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Why The Best Fantasy Stories Include Mundane Everyday Life

31 December 2014

From io9:

When Ursula K. Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, came out, I read it and was underwhelmed. I wanted lots of magic and spells and glorious heroes, and instead I got a farmer’s widow and a used-up mage. There was a lot more about goats than there was about dragons. It just didn’t seem very much like fantasy to me. At the time I was fairly fresh out of college, renting a room and commuting back and forth to my job at a D.C. law library. I wanted magic and adventure in my hum-drum life, damn it!

Now Tehanu is one of my all-time favorite books. I did my first reread after a few years of writing and literature classes in grad school and fell in love. I don’t know exactly what changed in the interim – perhaps it was maturity, perhaps it was having been exposed to a lot of different ideas about literature, perhaps it was knowing more of Le Guin’s ideas about women and writing. At any rate, what I love about the novel now (besides the excellent craft of it) is exactly those things I initially did not like: domestic life, ordinary characters, lack of pageantry, lack of violence. I like that a fantasy novel can feature a middle-aged woman and that descriptions of shelling peas, weaving baskets, keeping up a farm, taking care of goats, and other quiet activities are the center of the story.

I still really like epic fantasy, and especially the world-building part. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that for me world-building is necessary but not sufficient to suck me into the story; for the epic to be epic, it needs to be set against the mundane. By “mundane” I mean “worldly as opposed to spiritual,” rather than the more colloquial usage implying boredom and dullness. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about “exoticizing the domestic,” and I think that concept is what makes for really good fantasy and speculative fiction. The writer takes the ordinary and twists it, or puts it into a different context.

Link to the rest at io9


20 Comments to “Why The Best Fantasy Stories Include Mundane Everyday Life”

  1. The mundane builds a world to the ground, covering the whole page

  2. Readers of epic fantasy want story and action and characters with flaws and emotions. The author achieves these things through use of the mundane.

    Yep, although I attributed that notion to Hitchcock and never read Tehanu. Using the mundane to make the fantastic believable is a sound idea. I have yet to use goats for this, though. In one story a protagonist has a vineyard, and her master vigneron uses certain plants to attract bees for his mead. Then hostile magical creatures show up and merry mishaps ensue. Close enough 🙂

  3. Tolkien never prepared The Silmarillion for publication, claiming that it had “no Hobbits.” My understanding of his statement was that the tales of the Elder Days had no “everyman” characters to evoke the reader’s sympathy and empathy, and in comparison with which the archetypal heroes and gods could achieve their impressive stature.

    I love the contrast between the ordinary necessities of life and the magical, mystical wonder of fantasy, when both are present in a story. In my own stories, I never give my characters a “get out of jail free” card regarding the necessities of survival. They’ve got to manage the small stuff and tackle the heroic challenges confronting them.

    • Tolkien, for sure. The first 100-200 pages of LotR… nothing but eating, drinking, hiking, mundane pleasures and concerns… all with subtle hints at the realms and characters that exist just beyond the borders. The story is great because it takes its time moving us from the familiar to the fantastic. And from the comforting to the frightening, too. Just like life.

    • What? Tolkien spent the remainder of his life preparing The Silmarillion for publication. He just never finished it to his satisfaction. That’s why his son had to finish it for him.

      Personally, I enjoy the stories of The Silmarillion more than The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. I know others who feel the same way.

      Which is why the “best” fantasy stories are different for different readers.

      • I’ve never read the Silmarillion, so I’ll watch with interest this discussion of Silmarillion: Awesome or not?But your comments makes me curious from a craft perspective. How do you (or Tolkien) get readers pulled into a world if the setting is so utterly alien, filled with alien creatures and alien motives?

        To clarify if we’re on the same page: I can better relate to a magical koala trying to shrug off a pesky sibling, just as a human child would … and going to sleep for 30 years just as a magical koala would. I can understand a goddess searching for her kidnapped daughter, just as a mundane mother would … and turning the world into a winter wonderland out of grief, just as a goddess would. I can believe an alien having power struggles, just as human politicians would … and using his pheremones to weaken his rivals just as an alien would.

        To me those stories work because these fantastic creatures are facing mundane scenarios but have the option of reacting in fantastical ways, or they do fantastical things to achieve mundane goals.

        I am reading your comment [or reading into it?] that these factors are absent in The Silmarillion, that in that story Tolkien has fantastic creatures doing fantastic things for fantastic reasons. If I’ve read you right, then I’m curious how that works from a craft perspective — I’m convinced I could not pull that off.

      • In his correspondence, Tolkien mentioned the “no Hobbits” problem that he perceived in The Silmarillion. It’s true that he worked on the history of Middle-earth most of his adult life, but I think there is some ambiguity about whether he would have felt The Silmarillion (in the form it eventually appeared) was ready for publication.

        ETA: Perhaps Tolkien changed his mind some time after penning that letter. It sounds like you have more information on that, Sarah, than I do. In which case, that’s interesting, too. I wonder what his reasoning was for the about-face.

  4. I thought Le Guin had been disappeared…:D

  5. I’ll take the spiritual over the worldly, thanks.

  6. “There is a rule for fantasy writers: the more truth you mix in with a lie, the stronger it gets.” Diane Duane

  7. I had precisely this discussion with a beta reader for my first novel, who insisted that the some of the more mundane elements of the beginning scenes should be replaced with flashier elements that showcased elements of the magic system. In this instance I held my ground. I felt it essential to the reader’s developing rapport with the protagonist to experience his behavior and ethics under more normal circumstances before going there. I have no regrets.

  8. It all comes down to personal preference, of course, but I’m on the side of a well-stirred blend of the miraculous and the mundane. A fallen god who can’t find peanut butter that’s chunky enough. A demon-hunter who can’t afford a new battery, so she has to keep having strangers help her push-start her car. The center of an alternate universe accessible only by the men’s-room utility closet in a sandwich shop with a logo that’s too close to that of the national chain that’s always sending them cease-and-desist letters but won’t bother to sue.

    Spider-Man. Kolchak. The Sandman series. There are way too many examples to name. (Comics and horror, yes, but I think the point holds.)

    YMMV, but I love that mix, especially when the stakes of the tale remain high, and I’m emotionally involved and rooting for the heroes.

  9. It’s the sublime that makes the ridiculous seem plausible.

    It’s witnessing the mundane that reveals the sacrifices of the powerful.

  10. My favorite example is Lev Grossman’s Magician series. I’m not normally a fan of fantasy (no judgement, not my thing) but Grossman’s stuff is so fun I’ve read each book at least twice in the past 2 years. He places believable “normal” characters in fantastic situations – and as a result the fantastic elements become wondrous. He has other tricks, that’s just one example. Loves me some Grossman.

  11. I also enjoy the combination and contrast of mundane and magical. It’s one of the things that makes fantasy so much fun, both to read and to write.

    (The Earthsea Trilogy is one of my all-time favorites, but I loathe Tehanu, except for the long-awaited resolution of the Ged-Tenar relationship. Otherwise, I felt like LeGuin completely distorted these wonderful characters in order to make a socio-political point. Boo.)

  12. Funny. Made me think about the etymology of “mundane”. Somehow nothing’s ever done that before.

    And tarot…

  13. This was actually a frightening concept for me when I started writing “The Halloween Host”. My world-building was little more than the protags house, and as the spirits of the holiday spend time with him, they change his dwelling, each one leaving their mark.

    That meant I had to establish the original residence, then describe the changes, not to mention the mundane issues the main character had to deal with.

    I was afraid it would be too banal for people. Instead, readers have told me it felt like all the things they loved about the holiday coming to their homes vicariously.

    I guess the lesson is, the closer you get to home, the more tangible the fantastic gets.

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