Series in which Andrew Marr explores the books we read. He argues that fantasy novels are filled with big ideas that allow us to see our own world in a surprising way.
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What is it about the unreal, almost childish world of magic,
swords and quests that entrances adults, too?
Could mere escapism capture so much of the reading world?
Fantasy is a form of fiction for people who like to see
all the ordinary rules smashed.
But its key writers are deadly serious,
and they have created new rules so successful that fantasy is now
one of the most popular forms of storytelling in this,
or any other, world.
And yes, there is escapism.
There are wizards in pointy hats.
But it turns out that what fantasy is really good at...
..is allowing us to see our own world
in a fresh and surprising way,
through a twisted, Gothic filter.
Fantasy is empowering.
It's a domain where the usual rules don't apply.
You're working with a very high-octane fuel.
Fantasy is for making metaphors concrete,
and allowing you to look at the things that are intangible.
In this series,
I'm looking at the tricks of the trade in bestselling fiction.
The conventions that govern different genre,
and their unique forms of storytelling.
In this case, fantasy.
Through their epic stories, fantasy writers take us on adventures,
becoming some of the best-loved authors of all time,
with novels that have claimed top literary prizes...
..laid the foundations for vast television empires...
..and reshaped modern storytelling.
So, as this genre casts its spell upon millions and swoops through
modern culture like never before, I want to dismantle it a bit,
to look at its rules and understand how its writers transport us
to outlandish worlds which turn out, on closer inspection,
to look unsettlingly like our own.
Fantasy has electrified today's popular culture largely thanks to
a phenomenally successful television series.
When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.
There is no middle ground.
This brutal tale of ambition and betrayal follows seven quarrelsome
kingdoms, each ruled by noble houses of dodgy aristocrats
vying for power.
There is sex and wit.
Politics tends to be a bit "bladey."
Game Of Thrones started life as a series of fantasy novels
by the writer George RR Martin, called A Song Of Ice And Fire.
It may be set in the imaginary state of Westeros,
but it's really about our world.
Martin's books capture our contemporary sense of cultural,
political, and social decline.
As populist politics and brutal power drive us towards
a new dark age, in Westeros, even the climate is turning nasty.
So, how do writers like Martin begin to create
their sprawling fantasy realms?
First, they must build a world.
In fantasy, creating the history,
the geography, and the culture of the imaginary realm is known as
world-building and it's absolutely crucial to the genre,
because the author is asking the reader to believe things
so outlandish and unexpected that any slip, any break in the edifice
could be fatal.
Creating a fantasy world is easy.
Creating a fantasy world that's coherent and believable
is very difficult. It means getting the small stuff right
as well as the big picture, and one of the key ways of doing this
is weaving together the real and the fantastical.
MUSIC: Game Of Thrones Theme by Ramin Djawadi
Fantasy is a strongly British genre.
George RR Martin, creator of Game Of Thrones, is American,
but he was inspired by British history.
A trip to Hadrian's Wall in 1981 became the genesis
of the first book in his series.
Standing on what was considered by the Romans to be the edge
of the civilised world,
he imagined what it would have been like to be a freezing soldier
facing unknown northern terrors.
This being fantasy,
in his imagination the wall became enormous and made of ice.
A sense of wonder and epic scale inspired one of the central
narrative devices for his entire series of novels.
"Almost 700 feet high it stood,
"three times the height of the tallest tower
"in the stronghold it sheltered."
"His uncle said the top was wide enough for a dozen armoured knights
"to ride abreast.
"The gaunt outlines of huge catapults and monstrous wooden
"cranes stood sentry up there, like the skeletons of great birds.
"And among them walked men in black,
"as small as ants."
Not only did Martin look to Hadrian's Wall,
he also thumbed British history books
for their nastier, darker moments.
Vicious dynastic squabbling from the Wars of the Roses...
..the ruthless betrayal of a whole family
from Scottish Highland history...
..and there are plenty of native and familiar stereotypes.
Northerners, obviously, are tough and no-nonsense,
like their fortresses.
And, just as in real life, southerners are decadent
and extravagant, with fancy castles to match.
Like many fantasy writers, Martin, with Westeros,
re-imagines the Middle Ages and, at first sight,
it feels historically familiar.
There are very castle-y castles, there's feudal overlords,
there are serfs, the technology is, to say the least, pretty basic,
and clearly the whole place stinks.
And yet, little by little, this
world is revealed as a fantastical one.
Martin uses this slow build-up to great effect.
Even the inhabitants of Westeros themselves aren't entirely sure
just how fantastical their world is.
Magic, White Walkers, dragons,
these things are more often distant rumours than established fact,
and it's their scepticism that smooths the way for the reader
into the story until the bad stuff really starts to happen.
For most of the time, Westeros is more like a piece of history
we might have read, or even a history we did read and then somehow
forgot about, except with the added advantage that, even now,
we still don't know how it's going to end.
The ultimate world-builder was JRR Tolkien.
His Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings books
are the most famous in all fantasy.
He built worlds of enormous scale and complexity,
but he tackled them in a different way.
His approach to world-building revolved around
his fascination with languages.
In 1911, he came to study here, in Exeter College
at Oxford University,
taking English and philology.
During his very first term,
Tolkien discovered this book in the college library.
It's a slightly dull-looking book on the Finnish language.
But for a man who was always fascinated by languages
and was toying with inventing his own,
this book was a complete revelation.
The shape and the sounds of the words entranced Tolkien.
And, to the horror of librarians everywhere,
he even scribbled notes in the margins,
comparing Finnish with ancient Greek.
I've never been very good at Finnish.
It's a difficult language, but I know something about it.
But its formation, its sound texture,
is very remarkable.
It actually makes me quite intoxicated.
What's different about Tolkien is
that everything starts with language.
He begins to invent his own one, called Quenya,
and then develops stories, but not just for themselves,
to house the language, as it were,
and he creates lots of characters, like elves,
so they can speak these languages.
It doesn't start with adventures or journeys or quests
or battles, it starts with language.
Tolkien began work on what he called his "legendarium" -
the mythology, the history and the culture of his creations,
all based on Middle Earth.
And he'd carry on with this for the next 50 years.
By the time he died, it still wasn't finished.
It was simply too enormous for a whole lifetime of writing.
Tolkien's fantasy novels only skimmed the surface
of the larger fictional world he'd created.
The legendarium included histories, lineages, languages and cultures,
all carefully fleshed out.
But Tolkien never revealed everything.
He always kept something back,
just like the great medieval texts he admired so much.
And I think it's this sense of depth, of complex texture,
which has lured so many readers from around the world
to Middle Earth and then trapped them there.
But not all of his academic colleagues were impressed.
This was, to say the least,
a curious obsession for a serious academic and not all the other dons
could take it entirely seriously.
There was one time when Tolkien was reading aloud the latest instalment
of Lord Of The Rings to his admirers, when Professor Hugo Dyson
could take it no longer.
-"Oh, God!" he said, "Not another
Even the most skilled writers find it difficult to hold their elaborate
fantasy creations entirely in their heads.
And that's why in fantasy, books often come with a map.
George RR Martin was only a few chapters into the first book of his
fantasy sequence when he stopped writing
and began to sketch out his map.
This is Martin's original, hand-drawn design.
A bird's-eye view of Westeros.
With the map, he began to put a physical form on Westeros,
imposing the boundaries which shape the dynamics of his fictional arena.
The geography of the seven kingdoms determines their relationships
and their nature and, therefore, it's fair to say the map
drives the whole story.
Maps have become a kind of shorthand for fantasy.
The notion of a map is so important to Martin's story
that it was used for the title sequence in
the Game Of Thrones television series.
For Tolkien, maps were even more central to his fantasy.
He drew maps of his imaginary lands with his son, Christopher,
which were included in Lord Of The Rings.
He saw them as essential for understanding the story itself.
It's really from the maps in Lord Of The Rings that we get the
best sense of how Tolkien would create an entire world.
This one is of the bucolic Shire with its hobbits,
very much based on the West Midlands,
where Tolkien spent much of his childhood,
and with thoroughly English place names to match.
And here's a rather bigger map.
"The West of Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age."
And here Tolkien invents new names designed to conjure up a sense of
ancient, untold histories, such as
Dagorlad, the Battle Plain,
or the Lost Realm of Arnor.
The detail and sense of depth in Tolkien's world-building marked him
apart. There was a review on the original jacket of
The Lord Of The Rings that declared,
"No imaginary world has been projected which is at once as
"multifarious and so true to its inner laws."
Somewhat cheekily, this was the work of Tolkien's good friend,
the fellow Oxford Don and fantasy writer, CS Lewis.
The two men were members of the Inklings -
a club who met here at the Eagle and Child pub
to discuss medieval history and fantasy writing in a fug
of ale and tobacco smoke.
Lewis and Tolkien were like a pair of somewhat eccentric, academic
Toby jugs. They both thought the English syllabus should stop
with Geoffrey Chaucer to allow more time to study the early stuff.
Now, there were clearly problems with this.
It meant leaving out some half-decent writers,
like William Shakespeare,
but, for them, this was a price worth paying in order to marinate
themselves in everything from the
early sagas to the magical romances -
the old stories which gave them the tools for their own fiction.
But the two friends approached fantasy writing in diverging ways.
For Tolkien, there was an absolute boundary,
a complete wall between the fantasy world and the real world.
Over there, Middle Earth, here, planet Earth,
and nothing can get from one to the other.
For CS Lewis, there are portals.
There are openings between the world of fantasy and the world
the rest of us inhabit.
Lewis's Chronicles Of Narnia series begins with the story
of four evacuee children who walk through the back of a wardrobe
into a magical land.
The portal takes us to a world of winter - yes, more winter -
cruelly ruled over by a white witch,
where they meet the mighty lion, Aslan.
Lewis's use of portals allowed for the thought that the world of magic,
fantasy, if you like, the imagination,
is all around us, all the time.
It's only an incautious arm's length away.
The mundane and the magical are hugger-mugger.
Now, this is a simple idea,
but, thanks to Lewis, it has entered many modern minds.
But the portal wasn't just a way into a magical realm.
It transports the reader into a world that immerses them
in Lewis's deeper beliefs.
Lewis's Narnia is a glittering, vivid, crystalline world.
But below the level of talking beavers and fawns with umbrellas
and the White Queen doling out Turkish Delight,
there are messages most children,
frankly, probably miss, because this is a profoundly Christian parable.
Aslan the Lion sacrifices himself
to redeem Narnia from evil.
And, like the Christ, he dies and is reborn.
Lewis was a serious Christian and his beliefs brought
the motives of his fantasy into question.
Lewis's critics focused on who he would and would not
allow through his portals, because Narnia was really a place
for child adventurers only.
Inside it, you could grow to become a king or a queen,
but the human children were barred
as soon as they began to approach puberty.
Like many religious thinkers,
it seems that Lewis had a bit of a problem with sex.
In the final book, the Pevensies are all killed in the real world
and allowed into Narnia's equivalent of heaven.
All except for the eldest girl, Susan,
who is, rather ruthlessly, barred from paradise
because she developed an interest in
lipstick and invitations.
CS Lewis had a portal into a fantasy land of his own.
He wrote all of the Narnia books here in Oxford,
and it's difficult not to see this city itself
as a kind of portal between worlds.
The university whisked him away into a life of blissful, literary
indulgence, secluded from the outside world
and yet surrounded by like minds.
His own personal Narnia.
It's quite remarkable how many leading writers of fantasy
have passed through Oxford. Authors like Lewis himself, Lewis Carroll,
Tolkien, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper,
Diana Wynne Jones, Frances Hardinge,
Philip Pullman, and on and on.
It's as if this intellectual powerhouse of a city
has always needed a creative release,
and from Lewis Carroll to Tolkien,
from CS Lewis to Philip Pullman,
it's found it, again and again, in fantasy.
In crabbed, mazy, Gothic Oxford,
it can sometimes seem as if the medieval, myth-dazed mind
has never quite gone away and the entire modern world
is merely an impertinent interruption which the writers
of fantasy rightly, virtuously ignore.
The Oxford writers had picked up, among other things,
on the medieval fascination with magic.
In a sense, they were trying to
bring back a way of thinking throughout
Britain that was swept away by science.
Much of fantasy is an anti-Enlightenment project.
Fantasy is an otherworldly genre,
with ideas that can't be explained by everyday reason
or, indeed, the laws of physics.
There is magic at work, driving the impossible.
Magic is a spectrum of extremes.
For CS Lewis,
there were witches who could conjure up Turkish Delight
or impose icy winter.
In Tolkien's books, magic is a force of coercion.
And in a Game Of Thrones, it brings back characters from the dead.
It may seem odd now,
but before the age of the Enlightenment,
these mysterious forces were simply a part of everyday life.
Most people, for most of the time, firmly believed in magic,
in witches, in the pervasive power of evil, in little people,
hobgoblins and sprites and morally ambiguous elves.
People believed that charms and spells could influence reality
and the mythical creatures were found throughout the literature
of the times.
Magic was central to folklore.
Figures like elves and goblins weren't just imaginary beings -
they embodied human instincts and our most profound fears.
But after the Enlightenment, things changed.
The world of faerie was sanitised.
Storytelling seen only fit for children and classical scholars.
By the late Victorian and Edwardian period, it had all become
The Scottish writer Andrew Lang, for instance,
produced the Red Fairy Book, the Blue Fairy Book,
the Yellow Fairy Book, the Green Fairy Book and so on, ad nauseam,
full of little prettified nymphs.
They ceased to be dark and dangerous forces and instead became
flower sprites and enthusiastic shoemakers.
Since then, fantasy writers have reclaimed the potency of old magic
and folklore, tapping into a wellspring of ideas
with deeper meanings.
I'm meeting Alan Garner, a man who lets the dark magic back in,
breathing new life into folktale and legend
through stories like The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen,
a tale of goblins and witches and the search for a magic jewel.
More than anybody else,
you seem to locate your stories around folktales and folk stories.
are thought of as escapist,
but, in reality, they're not,
they're distilled metaphor and truth.
So you're working with a very high-octane fuel to begin with.
So, in simple terms, Alan,
what is it that folktales give us that other forms of fiction can't?
They give us three things.
The first thing that they give us
is the black, the second thing is the white,
so we have clear-cut stories which are not morality tales -
that's something that the Victorians are guilty of.
But they are folk wisdom.
And, along with it, they give a sense of wonder.
They release the imagination at the same time.
That is not a contradiction.
There are parallels here with religion in that sense,
because if there are clear rules and breaking those rules
would produce bad results,
and there's also a sense of praise, of wonder,
you've got the essence there of traditional religion as well.
..all partake of the same energies.
And that is not to belittle any of them.
They are very serious and, for me,
fundamental aspects of being alive.
Reclaiming the magical world of folktale and legend
is a driving force throughout fantasy fiction.
In the pages of fantasy, what we see is our own folkloric origins popping
up their little hands and saying, "Look, still here."
Plundering folktales is a good starting point for adventure.
But if you want to nail an epic fantasy, you need to look at how
the likes of Homer or the Norse sagas
actually structure their stories.
They call on a kind of ancient mythical storytelling template
that's come to be known as The Hero's Journey.
It's made up of features that are common to some of the oldest forms
of heroic storytelling in the world.
Mythologists spotted this structure and many Hollywood scriptwriters
still use it, whittling the quest down to
a popcorn-friendly 12 key stages.
Let's take a look at The Hobbit,
as reimagined by director Peter Jackson,
in one minute and six seconds.
Bilbo's ordinary world of the Shire is interrupted
by a call to adventure.
I am looking for someone to share in an adventure.
Which sounds an awful lot like certain death...
..so Bilbo tells them where to stick it.
But then his mentor gives him a pep talk.
Changing his mind, our hobbit
crosses the threshold into the unknown.
As his adventure unfolds, he meets allies and enemies,
facing tests on the way.
If Baggins loses, he eats it whole.
Bilbo then approaches the innermost cave.
Here, he faces the supreme ordeal, death by barbecue.
If still being a live hobbit wasn't enough of a reward,
Bilbo gets to keep some loot,
before taking the long road back to the Shire where, presumed dead,
his reappearance is a kind of a resurrection.
Can you prove it?
Finally home, perhaps wondering how such a short story was stretched
into three films, Bilbo has returned with the elixir.
In his case, the experience of a lifetime and a magic ring.
Of course, The Hobbit was only a sample of Middle Earth,
a try-out for a much grander scale of quest adventure
in The Lord Of The Rings.
Tolkien was creating mythical worlds,
but what people forget is that he was a writer like any other,
operating in the present, in his own times.
I've been rereading Lord Of The Rings recently
and it's ever clearer to me that
this is a book which comes out of the
British experience of war in the 20th century.
Tolkien himself had served in the trenches in the First War,
and you can see echoes of that throughout the book.
But, more important still,
it was actually written during the Second War at a time of rationing,
and I think you can see the lusts and desires of the British people,
half-starved, in all of those scenes where Tolkien
lavishes attention on beautifully creamy cream,
thick, lush cheese,
perfectly white bread and good beer.
This is what the British were fantasising about in the 1940s.
Furthermore, of course, the Hobbits themselves - pacific, gentle,
slow to anger but very fierce when they do -
that's how the English, in particular,
thought of themselves in the 20th century.
MUSIC: Somebody To Love by Jefferson Airplane
But, as Tolkien became a more worldwide phenomenon,
these very English roots were lost on his new readers.
In the 1960s, Tolkien's book was pirated in America,
becoming immensely successful.
He was embraced by a new generation of readers with little sense of
where his work had come from.
The Lord Of The Rings, rather oddly,
became a bible for the American counterculture.
His new fans even looked a bit hobbity.
But it turned out that one man's magic ring was another man's
atom bomb, because in the 1960s,
Tolkien completely and comprehensively lost control
of the meaning of his book.
For younger American readers at the height of the counterculture,
this was a story, a parable of the small guy against the big guy,
ordinary folk against the man and the machine.
Now, you might think that hobbits make rather unlikely
New Left revolutionaries, and you might be right.
But so it was. The readers had grabbed control of the story.
As reader demand soared,
publishers rushed to print anything with wizards and dragons in it.
Fantasy became a genre.
And with this new appetite for the fantastical came new writers.
One author, a woman from the west coast of America,
began to write books that would bring the Old World stories
of fantasy into the New World.
She was the first fantasy writer I fell in love with.
Ursula Le Guin published the opening book in her Earthsea series called
A Wizard Of Earthsea.
Growing up in California,
Le Guin read myths and stories from Native American culture as well as
classical history. Her writing was far less rooted in northern European
traditions than British fantasies had been.
Fantasy evolved very fast.
The old ideas quickly became cliches,
and although Le Guin was a great admirer of Tolkien,
she was also determined to subvert him.
Le Guin looked at the notion of wizards,
a typical Merlin or Gandalf type -
elderly and bearded.
She wondered what they were like
when they were younger and how they'd learned
their dangerous skills.
The result was Ged, a young farmhand who is packed off,
Harry Potter-like, to wizarding school.
Le Guin considered that being an American writer
rather than a European one,
she should challenge the previously Aryan tendency in fantasy writing.
So it slowly becomes apparent in A Wizard Of Earthsea that
most of the characters, including the hero, Ged,
are in fact brown-skinned.
And when Aryan Nordic Norse types appear, they're not as heroes,
but thuggish semi-Vikings.
Whilst giving a nod to the fantasy works she had eagerly lapped up
as a reader, Le Guin was taking fantasy her own way.
She even did evil differently.
Ged's enemy is a demonic shadow
generated by his attempt to show off by raising the dead.
Gradually, Ged realises that it is his own shadow,
a darkness he must accept as part of his own nature
before it can be defeated.
At the heart of Le Guin's Earthsea is the notion that fantasy is the
language of the inner self.
It's a book much more marked by the Californian counterculture than by
Oxford philology and medievalism.
It's more in spirit tie-dyed cotton
than good, old-fashioned, sturdy tweed.
And in Ged's adventures, we see him move from boyhood to manhood,
correcting his mistakes as he goes.
This is a meditation on the nature of childhood itself.
There's something quite special about fantasy fiction's place
in our childhood.
From Alice In Wonderland to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials,
Five Children And It to The Hobbit,
many of the greatest books for the young are thoroughly fantastical.
Reading these kinds of stories as a child is a joy.
A simple suspension of disbelief and we are sent off on adventures
we will never forget,
partly because they're all so dark.
These are tales that help us to navigate the adult world through the
playground of our imaginations,
staying with us long after we read them.
And this tradition is alive and well.
2015's Costa Book Award winner was Francis Hardinge with The Lie Tree.
'I asked Francis why fantasy is so popular a genre with children.'
I think, certainly for a child, fantasy is quite empowering.
It's a domain where the usual rules don't apply.
I mean, in some cases,
it's out-and-out obviously subversive.
If you look at Alice In Wonderland,
pretty much everything there is a deconstruction of a lot of the
moralising literature that children were being given at that time,
and if there's a message to the whole thing it's,
"If there's an adult in front of you who seems to be talking rubbish,
"they're probably talking rubbish."
But it's a way in which the children can escape from a lot of their usual
adult, parent-dominated, etc, structures,
and escape into a world of adventure and danger.
Francis, in fantasy novels, you find that the protagonists,
the hero or the heroine, is a child.
Why is it that they make such good central characters for these books,
do you think?
Certainly from the point of view of a writer,
it makes introducing the reader to an entire new world easier if,
basically, you have a character who is discovering it at the same time.
That's quite a useful protagonist
for readers of any age to be reading.
I think it's useful for adult readers
as well as younger readers to be recapturing that sense of discovery,
that sense of breaking down one's earlier assumptions
about how the world works and one's place in it.
It's like Matisse.
We must see the world through the eyes of children.
Yes. Also, they make great underdogs.
There is very often a really dark streak in fantasy novels.
There is real evil. There is death.
For children, why is that?
The children know about evil, they know about ugliness,
they know about this element of the world,
the baby has known the Dragon intimately
since it had an imagination.
What we are setting up is a narrative
where those evils are contended with.
Children are not stupid.
They do see the darkness that's already in the world
and they experience intense emotions
that we might wish to believe that they don't.
My sixth book, Cuckoo Song,
focuses upon a child monster...
..and puts the reader in an uncomfortable position
of sympathising with someone
who is experiencing frightening compulsions, self-hate,
self distrust and the sort of savagery that can go
with terror and desperation.
We are all emotionally monstrous sometimes,
and a literal monstrosity, whatever our age,
can be a powerful way of showing that.
There you have it. Children are at the heart of this genre.
And we haven't even mentioned JK Rowling.
Now we have.
Rowling's Harry Potter series are some of the bestselling books
of all time.
Her mashup recipe of boarding school adventure,
mystery and magic has held millions of readers spellbound.
In many ways, it is the ultimate rite of passage sequence.
But although Rowling was writing for children,
her books were equally loved by an enormous number of adults.
Perhaps only fantasy bridges across the generations like this.
Philip Pullman's books also had this generational crossover.
Although quite clearly written for younger readers,
they explore some complex, adult and contemporary themes.
These are books with grand ambitions.
Pullman's His Dark Materials
is a remarkable polemic against organised religion.
In a story that spans alternative Oxford to the Northern Lights of the
Arctic and beyond, two young protagonists,
Lyra and Will are pitted against the evil Magisterium -
a kind of fantasy theocracy.
The Magisterium is obsessed with control of science and society and
anything which threatens their pre-eminent status and power.
When the scientist, Lord Asriel,
begins to investigate a mysterious substance
called dust, the Magisterium
is determined to repress its meaning.
Now, dust is Philip Pullman's fantasy creation,
but he uses it with deadly seriousness
for relatively aggressive criticism of Christian doctrine.
Dust seems to be the fictional equivalent
of Christianity's original sin.
In life, we accumulate sinfulness as we grow older, and particularly with
the arrival of puberty and sexuality.
But for Pullman,
although most of his heroes and heroines are children,
this is an entirely natural process.
Sexuality may bring heartbreak, but it isn't evil.
There is absolutely no idealisation
of childhood innocence going on here.
Pullman's work is unmistakably a direct counter,
a rebuke to CS Lewis's Chronicles Of Narnia.
Pullman's Dark Materials books are much enjoyed by young adults and by
children, but adult readers can't fail to notice the crunchy intensity
of big ideas inside these books.
Pullman's reflections cover everything from the nature
of the Industrial Revolution to Renaissance architecture,
the true achievement of John Milton in Paradise Lost, and much more
besides. Now, Pullman is anything but a Christian.
He loathed CS Lewis. But, like many fantasy writers,
he has a bit of a soft spot for a half-decent pulpit.
An author's themes don't come much bigger or more abstract
than religion and belief.
But there is nothing fantasy writers love more than creating
their own gods.
In Neil Gaiman's fantasy classic American Gods,
he conjures up a whole pantheon of deities,
but not quite as you might imagine.
This is a brilliantly funny and highly subversive fantasy set in
It starts as a classic American road trip in the slightly surreal style
of Jack Kerouac.
But this is really a book about belief in the modern age or,
to put it another way,
who or what these days do you and I really worship?
The story sees a collection of gods from the ancient world,
lost and bewildered deities hardly anyone believes in any more,
who were brought over to America by waves of settlers through the
centuries, pitted against the new gods of American life.
These new deities are created by the power of modern desire,
setting the stage for a cataclysmic showdown.
Religions are the great intangibles.
They operate on faith. They cannot be inspected.
They don't operate quite in our world
except that we believe in them and act as if they do.
So in the world of American Gods,
what I tried to do was just take it very literally,
say gods are as important as they are believed in.
It's about the idea that every culture that has come to America...
..has abandoned the folk beliefs and the gods they brought with them
and now they are exiled to the edges.
And, at the same time, we have new gods.
We will have the gods that have come in to take up the areas of belief,
the areas of time, that people used to donate to their religion.
Right now they're giving to their iPhones.
You know, 20 years ago they were giving to their televisions.
And it gave me a beautiful metaphor.
It gave me old versus new.
It gave me different kinds of belief.
So I tried to write about what it would mean to be a god right now,
what it would mean to be driven by belief.
There are new gods growing in America,
clinging to growing knots of belief.
Gods of credit card and freeway, of internet and telephone,
of radio and hospital and television.
Gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon.
fat and foolish creatures puffed up with their own newness
One of the most important things fantasy is for...
..is for making metaphors concrete.
Just for making them solid
and allowing you to look at the things that are intangible.
You're taking a fantastical idea and you're taking it seriously.
And... But you're also allowing it to comment on the world in a way
that you can't
in a more mainstream, more mimetic novel.
These, it seems to me,
are real modern gods, and the modern is very important because there's a
challenge issued to fantasy by every critic of these books -
"What about real life?"
It may be a surprise to them,
but examining the trials and tribulations
of the everyday world is where fantasy is at its strongest.
The modern master of using fantasy to hold a mirror up to humanity
was Sir Terry Pratchett,
whose Discworld was a flat planet resting on the backs
of four elephants standing on a giant turtle.
And yet the inhabitants of Discworld share many similarities
with those of us who frolic around on this little blue ball.
His recipe of humour,
wordplay and insightful observation proved a runaway success in fantasy,
and in the 1990s,
he was the bestselling British author in any genre.
Rob Wilkins worked with Terry Pratchett for two decades,
and he has a unique perspective on the way he wrote.
He said that he had a pack rat mentality.
And by that, the only way I can describe it is saying
he had a mind like a vacuum cleaner
and he would absorb things and suck things up from everywhere.
And it wasn't until we sat back down at the keyboard that you
realised that he had done that.
Just a certain inflection in somebody's voice,
a little personality trait, something that they did,
he would pull all of that in.
So he would pull in the small things,
all the way through to the railways, to the post office,
to the banking system, to newspapers.
There was nothing that Terry wouldn't look at.
He could filter ideas until the atom of what he wanted was remaining.
At first, Discworld was an affectionate mickey take
of the more pompous side of the fantasy genre.
But Pratchett's imagination soon took another turn
towards the foibles of the rest of us.
By the time we got to book four,
by the time we get to Mort, something happened.
There were ideas that he knew he could play with,
and Death was suddenly
going to be a main character.
And suddenly Discworld became a mirror of our own world.
In Mort, Death experiences the delights
of an employment agency interview.
"And what was your previous position?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"What did you do for a living?"
Said the thin young man behind the desk.
The figure opposite him shifted uneasily.
"I ushered souls into the next world.
"I was the grave of all hope.
"I was the ultimate reality.
"I was the assassin against whom no lock would hold."
"Yes, point taken.
"But do you have any particular skills?"
Death thought about it.
"I suppose a certain amount of expertise
"with agricultural implements,"
he ventured after a while.
The young man shook his head firmly.
Pratchett said that fantasy isn't just about wizards and silly wands.
It's about seeing the world from new directions.
And his books proved fantasy could tackle life
at either end of the scale,
from the most weighty issues of the day
to the more everyday and mundane.
Each book would deal with something new.
Jingo, it's world issues.
It's the Middle East, it's everything else,
and you can paint on what you want.
With Snuff, it's about slavery and enslaving the goblins.
Unseen Academicals, it's football.
This is one football team against another football team.
Another part of town against another part of town.
And we all know what that feels like.
He crashed the banking system in Ankh-Morpork
and then our own banking system went
down, and Terry was accused of having some sort of foresight
into seeing into the future, and he did it multiple times as well.
He said, "Do you know what? I just make this stuff up.
"I can see the way it's going. There's no magic in that."
Like all great satirists,
Pratchett had a keen eye for dangerous ideas
and a long nose for the pompous and the absurd.
Above all, however, he simply understood people.
Discworld might be about as fantastical a setting as it gets,
but Pratchett's stories are essentially about everyday life.
He felt that people were basically the same,
whether they inhabited a magical planet
populated by dragons and wizards,
or a small town off the M6 populated by cribbage enthusiasts
and insurance salesman.
Fantasy novels come in all shapes and sizes,
but I have noticed one thing they all share
is a sense of a lost world,
that the glory days are over.
Beneath the surface of adventure and peril is a strand of deep,
In fantasy, the fictional realm is in a state of decline.
There is something wrong.
Magic is leaving the world and the old order is fading away.
It's shown as a form of existential threat to the fantasy world's
very existence, and even has an academic name - thinning.
Thinning is integral to fantasy,
from the most obscure works to the most celebrated.
The unfortunate inhabitants of Westeros
meet it on multiple fronts
in George RR Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire.
A decades-long winter is setting in and the army of the dead,
led by the nightmarish White Walkers, is on its way.
Yes, there are dragons to fight back,
but there's only three of them left.
Thinning is the slipping away of the other world's unique fantasy
essence. It is the slow dying of the magic.
And in the context of a fantasy novel,
that is about the worst possible thing that can happen.
Everywhere you look, you will find impossible worlds raging against
the dying of the light.
A flame...thinning to nothing.
At the end of Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings,
even a victory against the Dark Lord Sauron
can't stop the flight of the elves from Middle Earth.
In Le Guin's Earthsea series, the magic is draining away
from the fantasy realm, sucked out by an evil wizard.
Even Lewis's Narnia is in decline -
its citizens turn to stone and locked into perpetual winter
with no more human kings and queens to keep evil at bay.
It's an idea that reflects worry
about where our own world is heading.
It also provides the story with a remorseless narrative drive,
one that propels the imaginary realm towards the edge of the abyss.
But the effects of thinning on the genre go beyond the story itself.
There's a kind of moral thinning going on in fantasy,
an idea modern writers have greedily seized
as they blur the lines between good and evil.
It used to be that at the end of a fantasy story
there would be a battle
between the clearly defined forces of good on the one side...
..evil on the other.
In the battle, good would always triumph against suicidal odds, and
everything was neatly resolved.
But in these less morally sure-footed times,
a different approach has emerged.
Modern fantasy deliberately muddies distinctions between good and evil.
I wanted to ask a writer who works in this distinctly post-moral school
of fantasy exactly what's going on.
Joe Abercrombie is a New York Times bestselling author.
His are classical fantastical worlds brimming with moral ambiguity.
We seem to be living in a time that's gone beyond
simple narrative stories
about good versus evil, where one great battle will solve everything.
You build up to the final fight and then it's over.
Mm. It's a muddier world these days, perhaps.
And maybe it was that, in the shadow of the Second World War
and during the Cold War,
it was easier to believe in that good versus evil narrative,
or it seemed to fit reality a little bit better.
I think we're used to living in a world where we see both sides
of every story, we're used to thinking of a moral relativism,
if you like, where good and evil are about where you stand.
And so, these days, I think,
you know, these big epochal battles
after which everything will be changed
don't really seem to ring quite so true.
I suppose, to me, our own world has always seemed much more ambiguous.
Right and wrong are a question of where you stand.
People are very rarely utterly evil or utterly good in any real sense,
and so I wanted to reflect that.
I think, as well, fantasy fiction often has these very strong
stereotypes - a goodly wizard who perhaps is a little mysterious
but you accept has the good of the world at heart.
And I was interested in probing at that idea a little bit
and taking some of those stereotypes from which we expect a certain thing
and delivering something slightly different.
So would an immortal wizard really have everyone's best interests
at heart or would he only pretend to while serving his own agenda?
Might be a bit of a dastard deep down.
Well, exactly. He certainly might not,
after living for thousands of years and having these huge powers,
he might not regard the little people
as anything to worry too much about.
Putting good and evil on the same footing is certainly
George RR Martin's thing.
In his work, just like in our own political world,
there is no reward for doing the right thing,
and ruthlessness often wins the day.
The scale of Martin's canvas allows us to experience moral grime
at a new level.
This is our dirty old world but simply stretched.
Without the shackles of realism,
Martin is able to explore the nature of the state,
morality and power politics.
But it's the consequences of the Game Of Thrones itself
that shows the story
at its most poignant and relevant to our world.
There is a feeling that order is breaking down in a way
that we have seen happen in modern times,
returning us to a state of barbarism.
As Westeros becomes a failed state,
we don't only see the power play at the top, we see the consequences
visited on the rest of society through a young girl, Arya Stark,
who is forced to wander through shattered societies.
Through her eyes, we understand that the mental coarseness
and failure of the rulers
ends up as butchery of the innocent and defenceless.
You shouldn't be sitting out here like this.
Where else to sit?
Tried to walk back to me hut...
It hurt too much.
Then I remembered they burned my hut down.
Who were they?
I stopped asking a while ago.
Playing with good and evil allows A Song Of Ice And Fire
to explore ideas that resonate with our own times.
Themes as scary as any Targaryen dragons.
In the end, what the rules of fantasy deliver
isn't just memorably rich fictional worlds uniquely their own.
Every reader of fantasy fiction stretches out their hands
and does a deal with the author.
We get a ripping yarn, but in return,
by entering their worlds, we expose ourselves to their deepest beliefs.
Whether it's Tolkien and the essence of Englishness and war
or CS Lewis and his profound Christian faith...
..whether it's Le Guin musing over identity
or Hardinge on the agonies of growing up,
whether it's Gaiman and Pullman talking about consumerism and
the dangers of organised religion...
..or whether it's George Martin picking apart the perils of power
We may think of them simply as the purveyors of a jolly good read,
I prefer to think of them
as the Gothic philosophers of the modern age.
How strange is your imagination?
Have a go at creating your own perfect fantasy
and writing fiction.
Head to the BBC website on screen and follow the links
to the Open University.
Next time, I slip off to the covert world of the British spy novelist.
What exactly are the rules of intrigue, betrayal and deception?
What is it about stories of magic, epic adventure, and imaginary worlds that has turned fantasy fiction into one of the world's most popular forms of storytelling, regularly filling the bestseller lists and entrancing adults and children alike?
In the second episode of his series that deconstructs the books we (really) read, Andrew Marr argues that these stories are filled with big ideas. Yes, there may be wizards with pointy hats as well as the odd dragon, but what fantasy novels are really good at is allowing us to see our own world in a surprising way, albeit through a twisted gothic filter.
The current leading exponent of fantasy fiction is a bearded Texan, George RR Martin, whose A Game of Thrones began a bookshelf-buckling series of novels, and spawned a vast TV empire. But Andrew reminds us that this is a genre whose origins are British, and at its heart is still a quest to reconnect readers with the ancient ideas and folk beliefs of the world before the Enlightenment.
Andrew breaks down fantasy books into a set of conventions that govern the modern genre - he looks at the intricacy with which imaginary worlds are built (as seen in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series), the use of portals that are able to bridge this world and another (most famously, the wardrobe in CS Lewis's Narnia books), as well the concept of 'thinning' - these novels are typically set in a world in decline. In fantasy fiction, winter is always coming.
To help him understand these books, Andrew meets bestselling fantasy writers and the programme includes interviews with Neil Gaiman, Alan Garner and Frances Hardinge.
As well as profiling key figures such as CS Lewis and Sir Terry Pratchett, Andrew considers the spell that medieval Oxford has cast on generations of authors from Lewis Carroll to Philip Pullman. And he gets to grips with the legacy of JRR Tolkien, a figure so important that his influence pops up everywhere 'like Mount Fuji in Japanese prints', according to Pratchett. Tolkien's predominance would not go unchallenged, and Andrew shows how writers like Ursula K Le Guin confronted Tolkien's rather European notions of what an imaginary world should be.