So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
– Genesis 3:24
To recap, this series is examining what C. S. Lewis called the “Medieval Model,” a view of man and the universe that formed during the Middle Ages and Renaissance as described in his book “The Discarded Image.” I’m contrasting the elements of this model that one sees in the High Fantasy works of Tolkien and Lewis with the literary sub-genre that is its literary mirror image, Hard Sci-Fi.
High Fantasy and the Medieval Model
Part Two: Advanced Future vs. Golden Past
Copyright 2012 William R. McGrath
Two things occurred of great importance during the early Middle Ages that affected the literature of Europe for centuries to come: the fall of an empire and the rise of a religion.
The Roman Empire fell during the 5th century, an empire that had lasted for over a thousand years. Rome, despite the brutality of the Colosseum and the cruelty of an economy based on conquest and slavery had worthwhile elements that were lost after its fall and which writers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance envied. Rome had roads that spanned its great empire, elegant buildings made of hydraulic-setting cement (the secret of which was not regained until the 19th century), a well organized central government and a literate citizenry. (1)
From the end of Roman persecution of Christianity in the 4th century until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, there was what many in later times would consider the golden age of Christianity. This is when Christianity spread beyond it’s origins in the Holy Land into most of Western Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. This was when early church fathers wrote foundational books on doctrine such as Augustine’s City of God. An age when monasteries were started throughout Europe (and their schools and universities which preserved the literature of the Roman world). Renaissance writers saw this as a period largely free from the corruption that developed in the more powerful church of their own era. One feels in the literature of the Renaissance a nostalgia for much of the classical world; the stability of Roman civil government, Roman oratory and Greek literary arts as well as the piety of the early Christian church. This nostalgia shows itself in the literature of that time with plot lines that contain a golden age of long ago. They would have learned this concept first of course from their Bibles, with the account of Eden and unfallen man. Of patriarchs with lifespans measured in centuries, of strong men like Samson and wise kings like Solomon.
Turning now to Hard Sci-Fi, we find a focus on the future, and one not necessarily better or brighter, but one that is almost always more technologically advanced. Hard Sci-Fi looks forward. Science fiction is about, let’s face it, science. In High Fantasy, it is the past that holds a golden age, an Eden, and it is mankind and his works which have declined since then. We can call this difference in world views Evolution vs. Devolution (remember, it is Hard Sci-Fi we are looking at – not dystopian tales such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 or 1984). In Hard Sci-Fi the world of the story represents the current point of an evolution upward: human society at the time of the story is at its most advanced. In High Fantasy stories the world has devolved from a better time and has grown less.
In older stories from the classical world it is the physical fall of man that is emphasized. The heroes of the Iliad throw huge stones to great effect at the enemy; each stone of such a size that the poet Homer says would take two or three men of his own time to even lift. In the Odyssey, Odysseus, returns home after twenty years from the Trojan War (and a rather eventful journey back) and, disguised as an old beggar, draws and shoots a bow that none of the young men in the room can bend. Nestor, the oldest of the Greek warriors at the siege of Troy (it was said that he had lived for three generations of men), states that in his youth he fought “single-handed against such men as no mortal now alive on the earth could do battle.”
This doctrine that the older generation was stronger than the younger was so deeply held in Greek heroic literature that the reverse was taken as a thing both extraordinary and dangerous. Thus Zeus and Poseidon both end their courtship of the goddess Thetis when an oracle reveals that whoever she weds, her son would grow to be stronger than his father. Therefore Thetis was sent to marry a mortal and see her son doomed to a short, mortal life. Achilles was the result. This mortal fate was why Thetis dipped the newborn Achilles into the River Styx, which made his skin impervious to all weapons. Unfortunately, she forgot to dip the heel she held him by, and, well you know the rest.
When Christianity rose to prominence in Europe, this decline of man in stories became spiritual as well as physical. In Arthurian tales of the late middle ages and Renaissance, good knights like Gawain and Percival receive as much praise from the troubadours for their morality as for their fighting ability. True knights in the old tales had a pure heart as well as a strong arm.
We see this devolutionary view of history in modern fantasy stories as well. When old Ben (Obi Wan) Kenobi first meets Luke Skywalker and showed him his father’s Lightsaber (a relic from the “Old Republic”), he described it as “An elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.” When he did this the old Jedi put Star Wars firmly in the fantasy camp: though you should have known this already from the opening credits, as the events take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
This longing for things past is echoed in fantasy stories by a respect for the old. Old people, old books and ancient weapons are treated with respect in most fantasy stories. Old people especially will appear far more often as powerful characters (both good and bad) in fantasy tales then they will in sci-fi stories. In fantasy you have Tolkien’s Gandalf and Saruman, Rowling’s Dumbeldore and Professor Mcgonagall, Lewis’ Merlin and Grace Ironwood. Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn (80 years of age when we meet him in LOTR) echoes strongly of this respect:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
When an old man is addressed in a fantasy story he is often called “father” or “grandfather” as a sign of respect (at least by the good guys). In modern tales it is often “Hey Pops” and the tone is not respectful at all. Parents in general are treated with much more respect in fantasy tales than in most modern tales in general. (This is even true of the bad guys. The parents of Slitheryn House may be evil, but none of them are the weak, silly fools that are the parents and old people one sees so often in modern fiction, especially from Hollywood).
Both Tolkien’s and Lewis’ works have characters looking back, towards times greater and more wondrous than the time of the story. When someone or something both good and powerful enters into the tale it is often a remnant or representative of this lost golden age that is brought into the time of the story.
There is usually an implied backstory in good fantasy tales that suggests a long history before the story we see begins. Rowling’s Hogwarts is a very ancient place started by four wizards of Merlins time. The Sorns in Out of the Silent Planet show Ransom a petrified forest with ancient fossils from a time when the entire surface of Mars was habitable, not just its green, valley-like Handramit. Merlin, in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is described as more than an old druid who came into the 20th century from King Arthur’s time: rather he represents a remnant of a far more ancient race that survived into Arthur’s era; survivors of a land we would call Atlantis and Lewis’s friend Tolkien would call Numenor.
Tolkien’s own history of course is “The Silmarillion,” a tale that spans from before the world was made until long after then events of The Lord of the Rings have reached their conclusion. The Lord of the Rings gets its depth from The Silmarillion, for, while we only get scattered glimpses of this older tale in LOTR, it was ever in Tolkien’s mind as he wrote his latter works, (he began writing what would become The Silmarillion in the trenches of WWI).
There is a Sehnsucht (2), a nostalgic longing, built into the basic fabric of the best fantasy stories. This is what made The Lord of the Rings feel the most real to me. This feeling, this nostalgic longing, showed itself most strongly in the elves, but it is shown by nearly all the old creatures of Middle Earth. One of the most significant themes in The Lord of the Rings (and something missed by most Tolkien imitators and critics) is that the elves are leaving Middle Earth at the time of the story. We are losing the elves and we mourn at the loss, for the world is changing, diminishing and the elves are a reminder of a time when the world was first created. You get glimmers of this lost golden age throughout The Lord of the Rings. Again, this is not a minor point. I call it a “Homesickness for Eden” and I use the same idea in my own novels because I believe it’s fundamental to all good high fantasy tales.
Here is an excerpt from my novel Asulon that illustrates this. Here a priest called Simon is explaining magic to a swordsman named Moor and thereby this longing.
“What attracts most people to magic is an innate desire in the human heart to regain the world as God first made it, before mankind fell, for we instinctively know what was lost and long for its return. We all long for a time where we had power over creation and were its caretakers, where we could command the wind and the earth and the waters, where death walked not and sickness was unknown, where we could understand the speech of animals and none would do us harm. That is why children are so fond of magic in their fairy tales, for they know that is the way the world should work, even if it does not now. But all of us long for the return of Eden whether we know that name or not. We seek to satisfy our homesickness for a land we have never seen but know, as surely as we know our hearts beat and our lungs draw breath, once existed and will exist again.”
You can read more from this chapter of Asulon at: http://www.TheSwordofFire.com/from_asulon.htm
1 On ancient literacy levels see: http://thriceholy.net/literacyf.html.
2 On Sehnsucht see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sehnsucht