Over at Black Gate a commentator whined
, among other things, that "… fantasy fiction is in desperate need of is good adventure stories free of contemporary politics. There is no shortage of politically driven fiction of varying quality."
Ordinarily, given some of the other things this commentator said, I'd ignore this, but I keep seeing people bring this up, and it makes me want to scream. Or, you know, blog.
Look, almost all
art, or attempted art, is, on some level, political in nature – even if unconsciously so.
Let's start, for example, with a very quick look at Hollywood films set in the medieval era. (I know. Calling many of these "art" is a stretch, but I'm using "art" in the sense of something created by a human for decorative or pleasurable, as opposed to purely functional, purposes, i.e, music, paintings, film, fiction, poetry, and so on. It's not the best of definitions, but go with me for a bit here, at least for this post.) Nearly every single one of these films has something in common: it features at least one, and usually several, aristocrats who have become utterly corrupted by power, often to the point where they have become physically
, with its two elderly male rulers literally rotting to death, is the best example of this, but the trope appears everywhere.) Frequently at least one or two younger, good looking characters stomp around talking about how we all have to think for ourselves, making nasty comments about aristocrats, and delivering stirring speeches about the importance of independence. Aristocracy, state these films firmly, is inherently evil, so evil that it will make nearly everyone associated with it evil as well.
Here's the problem: this does not, in any way, shape or form, represent widely-held political thought in the medieval era.
Medievals certainly revolted – usually over taxes, or food issues, or religious concerns – and certainly hated various specific
kings/monarchs/authority figures. But the general idea of the aristocracy being inherently corrupt
, a system that inevitably leads to evil, was not universally held. Rather, many (not all) medieval argued that the aristocratic system was divinely inspired, ordained by God, and part of the natural order: coming from God, the aristocratic system was inherently good
, and only the flaws and failures of men turned it to evil. Many believed that the very act of revolting against an authority figure was in itself evil, since this meant going against something ordained by God. True, many people making this argument were themselves authority figures, but this argument was still made. Then as now, not everybody believed the same thing, and I certainly doubt that everyone in the Middle Ages believed in the divine right of kings, but, in general, medievals were not, as a group, running around shouting for political freedom and independence.
And yet this trope shows up in all major, studio-backed, American films depicting the medieval era – serious, silly, with dragons, without dragons. (I'm being specific here, because this trope appears in some but not all European/Japanese films depicting the medieval era.) The trope is so strong that even The Lord of the Rings
films, based on a British book that did not contain this idea (Tolkien certainly believed that the world was flawed, yes, but not that the aristocracy was any more
flawed by virtue of being aristocrats than the typical hobbit; both the aristocratic Boromir and the middle-class Frodo fail.)
And I honestly cannot imagine a Hollywood film attempting to argue for
the divine right of kings,
Now, is anyone who sits down to write a silly script featuring a dragon really considering the political implications of the script? Certainly not (although some screenwriters and directors are equally certainly more overtly politically conscious – again, Braveheart
-- than others). But, simply because that screenwriter lives in a place where democracy is considered the least evil of the various political systems out there, and because, post the 20th century in general, we have become all too aware of the evils that can follow in the wake of political leaders, that screenwriter is not going to be presenting a positive image of a monarchy/theocracy, even in a script that presents us with a heroic prince/princess.
Contemporary culture seeps into anything a writer/artist/musician creates, whether the creator is reacting to/against this culture, or going against it. This is as true for the dregs of "popular" fiction/movies as for the more "literary" stuff out there (I'm putting this in quote marks because I find these definitions questionable.) Another example from the decidedly low end of the artistic scale: back in the 1970s/early 80s Harlequin/Boons & Mill published several romance novels featuring the woman moaning, "No, no, no," while the romantic hero overpowered her cries of protest and took her to bed – in a reflection of the then-held belief that when women said, "no," they really meant "yes." Harlequin has largely backed off from publishing this sort of thing, largely because now, we have more of a recognition that when women say "no," they really mean "no." (Still not universally held even in the U.S., but we're moving more in that direction.)
Whether art is reinforcing our beliefs, or challenging them (and I like both types, just to be clear – well, not the above referenced Harlequins, but that's another story), it is still created in the context of those beliefs. Expressly political or not, silly or serious, "literary" or "popular," that culture is still there.
And, well, ok, this might be just me, but as a writer, I know that sometimes a discussion about politics or culture does spark a little worm in my brain and ends up as a story – often something that doesn't necessarily seem that related to the original conversation at all. (The most extreme example of this, in my case, is Bonfire and pearls
, which partly came from my wanting to write a selkie story and partly from a seemingly completely unrelated conversation about iTunes, ebooks and electronic downloads, which got me thinking about how we pay for art and things, which….led into a seemingly unrelated selkie story. Selkies never came up in the original conversation, but that doesn't mean that parts of the original conversation didn't slide into the selkie story, which, I'll note, doesn't mention iTunes, ebooks and electronic downloads.)
Feel free to ask for silly art, for adventure art, for things that don't seem to have a political agenda. But asking for purely non-political stuff, that doesn't react to or agree with contemporary culture? Not going to happen. Art isn't created in a vacuum.