The Psychology Of Fantasy
In the sadder corners of the Internet, people daydream about getting isekai’d: dying in a way that teleports them to the fantasy universe, where they get to spend all their time fighting dragons.
Some of us are already close. The local six year old, between her video games, books, and tabletop RPGs, must spend a good chunk of her day in the fantasy universe, fighting dragons but also trolls, demons, goblins, and orcs. If she were isekai’d she’d hardly notice.
I’m using the definite article - “the” fantasy universe - as a deliberate provocation. Each individual game/book/webcomic/CYOA claims to take place in a different setting: Middle-Earth vs. Shannara vs. Greyhawk vs. Hyrule. Some of them make a big deal about how original their backstory is. It still surprises me how closely they blend together, how thin the differences are. They might make the Dark Lord a human-turned-lich instead of a rebellious archangel. Or call their elves “Alfar” or “Aeldi” or some other word that only sounds kind of like “elves”. Their tech level might be Renaissance instead of medieval (if they’re extra daring, very early industrial). Their MacGuffin could be a sword or a book instead of a ring. Maybe the ruins of the Ancient Progenitor Civilization Who Died During A Mysterious Cataclysm are somewhere unexpected, like underground or on a floating island. You can vary a few basic parameters, but the core stays the same.
The fantasy universe is so familiar that subverting it has become nearly as big a business as playing it straight. Diana Wynne Jones’ Dark Lord of Derkholm, Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker, Order Of The Stick. There are a million jokes along the lines of “what if the Dark Lord’s henchmen unionized?” or “what if there were performance reviews at the Adventurers’ Guild”? Terry Pratchett’s Discworld treats the fantasy universe as a given, something everyone will obviously understand, and then uses it as a foil in order to investigate everything else.
I once tried to explore one small corner of space different from the standard fantasy universe: what if, instead of receiving the secrets of magic from the Ancient Progenitor Civilization, you had to try saying lots of words to see which ones were magical? The result was Unsong, which was originally supposed to be about the ways different magical copyright law regimes did vs. didn’t encourage innovation (before it went off the rails). As far as I know, this extremely basic idea (someone has to invent spells, but then anyone can use them) had never been tried before; take the tiniest step away from the standard, in any direction, and Here Be Dragons (of the metaphorical variety). Why?
I know of three general stories:
J.R.R. Tolkien was the only person with a single creative bone in his body in the entire 20th century, and everyone else has just been remixing the parts he left us.
Readers don’t like change, and it’s useful to have a “common vernacular” of fantasy concepts (elves, dwarves, etc) so you don’t have to overwhelm people as you explain what the hw’veelbrae are.
Each part of the fantasy universe has a load-bearing psychological function; if you altered it, it wouldn’t perform the function as well.
I want to talk about Story #3.
James Bond is a competence fantasy. You can imagine yourself as a suave super-spy, defeating communists and picking up hot women.
Fight Club is an agency fantasy. You imagine yourself (or “yourself”) having the initiative to break out of your stifling life and doing all the crazy things you’re too afraid to try.
Lord of the Rings has some of this, in the person of Aragorn. But the key plot with the Ring is the opposite. Frodo isn’t unusually competent. He’s not even unusually agentic - he only starts his quest after Gandalf foists it upon him, saying that it has to be him for mysterious and kind of hokey-sounding reasons. If he is above-normal in any qualities, it’s the qualities we all imagine ourselves as being above-normal at - hard to corrupt, loyal to our friends, having a certain normal-person-good-sense while everyone around us seems strange and suspicious.
I think this is the key. Every part of the fantasy universe is optimized to justify why a person with no special ability or agency can save the world.
People say that in a democracy, anyone can grow up to become President. This is false. Only a very specific kind of person becomes President - someone with certain skills (charisma, ambition, political strategy) who’s willing to put in decades of hard work (both building a power base by succeeding at other positions, and spending grueling months on the campaign trail). This fails the Frodo fantasy. It sort of passes the Aragorn fantasy, but not very effectively: it’s hard to daydream about, it happens very slowly, and there’s a lot of boring parts and moral compromise involved.
The actual system of government where anyone can grow up to become the leader is “monarchy where the rightful king has hidden away his heir to be raised by poor farmers, such that even he himself does not know he is the true prince”. You can be a shy, awkward kid whose only good qualities are a heart of gold and having good friends, and in MWTRKHHAHHTBRBPFSTEHHDNKHITTP, you can suddenly be told you’re a special person and have been charged with (through no choice of your own) saving and ruling the realm. If there are certain relics only a king can use, this even gives you free magic! Therefore, MWTRKHHAHHTBRBPFSTEHHDNKHITTP is the fantasy world’s preferred method of government (though absolute sortition would also work, if any author was brave enough to try it).
People say that guns are the great equalizer. This is true, so fantasy universes cannot have guns (unless the hero is John Wick, who can mysteriously shoot hundreds of equally-well-armed people in a row without getting shot himself). Magic is like a gun, in the sense that casting fireball with your wand has much the same effects as casting bullet with your revolver. But only certain people have magic. Access to magic is gated by blood, or inexplicable talent, or discovery of the right old scrolls moldering in the ruins of the Ancient Progenitor Civilization. Therefore, you can wake up one day to discover that you, without exerting any agency, have suddenly become one of the most powerful people in the world.
But also: the way to become John Wick is to practice shooting, every day, again and again, more obsessively than anyone else. Not only is this boring to watch (the movies don’t show it, and if they did it would be a short training montage) but it makes him too different from us, brings it back to the James Bond or Tyler Durden fantasy - we know, deep down, that we’re not the kind of person who would do this. You can sort of get magic this way - that’s what your average Level 20 Dungeons and Dragons wizard has done - but most fantasy protagonists are more interesting than that.
The most perfect fantasy series, in the sense of hitting the exact center of every trope, might be Terry Brooks’ Shannara. In the third book, Wishsong of Shannara, a wise wizard tells Brin Ohmsford that because her ancestors used powerful magics, she has had those magics rub off in her blood in the form of the Wishsong, some sort of incomprehensible ability to get anything she wants as long as she can master herself and her emotions enough to use it correctly. She is charged with fighting the Dark Lord, and has various adventures which she can’t really solve with her Wishsong because she’s not able to master her emotions well enough to control it. Finally she confronts the Dark Lord, who tries to corrupt her, but her brother shows up at the last moment, reminds her how much she loves her family, and she realizes this is who she truly is, masters her Wishsong, and destroys the Dark Lord.
This seems to me the most perfect fantasy plot, or the most perfect explanation of the role of magic in fantasy. Brin is nowhere near the most competent character in these books - she’s a teenage girl who doesn’t know much about the world - but she has been born infinitely special. But she doesn’t face the humiliation of knowing that she only defeated the Dark Lord through the birth lottery (and we don’t face the humiliation of reading a ten page book where the wise wizard tells her to defeat the Dark Lord and she says “okay” and immediately uses her magic to zap him from afar). Rather, she has to find herself to use her magic. It’s earned, but in a way that makes it feel more mystical, rather than less. We don’t want to practice shooting obsessively every day for years, but going on a quest and finding ourselves seems both achievable and kind of fun.
Finally: why the Ancient Progenitor Civilization? How come invariably they fought the Dark Lord before, bound him for a thousand years, then collapsed, and now it’s been 999 years and the Dark Lord is straining at his bonds?
The Ancient Progenitors lived and died so there can be free hypertech available to pick up! You can’t write a story about Celebrimbor, the brilliant magical smith who forged the Rings of Power, because he’s not Everyman, and the story would mostly be about him studying magic smithcraft and trying to figure out the exact right ratio of mithril to orichalcum that maximizes spell adherence. You need for someone else to have already made Rings of Power - artifacts vastly beyond the capability of any living person - so that the hero can stumble across one by accident. You need Arya Stark to have Valyrian steel so we know she’s special. But if Valyria hadn’t collapsed centuries earlier, everyone could have Valyrian steel. The Ancient Progenitors are just another way of giving a force multiplier to certain random ordinary people.
They bound the Dark Lord 999 years ago so that the solution to the Dark Lord problem can be “go on a quest to the Tower of Binding and tighten the screws” rather than the normal solutions of “raise a giant army” or “discover new anti-Dark-Lord technology yourself”. The latter are solutions that require a competent agentic person rather than a teenager with a heart of gold (even if a teenager has eg a charisma-based superpower and goes about trying to raise an army, in the process of raising the army she’s going to encounter bureaucratic complications - eg how do you feed it? - and eventually have to become an important person with responsibilities, like a general). The best fantasy books have their Aragorn character (to provide a competence fantasy and let someone raise the army) but also the Frodo character who goes on the quest to the Tower of Binding.
I think this lens helps explain a lot of features of the fantasy universe. I also think there might be a few similar-but-smaller lenses. One I toy with is “make things maximally mysterious, to satisfy the human urge to discover” - for example, you need the Ancient Progenitor Civilization to have died out mysteriously so that someone can solve the mystery halfway through; you need the forbidden forest nobody has ever returned from so that the hero can go in and figure out what’s up. This further constrains the tech level and forces magic out of the “technology but with spells” mode into the “mysterious force that works best with self-understanding” mode.
The one thing I still don’t understand is why everyone has the same races. Why elves, dwarves, goblins, and sometimes drow? Why not sentient dogs, or dolphins, or bee-people living in hive-cities, or those weird people with ten arms and one eye who the medievals sometimes reported seeing in the Orient, or one-inch tall people whose cities are the size of football fields, or sentient wasps that you can hire to sting your enemies? If most of the fantasy universe is a machine for producing ordinary-person-saves-the-world stories, that explains the Chesterton Fence well enough to justify knocking down the parts that don’t contribute. Do better!