Many moons ago I wrote a sappy little review for Mists of Avalon over on Goodreads.com. Breaking my usual rule of not reviewing things I hadn’t just read – I cannot trust younger me not to entirely miss the point – I instead focused on the reading experience. It was spring, and I was nostalgic. So io9, doing a round up of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels to Cheer You the Frak Up quoted my nostalgia piece. Awww.
The interesting thing to me is that I have been thinking a lot about the effects of nostalgia on our assessments of the fantasy genre, both as it is located in the genre itself, and as that pertains to the readership. A lot of fantasy – and I’m talking here mostly of high fantasy, the kind set in faux medieval settings with kings and questing and the like – is often heavily nostalgic for Ye Olde Times, when men could be men and women could be chattel or nonexistent.
Some of this is just the simplification of the historical record, which is inevitable. There is simply no way to record all of history, and it gets winnowed and simplified down to the Coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800, then the Battle of Hastings, 1066, then maybe the Crusades/Plague Years and then Boom! Renaissance! The ways that history gets elided makes us think that somehow politics and economics and all that jazz were somehow less complex than it is today. (Though, admittedly, without instantaneous communications and with a much smaller population, there were fewer players acting on a longer time scale.) Add in the fact that history tends to be recorded by those with the means to record – freedom of the press being limited to those who own one, etc – and you have a recipe for a modern vision of medieval Europe that doesn’t reflect the actual shitshow it was for huge swaths of the population.
So, on that level, I can kinda understand how fantasy writers tend to build these little heraldic semi-Klingon empires with all of their honor and pretty, pointless ladies. (If indeed there are ladies at all; I’m looking at you, Tolkien.) But then I also just get depressed a little because these are modern writers who are writing to a modern audience, and why is this fantasy of white, male, monarchic dominance seen as a good thing? I’m an American, and while I often don’t have a lot to be happy about in our history, the fact that we threw Old George III over and built a functioning democracy – nevermind that our methods and motives might have been way less than pure, lalala – is something I am very proud of. Fuck hereditary monarchy.
So, regardless of how Mists of Avalon might read to me now, I was just bowled over at 19 by a fantasy world that not just included women, but included women who mattered, who were political, and interrogated the whole business of monarchy, power, religion & what have you. It is very easy to be dismissive of this time in my life – O, Lilith Fair, O, Tori Amos – but it was a godamn revelation to see people like me – by which I mean with vaginas – in a genre that tended to take for granted that a Heroic Mythic Past was one predicated on the subjugation of my entire gender.
And, just to be clear, I am aware how phrases like “subjugation of my entire gender” sound. This is the thing: given how common it is to find depressing, regressive gender roles in a genre that exalts the cultures that enforce them, I truly believe that the take home message, whether intended or not, is that depressing, regressive gender roles are a proximal condition for said exalted cultures. I may be but a lowly lady, but I think that is utter bullshit. Nostalgia, as I have said before, is memory without shame. We shouldn’t be ashamed of the mythic past – we were not there – but we should be ashamed of exalting pasts that were predicated on subjugation. Which might possibly be all of them, unfortunately.
Well, that ended on a sour note. I’m going to go hang out in my house full of electricity and running water, exalting in my right to vote.