Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cyclic versus Literary Fantasy: Fritz Leiber and Monster Hunter Tri versus Tolkien and Final Fantasy

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser faced each other across the two thieves sprawled senseless. They were poised for attack, yet for the moment neither moved.

Each discerned something inexplicably familiar in the other.

This text marks the first official meeting of the two iconic characters in Fritz Leiber's Swords and Deviltry, a book that unmistakably fits the descriptions "hack-and-slash" and "swords-and-sorcery." It's part of a whole Swords and --- series, all concerned with the partnership between these two characters, one a brawny defector from a society of snow-barbarians, the other a spritely thief and corrupted student of a white wizard. This particular novel teems with classic literary mechanisms straight from the adventure story guidebook: first loves, betrayals, deaths, buddy-film comraderie, quests for spoils and fame turning into quests for revenge. This book alone has at least three different revenge-quests, between its four most important protagonists.

Reading Leiber's work, you're liable to feel a vast gulf between this style of storytelling and, say the literary approach of Tolkien, who basically set the bar for the high fantasy epic. You may be tempted, initially, to see the difference as one of quality. I don't think it is, though.

Last April, Capcom released Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii here in the states. It's a striking gameplay experience -- the aliased edges aren't smoothed over, and the 3D physics aren't neatly polished. The collision detection is... kind of primitive. Also, there's no attempt to give the game an intuitive gestural interface. Nay, in many cases, you'll be three or four layers deep in menus, browsing items packed together in dense menus, marked by the simplest 8-bit icons I've seen in a long time. It's as close as you can get to a turn-based RPG while still fighting in real time.

Sometimes there are uncanny parallels between very different experiences. Playing Monster Hunter Tri and reading Swords and Deviltry may create just such a juxtaposition. These are both unapologetic throwback experiences, willing to throw away all sorts of artful pretense in order to create a direct, unmediated experience of adventuring. The best way to describe this experience, at its core, may be that it's a Dungeons and Dragons experience, the feeling of being immersed in a world of particular rules and rehearsed beats and well-articulated types, an aggregate of simple elements so numerous that once combined, they create their own sort of complexity.

This may be rather a stretch, but I'd say that there's a qualitative difference between something like Swords of Lankhmar, and something like The Lord of the Rings. I'd call the latter a piece of "literary fantasy," and the former a piece of... what's the best way to describe it?... "cyclic fantasy" is really the best I can do, I suppose.

The basic difference is this: in literary fantasy, there's a sense that the world is continuous, built on a deep history that runs entirely independent of our own. Tolkien was a master of this type of world-creation: from The Silmarillion, a sort of nebulous creation-story, to the vast and complex languages and cultures that populate Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes living worlds, and we always have the sense that we're only seeing a tiny glimpse of them. These worlds are filled with stories, including the story we're reading, that represent subtle and sweeping paradigm shifts, not only for the characters, but for the worlds themselves.

However, in cyclic fantasy, there's a sense that the world is static, only temporarily deviating from its baseline position, and in conjunction with this, there's a sense that the world only consists of whatever we've seen of it so far. In Swords and Deviltry, the first third of the novel takes place entirely in the Cold Wastes, and though the city of Lankhmar is discussed, it's only described in the most generic possible terms as the quintessential fantasy city. It's really rather disembodied, at least until part of the story takes place there, and the place is described a little more directly.

This sense, the sense that you're creating the fantasy world as you explore it, is very different from the feeling you get in The Fellowship of the Ring, where the remote "outside world" beyond the Shire seems to live by its own inscrutable rules, and thus seems hostile and unwelcoming to the hapless explorers. Indeed, both The Swords of Lankhmar and Monster Hunter Tri are very encouraging to the explorer, who can travel through successive landscapes and towns that are static variations on a range of accepted themes.

Of course, the reason I called this "cyclic fantasy" is that there seems to be an unchanging "way things are," and the fantasy world of these tales always eventually returns to this state. Indeed, in cyclic fantasy stories, the main characters are often tasked with averting some cosmic disaster or destroying some villain that's getting too powerful, whether for rewards or for vengeance; thus, they are often tasked with maintaining the status quo. The "quest" is a job, assigned by some guardian or authority in the world, that leads to the restoration of the given order. This cycle repeats forever, throughout the myriad adventures of the story's protagonists.

Indeed, one of the distinctive aspects of Swords and Deviltry is that the two main characters' lives before meeting -- their lives at their ancestral homes -- are barely sketched out, only given enough detail that we can look forward to their dissolution. In effect, it seems like these "normal lives" -- the Gray Mouser's life of tutelage under a good wizard, and Farfhad's life within the community of northerners -- are already deviations from the true way things should be. By escaping and defying their mundane backgrounds, these characters bring into effect the status quo of their world. One of the essential components of this status quo is that these two adventurers are united in friendship and purpose, and that they're free of their histories and obligations, at liberty to explore and undertake quests.

If there's a video game equivalent to the "literary fantasy" paradigm I mentioned earlier, I think it's the Final Fantasy series (I'm thinking of Final Fantasy VI and VII in particular). Like Tolkien's work, these games take place in worlds that seem to be neck-deep in their own history. Exploring and understanding these worlds is remarkable, largely because they're so unpredictable and full of personality and narrative power. However, the feeling of being in a living, historical world is remarkably different from Monster Hunter Tri's sense that the world is waiting there for you to occupy and defend it.

And though I'd never try to make Fritz Leiber (or anyone, really) compete with Tokien for some sort of literary merit award, it does seem like there will always be a place in fantasy for the cyclical, the alchemical and archetypal, the world created as a static structure to frame the adventures of the characters who enter it. This is the setting we enter, not as strangers, but as avatars, harnessing our power to create the world as we experience it.

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