Post-Modernism in Fantasy

Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn series and the recently published The Way of Kings has written an article about post-modernism in Fantasy:
Fantasy (and the epic in particular) hit a postmodern stage with remarkable speed. Tolkien was so remarkably dominant, so genre-changing, that reactions to him began immediately. And, since so much of the audience was familiar with his tropes (to the point that they quickly became expected parts of the genre), it was easy to build upon his work and change it. You could also argue that the Campbellian monomyth (awareness of which was injected into the veins of pop culture by George Lucas) was so strong in sf/f that we were well prepared for our postmodern era to hit. Indeed, by the late ’70s, the first major postmodern Tolkienesque fantasy epic had already begun. (In the form of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.)
I'm not sure I really understand what post-modernism is in literature, apart from vaguely thinking it has something to do with the book being aware of itself as a book, a constructed piece of work, like having a baker named Dough, or a heavy infantry soldier named Shield.  I think Martin Amis is considered a post-modern author because he names his characters based on their jobs and frequently pops up in his books as himself; the author Martin Amis.

Post-modern seems like a heavy label for a book to wear.  It's like a signpost pointing to a place on the map that hasn't been charted: this book changes things.  It doesn't just tell a ripping story, it also winks knowingly at the reader.

I don't really read straight fiction any more, but I liked James Joyce's Ulysses, often considered one of the best post-modern novels, and I'm not sure I know enough about the history of Fantasy fiction to be able to notice when I'm being winked at.  As far as I can tell, as long as a fantasy novel isn't about a naive farmer discovering they have royal blood; isn't set in another pastiche of some nameless medieval European city state with faux-Tudor architecture; and isn't about a Dark Lord/Nameless Menace/Rising Evil then, for fantasy fans, it's post-modern.

I think Mr. Sanderson's article is interesting (mostly for the insights into his own writing process), but I think that before Fantasy can begin to de-construct itself there needs to be more varied examples of it.  The genre is still struggling with its legacy of sexism and male power fantasy wish-fulfillment.  Let's see more female origin stories, more varied and interesting world-building, more inventive and daring plotting, and less reliance on the tropes - Elves, Barbarians, Wizards - that were already stale 40 years ago.  Is a Fantasy novel post-modern because it doesn't have dwarves in it?  Or because it genuinely stretches the genre in a new and interesting direction.



  1. I remember reading Thomas Covenant (which, as you know, is one of my favorite stories that i've ever read) and thinking, this is DIFFERENT. At the time - the late 70's - there wasn't much out there in the way of fantasy that i considered readable past Lord of the Rings.

    If Sanderson is defining post-modern with Covenant as it's foundation, then i'll put forth what i considered fresh to the genre.

    One was that the main character was current, this wasn't Once Upon A Time. His misplacement in another world brought some interesting interactions with the inhabitants of The Land. It also helped do away with what i considered at the time to be a tired convention of fantasy - thee, thou, privy as the default dialect.

    Then there was said characters hamartia, I found it a very refreshing take on the "tragic hero" tradition. There were two settings to watch him deal with situations, the "real" world, and his "imagination", and for awhile at least, it had me wondering whether both were real, and then at some point, not caring because i wanted him to believe in both so badly, whether real or not.

    But i digress (Which i could very easily do for 10 or so pages with Covenant).

    I didn't notice this when i first read the original series - cut me a break i was a young teen - but as the second series ramped up, my oh so much more mature self saw another difference from other genre offerings of the time. There were important female characters that weren't standing behind a man in charge. (There were one or two scenes that disturbed me. One does still to this day, and every time i re-read the books i reexamine it and am conflicted about how it could be interpreted.) This was a new development for 1980ish fantasy.

    The tropes had changed, some were a little derivative - new "monsters", but some were original - the Bloodguard, the Elohim, the Ranyhynn/Ramen.

    Yes, there was still a ring, although it's function was a refresh, and the antagonist you could almost see Sauron underneath the voice.

    What was i getting at? Oh, yes. I agree with you that post-modern seems a bit nebulous as a definition for the new fantasy, but i think there is definitely a line that fell on the genre that says "This is the before time, and then came another age".

    For me, it was definitely the day i met Thomas Covenant, and things were different after that. I just don't know what to call it. Perhaps remove the Post, and just call it modern? The before time could be called the Tarnished Age, because it was considered Golden, until the genre grew beyond it.

    Or maybe i'm just babbling because i haven't had the chance to write about my leprous anti-hero in so long that i got over excited.

  2. Hey Pops!

    Yeah, I don’t know what to think. I sometimes feel like I’m a bit of an odd fantasy fan: I dislike The Lord of the Rings, I’ve never been able to get past the mid-point of Book 2. (I loved The Hobbit when I was a kid, but it’s definitely a children's book. Tolkien’s other novels make me very sleepy. Plus there’s the whole, you know, no real use for women thing.) Also, in many ways, I’m a very laid back consumer of this fiction; as long as the book has stone and wood, and rain, I can be very forgiving. So, I’m not the best person to decide where the genre is; I don’t really have a wide angle lens.

    I do think, however, that I’ve only read one fantasy author whose work I consider really fresh and new: China MiĆ©ville. His books Perdido Street Station and The Scar are searing; so imaginative, rich and original; they almost put other fantasy books to shame. But there are lots of people who don’t think his work belongs in the same category with Tolkien and Eddings and Bakker. I don’t know why. You’d have to ask them.

    Thanks for your thoughts :)

  3. I read Eddings a while back, I suppose because it was the thing to do at the time. I felt like I read the same book 10 times. Does he an index card to reference a formula on it? I never understood the popularity of he or Salvatore.

  4. I've never read any Eddings, but I see him referenced in the same breath as those others, so I thought I'd do the democratic thing (even if it was a bit of a backhand, 'cos I don't like any of those three authors I listed). I read R.A. Salvatore's 'Homeland' trilogy (or whichever one it is that introduces Drrzztzzzttt and hated it. I thought it was misogynist garbage. It makes me sad that his star is so intertwined with The Forgotten Realms.


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