Sunday, October 25, 2009

Things I Should Have Noticed Sooner

Why are so many fantasy tales, road trips with an unlikely motley crew? From Edmund, Lucy, Susan and Peter to Harry, Ron and Hermione? Did people just feel that Tolkein and CS Lewis had created a template as well as a genre?

I mean even Avatar: The Last Airbender (Original Animated Series) was all about the roadtrip. Granted that roadtrip was not at all boring and it had Sokka and Toph. Actually I think A:TLAB(OAS) might be two roadtrips, that eventually converge.

Seriously though, what's up with that? Why are roadtrips in fantasy apparently The. Best. Thing. Ever! Huh?

Aside: I'm now giggling at the thought of:

1. On The Long Trip To The Land Of VERMONT, an unlikely but motley crew of travelers must balance a little antiquing with the fight against the forces of darkness.

Oh yeah, that brings up the other thing. Why are all these roadtrips headed towards a war? Who takes a roadtrip towards conflict? Are there any fantasy tales of the mad dash flee from crashing armies and firework like displays of spraying blood?

And yes, I know there's such a thing as High Fantasy, aka Epic Fantasy; though I was surprised to learn there's a description of Low Fantasy. Having the opposite would seem to make sense, and yet... Low Fantasy is not the opposite of The RoadTrip Scavenger Hunt Towards A Battle Of Good vs Evil. It's just apparently fiction with very little in the way of fantasy elements.

I think I need to do more reading because right now I find myself going but why is the conflict always involving some kind of Dark Lord or at least a selfish A-hole With Army?

Of course my reading and researching has yet to give me a good answer for why Artifacts exist. Why indeed do magicians place all their power in some doodad? Is that from Tolkein too? The need for jewelry/accessories? From the ring to horcruxes?

I mean if I were gonna find a way to live forever, I wouldn't be putting my magical energy into something shiny and theft prone.

Though I guess it's all of a piece; tiny shiny equals scavenger hunt equals need for a ROAD TRIP!

I wonder if Limyaael has rants about this?

[Comments Open]


  1. I find the road trip plot tends to be a matter of giving the characters a physical journey to help them along on their emotional one. Characters often start out as weak, or innocent, or powerless. By the end of their road trip, they're strong, confident, powerful.

    You mentioned C.S. Lewis, which is a good example because he's stated himself that The Chronicles of Narnia were his attempt at a definitive Christian book series. (Essentially, he was the Stephanie Meyer of 1940s England.) Pretty much the core emotional journey of each book's plot is finding power/fulfillment through finding Christ aka Aslan. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe specifically, they start with four children who are powerless against this war that's taken their father overseas and taken them to a lonely house in the country. By the end of the journey, they've been able to take charge of a war they can effect and win it.

    I find stories like this usually head towards a war for two reasons. One, the primary audience of the action fantasy is boys and most boys like fighting. And on a story level, since the physical level of the story is the emotional level manifested in "reality", the war is the physical representation of the emotional conflict the character needs to resolve. Heroes almost always have their great epiphany at this point: ex. Edmund finally rises against the White Witch and comes fully to Aslan's side.

    As for tokens of power. I think it's similar to how rich people buy really expensive items, like diamond studded watches. It's a way to physically show their power. And there's also the level that magic tends towards symbolism, so they use a ring to represent their encircled hold on someone, or a wand as a means of focusing the direction of their spell and over time, these items absorb their nasty feelings and bits of their power until the item's become such a part of that spell or power that if it breaks, it breaks their ability to focus that spell. This also works on the other end as part of the spell works because the victim believes that the bad guy can do this kind of thing with said item, so to see it broken, breaks their belief that the bad guys have power over them.

    And in terms of having to aquire these kinds of trinkets on the road trip, they're physical representations of the tools the hero needs on their emotional journey. Frodo would never have left the Shire if he hadn't gotten the One Ring.

    I don't think Tolkein (Lewis was heavily influenced by Tolkein - both from the novel and the fact that Tolkein converted him to Christianity) invented the hero's journey, because I'm pretty sure I've seen older variants. But I do think he wrote a variant that was enough to influence the following generations of fantasy writers.

  2. Aside from copycat writers, the tropes have some story value:

    The Road Trip is a good excuse to show off different parts of the world - either strange to the protagonists as well, or a chance for one or more of them to go into exposition as they reveal what they know of the place.

    The Big Bad Army often provides a "chasing force" that keeps the protagonists moving. It's kind of a cop-out to the Chandler rule of "If you don't know what to do next, have someone kick in the door with a gun".

    And the Uber Item of Power basically fulfills the classic MacGuffin thing- it's something which people can fight over and chase each other around about.

    Running to war is mostly just the typical obsession with violence as power.

    The Dark Crystal is a good example of the protagonists having NO intent of war, and the anime Kino's Journey is a nice story that's just a roadtrip without the other two tropes.

  3. Angel Negra:

    I have to admit I think it's simplistic to copy 'The Hero's Journey' with an external journey. I almost mentioned in the OP and then decided against it that not everything of interest in Greek Mythology involved someone on a quest; it's not all Jason & The Argonauts, Ulysses on his way home, Hercules' 12 Tasks.

    And as for the primary audience of 'action fantasy being boys' - who the hell decided that RoadTrips to War = The End All Be All Of Action Fantasy?

    You're describing what happens in these RoadTrip Fantasy Tales; emotional conflict, leading to climatic moment possibly externalized by the tides of battle, etc etc etc...

    But that's not telling me why people hold to that model as the primary (and seemingly ONLY way) to tell a high fantasy saga.

    Re: Artifacts

    Magical Items as emblems of power would make sense if the magical items were already imbued with power and it was a thing of 'only a person of mass magical dicipline can hold onto x item' - sort of like only a trained stunt driver can do X crazy trick with x specific vehicle without immediately killing themselves.

    But as something the magical person imbues with their own power - why ?

    And your reasoning leads immediately to the Bad Guys. Why? Artifacts in fantasy aren't only for the bad guys. Sometimes they're nuetral. Sometimed they're Excalibur. Though Excalibur had a purpose in being created (note: Excalibur was NOT the sword in the stone).

    Again you describe the reasoning for their use but not for their existence which is what I'm focusing on.

    Bankuei mentions the items as plot mcguffins, but to me they seem more like plot coupons. Without x magical artifact there's no impetus in a story because there's nothing for two racing roadtrip scavenger hunts to be trying to recover first.

    Items existing because the plot needs them to - what kind of shoddy arse world building is that?

  4. bankuei:

    "Running to war is mostly just the typical obsession with violence as power."

    This is the best, no excuses by avenue of fantasy writing architecture, answer yet. Violence as power puts the wars into the perspective of; a race to ensure that the ability to do violence (aka, hold power) is placed in the 'right' hands - for whatever definition of right the story plays to.

    But I still say a powerful item whose only purpose is being a symbol of the violence in order to move the plot forward has a shitty, word build reason for existing.

    "Chandler rule of "If you don't know what to do next, have someone kick in the door with a gun"."

    That is definitely a shitty reason for an Army or The A-hole With Army. Though it seems tied in with 'See Exotic Places' which puts the Army as the Tram that's carrying a Roadtrip along a sight seeing tour to 'Climatic Battle'.

    Cop out indeed.

  5. "Are there any fantasy tales of the mad dash flee from crashing armies and firework like displays of spraying blood?"

    My very favorite story from the making of The Lord of The Rings was that they carefully constructed all these little AI-driven computer-animated people for the battle scene, with instructions to behave in various set ways depending on the circumstances in their immediate area.

    They all immediately broke and ran. Smart little automata. They had to be re-engineered.

    About the Road Trip in general, you're right, and it's one of the reasons that so much modern fantasy has bored me. I've gotten very fond of the subgenre in which the city is a member of the ensemble cast, and mastering physical and social navigation of the city is what it's all about. (P.C. Hodgell, Godstalk; Michelle Sagara, the Cast In... series, and of course Pratchett.)

  6. I suspect that the Road Trip to War model of epic fantasy coming into existence in the first place is down to narrative prose taking its subject matter and concerns from the oral tradition of storytelling.

    War stories would, through much of history, have been THE typical 'tales told around the fire by men to their sons'. You'd have the standard tropes that we recognise now in epic fantasy novels, only back then they'd have been actual experiences of the storyteller: the long arduous journey, the encounters with foreign cultures (did the storytellers linger on the rape and pillage thereof, I wonder?), environmental hazards, the thrill and/or terror of battle, etc.

    In areas of the world where war became a past generation's memory rather than remaining the harsh reality of daily life, the idea got cemented that this kind of war scenario is simply entertainment and is THE basic place from which epic stories come, with one generation's ordeal re-clothed with orcs, dragons etc. and becoming a future generation's cosy imaginative refuge into which alternative narratives intrude at their peril (think how many people just Do Not Want to read anything but Tolkien clones). And once that happens, the Road Trip gets endlessly recycled because it just becomes the thing to do.

    (Perhaps a digression, but I find it striking that a lot of popular videogames of the last decade let you re-enact real-world conflicts from within living memory; that a nostalgia for war stories is being inculcated in generations who are divorced from the cultural memory of actual war, not unlike the way in which colonial nostalgia rears its head again and again in Fantasy and SF.)

    And of course in modern publishing, they actually look for people who'll do more retreads of the Road Trip plot - and the very frequency with which it is re-used ensures that more young writers will come up thinking that it's the natural plot to cut their teeth on. And it goes on...