I want to talk about a trend I’m seeing in fantasy of late: No one takes it seriously for what it is. That’s a weird thing to say for me, because for as long as I can remember, fantasy has been perceived as a thing for slackers, goofballs, and dreamers. People for whom reality is just a chore, and the stereotype is that they spend much of their free time pretending to be a knight or an elf or a princess. But for me–and for many of the fans who love “old school” fantasy, it never was that. Fantasy is a place of complex character dynamics and intertwined plots. Of forces beyond human control vying for supremacy and proving that even the most insignificant among us can make something better, even if only for a few.
And then there’s the new Willow.
Let’s talk about Willow
I have genuinely enjoyed the new Willow so far, but I don’t know that I think it’s a good show. It has the same problem that the first installment of the Hobbit trilogy had. There are moments that speak to the core of me and draw on everything I love from fantasy. Bilbo Baggins runs head-first into fire and danger to defend Thorin Oakenshield despite everything, knowing he’ll die but unable to abandon someone he so admires. Kit defiantly insists she’s going after her brother whether her mother wants her to or not because that’s her family and family is everything.
But right before Bilbo saved Thorin, The Hobbit spent an entirely too long scene as a silly 1980’s side-scroller video game in the goblin tunnels. And when Kit is desperately trying to find her father, save her brother, and find a way to believe in the woman who’s going to save the world, we take a random detour to have a fist fight with no stakes that pops up out of nowhere and no one cares. No trolls show up in the middle of the fight to bring them to their senses. Willow himself just kind of shrugs. It’s comic relief of the worst kind: The kind that assumes no one actually cares what’s going on. The point of comic relief is to break the tension and give the audience a break, but this comic relief breaks the entire story. Nothing really matters anymore because, if something gets too serious, we’ll just pause for a random aside with some silly antics and then we’ll move on. Often everything is magically fine again afterward.
This is deeply infuriating to me, because I so love the good moments that I can’t just ignore the bad, weird, or random moments. Instead, they take something exceptional and tear it to pieces and I just want to shout at my screen for the writers to care about what they’re making, dammit! And yet, I enjoyed both The Hobbit and the new Willow. I rewatch The Hobbit somewhat regularly, and I’m interested to see where the new Willow goes, pretty impatiently awaiting the next episode’s release.
Nettle & Bone
This is actually similar to my opinion on a newly released book called Nettle & Bone that I recently read for a book club. I don’t feel like it’s well written from a story construction perspective–I make that distinction because each individual scene is exceptional–but it is a very, very fun book. I am having a lot of fun with this book, but I don’t actually care about any of the characters.
Nettle & Bone is a fairy tale retelling about a princess who goes on a quest to murder her sister’s husband because he’s an abusive spouse, and it has some really interesting potential. It completely ignores all of it. Instead, the entire book is an endless string of quippy one-liners and the MC feeling shocked, confused, scared, horrified, or some combination of those emotions. It is astoundingly shallow, and somehow delightful.
But it feels like a movie trailer.
Surely there is more to this still coming, right? Not so far as I can tell, and that is the thing that infuriates me about it. It feels like this author–who is clearly extraordinarily talented at writing because, as I said, each individual scene is exceptional–just didn’t care about writing a complete book. Now, I don’t believe that of the author, mostly because of what I know about the author world and how difficult it can be to craft the story you want others to see. I think this author was going for a light-hearted retelling that had a unique flavor all its own and still kept the feel of a fairy tale. The problem is that it feels too much like a fairy tale in all the wrong ways.
Instead of feeling wondrous and heavy with meaning, if feels shallow and uncertain what elements are truly important. As pointed out by my book club, the author didn’t even name the three primary kingdoms. Just “the Northern Kingdom”, “the Harbor Kingdom”, and “the Southern Kingdom.” That’s perfectly common in fairy tales, but it adds to the shallowness that steals so much of the potential of this book.
This book could have been great. Not just entertaining, but truly, deeply amazing, rewriting the way that we as a reading audience view story-telling. The author has that skill. Instead, this is the Bullet Train of fairy tale retellings. It’s not good, really, but it was pretty fun.
Make Fantasy Real Again
I’m not actually posting this to complain about The Hobbit, or the new Willow, or Nettle & Bone, all of which I enjoyed. And I’m definitely not here to point fingers at any of the other TV shows that have come out recently that have taken this problem to much worse extremes. Those I didn’t even enjoy, and most of them I couldn’t finish. My point is simply to say this.
I want my fantasy back.
I want the real stuff, where characters dealt with difficult problems and struggled against them, sometimes failing because of their own flaws and often being forced to live with the regret of the things they couldn’t change.
Don’t take that to mean that I think all fantasy should be a Game of Thrones clone, where the world is brutal and one minor error can cause you to be murdered unceremoniously (I did also enjoy the Game of Thrones TV show….until no one cared anymore). I want absolutely nothing to do with gore for the sake of gore like we saw in The Boys.
I’m talking about Lord of the Rings–the real one made by Peter Jackson before he was forced to bleed the franchise dry. I’m talking about Wheel of Time–the books, where Matt was a deeply traumatized person struggling to control the corruption that had gained power within him, Perrin was haunted by the terrifying wolf dreams he didn’t understand and had to go on a quest to control them, Thom mattered like, at all, and the story of Egwene and Ninaeve was about them deciding who they wanted to be, not deciding which men they wanted to fall over.
I grew up on fantasy that had something to say, not because someone somewhere was trying to shove a message into that fantasy, but because the people in those stories were deeply flawed and their challenges came as much from themselves as from the world beyond. Those are the stories I loved, and those are the stories I miss. I’m trying to write those stories and I know I’m not the only one. But I sure do miss that little stretch of time where the world took us seriously, and the stories we loved were treated with respect.