Dramatic Fantasy — The Implications

The author Daniel Foster observed [in Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Greeks] that an epic poet’s protagonist embodied the virtues and values of an entire society while the protagonists of a lyric poet embodied specific virtues accepted as exemplary traits for an individual. Foster also made the point that lyric poets whose protagonists’ values differed as society changed became less relevant and less widely read, as did those whose referents became less familiar. 

While Foster used the Greek poet Pindar as his historical example, his observation, it seems to me, also applies to novels today.  While some fantasy labeled as epic meets his definition, much of current large-scope fantasy presents values often at variance with the idea of a single unified culture represented so often in traditional epic works, and situations where the individual is pitted against the culture rather than acting as its champion against outsiders.

At the same time, over the past twenty years or so in my intermittent teaching and continual observation, I’ve seen that poets of the first half of the twentieth century have been read less and less, and, more important, when read, are understood less and less.  Part of that loss of understanding certainly lies in the loss of meaning of the references and allusions, because today’s young people are such a culture of the present that the majority of them know very little of the culture of as little as a single generation past, and without an understanding of what those references represent, the poetry loses much of its power. Most contemporary verse appears to appeal to shallow but universal feelings, interestingly enough, even as most novels pit an individual against at least some “universal” societal values. 

This trend in contemporary novels also exemplifies a change in basic societal values in the United States, or at least in the idea that there are some basic societal values that trump individual freedom of action. The belief held by many that the right to bear any kind of weapons is one example of this turn away from the idea that a society represents certain universals. Instead, we have ideological splintering, where various segments of society each believes that society should adopt its universals.

According to Foster, the composer Richard Wagner believed that the evolution of the poetic tradition ran from epic forms to lyric and finally to dramatic, where, in the dramatic form, the writer’s protagonists portray an out and out struggle against societal norms while still striving to live out individual virtues – in essence, a totally futile struggle because, in the end, without societal standards, there is no society.

I’m most likely overgeneralizing, but it seems to me that we’re seeing this conflict today in what is being published in current fantasy and, to a lesser degree, in science fiction.  One could actually characterize the fascination with zombies as a metaphor – with zombies representing a dead and somehow alien past that the protagonists are struggling against.  Vampires are a bit more ambiguous.  Are they the blood-sucking past drawing life from the vital present? Or are they the misunderstood new future nourished by the past?  Either way, both sub-sub-genres – as well as that of werewolves – represent a dramatic conflict embodying the premise that a society with unified and widely accepted common values is a thing of the past, and this represents a major change in western cultural values, largely among the younger readers… possibly another manifestation of both the generational gap and why the poets of the past no longer speak to the readers of the present.




5 thoughts on “Dramatic Fantasy — The Implications”

  1. Max says:

    I think vampires are a way writers cleverly exploit “Likes romance novels with bad boy protagonist, but too feminist to admit it” demographics.

    For example had an author wrote Lolita like story today, set in a fantasy universe, where old brutish viking-like archetype guy is romantically involved with a much younger women. Such author would be beaten up by the female bloggers as misogynistic and “rape-culture this or that”, and would not sell many books to female audience.

    But make the male lead a 500 year old vampire instead of a brutish viking-like northman, and suddenly a Lolita like story set in vampire-fantasy universe, will do much better with female audience.

    Just my opinion please don’t ban me 🙂 Oh and also I somehow was fooled by amazon reviews into buying a sci-fi book, which had reasonable blurb and reviews (feudal setting planet that lost the technology, but still receives occasional ships), but ended up being a vampire romance (gay one at that), it scared me for life.

    1. Brian says:

      Real world experience leads me to agree with your assessment, Max.

  2. Poetry is a personal experience but some of the really great poets of the past are still celebrated and especially where there is a modern accounting of the work. Take Robert Burns as an example. On one hand his poems are as relevant today as they were in his own time but the challenge for many is his use of the Scots language which many people have difficulty in understanding. We all sing Auld Lang Syne each new year. We still quote “A mans a man for all that”. And of course there are Burns Suppers all over the globe.

    Frank Shaw, who lives in Georgia, has for some years run a column on Robert Burns Lives! I remember one of his articles talked about a young daughter of a friend who visited him with her parents. He showed her his Robert Burns collection and talked a bit about him. Some years later he wrote another article about the same girl, but now a young women, who was now off to University and was intending to study Literature. The point here is that she wrote to him to say that her visit with him and his Burns collection was the significant reason for her choosing this career path.

    In this poets case a better understanding of his poems are perhaps better learned from translations into English. However, it has always been said of the Scots language that it is an emotional language whereas English is a technical language. I can only illustrate this by talking about the word “dreich” meaning dull; monotonous; tardy; desolate; dreary and hence “it’s a dreich day”.

    Another example might be when you call your spouse a “woman”, “girl” and so in Scots the word “lassie” would be used. So you might say “she’s a braw lassie”. To me that’s somehow more descriptive and warm. And one more example might be “girn”. complain; fret; snarl; grumbler. And so you might have the phrase “stop your girning”.


  3. Brian says:

    The historical and cultural context in which a great poet (or writer) lived is in my opinion the key to understanding their work. If that context is not taught, then understanding is like catching smoke.

  4. rehcra says:

    This is one of those situations where the actual reasons behind it is less important to how people see it then how it appears to fit together logically.

    Too much logic doesn’t make since when there is no cognitive logic behind it.

    ..if you get my drift.


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