a roundabout way, is what I think is wrong with Modern Fantasy. If you blinked you might have missed it, so I'll say it again more explicitly. A lot of Modern Fantasy seems to be at least loosely based on the Hero's Journey, and while it does the departure and the initiation really well, it seems to write the whole "return" bit off as a waste of time. Modern heroes leave their home and family, descend into the underworld, and bloody well stay there.

Now I admit, part of this is going to be structure. In a TV series about fighting vampires (for example), you'll always get to the point where you can't view "going out to fight some vampires" as anything but routine, and you can only escalate so far before you have to play the "real life is the greatest battle" card or the "fighting the very essence evil itself" card (neither of which worked). On the other hand, part of it seems to be an issue with people actually missing the point of the Hero's Journey. I'm going to talk about both these phenomena, because I like to hear myself talk.

Sunnydalization: Myth Invades Reality

If, like me, you wasted your entire undergraduacy watching Buffy videos, and can quote pretty much the entire seven series end to end, including the "grr-arg" bits with the mutant enemy logo, you'll probably remember the bit in Prophecy Girl where Willow finds two dead bodies in the student lounge in Sunnydale High and, despite having seen at least a corpse a week for the past series, gets totally freaked out. When challenged about it, she says:
"I'm not okay. I knew those guys. I go to that room every day. And when I walked in there, it... it wasn't our world anymore. They made it theirs.

And at that point, Buffy changed subtly but irrevocably. Prior to that scene, Sunnydale was the real world, and the Hellmouth was the place where the monsters were. Every week, Buffy would battle the legions of hell, and every week she would come out and go to class and we would see exactly what she was fighting to protect. We'd see Jonathan and Cordelia and Harmony and the rest, all going on with their totally normal lives, totally unaware that little Miss Summers had been saving their collective assi.

After that moment, though, it all changed. Things got bigger and scarier, and the Demons didn't go back into their box. Buffy may have defeated the Master at the end of Season 1, but she failed to defeat the Hellmouth, and as the seasons progressed the line between the "reality" of Sunnydale and the Underworld of the Hellmouth became more and more blurred. In season three we are told that the mayor "built this town for demons to feed on" and by the end of season seven the two are so inextricably linked that the final closing of the Hellmouth actually destroys the town.

As I said above, I ultimately think this is an inevitable effect in a long running series. The first time a vampire attacks somebody on school grounds it's scary. The twelfth you just start to wonder why the school is still open. The Sunnydale body count became something of a running joke ("if we train hard, keep focus, and don't have so many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule") but while it was funny it also began to undermine the point of the show. What started out as a nice little town threatened by a supernatural enemy became itself a seat of magical corruption. By the end of series seven there is literally nobody normal left in Sunnydale, they've all evacuated because of the effects of the Hellmouth (even the more sympathetic demons get out of town).

What this means is that, by the end of the series, Buffy has literally nothing left worth fighting for, except possibly Joss Whedon's ropey feminist doctrine. The later series of Buffy fall flat because, as Sunnydale itself becomes a place of evil, the Slayer loses all contact with the real world.

Mugglism: The Family Romance

Ultimately, though, I can forgive Buffy for its structural flaws. What I have more trouble with is the peculiar tendency in a lot of Modern/Urban Fantasy to treat the Fantasy World as just flat-out better than reality.

The chronic offender in this case is, of course, the Wizarding World of the Harry Potter series. Harry is rescued from the dull, dreary (and psychotically abusive) Dursleys, the "biggest load of Muggles" Hagrid has ever seen. He is then taken away into the wonderful Wizarding world where everything is fabulous and magical. He then discovers that he is a figure of the utmost importance in said world, and people either treat him with awe or loathing, both of which he finds equally affirming, while the infallibly wise guardian of his new world assures him that he really is all that and a bag of chips. Meanwhile the author informs us in interviews that everything in the Wizarding world is indeed superior to everything in the real world.

Oh, and just to forestall the inevitable "but the Wizarding world is really dangerous" apologia, there are two things to say about that. Firstly, until Rowling writes a scene that actually reminds me of the Holocaust, instead of just vaguely alluding to people making Nazi salutes, real life has Rowling licked when it comes to being dark, man. Secondly, horrors of actual, non-school-based wars aside, "like the real world but nastier" is yet another way of saying "like the real world but better". I'm going to hark right back to my third ever Ferretbrain article here and say that one of the things that really impressed me about Pan's Labyrinth was the fact that the really scary thing in it was not the Faun, or the Labyrinth, or the dude with the eyes in his hands, but the brutal mass-murdering fascist.

Anyway, where was I. Oh yes. The "fantasy is better than reality" style of Urban Fantasy usually winds up being a version of the (Freudian, and therefore almost certainly no longer reputable) idea of the Family Romance. The belief, common in young children, that their parents aren't their real parents, and they're actually something different and special. Of course most of us then grow up and realise that our parents are pretty okay people, and that being a Magical Princess probably wouldn't be that great, and actually there's some pretty radical stuff in the real world which we could be getting on with (like writing for webzines or playing World of Warcraft).

A mythical journey in which the Hero leaves the real world and then never comes back is always going to seem, to me (and therefore to anybody who matters), to be fundamentally juvenile. Pan's Labyrinth would have been completely meaningless if Ofelia did not ultimately end up confronting Vidal (albeit hopelessly), and the Lord of the Rings loses a lot of its impact if the Hobbits don't go back to the shire. Harry Potter may save the Wizarding World, but muggles like me have no reason to care about that. Stories like the Potter series work absolutely fine, as long as you're still labouring under the illusions that you're a beautiful unique snowflake, and the only people that matter are you and the few others you're willing to accept as equally special. The moment you - not to put too fine a point on it - grow the fuck up, and realise that everybody else (yes even the teachers at your school, yes even your parents, yes even the kids who are mean to you) are real people with their own lives and ideals, you have to let go of the belief that your secret world is the most important one.

I've not yet finished City of Bones, much less the whole "Mortal Instruments" series, but it's shaping up to go the same way as potter: a long story about somebody totally failing to grow up.

In Conclusion: Why Americans Damned Well Should Be Afraid of Dragons

Roleplayers in the audience will probably know that White Wolf Game Studio used to publish, as part of their risibly-entitled World of Darkness line a game called Changeling the Dreaming. It was a game about, like, the loss of innocence and the death of dreams, man. Players took on the role of Changelings, fairy spirits in human bodies, who were slowly losing their beautiful-unique-snowflakeness under the crushing "Banality" of the modern world.

As games went, it was alright, it fetishised childhood in a slightly iffy way, but otherwise was decent Guns and Wizards Urban Fantasy fare. What bugged me about it, though, was the way it essentially divided everything in the world into "Banal" (soul destroying and imagination crushing) and "Glamorous" (drawing on the power of the Dreaming, the wellspring of human imagination). In particular, what bugged me about it was that it assumed that "imagination" was associated purely with the trappings of medieval fantasy. An artist who paints grim cityscapes and urban decay is Banal, an artist who paints forests full of dancing elves is Glamorous. Who Wants to be a Millionaire is Banal wish-fulfillment tapping into people's desire to get something for nothing. The hundred or so fairy stories about farmer's sons who get fantastically rich because of a stroke of good fortune are totally inspiring and bring out the best in humanity.

In her article Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons? Ursula le Guin observes (perhaps correctly) that the Fantasy genre is looked down upon in America, and that this is perhaps indicative of a society too obsessed with industry, productivity and profit, and distrustful of the imagination. Fiction in general, and fantasy in particular, encourages the reader to stop thinking about how they can best make a million bucks before they're forty and start thinking about any one of the million other things they could be doing. As Le Guin puts it:
"Fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial... They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom."

Of course the important thing to remember about this particular essay is that Le Guin is using "dragons" and "fantasy" as a shorthand for "fiction in general", and you could the mistrust of Fantasy in the twentieth century with the mistrust of the novel in the nineteenth. A lot of fantasy readers (and, by extension, some fantasy writers) go further. Like Changeling they come to view "elves and dragons and shit" as being synonymous with imagination, and to view imagination as the only virtue required in humanity, instead of as part of a healthy, well rounded personality.

Sensible proponents of Fantasy argue that it is perfectly okay to like dragons and wizards, and that the presence of fantasy elements does not make a story frivolous. Less sensible proponents of fantasy seem to want to argue that it is perfectly okay to like nothing except dragons and wizards, and that fantasy elements make a story more meaningful by their mere inclusion. This is particularly common in fandom and geekdom, where people are massively more inclined to focus on the details of a particular setting (elves, vampires, wizards) than on the actual contents of the narrative (destruction of rural England, coming-of-age in small town America, why suicide is totally heroic).

Obviously, I don't want a return to the nineteenth century, I don't want a world where nobody reads fiction, or where it isn't considered perfectly okay to pick up the odd bit of Laurel K Hamilton if you feel like something light and pulpy, but I am deeply concerned about a Fantasy genre that is coming to view fantasy as an end in itself. That's fine if you're aspiring to nothing more than light holiday reading, but a lot of fantasy (even, or perhaps I should say especially children's fantasy) takes itself very seriously, and it's ludicrous to try to deal with "real" issues in something that's totally divorced from the real world. You can't show us the reality of war in a world where everybody acts like an overgrown five-year-old and people only die when the author is trying to make a point.

Fantasy is not factual, and because it is not factual it must remain true, and the truth is that the real world matters, and that real people are amazing, and a Hero who doesn't return is no hero at all.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 15:31 on 2008-09-27
I'm reminded a little, in fact, of Terry Gilliam's Tideland, which kind-of repudiates the fantasy-as-an-end-in-itself stance he took in some of his earlier films: in that one you have plenty of people who use fantasy as a means of escaping from the world around them, with the result that their lives are completely stagnant and horrible, and you've got the protagonist who uses fantasy to endure the world around her whilst still progressing through it, so she comes out the other end more-or-less unscathed and with a potential adoptive mum to boot.

You've glossed over an aspect of the Hero's Journey a little, which is that when the Hero returns to the everyday world he isn't just a fuller and more complete man, he actually enriches the everyday world by the fact that he's gone on this journey in the first place. Lord of the Rings is an exceptionally good example of this; not only are the Hobbits better people for having gone to fight Sauron, but when they get back they solve the Shire's problems and then (for the most part) become its primary movers and shakers for the next generation. Arguably, part of the problem with the way Buffy developed was that whilst Buffy's own real life problems were often solved by her adventures, she didn't so much enrich the community by her adventures so much as prolong the death throes of the status quo: things gradually get worse, and worse, and worse in Sunnydale until it all goes to shit. Harry Potter's magical studies not only have no beneficial effects for his community in the mundane world, he's actually legally prevented from letting that happen.

I think the problem with Hero's Journey type narratives in fantasy set in the modern day is that "it's the modern day, but with vampires" seems far too close to the real world, if you see what I mean. Back in the day it was sufficient for the hero to walk a long long long way away and people could accept that "oh, OK, way over there is the land of magic and adventure". The problem with the likes of Buffy and Potter is that the land of magic and adventure is right on their doorstep, and this actually makes the return to the real world slightly problematic; because the vampires and werewolves and death eaters are in such close proximity (physically and in terms of always getting in each other's face), you'd expect the hero to be concerned about them all the time. The reason Narnia does the Hero's Journey so well is precisely because Narnia is a mythic otherworld which it's non-trivial to get to, and I would argue that that's a requirement for any mythic otherworld in a Hero's Journey-based story: if you can get to the Hellmouth by walking down the street then that's not so much a Hero's Journey as a Hero's Morning Jog.

I suspect the answer is to use a different myth for modern-day fantasy. Supernatural seems to get a lot of mileage (no pun intended) out of the old Lone Ranger/Fugitive "Eternal Wanderer" story (which has the advantage that it's a lot easier to adapt to television, because you can spin it out for as long as you damn well like, whereas the Hero's Journey pretty much demands an end point).
Andy G at 20:52 on 2008-10-05
Great article! That really put the finger on something that had been bugging me, except actually I hadn't realised it had been bugging me until I read the article. I was just wondering how you think Star Wars would fit into the pattern of the Hero's return, as you'd given that as an example of one closely written to the pattern, but it doesn't seem as clear-cut an example as the LotR or others where the magical world/magical powers are left behind?

Possibly a stupid question as you have clearly read a lot of stuff ABOUT fantasy (where on earth do you find it? I mean I do like to read fantasy, but I can barely ever find anything interesting written about it - except on Ferretbrain, of course) but have you read On Fairy Stories by Tolkien? It covers a lot of the themes from above, and it's one of my favourite essays with some really well-made points.
Arthur B at 21:15 on 2008-10-05
As far as I can tell, the supposed precise mapping of Star Wars to the Hero's Journey is a bit ropey, and came about mainly because John Campbell was all "Hey, Star Wars fits the Hero's Journey perfectly" and George Lucas said "Oh... really? I mean, yes. Yes it does."

So working out where all the various bits and pieces fit in is sometimes tricky, but I think the Hero's Return is very much there, although it's pretty much described in a single scene - it's the bit at the end where they're all getting their medals and all the rebel forces cheer them. Having ventured into the depths of the Death Star's chasm and faced the dark lord, Luke emerges victorious and the community (said community being the rebellion) is enriched for it. That's all you really need for the Hero's Return - tenuous, I know, but so's the entire Hero's Journey idea to begin with.

(The end of Return of the Jedi is interesting in this light, actually - the community is having a big party, but Luke isn't really part of it - he's off at the edge, burning his father's body and communing with ghosts, his experiences finally alienating him from his community because he's endured so many things that have no parallel in the common experience of the war - hundreds of people can claim they were involved in the attack on Death Star II, for example, but only Luke actually saw Darth Vader's true face.)
Dan H at 16:29 on 2008-10-06
Possibly a stupid question as you have clearly read a lot of stuff ABOUT fantasy (where on earth do you find it? I mean I do like to read fantasy, but I can barely ever find anything interesting written about it - except on Ferretbrain, of course) but have you read On Fairy Stories by Tolkien? It covers a lot of the themes from above, and it's one of my favourite essays with some really well-made points.

I've not read it actually (I'm far less well read than I pretend to be, I just shout my opinions loudly and hope people assume I've done some research).

As for Star Wars, the "real world" if you want to call it that in the SW saga is (IMO) the Rebellion, the big deal is that while Luke goes off and learns from Jedi Masters and confronts Darth Vader, it's the regular guys in the guns-and-bombs shooting war that he comes back to. Our Esteemed Editor also points out that Luke's return to Han and Leia is a quite literal return to family at the end of the series.
Sister Magpie at 20:38 on 2008-10-30
Great article! I've been catching up and had just read your review where you asked why someone would have to add fantasy to New York City to find a sense of wonder--quoting that paragraph that's a beautiful image strangely undermined by the addition of werewolves, fairies, vampires and mermaids. (Central Park, Chinatown, the Hudson River are all far more interesting.)

I've always liked "our world, but with magic" in terms of books starting in our world rather than a totally different secondary world, but I totally agree with this--because as you say, setting something in our world and adding magic doesn't have to mean that our world is the world that sucks or can't hold it's own. A sense of home is always present in LOTR and that makes the Shire stand up as just as wonderful as any magical place.

It reminds me of the book Hatchet that I had to read a couple years ago for a thing I was doing on YA books. I have only ever read that book, but there are several in the series. It's not fantasy, it's about a boy who survives a plane crash and must survive alone in the Canadian wilderness. But in the end he's rescued and there's other books, some of which follow a "what if?" scenario where he never leaves the woods. What struck me about the synopses of the later books was that the main character pretty much wound up going off to live in the forest. He didn't like civilization any more and preferred his solitary life.

The idea seemed to be that the author enjoyed the more "real" life experience of fighting for your survival, hunting your own food etc. But I thought it made the whole series a failure by not realizing that the point of a Vision Quest is to find out how you can help your community. Deciding to be a hermit--a fine choice in other contexts--is here just selfish and avoiding the responsibilities of being an adult in the community.

It's just important to make the distinction between this really being a flaw in Urban fantasy and it being just something urban fantasists can use it for.
Dan H at 15:25 on 2008-11-17
Hiya, sorry it took me so long to reply (this just in, doing NaNo is hard). Thought I'd clarify one particular point:

It's just important to make the distinction between this really being a flaw in Urban fantasy and it being just something urban fantasists can use it for.

Oh absolutely. By "a flaw in Urban Fantasy" I basically meant it in the specific, subjective sense (as in "this is something I consider to be a flaw in the works of urban fantasy which I have personally read") not a fundamental weakness of the genre.

I find it particularly infuriating since so much Urban Fantasy is either targeted at children or "young adults" and if there's one thing that young adults *don't* need to be told, it's that being an adult is for losers.
Sonia Mitchell at 01:52 on 2009-06-25
Once again I know this is old, but I hadn't read any Campbell when you wrote this. I'm rehashing now I've read enough of Hero With a Thousand Faces to comment. Not all of it, I have to add (psychology texts bore me) but a fair amount (I'm also cribbing the exact terms from here because it's been a few months since I touched the book).

And while I agree with the points you make, Dan, I don't think HWATF backs them up. It's not a check-list of ingredients for a story, but a variety of factors of which some (not all) can be found in a given hero's journey. Refusing to return is a valid stage of the journey, even if it makes for an unsatisfying narrative. I agree that it marks Harry out as an immature hero, just as I think it does Achilles and the Sandman and the Pevensies (who never intended to return home in TLTW&TW). For most of us there does come that point where we stop thinking Dorothy's mad for wanting to go back to Kansas (we grow the fuck up, as you so rightly say), but nevertheless according to Campbell heroes who don't return are still heroes.

Suicide can be 'totally heroic' in the classical model Campbell's following, which isn't using heroes as role models. Working in the chivalric model, which I think maybe you are, naturally it isn't. And Harry Potter seems to strongly invite one to take the chivalric viewpoint, right up to telling us how 'gallant' Harry is for protecting a(n extremely competent) woman with an unforgivable curse. If nothing else, the cosmetic details (suits of armour, portraits of damsels, Arthurian treasures and constant references to Merlin) are knightly not classical, and invite one to take a certain perspective (there might be an article in this, actually...).

As far as I can tell, the supposed precise mapping of Star Wars to the Hero's Journey is a bit ropey, and came about mainly because John Campbell was all "Hey, Star Wars fits the Hero's Journey perfectly" and George Lucas said "Oh... really? I mean, yes. Yes it does."


Which I'd say is the right way to do things - treating. HWATF as a tool for analysis rather than an instruction manual on how to write fiction. I think consciously ticking off the elements of the hero's journey would make for a rather boring (not to mention contradictory) story, since the natural temptation would be to take them far too literally. I'll take tenuous any day :-)
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 16:20 on 2009-09-10
Great article and it immediately reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar trapesty, which is a bit narnian in its basic plot, has some slight elements of urban fantasy and I thin generally is a surprisingly awesome take on what seems on the surfce to be an awfully cliched fantasy world. Commenting on heroic suicides, I think this one has one brilliantly haunting example and a few others might qualify as well.

But really made me recollec this is the development of Dave, who is kind of an average guy compared to the rest of the cast and doesn't get any cool pwers or even the girl or anything. But in a very awesome ending, without any sense of needless fanfare, you know that he'll return back to the real world and things will be okay.

I won't explain more because I'd hate to spoil it for any one and I guess it would be a bit tedious.
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