Political Activism in Fairy Stories: Part the Second

I think, for example, there is a political  overtone to Eddison’s Mercury It has dark echoes of Oswald Mosley’s  absurd noble-worshipping; it’s not an accident that they are fruits of  the same cultural tree. I’m not saying we have to cull Eddison from the  herd because he is tainted with Wrong Ideas. But I think this is the kind  of thing Mr. Bakker is struggling ineptly to suggest: that even fantastic  dreams can have echo-forms of the dreamer’s waking life. Also, at least  one trip across the river Styx leads us to a Paid Political Announcement  by the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. This does not mean that Vergil’s  Aeneid is a bad book, wholly formed by political imperatives (as  some have foolishly claimed) but it does show that fantasy is connected  to reality and that some (not all: I completely agree in your rejection  of this absurd notion) of the connections may be political. I’d take this  on a case by case basis rather than an all-or-nothing approach.

My own opinion was not given in the previous screed. Let me state it here: of all species of writing, the one least likely to contain a political overtone is fantasy. This does not mean fantasy is free from political overtones, especially when we use the word ‘politics’ to refer to any philosophy or opinion on any topic whatsoever, not merely the art of governning multitudes. This does not mean one cannot write UTOPIA or ISLANDIA or WIZARDS FIRST RULE, or pen a visit to the planet Vulcan or the island of the Houyhnhnms, ad use the episode to make some point about the controversies of the day. Clearly one can. One can do it awkwardly or craftily, openly or by stealth, and either augment the tale or ruin it. 

There is, for example, a political overtone to my own dear book MISTS OF EVERNESS: the modern Americans are not prepared to accept the rule of the heir King Arthur when he arises, and a certain mockery of the administration in power when it was written was intended by your humble author. However, it has been read by at least one reader who took it as a mockery of the administration in power when it was published, with no diminishment of the enjoyment by that reader, at least. Mocking politicians is welcomed by every faction of every age. I admit the book would have been stronger if the political element here had been less obvious and less awkward–but one cannot win the Prometheus Award without offending the gun-grabbing collectivists, so I took the risk. 

There is also a political overtone to Mark Twain’s A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT, making almost the same point with almost the same figures. But Twain does it gracefully.

If Mr. Bakker wanted to argue that all poets put in praises of their patrons, and that whoever pays the piper calls the tunes, he would have and could have made a stronger argument than the argument he made.

Both Ariosto and Virgil take the time to praise the ancestors of the patrons for whom they write. Oddly enough, Homer does not do this. Among ancient literature, it is rare to see a portrait drawn ‘warts and all.’ (The unknown Jewish author of the Book of Kings also has this gift.)  

Of course, then he would have to explain the fantasy of Michael Moorcock, which has something of an anarchistic tone, which is at least critical of the age in which he lives, including the values upheld by those who publish and buy his books. But sometimes the patron, including the wide range of the buying public, is sick of flattery and wants to hear his own criticized.  

The argument given here, however, was an all or nothing argument of just the kind you (and I) regard with suspicion. 

The political theory behind LORD OF THE RINGS is that we should crown the divinely ordained son of the ancient line of Atlantis, and resist the Turk who is invading Constantinople? Such is my reading of the great man’s work.

One can see the merest hint of anti-communism in PRINCESS OF MARS: the Green Men do indeed own all property in common, and Deja Thoris upbraids them for it.

But the admiration of Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha and the other valiant fighting men of Mercury is a little harder to call political, unless that word embraces everything a poet thinks about vice and virtue. This is the admiration of warlike splendor for its own sake. I am sure the author would have been as pleased by the panoply and nobility of Athenian hoplites as of Spartan, despite the diametric differences in the politics of these two warlike city states, the world’s first democracy, and first totalitarianism.

By the time we get to PIRATES OF CALLISTO by Lin Carter or Lovecraft’s DREAM QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH that we are dealing with fairly pure fantasy for the sake of fantasy. I defy anyone to read THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER by Lord Dunsany and tell me, from this source alone, what that peer’s opinion was of woman’s suffrage, or the Boer War, or disestablishment. Robert E. Howard, which was he, Republican or Democrat? How would King Kull have voted?

Peter S. Beagle is still alive. Read THE LAST UNICORN and tell me his opinion of the New Deal, Nixon Administration, the Gulf War, the Oil Crisis, the Space Program, the reunification of Germany? All I can see in that book is his opinion of men who live their lives lying to themselves, blind to beauty, or consumed with covetousness.

Good heavens, I have written three stories across eight novels, and read the comments of reviewers and readers alike speculating about my politics and religion, and only one critic hit close to the bull’s-eye, and seven out of eight were not just wrong, but perfectly wrong, thinking the author’s opinions as the OPPOSITE of what they were. And I am hardly an opaque or riddle-loving writer.

Let me put it this way: people who have politics on the brain see politics in everything, the same way a Freudian sees everything as related to sex, and a Marxist sees everything as economics, a Hobbesian sees everything as a struggle for power. You can find hints of a writer’s politics in his writing, not because politics is everything, but because philosophy is everything, and a writer’s philosophy informs both how he votes and what he writes.

When you live in a corrupt age, where every issue whatsoever becomes something some busybody wants to make a law about, such as how couples get married, or who is allowed to spank his child, or how students should be educated, or whether the Party approves of the past or wishes it thrown down the Memory Hole, then anything written where the author expresses an opinion about love or children, discipline or education, or future or past, suddenly becomes a political issue.

When the law has escaped all bounds, and its tendrils touch everything from motherhood to the weather predictions for one hundred years from now, you cannot write a poem praising a tree without being read as a Green, or describe the dashing Robin Hood without being denounced as a Red.

If you put sound economics in your book, people will think you are a libertarian (which, if you think about it, is quite a compliment to libertarians); if you have a character, any character at all, believe in God and not commit murder with an axe, you will be denounced as a fundamentalist, even if you yourself are a lifelong atheist (which, if you think about it, is quite an insult to atheists—are they all to be dismissed as impure if not found shrieking at story-strangling Pullman levels of hatred?); if you have two characters get married, and they happen to be occupying bodies of the opposite sex at the time (two sexes of the seven or eight that exist on the planet you’ve invented), you will be denounced as a reactionary and perhaps a homophobe; if you mention China, you will be called a racist. I use these examples because they have all happened to me.

No, I have seen these interpreters of politics in action. They are about as accurate in their assessments of authors as the writers of medieval bestiaries were in their biology. Like them, they are really writing homilies.