Modernity has ruined fantasy.
At one end of the scale, there is the slice-of-life tale, with ordinary people doing ordinary things, just with some counterfactual elements. At the other end, there is a setting that appears totally foreign to our reality–and yet the people who dwell in it base their actions on values, issues and ideologies extremely similar to ours; and on closer inspection what appears to be an alien realm is merely a distorted reflection of modern-day ideology. In the middle are tales set in worlds that aren’t too dissimilar to our own.
Many Modern fiction fall prey to the error of preachiness. Instead of delivering a story, they exist only to hammer home a pet position on a given topic. Other stories may be excellent in their own right — but they are not primarily fantasy stories.
What is a fantasy story? It is a story with elements of the fantastic, naturally. But what is the fantastic?
It is not merely a figment of one’s imagination; all fiction, not just fantasy fiction, blooms from the imagination of the creator. Is it something improbable or unrealistic? Consider that the device you are viewing this post on could not have been conceived of as recently as fifty years ago, and that if you went back in time and informed your grandparents that one day all humans in the First World would have in their pockets a device that would allow instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, they would call you crazy. Then must fantasy be creative? Surely it should be, but creativity alone does not set it apart from other genres that require creativity. What, then, sets fantasy apart from other fiction?
The answer lies in history.
In medieval Europe, Christianity informed all aspects of everyday life, yet the people were not too far removed from their pagan pasts. Magic, demons and other supernatural beings were a part of everyday life. They dwelt in the unknown corners of the world, the untamed wilderness just past the fragile borders of mortal civilization.
People called fairies the Fair Folk not out of admiration, but fear. They believed that fairies would steal their children from their beds and leave in their place fairy-children. Deep in the woods, men had to be wary of strange women and handsome youths, lest they be fairies looking to spirit a mortal away to their courts, returning him only decades later — if at all. The Erlking and his Wild Hunt prowled the night, preying on innocent souls, spreading death and plague in their wake. The medical term ‘stroke’ draws its origin from the phrase ‘fairy-stroke’; it was believed that anyone who suffered a sudden seizure must have offended an invisible fairy.
Some fairies could be bargained with. Some had benevolent intentions towards humanity. The Lady of the Lake handed Excalibur to King Arthur and raised Lancelot. Brownies who live in a human home may do the chores and ensure prosperity, but the human inhabitants must in turn leave them an offering of milk or cream by the hearth. Easily offended, they will leave the house forever if they feel they have been treated with disrespect. Regardless of how they act towards humans, faeries are not humans and do not think, act or feel the way humans would.
Folklore speaks of the place beyond the known world. It is a terrible, dangerous place, utterly alien and hostile towards humanity. Its inhabitants can be cruel and capricious, or kind and caring, but they are not and will never be humans, and to treat them like humans is to court your own doom. This place runs by its own rules, its own logic; step outside the paling of civilisation and the laws of Man no longer apply. Where human civilisation may be the embodiment of order, the wild is pure chaos.
This place is breathtakingly beautiful and perilous beyond measure. It promises great treasure, hidden in the forgotten corners of the world; it is utterly unforgiving, damning anyone who makes even the slightest of mistakes. It mocks the efforts of Man and Church to understand or tame it, yet it obeys a law unknown to mortals. It exists outside the duality of Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil; and so it cannot be easily understood within a Biblical framework. This place is Elfland.
And Elfland is just beyond the distant horizon.
To the ancients, Elfland–the domain of the strange, uncanny, and just plain weird–was a part of lived reality. They may pray to God every day and worship at the church on Sundays, but in the darkness of the night they contended with creatures and forces that do not fall neatly into Biblical paradigms. They ordered their lives by the laws of God and the knowledge of Man–but they were also at the mercy of the Fair Folk.
Today we live in a world without wonder. Every corner of the globe has been mapped from orbit. Every animal, inspect, plant and other life form is studied and known. Summon a search engine and you can learn everything you wish to know about a far-flung culture, modern or historical. With this post I speak to you across vast gulfs of time and space.
Zero HP Lovecraft said it best: the miraculous has become mundane.
Fantasy recalls those ancient days, when the miraculous co-existed with the mundane, when the Weird was within sight, when human civilisation consisted not of contiguous countries but isolated outposts of fragile life huddled against a chaotic darkness roiling with predators and strange beasts. In the unobserved, unknown darkness, without a permanent observer to set in stone the rules of reality and banish all other possibilities, there was infinite potential for anything and everything to manifest.
Modernity spits upon those days. Science and Rationality has forever banished the darkness of ignorance. Superstitions are nothing more than ridiculous fallacies. At best, myths and religion are merely attempts at explaining the unexplained; at worst, they are institutionalised oppression that must be opposed at all costs. Scientists and statesmen, philosophers and poets, they all looked and looked but saw no God. Today, with the arrogance and callowness of youth, the giant of Modernity strides proudly across the world, proclaiming it is the Truth and the only Truth allowed to exist.
Much of the West is now a post-religious society. This society claims it has killed God, but with no corpse to provide proof, it has chosen to become as gods to appear worthy of such a feat. Progress, Science, Reason, these are the watchwords of our age. But in disavowing God, Modernity has shut itself off from the immanent and the transcendent. In this act, it has sealed itself away from the weird, the strange, the fantastic.
The ancients believed in the existence of beings greater than men. They recognized that men, while the nominal rulers of the world, were also fragile and weak and corruptible. They were limited to mortal senses and capabilities, and in Elfland roamed beings whose powers and capabilities surpassed Man. The space between Man and God was vast, and in that space reigned unknowable and untameable creatures who refused to kneel to either Man or God.
By overthrowing religion and installing Man as the axis mundi of the observable world, Modernity places mere men as the measure of all things. Man knows all, thus Man is all, and nothing can possibly exist outside the knowledge of Man. Thus, it cannot accept even the possibility of the existence of something that Man cannot know. And in refuting Elfland it has sealed off the gates to Elfland forever.
Western Moderns pride themselves on having overcome the superstition, irrationality and prejudices of the benighted past. Yet these superstitions are a fundamental component of the human experience everywhere outside the West.
Within the Chinese diaspora, during the 7th Lunar Month, it is believed that the gates of the underworld are flung open, and its denizens allowed to roam the world seeking nourishment and entertainment. Some are the souls of the deceased; some are hungry ghosts, always craving food, yet everything they place in their mouths turn to coal; some are mostly harmless, others markedly not.
During this period, people offer prayers, food and drink, and burn paper representations of money and goods to their deceased family members. In Singapore, burn bins are set up in every housing estate specifically for this purpose. People may also leave similar offerings to unknown wandering ghosts, to placate them and prevent them from causing mischief — or worse.
Entertainment companies set up getai, live stage performances, to entertain the ghosts at night. During a getai performance, the front row of seats is always left empty for unseen spectators. When holding auditions for a getai performance, the organiser seeks the approval of the spirits by using jiaobei divination. Also called poe in Hokkien, jiaobei refers to a pair of wooden blocks carved like a crescent moon, flat on one face and curved on the other. After a prospective performer has completed his performance during the audition, the organiser will throw the jiaobei into the air. If one jiaobei lands on the flat face and other on the curved face, then the performer has received the approval of the ‘good brothers’. Any other result is interpreted as a rejection.
Buddhist and Taoist priests will perform special ceremonies for the unquiet dead. Shopkeepers may prepare altars laden with fruits and incense and other sacrifices, or close their shops altogether. On the fourteenth day of the month, believers will release lanterns into rivers and seas, guiding the ghosts back to the underworld.
During the month of ghosts, a believer must hold to certain taboos. Never stay out late at night. Never step on a paper offering or the ashes of one, even if it were only partially burnt. Never disturb still-burning joss sticks or any offerings. Never eat anything dedicated to the ghosts. Violate any of these taboos and you must immediately placate the spirits. If not, they may latch on to you and follow you home. Or worse, they might take offense, and you will risk a stroke. A fairy-stroke.
The origins of the festival lies in the Ullambana Sutra. When Maudgalyayana, a follower of the Buddha, attained supernatural powers, he used them to search for his deceased parents. He discovered his mother suffering in the underworld, transformed into a hungry ghost. He offered her a bowl of rice, but it turned to burning coal in her mouth. At a loss, Maudgalyayana turned to the Buddha for help. The Buddha advised him to leave offerings of food to the monastic community on the 15th day of the 7th Lunar month, who would in turn transfer the merits of his actions to his parents in his present life and in his previous seven lifetimes. Maudgalyayana dutifully made the appropriate offerings, and through his actions released his mother from the underworld.
Through this story, the sutra transmits the values of filial piety, compassion and redemption. It encourages believers to view all ghosts, not just the ghosts of their own relatives, as sentient beings with their own needs and wants, compelling them to leave out offerings and put up performances for the departed. Rituals for wandering spirits are performed not with the intent of merely appeasing them, but to help them gain release from suffering and attain reincarnation in a better state of existence. Going beyond mere tradition and worship, the festival is a fifteen-day exercise in virtue.
Immanence is part of the human experience. The belief that the spiritual world permeates the physical one drives people’s actions, feelings and values. No matter the time or culture, the belief in immanence is universal.
In Thailand, you can recruit the ghost of a dead child to bring prosperity to your business. In Indonesia, you can hire a bomoh to summon a jinni to give the winning lottery numbers. Haitians seek out voodoo priests when they need the favour of the loa in relationships, work, and everyday life. Japanese Shintoism holds that there are eight million gods, hidden from the world of men yet inseparate from it. Every country and culture has its own endemic practices to enlist the powers of the unseen, which in turn point to how they view the relationship between the mortal and the Else.
Here we see the origins of Elfland. It is not just a place beyond the wild, not just a world dreamed whole from the collective unconsciousness, but an expression of the belief that the metaphysical is next door to the physical. From that belief flows values, practices, traditions, the building blocks of culture. By rejecting immanence, Modernity rejects the practices and traditions that flow from it, and the purpose behind them. What practices they accept, they inject their own doctrines into it, seizing it for their own ends.
Moderns will scorn and snark at such outmoded beliefs. They are merely revealing the boxes they wear over their heads. Within each box is a transmitter repeating the dogma of Current Year and eyeholes fitted with the lenses of Science and Progress. Everything they see through this box they proclaim to be the world entire, but this box limits them from perceiving the immanent.
The lenses filter Elfland from mortal sight. The transmitter drowns out the whispers of the good brothers. In the close confines of the box they smell only themselves and not the ethereal roses that hover just beyond the boundaries of ordinary sight.
In refusing to accept that the world is more than mere matter, that practices and traditions have deeper reasons beyond those expressed in the dogmas of Current Year, Moderns have cut themselves off from the immanent. They have severed themselves from the strange, the weird, the unknowable.
Without knowledge of the fantastic, without wanting to know the fantastic, they can only create shadow-realms that fit neatly within the confines of the box. They can only take everyday tropes and twist them into images suiting their tastes and preconceptions, images strange but not too strange. They are merely remixes of comfortable and familiar tropes and ideas; they do not reflect the immanent and transcendent. They cannot, for they are forged from hearts that do not acknowledge them.
You may be familiar with vampires, werewolves, elves. In fantasy fiction today, they are almost always objects of lust and desire. They are stronger, faster, more beautiful than ordinary humans. They are the ideal partners for women–almost always women–who are universally Strong Female Characters. They exist solely to satisfy human desires.
It was never this way. Vampires are bloodthirsty demons that prey on the innocent. Werewolves may have tragic or terrible backstories, but once in wolf mode they are ravenous monsters one and all. Elves aren’t beautiful long-lived ultrahumans; they are soulless amoral creatures who care only about their own pleasures and politics, and make playthings of men. They are the inhabitants of the Wild, the rulers of the night and the green, and woe betide anyone who crosses them. They are not human and are not treated as though they were human but something more; they lead separate existences, unyoked to the whims and fancies of humans.
Moderns claim that the worldview of the ancients is racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise biased in some way. In truth, their view is the biased one. It is biased against the immanent, against the values and practices that flow from the recognition of the immanent, against everything that is fantastic. I would dare say that this worldview is biased against reality itself.
For you see, the fairy-stroke I mentioned above happened to my uncle.
The Weird is Dangerous, with a capital D, and it’s expressed best in DUNGEON SAMURAI. Harsh and unforgiving, it is a world of danger, of monsters, and of hope. Check it out here.
To stay updated on my latest news and promotions, sign up for my mailing list here.