I have a confession to make. I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. I’ve always preferred science fiction. The reasons for this are complicated, but I suspect it has to do with my philosophical disposition. I’ve always agreed with Douglas Adams that the wonder of understanding is better than the wonder of not knowing. In my opinion, science fiction exemplifies the wonder of understanding. For most science fiction, modernity is a given. We don’t need to go before modernity, to retreat into mythology, in order to capture wonder.
Having said that, I get the appeal of fantasy. It often presents us with a world in which virtue is rewarded and evil punished. At least that’s been the case traditionally. Helen Cruz, at The Prosblogion, has brought my attention to an article by Adam Brereton on George R.R. Martin’s phenomenally successful Game of Thrones. He argues that GOT fails as fantasy because it doesn’t follow ‘elfin ethics.’ In conventional fantasy, oath-breakers are punished, oath-keepers are rewarded. Those who run afoul of metaphysical laws face the consequences. Virtue triumphs over vice. However, in contrast to Tolkein, Martin’s characters break these conventions. Presumably, this is why GOT doesn’t work for Brereton. Well, granted it may not work as a morality tale. Brerenton seems to have primarily Christian fantasy in mind, although he talks about Lovecraft as an example of a ‘profane’ or atheistic fantasy writer.
Although I disagree with Brereton’s requirements for fantasy — for reasons I’ll get to in a moment — he does have a point. Fantasy, especially in the Tolkein/C.S. Lewis vein, has deep ties to theodicy. For those unfamiliar with this term, theodicy is basically an attempt to get God off the hook for evil and suffering. It is difficult for us to imagine how the seemingly pointless evil and suffering in the world could be part of an overarching cosmic plan. Fantasy of the Tolkein/Lewis variety is very often an attempt to expand our imaginations; to envision what philosophers would call a ‘possible world’ in which suffering is redeemed in some way. It’s this aspect of fantasy that Cruz takes up in her piece. Another way of framing Brereton’s complaint is: should the characters in GOT, given the violence and seemingly gratuitous evil of their world, believe in God? Brereton’s implicit answer is ‘no’ and that is his fundamental objection.
I’m not going to get into the theodicy debate specifically here. (Full disclosure: I don’t think any theodicy succeeds.) I’ll simply point out, as many of Brereton’s readers did in the comments, that there are no moral requirements on the fantasy genre. If ‘atheistic’ fantasy isn’t to Brereton’s taste, that’s fine. But there are many examples of amoral or morally ambiguous fantasy. My favorite example is Robert E. Howard’s work, especially Conan. Conan lives by a code of sorts, but his moral conduct is often questionable at best. He triumphs, often against magical forces, by sheer strength and force of will, rather than any attention to virtue. He lives in a cruel, violent world and takes what he wants most often by force and occasionally by cunning. Yet only a very ad hoc definition of ‘fantasy’ would exclude the sword and sorcery world of Conan the Barbarian from the genre due to its amoral portrayal of the universe. Likewise Martin’s GOT.
As far as I’m concerned, there are no moral constraints on the fantasy genre (again, speaking as very nominal fan). Some works of fantasy support theodical interpretations of the kind Brereton favors; others do not. Which works of fantasy one prefers (or whether one prefers science fiction) will likely have to do with one’s philosophical and religious disposition.