Ok, so check out my bad-ass new plot: A poor farm boy, orphaned at a young age, discovers on his sixteenth birthday that he has unusual abilities. Then a mysterious and malevolent stranger appears, a black-cloaked man on a black horse. The boy flees, but not before his foster-parents reveal his hitherto unsuspected parentage, and…
Wait, what? Tolkien already has a black-cloaked man on a black horse? David Eddings has one, too? And Robert Jordan? Dammit. Well, at least I have my farm boy. What?? Eddings has a farm boy, too? And Jordan? I hate writing fantasy. I quit.
For those of you who hope to avoid my pain, here’s a quiz that will tell you just how original (or un-) your prospective novel will be. It includes questions such as the following:
Who serves as comic relief in your group?
a) a court jester or clown
b) a bumbling magician
c) a talking animal
d) a chubby person, dwarf, or an obnoxiously conceited rich person
e) none of the above
You can decide for yourself which is the most novel answer, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s not a, b, c, or d.
In fact, if you wanted to concoct the most original fantasy novel ever written, you could compile a list of all the relevant clichés – magic swords, white dudes on dragons, villains whose names begin with Z or M – then systematically purge those elements from your book. Once you’ve removed all prophecies, quests, orphans, monsters, and magic you will have something utterly new. But here’s the thing – will it still be fantasy? No one will accuse your book of re-treading Tolkienesque ground. The work is absolutely original. Only, maybe originality isn’t an absolute virtue.
We didn’t always revere originality. Imagine if Luke had glanced over the gospel of Mark and thought, “Well shit, this guy already wrote about Jesus.” Or if Michelangelo skipped his Pietà because it was, you know, old news. Or if Shakespeare who, not wanting to retread ground already well-stomped by Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest, skipped Hamlet to write “Jim and the Red Shoe.” And don’t get me going about the sonnet or the minuet. I picture Bach in Leipzig thinking, “Well, I was going to write another mass, but fuck it. I want to do something new.”
This isn’t to say that originality is bad. The joy of listening to a Bach ciaconne or Alannis Morissette’s outstanding cover of My Humps lies partially in discovering the myriad ways in which the artist can remake a familiar genre or form. But then, in order to remake a genre, there must be something there, something necessary and essential, to remake.
As I write, I’m drinking an unusual beer from one of my favorite breweries, Dogfish Head. It’s an IPA brewed with apricots. It’s original. It’s good. I appreciate the unusual take on a classic brew. I would be pissed, however, if Dogfish Head had pawned off on me an entire bottle of apricot juice. That would be even more original, more unexpected, but it wouldn’t be an IPA. When I drink an IPA I expect the beer to fall within certain parameters of hoppiness and maltiness, and the fun lies in seeing what the brewers can come up with inside of those parameters.
As Robert Frost famously said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” I think he’s off the mark on free verse, but the point is that structure and expectation can bring pleasure and purpose to games and art alike. Watching Federer and Nadal idly bat tennis balls in random directions would get dull pretty quickly. We enjoy the game – playing it and watching it – because of the net and the lines.
The hoary old tropes of fantasy, even its clichés, are the net. They condition our expectations and allow us to appreciate the virtuosity of the writer. This isn’t to say that every fantasy needs to have dragons, or magic swords, or ancient prophecies, but the writer who, in the quest for absolute originality, purges all vestiges of tradition from her novel is writing something else, something that is no longer fantasy. Police procedurals, maybe. Or instruction manuals.
So I say, bring on the country tunes involving tractors and heartbreak! Bring on the hoppy IPAs! Bring on the white wedding dresses! I’m ok keeping six strings on the guitar and gin in my martini. The question for all of us, I suppose, is this: Which tropes in fantasy make the genre what it is? What, if anything, can we not do without?