THE TAKE AWAY
What's the Deal With: Fantasy Genres?
By Kersley Fitzgerald
I got a question several months back from a grandfather who wanted ammunition to convince his grandkids to not read the Twilight series. (Yes, I've read it. It was for research purposes, I swear!) I gave him what I had, but I don't think it was what he was looking for. A few years ago, our then-pastor asked what I thought about the Harry Potter series. (Yes, I've read it. I love it!) He didn't really want an answer; just an opportunity to pontificate on witchcraft. The first thing that told me was he had never read the books.
That's the problem with most arguments against popular culture—they're made by people who don't know what they're talking about. Here, for those with more refined cultural tastes, is an unconventional take on modern pop-culture. It's probably not the point of view you were expecting, but it's something to think about.
The glory about zombies is that they're unambiguous. They're bad. They're mindless. They can't help themselves. They're absolutely irredeemable. And they're human.
Our world is so connected we often feel like we're not allowed to hate anyone. Except Hitler, and that's overdone. Sure, some people hate anyway, but zombies give us universal permission. They also give a face to one horrible fear—the fear of becoming the evil, ourselves. Zombies feed on brains, turning their victims into zombies. They are literally mindless, and care only for meeting their own needs, not even aware of the people they harm. (Joss Whedon showed this beautifully with his Reavers.) Perhaps one of the greatest of human fears is that others will use us with absolutely no regard for our needs and desires. Zombies give us the strange satisfaction of being able to kill those who minimize us—even those who once loved us.
Zombie movies are usually primarily about violence. Rampant killing on both sides is the norm. That's not a particularly Christian virtue. On the other hand, as my sister points out, zombie movies are about the eternal struggle of good and evil as well as the story of where people choose to fall on those lines. Will they choose to fight? Or to hide? Either way, I have to say, I am very much looking forward to the movie version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The thing about modern vampires is that there is nothing quite so attractive to girls as the bad boy only they can tame. And what's "badder" than the boy who indiscriminately kills? From Buffy to Bella, it's intoxicating to think only you can see the good in a horrible person, and only you can inspire them to live out of this goodness. (Again, Joss Whedon turned the cliché on its ear—the only way his vampire could remain good was to stay away from the girl.) Vampires are powerful, old, aloof. They want to consume women. A woman who can tame that power is by definition a glorious creature in her own right.
For a more thorough treatise on vampires, see the article written by my friends, Bruce and Karen Bethke. Especially note Karen's insight into vampires and religion.
Werewolves in modern culture are somewhat inconsistent in character. In Twilight, they're a pack of puppies, fighting and yipping and grinning and groping their way into girls' hearts. (Actually, the wolves in Twilight are changelings, not true werewolves.) In Harry Potter, they're tragic, cursed creatures who either lament their monthly madness or revel in the violence and power. There's a new Teen Wolf coming out that promises more violence and gore, but visions of Michael J. Fox dunking a basketball will forever stick in the minds of those of us of a certain age.
Like vampires, werewolves show that everyone has the potential for violence. Girls are all about accepting the tragic and being the one who can handle the danger. But, unlike vampires, werewolves are about rage, not cold aloofness. And Werewolves are interesting in that, unlike zombies and vampires, they maintain their original personality, literally, most of their lives. They become more of who they were when they're cursed—do they give in to the violence, or despair? The most complicated thing about werewolves is that they're generally only bad one night a month. (Harry Potter's Fenrir Greyback the exception to the rule.) The recent Red Riding Hood points this out. What if the wolf is someone you love 27 days out of every 28? Do you still try to kill him?
Werewolf-inspired entertainment isn't particularly Christian, but isn't necessarily anti-biblical, either. It would depend on the story line, the back-story of the origin of the curse, and what the author does with it. Werewolf stories have the potential to make a powerful Christian metaphor—tragic soul, doomed to occasionally sin is reliant on his friends to keep him under control.
My cousin was at a party in LA with her young son's grandmother. A certain actor who played an elf in one movie and a pirate in another was there, as well. My cousin's son walked up to him and said, "I liked you in [the pirate movie] but I didn't like you in the [elf movie]."
The actor grinned, embarrassed, and said, "Yeah, I hated that wig."
Have you ever noticed how few male elf-like creatures make it to super-stardom? My theory is that while men can appreciate the perfection of Neytiri from Avatar or Arwen from The Lord of the Rings, women aren't as interested in perfect—or pretty. We like projects. We like either men with flaws we can put up with (or fix), or men seemingly too good for us. Elves just come off as effeminate. Even the lead male Na'vi in Avatar was really a clumsy, relatable human.
This is a trend with legs. It's going to be around for a while. Basically, urban fantasy is the existence of the fantastical in the real world. Harry Potter, Twilight, and X-Men, are a kind of block-buster urban fantasy, but there are dozens of YA novels out with different particulars. Quite a few have teenage female protagonists. Many deal with fairies and girls who find out they are fairies. Like Harry Potter, they appeal to the confused, frustrated reader who wishes there were more to life than school and parents. The protagonists are special, they learn to be strong, and they nearly always save the day.
Urban fantasy attracts because it makes all that exciting, fantastical stuff possible in the reader's real life. Why couldn't your real father be a fairy king, imprisoned for stealing an orc's gold? And sometimes it seems that the world would make a whole lot more sense if we found out pixies were real and had a habit of pulling wires in cars and inciting dogs to bark.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with urban fantasy as a genre—CS Lewis used it extensively. As with all entertainment, biblical appropriateness becomes a matter of the story itself.
"Steampunk is Goth for people who are tired of wearing black." It is Victorian-era situations with the addition of historically inappropriate technology, and, for some reason, owls and octopi. Wild, Wild West was steampunk, western style, and the new Sherlock Holmes is almost steampunk. The most thorough modern examples would be Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Steampunk is actually quite old; HG Wells, Mark Twain, and Jules Verne all wrote in the genre. Lately, steampunk seems to include quite a bit of fantastical elements—Gail Carriger's series has vampires, werewolves, and a protagonist with no soul.
Forget about little kids wandering around town in Harry Potter capes. Steampunk is the ultimate in escapism. Science fiction conventions often host "Steampunk Balls," and there is a serious cottage industry in the line of tiny top hats and bronze-painted goggles. It is Victorian glamour with an edge. In fact, there's at least one western shop west of town that is proudly expanding into the world of steampunk.
From a Christian viewpoint, there is nothing particularly unbiblical about dressing in lace-up boots, expedition-style jackets, and welding goggles, and going to a dance. There might be an argument that resources and attention could be better spent elsewhere, but the same argument could be made for football or fly fishing or scrapbooking. Some of the women's costumes do get a bit risqué, but, overall, steampunk is about having fun and the return of formal manners. The greatest danger would be in delving too far into a fantasy world.
Dragons, like werewolves, range a broad spectrum. In Tolkien's The Hobbit, Smaug was an old, vain, selfish beast. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace was a young, vain, selfish beast. I don't know when dragons changed, but I know who capitalized on the transformation. Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders books took an ancient, mystical, horribly dangerous creature and turned it into…
A telepathic horse.
Anne's dragons are "impressed" at birth—that is, a human watches them hatch, and develops an instant, lifelong emotional and psychic bond with them. A creature of danger becomes an intensely loyal friend and darn good transportation device. This new dragonic standard continued in Christopher Paolini's Eragon series and in the Christian fantasy novelist Donita K. Paul's DragonKeeper and Chiril books.
Imagine a strong, loyal, often vulnerable, but never false friend that shares your thoughts, puts you first above all else, and can eat your enemies. That's what the new dragon is. In a world where evil so often triumphs, it's no wonder dragons are popular. Equal parts friend and protector, able to fly—if it weren't for the food bill, there are few who would refuse a dragon.
Those are some of the fantasy genres that have been popular over the last few years. Next up: the particular series that have gotten attention.
Tags: Christian-Life | Reviews-Critiques
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