Patrick Rothfuss famously said:
The problem with a lot of people who read only literary fiction is that they assume fantasy is just books about orcs and goblins and dragons and wizards and bullshit. And to be fair, a lot of fantasy is about that stuff. … However, we should not be judged by our lowest common denominators.
And I’m usually not one to pick a fight on my blog*, but I like orcs and goblins and dragons and wizards. I don’t like bullshit, however, which is why I hate that freaking quote.
The Lowest Common Denominator of High Fantasy
I’ve heard a lot of hate for my favorite fantasy creatures lately, and not just from Mr. Rothfuss. Elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, and anything else with a whiff of Tolkien in it is dismissed off-hand as derivative. I’ve heard that elves are so thoroughly explored that they can’t offer anything new at this point, or that dragons are unnecessary because readers can get their fill of them in tabletop RPGs or video games, or even that writing about dwarves and goblins is lazy because it’s borrowing too heavily from widely popular influences.
Arguments like these have a couple of key flaws. Most prominently is the question of who gets to arbitrate which fantasy elements are past their expiration date. Rothfuss singled out dragons and orcs, but I like those. Maybe we should move past the undead instead? Or perhaps even magic itself? What are the criteria that separate the wheat from the chaff?
Worse, these arguments overgeneralize a lot; the irony of the Rothfuss quote cited at the beginning of this post is that he was complaining that literary readers associate his work in with orcs, goblins, etc. But in framing his argument with a list of (evidently) distasteful fantasy elements, he is himself grouping Nicholls and Robin Hobb together with a lot of inferior work.
But It Could Be Anything!
Many of the complaints about classic fantasy elements stem from people erroneously equating novelty and creativity. “Why Orcs?” they say. “It could be anything!” The argument seems to lament that we’ve yet to plumb the depths of possibility in fantasy. I’m fairly certain that’s not true; in the 1970’s Fantasy and Science Fiction did anything, and everything, that psychedelic drugs could possibly inspire. They were definitely original, but they were also very often horrible. Contrast the legion of bizarre 1970’s “anythings” with some of the books from that era that stuck with better known archetypes, and you can see which were more successful.
An Orc By Any Other Name…
Of course, many authors try to have the best of both worlds by utilizing fantasy archetypes without the labels, like calling “orcs” and “mages” “trollocs” and “Aes Sedai,” respectively. It’s not necessarily “more creative” as much as it’s an artistic decision with pros and cons. On one hand, renaming an archetype allows an author to avoid the reader’s preconceptions and existing knowledge. On the other hand, the new term bypasses all of the reader’s knowledge of the archetype and forces him to be re-educated enough to make the connection.
Imagine if a fantasy author called apples “red sweet-crunches.” It’s a rare story that would successfully utilize that kind of obnoxious over-crafting in the plot, so in most cases the paragraph it would take to effectively convey the true nature of a red sweet-crunch would be wasted ink. Calling the fruit an apple would let the user understand what was being described quickly and move on. In the same way, a good author can leverage (or undermine) a reader’s preconceptions about wizards or goblins to move the story along or create fun and exciting twists.
In the example of Robert Jordan, I was riveted in learning about the Aes Sedai and their magic system. When reading The Wheel of Time, I rediscovered the mage archetype, with enough twists and idiosyncrasies that it was memorable and enjoyable. Conversely, I found trollocs to be about as exciting as accountants eating oatmeal. Jordan’s take on the Orc archetype was dull and cliche. The new names were a way for him to let me rediscover these archetypes in his world, but they weren’t equally successful. If Jordan had called Aes Sedai mages and trollocs orcs, I don’t believe the work would have been any more or any less derivative of classic fantasy.
Some may protest that these aren’t equivalent because apples are real while mages and orcs are fictional. That’s not really relevant, though. It doesn’t matter if they’re real. It matters that they’re familiar to the reader.
Tropes as Language
The plot points, characters, mythological creatures, etc. that readers have come to know and expect are called tropes (often disparagingly). Tropes are neither good nor bad—they’re simply familiar elements loaded with preconceptions and meanings from other media. TVTropes.org says it really well:
Writers understand tropes and use them to control audience expectations either by using them straight or by subverting them, to convey things to the audience quickly without saying them… Storytellers use tropes to let us know what things about reality we should put aside and what parts of fiction we should take up.
Many fantasy reader are really familiar with classic fantasy and gaming tropes—so much so that it’s pretty common to see them translate non-classic fantasy elements back into classic / gaming language by imagining them as D&D characters or magic cards. Even if you write to them in a different language than their tropes, they’ll translate your work back into classic fantasy for you!
If an author decides to leverage her audience’s familiarity with Elves to better focus her story, she doesn’t necessarily gain much by renaming them or making their skin blue. There may be other reasons that she wants blue-skinned Elves with a different name in her story, but that’s artistic license. The quality of her story will be determined by execution and craftsmanship, and whether she can successfully guide the reader through a thrilling plot, not the decision to use a Tolkien term for the tree-dwellers in her book.
Story is King
This isn’t to say that all fantasy needs tropes, or that anything with orcs and goblins is a good book. Tropes can be overused, mishandled, or abused as much as any other literary device (perhaps more). But it’s worth reiterating that compelling storytelling, strong characters, and solid world building are what make a book worth reading, fantasy or otherwise. Adherence to or abstinence from classical fantasy archetypes shouldn’t make or break a book.
In a 2012 interview, Rothfuss made this point in a backwards way. He started with this prescient line when asked why he hates dwarves, elves, and evil wizards:
…People started to think that dwarves and elves and magic rings were fantasy. But they’re not. Those things are props. And putting those things in your book doesn’t make you Tolkien.
That looks like an acknowledgement that dwarves and elves aren’t an indicator of quality. But when the reviewer asks how bad books can get because of this, Rothfuss answers.
I read one book where an evil wizard king guy had plans to do some big magical hoo-ha ritual. … My problem is with the wizard-king. This guy is supposed to be this big magical genius, but he’s going to do a ritual that has a 66% percent chance of destroying him? Who decides that one-in-three is good odds? That’s just dumb. I hate reading a good book, then getting confronted with something stupid.
Well then, Pat, your problem isn’t with the wizard king. It’s with a stupid plot element. Calling the character an Aes Sedai President or a Mystic Force Poobah wouldn’t change that stupid plot element. Attaching a decent plot to a wizard king might have made for a good book. The trope isn’t at fault. The story is.
Love Thy Neighbor and Thy Elf
Classic fantasy elements like orcs, goblins, dragons, and elves are great tools for authors to communicate with readers and connect a story to the memories, knowledge, and passion that they’ve accrued as lifetime fantasy fans. But above all, it’s important that we remember that fantasy is a big genre, and there’s room for all sorts of authors in here. And since writers that embrace classic fantasy archetypes and authors that avoid them are equally capable of producing meaningful work or utter crap, we need to judge fantasy by the quality of the story, not the presence of orcs and goblins and dragons and wizards.
That would be bullshit.
* “Fight” may be a generous term here. In terms of reputation and influence, Rothfuss is a titan of modern fantasy and I’m more like a gnat lost in that ginormous beard of his.