Monday, 23 January 2012

The Bones of Long-Dead Giants

This one's for fantasy writers and readers. If you're not into the genre (and specifically the high/epic fantasy subgenre which is my main interest), this post is probably not going to interest you at all.

For those of us in the know, though, I have a question. Think of your favourite fantasy story, preferably an epic. Is there, anywhere in it, a plot-significant vestige of an ancient, long-dead civilisation? I'm thinking everything from Raymond Feist's Valheru to the elderglass cities of Scott Lynch's books, to the pre-Breaking civilisation in the Wheel of Time.

Okay, now find me an epic series that doesn't have this. There must be one, somewhere. The closest I can think of is Steven Donaldson's 'Lord Foul's Bane', but I don't know the series (I've only read the first book), and I'm not sure the fact that it's technically paranormal fantasy, and thereby still involving the meeting of two cultures, one appreciably more 'ancient' in style than the other and with lessons to bestow on the traveller between the two.

Which brings me to my point, which is why does the genre carry this obsession? I do it too; my three current projects are: The Non-Agency, in which the lead character at one point travels to the great library at the heart of a long-since-fallen empire, The Second Realm, in which human technological civilisation was destroyed 70-odd years before the story, leaving a whole bunch of old, abandoned cities knocking around, and [as-yet-untitled semi-secret short story project] which involves [spoiler involving a long-dead civilisation].

But why? It's true that the ruins of Earth's dead civilisations (to whatever extent they are dead; it varies from case to case) make fascinating settings - Mayan and Egyptian pyramids, Greek and Roman temples etc. - and leave us legacies of fascinating mythology, but it's debatable whether we can look up to any of those civilisations. Certainly (ludicrous conspiracy theories aside) it's unlikely that relics from such cultures are going to have much power in the modern world.

Nor can I see a trope-based reason for the trend. With some tropes, the most obvious being the Luke Skywalker/Harry Potter farmboy-nobody hero, the power that makes them so close to ubiquitous is obvious, because it's a vicarious thing; how many kids now check the post eagerly on their 11th birthdays, desperately hoping for a letter from Hogwarts? (disclaimer: I turned 11 a few months before reading the first Harry Potter book, or this would totally have been me...).

But I can't see the same appeal in ancient civilisations. I can see some appeal in it, obviously - I love epic fantasy, and there are numerous ways in which the ancient civilisation thing can be made a brilliantly interesting, fascinating centrepiece of an epic (Brandon Sanderson's 'The Way of Kings' is my recent favourite example of this) - but I don't understand why it's in every fantasy book I can think of.

The best explanation I can think of would be some sort of displaced nostalgia; we do tend to romanticise the past, and maybe ancient civilisations that actually were greater than the present one satisfy that sentiment, but even that seems shaky. I am deeply suspicious of and uncomfortable with nostalgia, particularly for cultures and experiences one hasn't actually lived through (most steampunk seriously gets on my nerves for this reason), and I still enjoy a good wisdom-of-the-ancients plot.

I've been mulling this over for a few days now, and trying to work out what a fantasy story without an ancient culture to look back too would look like. When I figure it out, I'll write it and let you know...

So, any ideas? Does it fill an obvious psychological need I haven't thought of? Can you think of a modern epic fantasy I've forgotten/not heard of that doesn't do this?


  1. I think, perhaps more important than nostalgia, is that the ancient civilization sets up a basis for contrast. People today can view our current world in contrast to epic time periods--prohibition, the great depression, the sixties. Having knowledge of a defunct ancient civilization gives depth to the current world.

  2. (my bizarre 2 cents)

    Well, certainly many high fantasies have that ancient civilization/world setting, since setting a fantasy in a real, normal, everyday, setting would seem a little off the point, make it less fantasy-ish, if you please. Personally, if you are going to call it a fantasy go the whole distance and make a whole world. You get to "play creator" and mold the world as you want for the purposes you want...even if they are based on ancient real civilizations. I giggle at the thought of Hobbits on the L train. Wouldn't quite work. xD

  3. Perhaps in a realistic setting, ruins left behind by older cultures are inevitable. Even in the largely unclaimed wilds of North America, you can find earthworks spanning miles of countryside. I've walked on some - there's a certain fascination to them, wondering what purpose the construction may have served originally.

    The fact is, cultures grow, evolve and die, and even within a culture buildings decay or fall out of use, or the land is abandoned due to drought, flood or natural disaster. Why, I myself lived in a house which was later buried by volcanic ash (Manila AFB).

    I think that if a setting were to include no ruins or signs of an older civilization, rather than that being natural there would have to be some sort of explanation for the lack.

  4. Vonna: That's a good point, at least in respect of the prevalence of ancient civilisations.

    All: I think I need to rewrite this post. I'm not really protesting the way that all fantasy settings have defunct civilisations; I agree with Lironah that a setting without defunct ancient civilisations is going to be unusual. My issue is really more why there always seems to be an ancient civilisation that's cleverer, wealthier, more benevolent, or just generally better than the modern one. History very rarely moves backward that dramatically (or at least, so it seems to me), but almost every fantasy world I can think of seems to have such a history.

  5. I think it's more about being aware that we're not perfect and would like to be. That somewhere, someone might just have got it right. In real life we know that just won't happen, if we're being honest with ourselves so we look to fiction to fill that gap. In fantasy the ancient civilisation is usually one that was better than us in some way, or more powerful. And if that power led to their downfall you get a life lesson throw in as well - Yippee! I don't think it's limited to fantasy, though it's called something else in other genres. In Action movies/books it will be an impossibly good elite fighting unit or a Segal-type man of iron, or the uber-hacker in Teccie movies and the Mr Darcy types in Romance. We know we're never really going to get the whole package but we can't stop hoping. It's kind of sweet, really.

  6. Hmm... it's interesting (and probably correct) to draw the parallel with paragon-type characters, although fantasy as a genre certainly has its fair share of paragon-ish types (Aragorn, anyone? Gandalf the White? ;D). Still, there must be some other way than ancient civilisations to fulfil the same need...