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Ambiguity in Fantasy


Ambiguity in Fantasy

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Ambiguity in Fantasy


Published on July 16, 2009


I once thought that what I loved about fantasy was the passionate declarations and the clarity of fighting for real good against real evil. I mean I think this is one of the things I loved about Tolkien when I was eight, and still love about Tolkien. But recently, I’ve noticed that there’s more ambiguity in fantasy, and I’m really enjoying that. In Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, there aren’t really villains. They all get a point of view, and they all have a point. It’s the same with Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths, one of the things I like about it is the way as the series progresses you see that nobody is exactly right or wrong.

Tolkien said he didn’t like allegory, he much preferred “history, true or feigned.” I think most post-Tolkien fantasy is the detailed complex history of imaginary lands, and this ambiguity makes it more like real history, which is the story of real people. Few real people are villains inside their own heads. People don’t do evil things so they can cackle about how evil they are, they do evil things because they think they will lead to things they think are good, or because they can’t see any alternative. And that’s really much more interesting, especially because it can lead to different kinds of stories in those worlds, rather than just replaying the eucatastrophe of good snatching victory from evil.

I made a post on my livejournal some time ago about the way I love the passionate declarations and the issues of everything absolutely mattering because it’s light against dark that I get from reading high fantasy:

I want Frodo saying he will take it though he does not know the way, and Eowyn saying she has leave to be burned in the house when the men won’t want it any more. I want Laura talking to the unicorn and Patrick saying the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t answer back. I want Paul on the Summer Tree. I want Harimad-sol riding across the desert.

I want that range, that possibility of things absolutely mattering, of the whole world in the balance, and the declaration—at the beginning of Kay’s The Wandering Fire, Kevin Laine says “To this I will make reply, though he be a god and this mean my death!” When I want fantasy, I want situations where people can say that, and mean it, and where it can feel real and supported. There’s a bit of my soul that thrills to it.

There’s an ancient computer game called Lords of Midnight. I have a Spectrum emulator for DOS so I can play it. It has four colours, and it uses a whole 64k of memory, and you go around collecting people and armies and attacking the bad guy in his fortress of Ushgarak. The names are wonderful, in a certain way, and really, the names are all there is to create the atmosphere. Luxor the Moonprince. Farflame the Dragonlord. It’s a strategy game. It’s also like concentrated essence of high fantasy.

One day, years ago, I was playing it, and losing, and fighting out the long defeat. My remaining characters were gathered in the castle of Thimrath, vastly outnumbered. When Thimrath fell, there would be only scattered keeps between the enemy and my capital of Xajorkith and ultimate victory of Doomdark. The Utarg of Utarg began to address the other characters thus: “It is true we will die. But we shall not wholly die, though the world go down to darkness and even our names be forgotten. There are other worlds than this, and in those worlds we live again, and strive again, and perhaps one day we will yet strike victory from the jaws of defeat. But we who stand here, we will at nightfall fight, and die, my companions down this long road. The stakes are high. All our world rests on our defence. And if we die, we died doing what we knew best, and for the best reason there is. So I do not say we die for nothing or that our defeat is to no purpose…” Understand—I was making this up, it wasn’t on the screen, he was saying it in my head. And I realized I was crying, that there were tears on my cheeks, that I was crying over the doomed gallantry of this little band of heroes.

So, anyway, that’s the essential nutrient I get from high fantasy that nothing else gives me.

This isn’t something you get from complex histories where nobody is exactly right or wrong and everyone has comprehensible motivations. That’s something you only get when you’re fighting the Doomguard.

Fortunately, there are plenty of different kinds of fantasy out there. But maybe there could be a rating scale, a little bar rated from “Clear rallying cries of passionate declaration” through “Ambiguous as Pontius Pilate” to “Everyone has a point”? It would help people pick up the thing they’re in the mood for that day.

About the Author

Jo Walton


Jo Walton is the author of fifteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others two essay collections, a collection of short stories, and several poetry collections. She has a new essay collection Trace Elements, with Ada Palmer, coming soon. She has a Patreon ( for her poetry, and the fact that people support it constantly restores her faith in human nature. She lives in Montreal, Canada, and Florence, Italy, reads a lot, and blogs about it here. It sometimes worries her that this is so exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up.
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