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Fantasy’s mercenary middle classes and distressed damsels January 2, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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This post consists of my reactions to two books I’ve read recently, The Curse of the Mistwraith by Janny Wurts and Mother Ocean, Daughter Sea by Diana Marcellas. It concerns the authors’ explorations of two common fantasy tropes. Spoilers abound.

I’m not really sure why I persevered with Wurts’s book. The writing was turgid, and the characters all had names like s’Ffalenn, Kharadmon and Asandir (that is, they suffered from the curses of Intrusive Apostrophes, Pointless Extra Consonants and Tolkienesque-Sounding Names). But what really annoyed me was Wurts’s use of another epic fantasy cliché: setting her aristocratic heroes against a grasping, debased, urban middle class.

Words cannot express how fed up I am with this opposition. How it usually happens (and how it is expressed in The Curse of the Mistwraith) is like this:

  1. Lost Heir/s return to a land beset by ancient evil.
  2. They are welcomed by the ‘properly humble’ peasants and (usually) city-dwelling lower classes.
  3. In contrast, the mercantile, urban middle classes despise and distrust them, seeing a threat to their (illegitimate) power.

Wurts’s use of this motif is part of an epic fantasy tradition stretching back to Tolkien – except that Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a pre-industrial, pre-commercial revolution (for want of a better expression) world. That is, his stories take place in a world without a middle class. To have a world peopled entirely with nobles and rural peasants (which is essentially the social structure of Middle Earth) is entirely appropriate. It makes sense in the historical context in which Tolkien’s story takes place.

Where this doesn’t work is in stories set in a generic, late medieval period. We’re still talking pre-industrial societies here, but if your created world features flourishing cities with merchants, trade guilds and skilled artisans, there is no excuse for such a lazy, inaccurate interpretation of history. (I am aware that fantasy novels are set in imaginary worlds, but their authors draw on various historical periods when creating these worlds, and need to retain the internal logic of these periods – or give a believable reason for departing from them.) If these middle class city leaders were able to group together politically in the absence of the former aristocratic rulers of the land, they are clever enough to see that the return of these rulers (who possess the magical skills needed to, you know, save their land from the forces of evil) might perhaps be a good thing.

Sure, I can understand that they might be a tad annoyed that their power is threatened under the new order, but why do these city-dwellers have to be presented as uniformly effete, grasping, power-hungry and degenerate? Why must all epic fantasy worlds be peopled with steadfast, humble, loyal peasants just waiting for their lost kings to return and save them from the Big Brewing Evil? It’s so juvenile, and it makes me want to fling things at the wall.

Much as this trope irritates me, I’ll probably continue with the series, for two reasons only. The first is that I love the theme of two brothers doomed to fight an epic, centuries-long battle. The second is that Arithon s’Ffalenn is exactly the sort of tortured emo that I like my fantasy heroes to be. It’s not really much to go on.

This is one of the reasons I’m much more selective with epic fantasy than I am with romantic, dark or historical fantasy. Sure, these sub-genres have their own irritating little clichés, but they don’t seem to suffer from the same lack of internal coherence that permeates so much epic fantasy.

This brings me to my next book, Mother Ocean, Daughter Sea, which, if we’re assigning sub-genres, is romantic fantasy. The trope I want to talk about here is rescue fantasy.

You know what I’m talking about: the story of the oppressed girl rescued by the hero (who is usually in a position of political power, and often begins as her oppressor, or at least indifferent to the suffering caused by the oppression of the girl and/or her people). In this case, the girl, Brierley, is a witch in a world where magic is punishable by death, and her heroic rescuer is Melfallan, an earl charged with bringing her to trial for witchcraft. The inevitable happens and they fall in love.

This is where things start to get interesting. Melfallan is married to Saray, whom he respects and loves (but is not ‘in love with’). Brierley saves Saray’s stillborn child, and seems herself to have a great deal of respect and compassion for Saray. And yet Melfallan and Brierley still get together and the reader is cheering for them the whole time.

Why? Well, in my case, I was cheering because for once, in story set in a feudal world, social and political power structures were presented in a logical way. Too often in such stories, the aristocratic hero is unencumbered by marriage, and eventually is able to marry the rescued heroine. (Sometimes she is revealed to be a lost princess, thus making the marriage more socially acceptable.) Anyone writing a medieval society is crazy to think that such a marriage would be possible. Repeat after me: kings (and lords) in medieval times married for diplomatic and tactical alliances. They may have come to love their wives, or they may not. Society turned a blind eye to their infidelities. What they could not do was marry random commoners for love. It simply wasn’t possible. So thank you, Diana Marcellas, for presenting a relationship between two people in unequal positions of power that’s actually believable.

I’ve only read the first book in the series, of course, and I have a sinking feeling that Marcellas may find a way to get rid of Saray honourably and marry Melfallan and Brierley. I imagine she feels that we’re unable to empathise with a cheating-husband and other-woman hero and heroine. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

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1. Middle-class army « Geata Póeg na Déanainn - October 28, 2009

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