Nihilism and the Erosion of Fantasy

This is not a definitive essay. It’s not even an argument, exactly. These are just my thoughts, hopefully coherent and possibly of some value.

SPOILER ALERT: I discuss The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, Game of Thrones, Attack on Titan, and Lord of the Rings with the reckless abandon of someone who assumes you’ve read/watched just as much as I have.

Lucy running to meet Aslan, who is standing dramatically in the forest.

The Chronicles of Narnia were the first fantasy books I ever read. I loved them. I can’t even count how many times I’ve re-read each one. It might just be nostalgia, but they hold a special place in my heart.

My favorite was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader because it was the grandest adventure of them all: Prince Caspian (my favorite character) went on this amazing sea adventure with Lucy and Edmund, Eustace got turned into a dragon, and fearless Reepicheep fulfilled his dream of venturing beyond the edge of the world.

In 5th grade I read The Golden Compass.

Painting of a white ferret with a golden compass.

I remember little of what happened in that book, other than there was this girl who was soul-bonded with an animal pet and her friend died because his soul-pet got killed. I hated that ending. To this day I can picture it as I did then: that girl kissing the face of her dead friend and then leaving him behind. I resented stories for trying to make me cry and usually held my tears out of spite, but for this one I shed a few (in secret) anyway.

Whatever joy The Voyage of the Dawn Treader brought me, this was the opposite.

Much later I learned Philip Pullman intended His Dark Materials to be a secular answer to C. S. Lewis’s decidedly Christian Narnia books. An understandable goal; Narnia has been passed from parent to child since the 50s—clearly, it resonated with people. And in the BookTube Community, His Dark Materials seems to have resonated with many as well. Narnia, on the other hand, appears like it might fade into the past.

Perhaps I am just a lonely exception, a remnant of a bygone era to which I don’t rightly belong.  But, in any case, this clear dichotomy between what are supposed to be contemporary series serves as a jumping-off point for what I’d like to explore.

Society has become more and more nihilist through the decades, and I suppose it’s only fitting our fiction reflects that. But I think fantasy is worse off for it. Let me try to use two modern examples to expound on this.

First, Game of Thrones.

Jon and Daenerys walking up to two dragons guarding skeletons.

Of course Game of Thrones, right? Now, I’m sure some will (with merit) say I am not qualified to talk about this because I’ve not read the books (way too much rape and incest for me) but I have at least kept up with the show (through YouTube clips and fan reviews) as I feel is my duty, considering I’m trying to be a published fantasy author myself. So take this as you will.

I hated Jaime Lannister.

The King Slayer, with his stupid smug face, and goodness gracious our introduction was him f***ing his twin sister and then attempting to murder a child! But over the course of the story we came to understand how he earned his title, he grew as a person, and after he saved Brienne from that bear I was rooting for him. I think a lot of people were.

But, flaws of season 8 aside, we know where Jaime’s story ends: exactly where it began. Same with Jon Snow. Same with Daenerys: for all her admirable goals, she wound up the same as her father. I completely respect GRR Martin for sticking to vision despite fan backlash, and I’m sure he’ll handle it better than the show did, but I think that nihilistic, cyclic quality to human nature is one of the core themes of the series.

I guess it’s realistic, but I wanted to see Jaime be a better man. I wanted Jon to be a hero. I wanted Daenerys to be a kind and noble queen. And I don’t think I was the only one.

Second example: Attack on Titan.

Attack on Titans characters, riding horseback, with signal flare smoke in the background.

This show/manga is really what inspired this discussion.

The first episode intrigued me, and by the third or fourth I was hooked. That anime head-hopping style was an asset here, and I got to know so many characters (most of whom die, unfortunately) and see complex situations from a variety of perspectives. Impatient as I am, I had to look up the manga and read the chapters that haven’t been released in season 4 yet.

I understand it was not Isayama’s intention, but I rather liked Eren in the beginning. He was an angry kid, a bit scary sure, but he was also fearless and driven by a dream of freedom. And considering Eren’s (inadvertent) influence on Jean, perhaps that was just what the people in this horrifying, titan-dominated world needed.

Though I guess it was really Armin with the dream: of seeing the sea, water that glows like fire, fields of ice, giant rocks that take days to climb. And after hearing about it, Eren wanted that dream too. But the both of them found the world beyond the walls to be full of people, of pain, and so unlike anything they believed it would as children.

About about half way through season 3 the show started to hurt me. Sure, it hurt to see all those people fight and die along the way to that point, but I guess I held out hope (like a Scout should) they were dying for a reason—a good dream, one they would reach.

But in the end I think, again, the story has a nihilistic theme: the world is cruel, dreams are naïve, even the right decisions hurt innocent people, and the best we can hope for is that we find happiness in the little things before we die a probably meaningless death.

I can’t say there is anything inherently wrong with these themes. But it was those dreams of the sea—those dreams that drove a beaten and bloody Eren to pull his friend from a titan’s mouth—that drew me into the story.

Eren jumping into a Titan's mouth to save Armin before he's swallowed.

It’s so incredibly ironic that modern authors are creating these nihilistic worlds while Lewis and Tolkien, who both lived through the trenches of WWI, crafted stories that to this day serve as a source of hope.

The Lord of the Rings is not all cheery. Boromir succumbs to temptation. Gandalf dies. Both Faramir and Éowyn struggle with nihilistic ideas. Denethor sees only a dark future and kills himself. Frodo is corrupted by the ring. And a story has no stakes if there is no suffering.

Ultimately, Middle Earth is saved by two things: Samwise, a simple man with the simple dreams of being gardener, and Frodo’s sparing of Gollum, when he saw not the twisted monster but Sméagol, the person he was before he found the ring—the person Frodo naively dreamed both he and Sméagol could be again.

Whatever nihilism is, that’s the opposite.

I said in the beginning I didn’t intend for this to be an argument, exactly. I still don’t. These modern, nihilistic stories do a decidedly better job at exploring the intentions and thoughts of all sides—good, bad, and in between—involved in the story’s conflict. Game of Thrones and Attack on Titan are both outstanding examples of that exploration done very well.

But I guess somewhere along the line, when we abandoned the dark lords we also abandoned the invitation to hope. And I guess that breaks my heart, because what is the fantasy genre if not the perfect opportunity to dream big?

I’m not sure anyone can read The Lord of the Rings and not be struck by the absolute beauty of the world he describes. Tolkien himself was a devout Catholic, but even the most secular among us today experience his stories and walk away yearning for that something more.

Nihilistic fantasy doesn’t do that.

Nihilistic fantasy leaves you feeling like s**t.

If I wanted to experience the horrors of the world I’d read about slavery, about the child sex trade, about Nazi and Imperial Japanese human experiments, about real soldiers’ first hand experiences in real war, about what the CCP is doing to Uyghurs right now. Heck, I do read about those things. It’s, dare I say, our duty to read about those things. Those very real, very terrible things.

So, do we really need to manufacture fictional suffering when we’re surrounded by the real thing? 

I could be wrong. Maybe, deep down, I’m still that same little kid trying to hide her tears, resentful because an author made me feel bad—maybe I’m just someone who’d rather have a Jesus-lion than more painful, intellectually engaging narratives. After all, fictional injustice can spark conversation about real injustice.

Then again, it’s not hard to find despair. But it is hard to find hope. And, maybe, what we need from our fiction—more than anything else—is that invitation to dream big.

“How can you believe in me, Idris, even after everything that’s come before me has ended in disaster?”
“Because…” The girl nodded, as though completing her thoughts. “Because happy endings are real, too. And they’re the ones worth fighting for.”

Fire of the Forebears

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