In honor of Earth Day, which was just this past Saturday, let’s talk about Earth magic! Many fantasy stories are filled with the idea that the Earth is a magical thing, and it certainly seems that way in real life. After all, this beautiful planet is where we live and grow, and where we get to see gorgeous sights or amazing animals. After watching just one episode of Planet Earth, you can understand why so many fantasy authors see the Earth and magic as one and the same.
But despite the fact that our world is so beautiful and amazing, fantasy authors have also recognized that humans, for whatever reason, seem intent on destroying it. Because of this, fantasy authors tend to incorporate nature spirits that fight on behalf of nature and call us to take up the fight as well. Even when fantasy authors write about other worlds that are different from ours, they still address issues of environmentalism that are relevant to our society.
Fantasy is big money now. Everyone is looking to the hefty fantasy tomes of the past for inspiration for the next Game of Thrones, with mixed success. The appearance of Terry Brooks’s world of Shannara on the small screen thanks to MTV is just one example of this.
When I first heard that the show was being made, I decided it was time to finally reread The Sword of Shannara, the 1977 book that introduced me to Brooks’s expansive world, and which I first read in my grade school’s library. Real life intervened, however; a season of the show has come and gone, and I only just sat down with my battered old copy of the book last week. Unfortunately, my reread left me mostly confused and concerned for the tastes of my elementary school self, as The Sword of Shannara is an odd mix of utter tedium and story beats lifted directly from its more celebrated contemporary, The Lord of the Rings.
Sometime as I was reading the Song of Ice and Fire books a few years ago, just when Game of Thrones was getting popular and more and more fans were starting to fight over who they thought would be the best person to end up on the Iron Throne, I started wondering, “Wait a minute. We live in a supposedly democratic, meritocratic society these days that (at least nominally) no longer believes in hereditary rule. Why are we so invested in seeing an autocratic, hereditary tyrant installed on a throne, to lord it over our favorite fictional continent? Shouldn’t we be rooting for the Seven Kingdoms to become a democracy instead?” (I’m on Team Dany, by the way!)
And have you ever thought about how weird it is that, in Sailor Moon, we’re supposed to be happy that Usagi and Mamoru end up as Neo-Queen Serenity and King Endymion, absolute rulers of the entire freaking Earth for over a thousand years? The narrative presents this as a positive thing because they’re such just and peaceful rulers, and those who question Neo-Queen Serenity’s rule are presented as the villains.
This should be absolutely terrifying. Just sayin’.
As I began thinking about this further, I realized that a lot of our modern media is still in the habit of over-valuing noble blood. It makes sense that old fairy tales feature lots of royalty, secret royalty, and marrying into royalty, because back then, that was the best possible situation people could imagine for themselves. But why does this obsession still exist today when kings and queens with real power (for the most part) are not prominent anymore? You also may be wondering, what’s the harm of featuring noble-born characters? I would argue that they reinforce the false idea of privileged birth translating to inherent “special-ness,” as well as ignore the stories of those born into less privilege.
Let’s examine this in several examples below the jump!
Yesterday, I was sitting with about twenty middle schoolers watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a special almost-Easter movie, and it got me thinking about how differently J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis approached magic in their fictional worlds. Lewis liked to go with more showy magic, while Tolkien preferred more subtle magic. And though the kids may like Lewis better, I thought their differing approaches made both worlds more interesting.
I have no idea what it is about The Lord of the Rings books, but whatever it is, I cannot bring myself for to finish reading them. I have tried to get through The Fellowship of the Ring numerous times now, and each time I have given up after reaching Tom Bombadil. This probably wouldn’t be a problem for me if just skipped past him—which I guess I’ll try to do after writing this post—but dear Tom has been a giant roadblock in my reading experience since I first attempted these books ten years ago.
This is also endlessly frustrating, because I actually like just about everything else in the story. As such, since I can’t read the books, and I can only marathon the movies so many times before they get old, I turned to good old fashioned fanfiction to get my LotR fill.
I’ve always had strong feelings about the use of prophecy in storytelling. Prophecies can either flesh out a story and support its plot, or frustrate the reader by being too obvious or too trite.
So what do I look for in a good prophecy? Well, when prophecy is used effectively, it doesn’t take away from the storytelling. It suggests a possible series of events to the characters, but it doesn’t give a ton away; essentially, it’s kind of vague. Prophecies can employ some double meanings, but they shouldn’t be entirely pedantic. What I mean by this is, they should have some meat to them—they shouldn’t be constantly fulfilled by a technicality. For example, if the prophecy says the character will experience death, there should be some mortal consequences, rather than like, having them orgasm and calling it a “little death” or something stupid like that. (I made up that example, but lordy if you see someone doing that in a story please tell me first.) It should also engage the reader in trying to understand what it foreshadows before the characters experience to what it’s predicting.
Redemption seems to be a key element in most religions. Many religions believe that if someone does something wrong then they need to be forgiven and become a better person; in other words, they need to do good so that they can redeem themselves of all their wrongdoing. While redemption is prominent in Buddhism and Abrahamic religions, it is especially important in both Islam and Christianity. For this reason, it is surprising to me that a lot of Western film, which is heavily influenced by Christianity, may discuss religion, but very rarely truly explores redemption in an interesting or profound way.