Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is fantasy inherently violent?

An fascinating topic posted on the HarperCollins Voyager website last year was (and I apologise for not taking down the username of the person who posed it:) Is Fantasy Inherently Violent?
It’s an intricate topic, particularly in the wake of Harry Potter. Many young readers have become interested in fantasy since JK Rowling’s boy wizard swept the globe but, as a parent myself, there are many fantasy books I don’t want my children reading until they are older. Even the later Potter books are, for me, too dark and violent for the 10-12 year-old children some thought the series was aimed at.
Some of the responses to this question claimed that fantasy is not necessarily violent and it is up to the individual writer. Certainly there have been several sub-genres of fantasy, which seem to nudge almost into the Mills & Boon territory, that are without violence.
But, looking back at its history, I have to say there is something inherently violent in fantasy.
Look at the early giants of the genre: Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Robert Howard, JRR Tolkien - all violent.
Even the likes of CS Lewis has plenty of battles and deaths in the Narnia books (although not nearly as many as in the Narnia films).
Later writers, such as David Gemmell, Raymond E Feist, Terry Brooks, David Eddings - even Terry Pratchett - have plenty of violence in their pages.
Fantasy is often referred to, sometimes insultingly, as ``swords and sorcery’’. But the key phrase there is the sword - any society where people use swords and axes to solve problems is going to be inherently violent. Just open an ancient history textbook to see what humans have done to each other through the ages!
I suppose I am particularly sensitive to this topic, as my books are violent.
I think of them as M-rated - parental guidance advised for under-15s.
I make no apologies for the graphic representation of the violence. A battle was a vicious, nasty place to be and telling children that it’s easy - and fun - to kill and kill again is not what I want to write.
Nothing annoys me more than to read a book where the hero slaughters his way through a pack of opponents and then blithely continues, completely unaffected and spotlessly clean as well.
The Lord Of The Ring films, despite their brilliance, were a little guilty of that. After slicing and dicing about 50 orcs, the characters still looked immaculate!
Apart from a desire to realistically portray what goes on, there is a serious plot need for the violence.
The main male character, Martil, is a warrior who’s sick of war. He’s seen too much, been forced to do too much and he’s haunted by it. To understand why Martil is like this, I wanted to take the reader into the middle of battle, in the pain and blood and violence. To understand him better, the reader needs to gain some understanding of what he has seen and experienced.
I like to compare it to a French film called A Very Long Engagement, which was both praised and criticised for showing some of the most graphic World War I battle scenes in cinematic history. I am ashamed to admit I have not read the book this film was based on - but no doubt its discussion of war was similarly brutal. As Manech, the hero, was sentenced to death for cowardice in the trenches, you needed to see why he was driven to that. You needed to see how a brave, patriotic man could be driven to desperate measures, could even lose his mind.
So The Dark Warrior is violent - and there are more battles to come, none of them romanticised.
Part of that is due to the inherent violence I feel lurks within fantasy, part to understand the characters and part to show readers that there is nothing glamorous about killing another human.
If that upsets some readers, then so be it.

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