Guest blog: The Fantasy novel realm is lacking American stories and American characters
With the well-hyped beginning of the third season of HBO’s "Game of Thrones" series, America will once again return to Westeros, the universe created by American fantasy writer George R.R. Martin. Americans have embraced this world of kings and dragons in much the same way J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fantasy series "The Lord of the Rings" has been loved since being released in the U.S. in the 1960s.
Fantasy series like Tolkien’s have become ingrained in American culture. The characters of Fantasy books are well known, even to those who never read the genre. The heroes and villains, their stories and the lessons learned from them, are common knowledge. And the reason for this is that in the modern world, particularly in the West and the United States, Fantasy has become our mythology.
Mythology: a collection of fables, legends, and myths that tell stories about the culture, about its values, and how the people living in that culture are supposed to act, and what type of person they should strive to be.
Yet if Fantasy books make up much of our mythology, and I think strongly that that is true, then I also think that we, in America, have a problem. The problem is that most of our Fantasy isn’t written by Americans about American culture and values.
The most famous books of Fantasy are arguably "The Lord of the Rings," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter." And they were all written by British authors, about—essentially—British characters, and discussing British values.
My father gave me the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy when I was in fifth grade, and I burned through them in two weeks. Even before those books I started reading about three young wizards named Harry, Ron and Hermione, and was captivated by that world as well. Even my mother, not a Fantasy reader at all, has strong memories of reading and loving "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," perhaps the most famous of the books in C.S. Lewis’ "The Chronicles of Narnia."
English values are similar to ours, but they’re still not American. And if mythology is supposed to teach a culture how to act and behave, what type of person you should strive to be, then we have a serious problem, because all our mythology is teaching us how to be good Brits, not good Americans.
If we’re going to teach American culture and beliefs to generation after generation, then we need powerful stories and characters that will remain with us for decades. We need more American Fantasy that speaks to our culture and our values.
Yet we don’t have that American Fantasy. Even American Fantasy writers write like they’re British. George R.R. Martin is hailed as the American version of Tolkien, yet his series takes place in a mythical world styled after medieval Europe, and has characters that usually seem pretty British to me. When HBO went and turned his popular books into an even more popular TV show, they filmed it mostly in Wales and Ireland, and used a cast of mostly British actors who all speak and look and talk like Brits.
American Fantasy authors don’t write about America. We don’t have anyone writing stories set in the lush Mississippi delta, or the Rocky Mountains, or the forests on the East coast, or among the redwoods on the West coast. There aren’t Fantasy books discussing and questioning American social issues or our notions of heroism, like our obsession with vigilantly justice so prevalent in our westerns and action films. We don’t have Fantasy characters that are symbols of what to strive for as Americans.
All hope is not lost, though. We do seem to be making some progress. As bad as Stephanie Meyers’ "Twilight" books are, they still mostly take place in Washington State, and in small town America. As poorly as the characters and scenes are written—I truly hope we won’t be talking about Bella Swan or Edward Cullen in a decade—the books are about Americans, in America.
Another popular series is "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. It’s more Science Fiction than Fantasy, but the two genres are close enough. Collins’ books take place in a dystopian future America, so the characters are American, or at least a fictional version of future Americans. The main character, Katniss Everdeen, does seem like the type of character that can teach readers how they should act and strive to be as Americans, not as Brits.
But I don’t think we have any truly American Fantasy yet, or at least not any that could become part of our mythology. But perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we get some American mythology from our Fantasy books.
I really hope this comes true, because I’m rather tired of listening to British accents and reading about British characters. That won’t stop me from watching the third season of "Game of Thrones," or from rereading "Harry Potter" for the umpteenth time. But hopefully the next generation will have an American series to reread over and over again with American characters to fall in love with. And perhaps the next HBO Fantasy series won’t have actors that all talk like they just stepped out of the mists of an English moor. Why can’t people with New York or Southern or Californian accents ride dragons and cast spells?