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?