CONNECTIONS: THE FANTASY GENRE AND POPULAR CULTURE
JRR Tolkien’s: The Hobbit and George RR Martin’s: Game Of Thrones are both examples of the fantasy genre and apply it’s associated conventions to disrupt popular culture. Any genre consists of sets of conventions that enables the reader to negotiate:
Particular to the fantasy genre is the characteristic of building imaginary worlds where natural phenomena is explained as a result of supernatural forces rather than natural sciences. This particular aspect of world building enables the actual world to be re-fashioned in a manner that is pleasing to audiences of the genre.
“Magic is an immaterial and unquantifiable element within the fantasy genre that enables events to take place within the narrative that defy natural laws.”
Magic in the fantasy genre is used to great effect so that events are affected by physical outcomes and shape major events within these worlds. Magic is an immaterial and unquantifiable element within the fantasy genre that enables events to take place within the narrative that defy natural laws. The final characteristic identified within the fantasy genre is the quest narrative. This is most clearly evident in The Hobbit and is a device that enables character development to develop organically as the quest unfolds which is particularly true in the case of The Hobbit.
“Part of the appeal of fantasy texts is “the idea that there is room left in the world for a sense of wonder for things that escape the net of explanation in terms of the physical sciences.”
The existence of magic and supernatural forces in both texts is all part of the appeal of fantasy texts. These texts allow:
“the idea that there is room left in the world for a sense of wonder for things that escape the net of explanation in terms of the physical sciences (Cox 2012,129)”.
Part of the immersive world building that takes place within the fantasy genre and the inclusion of magic allows both author and audience to reimagine the world as they would like. JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit is one of the most celebrated examples of the fantasy genre and the link between it and what Fiske labels ‘evasive pleasure’ is clear (Fiske 2010, 40-41). Fiske describes this evasive pleasure as:
“a loss of the self and of the subjectivity that controls and governs the self … The loss of the self is, therefore, the evasion of ideology (Fiske 2010, 41).”
Tolkien became fascinated with fairy tales and he explains this fascination as a result of his involvement as a soldier in World War I, in letters written on the subject (Sale, 1975, p. 197). Sale draws a link between Tolkien’s “withdrawal” from the horrors of war into the world of fairy tales as a “psychic’ necessity” for a young and imaginative mind. He further explains that fairy tales enable people to idealise their everyday world for another that feels more pleasant.
In the following quotes from both The Hobbit and Game Of Thrones, it’s evident the occurrence of natural weather phenomena isn’t explained by the natural sciences. Consistent with the fantasy genre, magical, supernatural forces are used to explain natural weather systems.
“All was well, until one they met a thunderstorm – more than a thunderstorm, a thunder battle. … Bilbo had never seen or imagined anything of the kind. … When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another, for a game, and catching them and, tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang (Tolkien 1991, 63).”
In the case of The Hobbit, thunderstorms in a high mountain pass are not the result of weather systems being intensified by high altitude locations and rocky mountain peaks. Consistent with the fantasy genre of introducing alternatives to science and leaving space for ‘wonder’, a severe thunderstorm is instead described as a battle between thunder giants.
The same device of explaining weather phenomena by way of supernatural forces is also employed within the Game Of Thrones – A Song Of Fire And Ice. A severe winter correlates with the appearance of unexplained beings known as ‘white walkers’. The protagonist within the Game Of Thrones extract, Bran, the crippled young lord of the stately, Northern house of Winterfell, refers to these creatures as simply ‘the others’.
“Oh, my sweet summer child,” Old Nan said quietly, “what do you know of fear? Fear is for the winter, my little lord, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its’ face for years at a time … and the white walkers move through the woods (Martin 2011, 233).”
While the normal time frame for winter is 3 months, in the world of Game Of Thrones, winter can occur for years at a time. This observation further embeds the Game Of Thrones in the fantasy genre where natural laws are shaped for narrative effect. The appearance of supernatural creatures known as the White Walkers moving through the wintery forests suggests there is causality between the actual White Walkers and the winter season. The White Walkers don’t appear in summer but are associated with winter. When they do appear it’s not severe and long lasting winter. The severity of the winter season is referred to:
“one hundred feet deep snow storms”, the ‘ice wind’ from the North and ‘the sun hiding its’ face for years at a time” (Martin 2011, 233).
The logical conclusion to be made is that in Game Of Thrones, a severe and potentially deadly winter season is the result of a re-emergence of supernatural beings. These beings previously belonged only to legend and not the fictional reality of the fantasy genre.
Within Martin’s Game Of Thrones, there’s further examples of the use of magic as an element of the fantasy genre. Chief among these examples is the special connection that the wolves (direwolves) have to the three Stark children Rob, Rickon and Bran. Cox states that is:
“exceedingly unlikely that untutored children would be capable of training large and dangerous wild animals to respond to complex voice commands” which is clearly evident when the animals are rebuked and called off from a near attack on their guest, Tyrion Lannister (Cox 2012,138).
The fantasy genre allows the author to explain the unexplainable by suggesting magic is work. With this in mind, the most likely reason for direwolves attacking Tyrion Lannister in the meeting hall of Winterfell is connected to the hostile reception from the newly appointed and inexperienced young lord Rob. Rob’s father Ned Stark has been summoned to the capital to assume the role of the hand of the king Robert Baratheon in the capital of Kings Landing.
Another character in the Winterfell family is Brandon Stark who notes that his brother received the visitor with his sword unsheathedThis is obviously bad etiquette and duly noted by the affronted visitor Tyrion Lannister when he states:
“If you are a lord, you might learn a lord’s courtesy (Martin 2011, 235)”.
Just before Rickon Stark entered the meeting hall with three of the five dire wolves that have attached themselves to each Stark child, there was a hostile exchange. Rob Stark accused their unwanted guest Tyrion Lannister of trying to set a trap for his younger brother. I would suggest that, Tyrion became the target of an attack by the direwolves because of the high sensitivity to protect their masters whenever they feel threatened. Rob Stark apologizes for the behaviour of the wolves and states that he doesn’t know why the wolves behaved the way that they did (Martin 2011, 238). The answer may also lie in the special mention of the sigil of the house. Bran notices the direwolf carving that decoratively features on top of the chair where Bran sits. The connection between the Stark children and their wild pets is made clear as something beyond the realm of the natural sciences. There is a suggested magical connection between the ancient Stark line and direwolves.
Tolkien’s most obvious use of magic is to use it as a narrative device within The Hobbit storyline. This is most evident when Bilbo Baggins discovers a magic ring that allows him to become invisible. Indeed, the magic ring becomes a central device that enables Bilbo to fully realise his role as a thief within the book. A role that both he and others, doubt that he is capable of achieving. Indeed as one of the dwarves that eventually employ him states:
“In fact, if it had not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we had come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts, He looks more like a grocer than a burglar! (Tolkien 1991, 28)”
Bilbo Baggins is eventually employed by Dwarves, upon strong advice from his friend the wizard Gandalf and so begins an epic quest narrative; another characteristic of the fantasy genre.
The dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins set off to recover both the home and the treasure of the dwarves from the clutches of a fire breathing dragon. During the process of the quest narrative unfolding, Bilbo’s character development is extraordinary and he becomes the most unlikely of heroes. By the end of The Hobbit the accolades for Bilbo are summarised by Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, on his deathbed:
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world (Tolkien 1991, 270-271).”
Bilbo’s journey is both external and internal. While he does have the use of a magic ring, he mostly has to draw upon his innate intelligence and strength of character to fully realise his potential as initially foretold by his friend Gandalf the wizard.
The Fantasy genre is an example of popular culture that elicits an evasive pleasure response by consumers of popular texts. This ‘pleasure principle’ is categorised by theorist John Fiske as being either evasive or productive. Evasive in the sense that fantasy genre consumers are able to escape a sense of sense of self and in doing so, un/knowingly challenge dominant ideology embedded within mass produced culture. In this instance, the major influence that the fantasy genre has on popular culture is most closely linked to evasive pleasure. The audience is able to lose itself in the complex world building that is a characteristic of the genre and the astounding, international popularity that both The Hobbit and Game Of Thrones have enjoyed in the last decade (Rothman 2017), (Robinson 2016), is testament to the influence this genre has on contemporary popular culture. As modern life is becoming more complex and economic conditions are worsening, evasive pleasure and it’s strong presence within the fantasy genre continues to increase it’s appeal for media consumers. Indeed it would appear to be some form of antidote for everyday concerns.
Cox, E. 2012. “Magic, Science, And Metaphysics in A Game Of Thrones.” Jacoby, H. (Ed.). 2012. Game of thrones and philosophy: Logic cuts deeper than swords. New Jersey: John Wiley.
Fiske, J. 2010. Understanding Popular Culture (2nd ed.). London, Routledge. Martin, G.R.R. 2011. A Game Of Thrones (4th ed.) Harper Voyager, London. Tolkein, JRR. 1991. The Hobbit. London, Harper Collins.
Robinson, J. 2016. Game of Thrones Is Even More Insanely Popular than You Think.
[online] Vanity Fair. Available at: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/07/game-
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Rothman, L. 2017. “The Hobbit Is Turning 80. Here’s What Reviewers Said About It in
anniversary-1937-reviews/ [Accessed 27 Sep. 2019].
Sale, R. 1975. Modern Heroism: Essays on D.H. Lawrence, William Empson, & J.R.R. Tolkien. University of California Press, Berkeley.