clichés, Dwarves, elves, Fantasy, Gary Gygax, Magician, MancsterCon, Quattrofoto, Ravenchilde Illustrations, Raymond E Feist, Realm Fantasy Wargame, Terry Pratchett, tropes, William Shakespeare, Wizards
So, on the 29th August MancsterCon will be upon us and that will see myself and a few other authors sitting on a panel discussing fantasy. Specifically fantasy tropes and clichés.
Now, fantasy is ripe with lots of juicy cliché. In fact, the years PT (Post Tolkien, a dark time which encompasses most of the 70s and 80s) were filled with trilogy after endless trilogy in which elves lived in forests, dwarves lived in mountainous mines and there was a need for a quest to go somewhere dangerous and do something with a rare artefact that would save the world. Even some of the most well respected authors were prone to these tropes. Raymond E Feist’s Magician, for example, is one of my favourite books from my childhood and one I can still stand to read today. It had some very innovative ideas for the time about magic and many other wonderful concepts. However, in my opinion the presence of elves and dwarves in the world building, particularly ones so close to the Tolkien ideas, was not one of them. It was almost as if they were put in there because the publisher demanded it or because the author did not think a book without elves and dwarves would sell. I feel that a lot of fantasy in the 70s and 80s suffered from this very assumption. You had to have dwarves and elves and wizards to be fantasy. It was only in the mid to late 90s I feel the Tolkien effect began to wear off and popular fantasy veered away from many of the tropes he established.
Partly to blame may be Gary Gygax who used a lot of the Tolkien ideas in D&D and later AD&D and as they turned into major concerns, many other Roleplaying games and Wargames fed from them. There wasn’t even really much of an attempt to make things hugely different and this I think led to things spiralling to the point where it was expected that RPGs/Wargames had these concepts because they were in novels and novels had them in because they were in RPGs/Wargames and it kept on ad infinitum. When Serious Lemon asked me to write the background for the wargame Realm, I was basically given the brief to maintain the ‘standard races all fantasy fans expect’ but to try to make them different to the usual tropes. Not sure how well I managed that, though I was particularly proud of my fascist (and actually quite evil in an ‘it’s all for the greater good’ way) Roman elves and the ‘British’ Navy Halflings turned pirate following the destruction of their island kingdom by Cthulhu. However, the point is that the ‘received wisdom’ seems to be that the readers/players expect to see the old favourites and you cannot change them too much lest you alienate your target audience. This risk averse attitude, something which Hollywood is also accused of having, might lead to effective sales (sometimes) but also might stifle creativity. I guess finding the balance between those two points may well be a kwy to success – different enough to be seen as original but with enough familiarity to keep your audience in their comfort zone.
Terry Pratchett, of course, thrived on cliché. His Discworld stories are full of tropes and the subversion of those tropes and he managed to walk that creative tightrope very well. One of my favourites is Cohen the Barbarian, the octogenarian Barbarian hero who first appeared in The Light Fantastic, and his infamous Silver Horde, who debuted in Interesting Times. They manage to be both a subversion of a cliché and a cliché in themselves. On the one hand they subvert the Arnold Schwarzenegger school of barbarianism, which creates a wonderful piece of cognitive dissonance as you imagine a wiry old man swinging a sword far too big for him while wearing a loincloth and little else. On the other hand, they are also everything you come to expect from clichéd old men, including complaints about aches and pains and always having peppermints. Not to mention the wheelchair with blades on the wheels. A lot of layers there.
Pratchett’s treatment of elves and dwarves also shows these two approaches. His elves (as seen in Lords and Ladies) are a subversion as they appear on the surface to be typical Shakespearean fey as seen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because of the effect of their glamour. However, they are actually completely emotionless sociopaths who enjoy tormenting and killing just for the fun of it. On the other hand his dwarves are an exaggeration of all the things you come to expect from them – including (at least in the animated versions) comedy regional accents for all the regions in the UK known for mining (Yorkshire, Wales and the North East). They mine, they talk about mining, they sing about gold (at one point they even sing the Hi Ho song, yes that one…) and they get into fights when drunk*. Oh and they get sensitive about their height. Pratchett’s use of cliché is, I feel, a successful one. He uses the expectations of his audience, lulls them into a false sense of familiarity, then bludgeons them on the back of the neck with the half brick in a sock that is the unexpected subversion of that cliché. This is one way to use cliché and a way I have talked about in the past.
Happily I think we are in a better place creatively than we used to be. It now seems possible to write a whole fantasy trilogy in which there are no pointy eared wood dwelling elves, no bearded mining dwarfs and no long bearded wizards. You can even have a whole long series of books in which the races are based on insects which has to be a step forward. Dwarves in fantasy now have to be the scarred and bitter dispossessed sons of cruel noblemen who have developed a clever wit as a defence against all the taunts they have endured in their life because GRR Martin is now this century’s JRR Tolkien. I am sure we can expect there to be many copies of the concepts in A Song of Ice and Fire in the future. The stagnation that had been in place throughout the PT years is no more, though I suspect we are now entering the PM (post Martin) period… Though personally I would like to see the advent of the PP (Post Pratchett) period.
So, this is written with the intent of starting a debate. I am looking for ideas and concepts to discuss at the panel… If you have a thought on clichés in fantasy, please comment below. Alternatively, please vote on one of the polls I am posting to facebook or contact me in another manner to voice your opinion…
D.A Lascelles is the author of Lurking Miscellany, Transitions (Mundania Press) and Gods of the Sea (Pulp Empires). He lives in Manchester UK. You can sometimes see him writing about Zombie porn on https://lurkingmusings.wordpress.com/ but he mostly blogs about books, vampires, science fiction and Terry Pratchett. He is inordinately proud of the fact that one of his Pratchett articles was referenced on the French version of the author’s Wikipedia page.