What a remarkable year this has been. It is quite literally the last year in the millennium, and not only are we seeing the return of mythical fantasy to the screen (in the form of the recently released Dungeons and Dragons movie), but we can also gaze at the maturity of fantasy in the computer game market, with Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate II, and Diablo II.
(Note for the trivia buffs: yes, this is the last year of the millennium. 2000 was simply the year that all of our computers threatened to explode, and watched us run around like ants while laughing their electronic heads off. Computers, 1; human race, zilch.)
If there is a genre that epitomizes the twentieth century, it is fantasy. While science fiction began its maturity in the nineteenth century, with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, fantasy only began to raise its head as a genre in and of itself in the 1920s and ‘30s. We owe a lot to those early pioneers from Weird Tales. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian would have fit perfectly into the Diablo world, and the ancient monstrosities of H.P. Lovecraft still fill our nightmares. Come to think of it, Diablo II does remind me of a Robert E. Howard story…you don’t suppose Blizzard has some hidden, ancient files from the late ‘30s, do you?
(Okay, my dear readers, I have a recommendation for you. If you go to your local bookstore, you should be able to buy or order a book titled The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft, published by Del Rey. If you read nothing else in that collection, read “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.” It will send you places you’ve never thought imaginable, and you’ll never think of dreams in the same way again.)
The man who brought fantasy to its fruition, however, is the man who remains the grand-master: a professor at Oxford named J.R.R. Tolkien. He didn’t just write a story when he spent a decade composing The Lord of the Rings, he wrote literature. He single handedly turned a literary curiosity into a genre. Naturally, the critics hated him for it; they couldn’t figure out what The Lord of the Rings was, much less what they were supposed to do with it (I could make a suggestion to them, but it would be too impolite for print; this is a family-rated column, after all).
Tolkien’s legacy has been both a blessing and a curse. The fantasy genre exploded with activity, and most of it was crap. Let’s face it: Dungeons and Dragons is nice, but with the exception of some of the more recent stuff (such as Planescape), you could drop the characters and races into Middle-earth and nobody would notice a difference.
And yet…in the midst of the Tolkien imitators, who seemed to reproduce by fission, there were a few bright lights. People like Raymond E. Feist, Andre Norton, Dennis McKiernan, David Gemmell, Tad Williams, and most recently George R.R. Martin. Authors who were dedicated not only to telling a really good story, but using it to take them somewhere new in the genre. These are the authors with staying power, the visionaries who will help the genre survive into the next century and beyond.
I wish I could say the same for television and film. Unfortunately, I can’t. Where in literature the visionaries can control their content (even with Demonsbane I had near-complete creative control, and that is as media-tie-in as one gets), when it comes to Hollywood, the shots are called by bureaucrats, most of whom would not recognize good fantasy if it came up and decapitated them.
Want proof? Go to your local library and find a book titled The Essential Ellison; in it you will find a 1973 article on page 691 named “Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas, Toto,” which describes in horrifying detail just how bad it is. Look at Independence Day, Virus, Conan the Adventurer, most of Xena: Warrior Princess (I make an exception for one or two episodes, which were actually good), and you’ll see that absolutely nothing has changed.
(Wistful remembrance: once upon a time, there was a series called Roar. It was based on Irish myth, featured Heath Ledger as the hero, and was one of the best fantasy series I had ever seen. It lasted all of one summer before the Hollywood moguls killed it. I would give my eye-teeth to bring it back.)
But, there is hope. Peter Jackson will be inaugurating the new millennium with The Lord of the Rings, featuring Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf. In this case, there’s a good director with good source material; hopefully, it will do for film what the book did for literature.
Computer games, however, are a different story. For some strange reason, most fantasy games have actually managed to maintain a high level of story quality. Perhaps the corporations behind the games have executives who know what they are doing, or perhaps it is just a fluke. Who knows? It is a gift-horse, and if we look it in the mouth too many times, it might vanish.
Still, one can look at the Diablo II storyline, and be enthralled. The world is so well developed that it translates easily into literature (I can say this with authority, as I have a copy of the world bible), and the plot is exquisite. Finally, with Diablo II, the world of Sanctuary has become a living world, complete with wildlife.
I think that is what makes computer games special. With a computer game, you can truly bring a world to life. If you play Baldur’s Gate, for example, you get the sense that the characters you left in the town as you continued on your journey actually had lives to live. However, where a novel can describe a world and characters in more detail, a game allows the player to explore where s/he wants. It might not be literary depth, but it is depth, all the same. And depth, regardless of if it is literary, philosophical, or from a good design, is what makes for mature fantasy.
And thus I come full circle in my rambling thoughts. I would like close by welcoming all of you, my dear readers, into this third, and extremely promising, millennium. May it take you to new places beyond your imagination.
Next issue: Walking with the Dead, in which the author sees dead people.
Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.