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Monday, November 17, 2003

Anthropology of a Half-Elf

I've been playing a video game lately set in the archetype of fantasy worlds, the Forgotten Realms. It keeps reminding me of the failings of the fantasy genre, one of which is the it's lazy. Most fantasy worlds, especially in games, but litarature is hardly exempt, seem to be put together basically as an idealized view of medieval/Renaissance Europe, except with magic and monsters thrown in. I would love to see, or perhaps do, a fantasy world where the idea of magic is used to examine human behavior, and a society based on this is created.

A simple example: in this game, a bad guy goes into a crypt in the middle of a city, and starts turning all the corpses into zombies and skeletons. The undead seem to be problem in many fantasy settings. It would make sense for a taboo to be put into place of doing anything with a corpse except burning it. Successful societies, not wanting to have to deal with regular zombie attacks, would probably put a taboo into place against not burning corpses. Yet here's thousands of corpses, virtually unattended, just begging for someone wanting to sow chaos to start reanimating their skeleton army.

A deeper examination of the way human behavior might change would involve the philosophic implications of having certain people able to use magic in a society. Given how quickly people through history are to ascribe betterness to people in power, what would happen if there were people who actually were obviously able to do things that others in a society couldn't? Another question: medieval Europe and the Middle East were extremely faith-based and monotheistic, to the point where you cannot examine those societies without understanding the role of religion. Given this, why do people in these fantasy settings, which are pragmatically polytheistic (the gods exist cause they walk around, no faith is necessary) tend to act in the same form as the idealized Catholics of Europe?

The question I find most interesting, however, has to do with perception and thought. Examining the way those work and change is my favorite intellectual activity, so this is no surprise. Anyway, given the idea of real miracles, of magic, how would people's thoughts change? It seems to me that the very idea of rational thought would not have developed. Or, if it had, it would not be given anywhere the level of importance that it is given in today's society, and in the fictitious fantasy worlds that spring up.

Fantasy's bigger brother, science fiction is at its best when it examines its form of these questions. "Given technology, what is humanity?" Philip K. Dick, for example, made his living off of this. Hyperion is a fantastically sweeping epic, but with this question at its core, maintains its relevance as being something other than a nifty story. Unless fantasy starts examining these questions, it will continue to be looked down upon in terms of intellectual worth.
- Rowan Kaiser, 3:26 PM
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