Sentient dogs in the medieval fantasy setting has been done, sorta: A Fire Upon the Deep

Expand full comment

"The one thing I still don’t understand is why everyone has the same races. Why elves, dwarves, goblins, and sometimes drow?"

Is there some truth to the idea that lots of (most?) real-world folklore has something a bit like these tropes?

"Why not sentient dogs, or dolphins, or bee-people living in hive-cities [...]"

These all sound like ideas I would associated more with science-fiction (or perhaps science-fantasy). My gut instinct is that truly speculative writing is somewhat at odds with the premise of fantasy, which largely feels like it's about tapping into things we already feel intuitively familiar with. That's why fantasy feels like it's set in the past - even if it's never explicitly stated as such.

Expand full comment

I think you're on to something, but there are a few twists that need explanation. Some decades ago, when I read quite a few fantasy novels, I eventually grew tired of the MWTRKHHAHHTBRBPFSTEHHDNKHITTP, and the peasant boy chosen by destiny to save the world, and all the other stuff. Then a friend recommended "A Game of Thrones", and he pointed out that it's different - more realistic in an important way, in that (almost) all main characters are nobility. No destiny is needed to give them a headstart in the race and to justify their special position in the Game. Arya Stark has Valyrian Steel (TM) because - wait for it - she got it from her family. Also, the dragons don't really play a role until pretty late. With such an obvious deviation from the formula, how did ASOIAF still become one of the defining fantasy series of the last decades?

Expand full comment

I'm unclear whether the intended question here is "why is this structure so successful/popular/common" (which I think is what you answer?) Or "why is all fantasy like this?" which is how I read your framing, but which I think is manifestly untrue unless you define the genre tautologically.

Expand full comment

Witty as usual; nicely written. Presumably just a rhetorical flourish, but I don't think it was remotely fair to say that Tolkien is the only creative person living in the 20th century...

Expand full comment

There are quite a few authors who do write more diverse and interesting worlds; when not getting into public controversies over the women in his life, China Mieville used to write about sentient cacti, ant-headed artists and the like. Isekai stuff on the other hand is utterly miserable, in a “What If CS Lewis, but as a Sociopathic Nihilist?” way? And that’s without mentioning the LitRPG, surely the most wretched form of genre writing yet to exist.

Expand full comment
Apr 28, 2023·edited Apr 28, 2023

"The one thing I still don’t understand is why everyone has the same races. Why elves, dwarves, goblins, and sometimes drow?"

Some people like worldbuilding, and some people just want to tell a story.

N.K. Jemisin's worlds are super unique and popular. Brandon Sanderson's worlds are, too. There are fantasy writers who create something extremely new.

But both spend a lot of time worldbuilding to describe that world. What if you just want to tell a story using magic? You can import the generic fantasy world, tweak it to suit your purposes, and just go. Everyone understands the world so you can reference elements without explanation and people get it.

Generic magical fairy-adjacent people? Elves. Brutish, strong, tribal types? Orcs. One-and-done. Now tell your unique story.

That's what I did with my first novel because I didn't want to do huge amounts of worldbuilding. So I did Fantasy-Renaissance—tweaked the generic world to suit my unique story.

Expand full comment

L Frank Baum, predating LOTR and pretty nakedly just writing books about silly fantasy creatures, did have one of his protagonists chosen King via sortition.

Expand full comment

> 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

This is canonically how the Harry Potter universe works, albeit without much explanation or exploration. Snape invents the Sectumsempra curse, writes it down in his potions book, and then Harry uses it two decades later just based on that description. There are similar hints, though not very fleshed out, about potions and other things working the same way. (There is a lot of fanfiction that explores this more.)

In D&D, a lot of spells have a set origin. For example, Aganazzar’s Scorcher is a spell invested by Aganazzar, whoever he was (there are lore books about this, I assume). You don't do this as a normal adventurer playing D&D, but that's because it's hard to balance and doesn't fit the pacing of a table top role playing game.

In Eragon, if my memory holds, spells are sentences and phrases in the Ancient language. While this does tie it back to an ancient civilization (they tied magic itself to their language), it also means that anyone who knows that language can casually invent new spells, which Eragon does throughout the series.

Expand full comment

Great post. Perhaps i'm unusual in this, but the very end of the LOTR movies brought on a depression in me when Frodo realized that he cannot go back to his quiet existence in the Shire after what he's seen and done.

If the main driver of one of fantasy's memes is akin to a lottery, then I wonder of there is also the lottery winners curse after the adventure is complete.

I wrote a short post about the onset of my depression courtesy of the LOTR.


Expand full comment

Lots of fantasy series have gnolls, which are sentient hyenas. Tabaxi too, sentient cats. In D&D there are the aarakocra, bird people. The next version of D&D is introducing Aardlings, divine people that have the head of an animal and the body of a human, and have the ability to grow wings. There are dozens more beyond that - https://www.dndbeyond.com/races. And that's all just in D&D!

I can think of lots of fantasy series with lots of different unique species. In Mother of Learning, there's a race of sentient wasps that the main character has to negotiate with. In The Wandering Inn, there's a race of people who are only a few inches tall. It's all out there.

Expand full comment

This makes me reflect a good deal on Stephen R. Donaldson's 'Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever', which basically is a ten book consideration of the nature of power itself.

It does avoid the tolkienism of dwarves/elves, having rather several cultures of humans plus giants each with different magical-ish skills. On the other hand, the plot of the whole series revolves around a ring, so your mileage my vary.

It's not for the faint of heart, though. Covenant is something of an antihero and about half the people I know who have tried to read the series gave up in the first book, disgusted with him.

Expand full comment

"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..."

Elf, dwarf and goblin variants all seem 'organic' and natural, partly because they're familiar from previous fantasy and myth, and partly because they all relatively subtle variations on normal humans. A fantasy setting can bear small additions like bird-people, before seeming too unnatural, but too many more novel additions (e.g. singing purple ants) can seem artificial and arbitrary, and take you out of the fantasy. One can end up wondering 'why did the author decide that the world is inhabited by singing purple ants in particular?', rather than just automatically accepting the world as a given.

Expand full comment
Apr 28, 2023·edited Apr 28, 2023

Something I always found interesting about this is that Tolkien, the father of the modern Fantasy genre, actually doesn't tell this story in LoTR.

Or rather, he does tell this story, but he deliberately makes it a secondary plot. The story of the lost prince who finds himself and rises to meet his grand destiny does happen in LoTR - to Aragorn. Aragorn has the destined bloodline. Aragorn finds himself through a difficult journey. Aragorn becomes the king of men. Aragorn marries the elven princess. None of this ever happens to Frodo, our main protagonist. And Frodo's story is not much like the fantasy stories described here at all.

Frodo isn't chosen by some grand destiny in his bloodline, he's present at the council by circumstance and volunteers. When Frodo enters the forbidden forest to discover its secrets, he doesn't go on a self-actualizing journey where he finds himself, he's wounded by the monsters and never recovers. Frodo does carry The Lost Magic of the Ancient Civilization, but the ring is not an equalizer that allows him to battle the dark lord. It's a terrible burden that destroys his life and offers nothing in return. There is no moment of self-discovery or godlike power. He is offered no happily ever after. Frodo is an ordinary person without a destiny who sacrifices everything for the sake of what's good.

The hobbits are a lot of things, but they are not classic fantasy heroes. The hobbits can never become rulers of men, they will never be great warriors or kings even hypothetically. They don't have magical blood and aren't fated to accomplish anything in particular. Frodo and Sam remain fairly ordinary people throughout the story, who's primary strength is merely that they stepped up to sacrifice themselves in order to do an extremely difficult thing. They make a sacrifice that few of us could ever imagine deliberately making. Aragorn is going through his reluctant hero arc and discovering the power and strength that were always inside him, while our main characters are pushing through a much more painful, grounded story that we know from the start cannot end well for them.

And then Aragorn's story is explicitly spelled out in the text as being less important than Frodo's. Aragorn's big conclusion isn't fighting the Dark Lord himself, it's choosing to divert the Dark Lord away from Frodo. "My friends, you bow to no one" says the destined king of men as he kneels before the little hobbits. The ordinary people who make the simple choice to resist evil are far more important than the epic heroes in their perfect fantasy plot.

Tolkien invented a lot of what we now consider modern fantasy - but he invented it as background. The Perfect Fantasy Story about the fated protagonist isn't the focus. We associate Tolkien's work so strongly with fantasy as a genre that it's easy to forget how LoTR itself is effectively a subversion of these classic tropes.

Expand full comment

So you're saying you'll be writing more longer-form fiction? Excellent, it's always a pleasure.

I have this strong suspicion that, if fantasy indeed fulfills a certain psychological need (seems pretty plausible, Argument from Fictional Evidence and all that)...Cultures Very Different From Our Own should have radically different stories. Not talking so much about differences in history, religion, geography, whatever, although those of course play a part. I'm thinking more that, the shared psychological needs all humans have...if those get filled in other ways, stories won't have to scratch those itches, and thus won't find traction. What kinds of stories would a truly post-material scarcity society crave?

Conversely, exacerbating those needs will raise the salience of fictional cures. It feels like today's modern world specifically encourages agentic fantasies, with a listless populace continually coming unmoored from traditional paths towards meaning and milestones of life achivement. Dovetails with infantilization, the perpetuation of adolescence beyond all reasonable limits. Stories let one grow up vicariously...one could cynically claim that's the whole point, to keep people narrowly satiated with the shadow of competence. But it's probably just that successful art reads the room correctly, intuits the missing moods of modernity and seeks to fill such needs.

-also, I think Project Lawful is quite good, once one gets past all the academics...but maybe that's because it's not a typical cool-fantasy isekai? Being self-aware or genre-savvy is hardly novel at this point, yet it remains effective if done well.

Expand full comment

It is convenient to use elves, dwarves and goblins (or orcs) because they are off-the-shelf. The reader knows what they are, and you don't have to explain them. And readers, especially young readers, do like to find some familiar bits in a novel.

Perhaps one reason why they are well-known is that they are similar enough to humans to be playable in role-playing systems. It's much harder to integrate a player who plays a fairy or a demon.

Apart from that, I don't think elves, dwarves and goblins are really so over-represented. I just mentally went through some of my favorite classic fantasy novels. The Belgariad Saga by Eddings features neither elves nor dwarves, but dryads and fenlings. The Wheel of Time features Ogiers, but no dwarves and elves. The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams features elves (Sithi and Norns), but no dwarves, and instead Qanuc. Sanderson features all kind of creatures (Warbreaker has literally a god as a main protagonist), but elves and dwarves don't stick out to me.

Perhaps this is because I have focused on pretty long books which can afford to introduce their characters. In novellas, it may be more convenient to let the party meet Archetype Dwarf #3 without much explanation.

Expand full comment

This is why I love Alexander Wales stories.

I really wish there were more fantasy stories where the greater enemy was societal trends or whatever, and there aren't Secret Artifacts of Specialness (and their evil cousin, Ancient Prisons of Never-Mentioned-Until-Now Dark Lords) littered everywhere, but rather the special powers *and* the bad guys arise organically from that world.

Avatar and Korra are a good example of that. The powers are part of an established mythology; the Avatar is special, but not in a "it could be anybody, even you!" way. The villains are all politically motivated, not ancient monsters of evil (LoK season 2 aside).

Expand full comment

I don't think it's right to say everyone has the same races. Yeah, it's common to go "we have elves and dwarves but we call them alfs and eorfs", but I think it's also pretty common to throw in one unique race. "we have alfs, eorfs, urks, boblins and earimitans, 7 foot tall ears that eat sound" (I'm pretty sure I've even seen things with sentient dogs, bee people, and inch tall people, but I can't place it) Most just stop at adding one weird race, otherwise half the book is explaining how taverns work and not how special the hero is, and if you go too far in explaining how wasps visit dolphin cities the work stops being recognizably fantasy at all.

Expand full comment

I think your Stories 1 and 2 explain a lot if not most things about (mainstream) post-Tolkien fantasy, including your final question about the same races.

Though Story 3 is more interesting to ponder, hence the thought-provoking post.

Expand full comment

Although not strictly fantasy, David Brin's Uplift series deals with sentient chimpanzees and dolphins. Their sentience is developed by other sapient (in this case human) agents who become their 'patrons'. In the universe there are many patrons and many uplifted species, but sapient chimps and dolphins play important roles in many of his works.

Expand full comment
Apr 28, 2023·edited Apr 28, 2023

This is one of the big reasons I like the Practical Guide to Evil - the free power you can pick up off the ground is intrinsically tied to having a lot of agency. Meanwhile a major theme throughout the book is that grand mages doing grand rituals is a lot less productive than rounding up everyone with a scrap of magical talent and training them to fireball in formation.

Expand full comment

I think the main reason for common tropes like elves, goblins etc is the "common vernacular" dynamic, explaining new creatures takes a lot of space and pacing out of telling the story. However, I think the reasons these specific tropes have stuck is because they fit into the story structure.

Elves, for example, have a similar function as Ancient Progenitors: they provide strong artifacts and magic to the protagonists to receive, but are sufficiently alien / capricious / aloof that these things are still exclusive. Indeed, what might motivate elves to give the protag cool stuff is usually those traits that the everyman reader identifies with -- honesty, incorruptibility, loyalty, etc.

So, even if you want to make a race superficially different to elves, you still have strong reasons to make it fill the same story purpose (magic+aloof) to satisfy the fantasy, which in turn makes the race similar in a lot of ways anyway, and so you might as well give them pointy ears. Similarly, you're gonna want little rascal enemies that are easily defeated by the everyman folk hero protagonist but disgusting enough to justify violence towards them despite their weakness. Might as well make them green and call them goblins.

On another note: I think the romance of the Dalai Lama kind of related to all this. If you think about it, the idea of entirely deleting some kids' identity for religious purposes should be abhorrent to western sensibilities, and I wondered about this recently. A friend pointed out that this is probably superseded by the specific special ego self-discovery "what if I'm secretly the heir to the throne" fantasy which the Lama system kind of fits into.

Expand full comment

I feel like the pattern of too much similarity is historical. The sorts of stuff I think of as recent fantasy, especially from the 2010s are things like litrpg, or cultivation that really are using different patterns in terms of races and how the things work - while at the same time keeping the random person being super powerful in a way that feels like they earn it.

I think this also could be why I find it hard to write fantasy well. I want a good explanation for why the random person is special that doesn't ultimately boil down to because it makes the plot work.

Expand full comment

My firm belief, which I've held for quite a while, is that "Fantasy is optimized for storytelling"; removing parts of it makes it harder to tell stories. That one of the most common of those stories is "a person with no special ability or agency [...] save[ing] the world" follows naturally from that.

I would wager that the most well known Fantasy story today is actually Cinderella. There's no saving the world or even a real adventure. It just so happens that the rigid class structure resulting from traditional monarchy is very good at setting up dramatic romance between individuals of different social classes. It's a lot harder to set up a good romance with a Senator than it is with a Prince. The 'fence' (in Chesterton's metaphor) of monarchy is doing multiple jobs.

Fantasy works as a setting genre because the European Middle Ages-derived setting (culture and technology) contains a lot of obstacles that make for the meat of stories while containing the tools for the protagonist to overcome those obstacles. The most important of those are related to communication and transportation. For almost any story, the thought exercise of 'what would change if every character had a functional cell phone?' should give some interesting results (most Horror / Suspense type stories have tropes around removing the characters ability to communicate freely). If people in the setting can freely travel from point to point, it removes both a lot of the resource scarcity and a lot of the threat of monsters; the entire ideas of 'frontier' and 'wilderness' are tied to a lack of transportation.

Expand full comment

Fun fact: Tolkein was asked to help identify a cursed Roman ring that was found in England, which probably inspired the trope of magical artifacts from the ancient progenitor civilization.

Expand full comment

I've read only a few fantasy books/stories and don't have strong opinions about Scott's piece. But I do like it. I see it basically as an attempt to define the genre by outlining the contours.

He does seem to offer criticisms. E.g., his "do better!" admonition and his reference to the "sadder corners of the internet" where being in a fantasy world is a goal/dream. But it seems to me that all genres have points to criticize.

I guess my question, either for Scott or for those who know fantasy more than I do, is this: Is fantasy uniquely bad (or challenged, or criticizable) or are the weaknesses of the genre of the same order as the weaknesses of other genres?

Expand full comment

Nice, reminds me a lot of The Last Psychiatrist's old posts about the common tropes in books and films. I remember that Alone used a lot harsher words about the phenomenon of people wanting to be the Ordinary Teenager With a Heart of Gold. Or maybe it was the Neo fantasy, out of The Matrix? Neo-type story would be: you, a boring programmer doing nothing with your life discovers some forbidden knowledge and all of a sudden you realize that you have been The One (i.e. awesome, not boring) all along. This seems to match the ordinary person saving the world factor of common fantasy.

Expand full comment

Look, fantasy should probably be compared to its most closely-similar genre: romance. That's another genre where the specific tropes have been refined over time precisely for that familiarity, because familiarity is vital to fantasy--be it sword-and-sorcery fantasy or romantic fantasy. So we shouldn't be surprised that there are elves and dwarves rather than completely wild races in most fantasies; people who really get into a genre, and who have shelves and shelves of it, are specifically looking to see the same beats and same ideas.

At the same time--and we see this in romance too--it can be fertile ground for play, because not every genre reader is looking for that repetition, and so you can have something like Game of Thrones or Discworld.

As such, I think it's correct to combine stories 2 and 3--to say, "Genre readers like the familiar, but why has _this_ become the familiar?"

Expand full comment

Once upon a time in the forgotten past, there was a second kind of fantasy story-- the picaresque wanderer story-- Conan, and Fafryd and the Grey Mouser are notable examples, with Alyx showing up late.

It lost out to LOTR, possibly because people preferred saving the world to just wandering around having adventures.

Seannan McGuire's October Daye stories are a variant. October Daye is a lot tougher than most people, and probably smarter (the stories are mysteries as well as fantasy), but I suppose she has enough problems that it's possible to imagine being her.

Instead of a rather open world, the stories about about navigating complex family relationships and fae law. The races are pretty conventional, though worked out in more detail than in most fantasy.

Expand full comment

There are other models for fantasy from the 20th century (Conan and his subversion Elric, Zelazny’s Amber, Vance, etc.). But they’re not widely read even by genre fans anymore. I think it’s right that these aren’t psychologically compelling.

Expand full comment

It occurs to me that, phrased this way, the average borderline aspie had their potential fantasy moment in real life on the early-2000s internet. It's not a perfect match, but the parallels are there even if you don't squint too hard:

- the world is open to change and being threatened by the old, evil forces of religion and overly restrictive copyright regimes (IIRC, then embodied by the still tyranically powerful music industry rather than the YouTUBE algorithm that sometimes plays the same role today)

- in order to stop them, you don't need to be particularly brilliant or agentic, you just need to be able to run a web server and/or install linux on things and/or do some light programming (I did mention borderline aspie)

- the technologies you're binding this way were mostly created by the ancients of 1960s MIT, who are still active in the world, but have moved on from the domain of making technological progress to various teaching/community leader roles or exited the field entirely

- confronting evil and triumphing meant knocking down the arguments of the enemy in a public and coordinated fashion, while maintaining your freedom to share music/pirated videogames with your friends, or possibly making a webcomic/blog so widely read that your place in the culture is cemented for all time

Squinting a bit harder, how close are John von Neumann/Jay McCarthy/Ken Thompson to Celebrimbor? How close were Richard Stallman/Cory Doctorow to Gandalf? How close were Holkins/Krahulik to Frodo/Bilbo? How many parallels are there between Bernie Cosell/jwz and Tom Bombadil?

Also, if we see the parallels, what can we learn about the aftermath of their adventures, given that we can see the way they played out in real life without something freezing the world in place with a well-placed "The End".

Expand full comment

Elves and Dwarves are “the diversity found within the everyman’s local, virtuous nation.”

Just as long-lost-kingship is a way to convey authority and status in a mythical rather than material way, Demi-humans are used as rapid shorthand for the full range of healthy diversity within a culture. Masculine/feminine, labor/capital, jocks/nerds, peasantry/aristocracy, urban/rural, etc. The key thing to notice is that fantasy stories will tend to involve one of each, as a kind of dyad. So having oaths of service (or just friendship) from both races symbolically creates the ‘grand alliance’ where society unifies behind a figure that transcends internal divisions. At the same time, the details of the way you characterize each race can be used to present the protagonist Everyman as ann intermediate figure along specific axes, demonstrating the golden virtues of moderation.

The reason why dwarves and eves in particular are so ‘sticky’ in fantasy isn’t because they stand in for any one particular role very well, but because they stand in serviceably well for so *many* binaries that crop up in society. They can collapse an entire complex society in to a mythic reference frame with remarkable economy, just two characters. People can and do increase the roster of demihumans beyond this, depending on the needs of the story or the medium, but those two are the Allen wrench and screwdriver of fantasy construction, you can almost always use them as-is.

Expand full comment

This reminds me that a great exception to many of the tropes is the Daughter of Empire series by Janny Wurts and Raymond Feist. There are insect warriors and whatnot in a Japanese feudal setting, but more importantly it is very much a competence fantasy where the main character outwits her enemies, strikes good alliances, and grows the economy of her region.

Anyone have recommendations for other good competency- or agency-based fantasy series?

Expand full comment

>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!

So, there's a writer I follow, who does work in different media under different pen names, but one of her larger scale works is an epic fantasy series called The Brightest Shadow which she does under the name of Sarah Lin. On the scale of more vs. less different from the archetypical standard fantasy, it's definitely towards the more-different end. And it's quite interesting and worth checking out in my opinion. But it also has a distinct weakness relative to Sarah Lin's other work. The setting is unfamiliar enough that the reader has to spend a lot of time learning stuff about it- stuff which is actually relevant to their ability to follow the plot, rather than the author just chucking it all at the reader so they can appreciate what a cool new setting the author has come up with. This comes with a number of downsides (the most obvious is that it makes it more difficult for the author to handle the pacing,) but one of the biggest I've come to realize is that *it's a lot harder for the story to be funny*.

Sarah Lin can be a very funny writer. She's proven herself capable of weaving humor even into works whose overarching tone is pretty grim. But The Brightest Shadow as a book series is rarely funny, because there aren't many opportunities where the audience is sufficiently familiar with what they're dealing with for the author to amuse them by subverting their expectations. It's easy to be funny in Discworld, *because* it takes the audience's familiarity with standard fantasy tropes for granted, and so it has countless ways to riff on those expectations. "Since you're expecting A, wouldn't it be funny if A turned out to B?" The first book of the TBS series has one particularly funny bit which stands out in my memory, around midway through the book, which plays with a trope that's familiar across fantasy and a few other genres of fiction. And it gives a feeling sort of like you've been floating around adrift, and the series has to get solid ground under it to pull off something as complicated as a joke.

Even straightforward character-based humor can be difficult to pull off in a setting that's too unfamiliar. It's hard to tell jokes which make sense to someone with a completely different cultural context, different assumptions and stereotypes and stuff. This article about an anthropologist trying to convey the story of Hamlet to people in an African tribal village gives a sense for how hard it is to follow along with the beats of a story when you don't have one-to-one analogues for all the cultural assumptions built into it.


I think that fantasy which is *too* unfamiliar kind of veers towards the character of sci fi, in the sense that so much of the narrative process is built around acclimating the audience to the unfamiliar that there's not much room left to use it as a framework for familiar human drives and dynamics. Human culture can be *really* flexible, and even the real world has seen societies with very different assumptions about things like how people associate with each other, why people engage in relationships, what a person ought to aspire to to live a good life, what kind of endeavor might contribute to that, etc. Take away too much of the audience's familiar grounding, and suddenly it's difficult to write something as straightforward as two characters establishing a rapport and becoming friends, because their interactions become a load-bearing mechanism for rebuilding the audience's assumptions about society.

Expand full comment

Homer should be showing up here. It seems classical stories were basically Homer fanfic for hundreds of years. Aren't special blood heroes just demigods? Aren't powerful ancient weapons just Achilles' armor? Aren't superhero action sequences just an aristeia?

The big innovation in this account is that instead of quirky gods being in frame, the fates are often more mechanistic or ancient and so out of frame. ("Bitten by a radioactive spider" instead of "born of an Olympian rape")

But if you view this as an interesting twist but the roots are thousands of years old, it is maybe more liberating. It may make sense that storytellers have tapped most of the fruitful veins over tens of thousands of years. But also: just go pick a different thing from Ovid to transpose and it may feel more original than much of this genre.

Expand full comment

The dividing line to me between Fantasy and other fiction has been that the cosmology is anthropic and there is some clear source of supreme Authority, ie you know a thing is good because the Authority said it was good. Should also add this isn’t a simple “The Authority always says what is good and true” but in the Fantasy setting “what is good and true is good and true because it was said by the Authority.”

I think the becoming all powerful/wish fulfillment piece comes below that. It’s resonating because you can side step the whole problem of staying awake all night thinking “is that the right thing? Am I a good person?”

Like in Unsong there was a God somewhere deciding which universe got to have their seed implemented, right? That was the Authority. It existed above everyone and everything else, the flame imperishable or whatever you want to call it. Everyone else didn’t know what exactly it wanted or why but therein was the drama.

On the fictional race thing, dwarves I don’t get at all how they have survived the current age. Politician correctness or wokeness or what have you. We have actual humans who are dwarves and are not magical blacksmiths.

Expand full comment

Without grappling with too many specifics, I automatically just pattern match this all to the idea that You Get About Five Words (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/4ZvJab25tDebB8FGE/you-get-about-five-words). Tolkien chose some obscure references like the Kalevala as part of the basis for Middle Earth and built his own languages, but most readers of Fantasy never get through most of the more esoteric Tolkien canon, and in any case already know what fae and kings and wizards and dragons and monsters and gods and spirits "are." And we already understood the idea of a mythic past and fall from grace (the Greeks had the Age of Heroes and then early Renaissance Europe had the Greeks and Romans and Christianity has Eden, etc,).

As for Frodo vs Aragorn fantasies, we conveniently gloss over the fact that in addition to being born to be king, Aragorn is over 80 years old and was raised by millennia-old Elrond to be incredibly knowledgeable and skilled and talented, so he can do things far beyond a normal human. We *also* gloss over the fact that Gandolf mostly acts like a human-scale wise-but-flawed old man and not at all like a realistic representation of a five thousand year old demigod who entered the world from outside time itself and saw the rise and fall of countless civilizations in preparation for his quest to help a fallen world defeat the greatest remaining embodiment of evil. We even ignore that Eru told all the demigods, including Sauron and Gandolf and Saruman, that anything they did to thwart or deviate from his will would just end up working out anyway, or that he directly intervened in Numenor and in sending in the Wizards to get things back on course, or that all the Ainur know full well that In the Beginning Was the Music, and the Music Was With Eru. These other characters, if we pay attention at all, are deliberately making themselves look more relatable than they are, in order to not be the central figures of the story. Gandalf and Aragorn can't complete the quest in part because Sauron knows to pay attention to the Important People with Divine Spirits or Elven/Numenorean Blood but conveniently forgets that Pride Cometh Before the Fall. It's tropes all the way up and all the way down because otherwise the reader would need to slog through *another* few hundred multi-chapter elven poems and Tom Bombadil-lic side stories to have any understanding of what's going on, and then no one would read it, and most likely no one could write it either.

Expand full comment

On the one hand, I absolutely see and agree with what you're getting at in this post; on the other hand, I feel like you're completely and totally off-base. Yes; power fantasies are a huge subsegment of the fantasy genre. Yes; power fantasies require those three components of competence, agency, and accessibility in order to be able to be successful.

But in my opinion that has in many ways very little to do with the ur-fantasy world and the ubiquity of certain fantastical concepts. The backbone of fantasy is mythology. Elves and Dwarves existed long before Tolkien grabbed them for the Lord of the Rings. (For that matter, so did hidden princes who knew not what of their parentage, but I think it's fair to say the ur-myth that inspired more modern stories probably succeeded because of the same psychological underpinnings that you call out for more modern stories.) Bee-people and sentient dolphins don't have the same sort of mythological background, so stories written about them come off less as 'fantastical' and more as 'weird' - which some authors, like China Mieville, cheerfully use to great effect. Same goes for magic rings, swords, etc. being so common; how many fairy tales feature magic swords?

Ancient Ruins are sort of the odd one out because they're not quite as much of mythological origin - but at the same time, they're not just there because they're a convenient source of plot elements (although that is a very common role for them to take), they're an element of the literature because for a long while, Western civilizations were very concerned by and inspired by the crumbling ruins of Roman structures that they couldn't maintain.

But that just explains why Elves and Dwarves and Treasure and Ruins are there in the first place, not why they're ubiquitous, particularly in the generic-fantasy isekai worlds. *That* you can blame on Gary Gygax. He chose Tolkien as a base for his fantasy-inspired wargame he called Dungeons and Dragons, and made telling fantasy stories something that had a set of easily accessible rules that could be used to do it. And then video games were built off of that chassis.

I submit that the modern trashy fantasy / isekai story is, at heart, a *video game* fantasy. The fact that stories which are the most power-fantasy oriented, also tend to hew most closely to the Gygaxian example of Elves/Dwarves/Treasure/Ruins, isn't because Elves have some sort of innate psychological underpinning that makes them better at manipulating power-fantasy readers' psyche; it's because there's a shared cultural language around other very power-fantasy novels, games, etc. that fans of the genre are already very familiar with and enjoy experiencing, and the particular variety of escapism they're after is one where they can escape to something similar to the *other* power-fantasies they've already enjoyed.

There are no Elves or Dwarves, and only a few magic items or ruins in that *other* most power-fantasy of genres, Superheroes, but most superhero universes also all tend to look the same because the people attracted to those universes want to fantasize about universes similar or identical to the ones that gave them happiness in the past.

There's a bunch more I could say about the thousands of fantasy novels that don't fall into either the power-fantasy tropes or the Gygaxian ur-fantasy world, and how tarring an entire genre with the same brush is unnecessarily pithy and reductive, but that's a bit beside the main point.

Expand full comment

"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;""

Isn't that kind of the mechanic in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality?

I'm not familiar enough with Rowling's work to know if the mechanic was derived from Rowling's work. I took to the fanfiction more strongly than the original text.

Of course, the Harry Potter universe is essentially post-industrial in parts of it, with some bleedover into the more fantastical side of the world (train engines and such.) I wonder if the trope of inventing or discovering magic is one which tends to apply to post-industrial magic universes?

Expand full comment

Interestingly, I just read a book called "7 Figure Fiction" by a romance novel author. Her underlying advice for writing is: Everything should be a self insert fantasy. Everything. Every single scene should have one or more places where the reader inserts themselves and enjoys it. How do you do this? She gives some common universal fantasies:

* Having a rich guy hyperfixate on you

* Being pulled from your boring life to one of adventure

* Falling in love at first sight

* Starting out kind of drab and then looking super hot

* Fixing a man via sex

* A guy who is mean to everyone but you

She emphasizes that while many of these things are red flags in real life, they have some aspect that makes the reader feel special / cool when they imagine them.

The book struck me as incredibly myopic in the scope of what she felt were "universal" fantasies, and also completely changed how I looked at fiction. I think what you've done is start to pick at the universal fantasies in fantasy novels here.

What's more interesting to me is analyzing the ones that appeal to me. "Hot guy picks me out of a crowd to stalk" does nothing for me. But things like HPMOR and Unsong have tons. Unsong in particular hits these notes: You have your out of nowhere mundane protagonist who is super gifted but down on his luck pulled out of his humdrum life. Then you have the Comet King, who I think is probably my personal self insert focus in an aspirational sense. For HPMOR, at least once a week I spend a few minutes in the car imagining I'm Harry doing clever things.

For a brief moment I had a crises about whether all writing just served the self insert point, but I don't think that's true. Some of the books I really like focus on puzzle solving within the lore, or communicate messages or ideas I found useful in real life. Unsong was an enjoyable read and also reading about the Comet King actually changed my behavior in a very real way. But "7 Figure Fiction" really brought this fantasy insert thing to the fore.

Expand full comment

You realize that this post suggests you haven't read a lot of fantasy. There are so many counter-examples to your Ur-Fantasy-World that it's hard to even know where to start.

Martha Wells, Raksura novels, and Wheel of the Infinite, and the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy

Andrea K Host, Pyramids of London

Susannah Clarke, Pirenasi

CJ Cherryh, Rider at the Gate

China Mieville, Railsea

NK Jemisin, The Shadowed Sun / The Killing Moon

I could list a hundred more without effort, but how long can a list be before everyone gets bored reading it? But it's not like unusual fantasy worlds that are nothing like Tolkien's LotR world are remotely rare. Hell, I've written a totally different fantasy world myself. Honestly, there are hundreds of excellent books that do this. Thousands.

Expand full comment

Yeah also like so many others, I also feel like I should point out that most of these specific tropes seem to have peaked in early 2000s in novels and now most of what we have are deconstructions, weird original stuff, or sexy fairies.

Expand full comment

I think Elves and Dwarves and Orcs might just be the only species that human brains can possibly invent.

Or more precisely, the vector space of "species with notable characteristics which are interesting and affect the kind of story you can tell" is not that big, and basically anything you create is pretty close to an existing fantasy trope. Authors really do experiment in the small ways you can, but it's easier to just call your elves "elves" and give them pointy ears and call it a "nod."

Vulcans are elves. Klingons are orcs. Jawas are gnomes. Eewoks are kinda novel, but ultimately somewhere between Ents and maybe fairies? Chewbacca is a half-orc. Gungans (the Jar Jar Binks species) are just water Dwarves.

Expand full comment

I think you underestimate the extent to which fantasy is often about saying how someone with intellectual/unappreciated talent can be a great hero. It's not that the hero can't be talented but it has to be a talent which isn't appreciated by everyone. I mean even talented teens feel unappreciated and misunderstood.

Sure, you have Tolkien whose hero is an untalented hobit (never liked that part) but there are also quite a number of books, maybe even more (Feist's magician series stands out) where the hero is especially magically gifted.

So it's about simultaneously satisfying something like the following desiderada:

1) The hero has to have some kind of talent that isn't recognized by others (so most social talent and often physical talent is out).

2) It has to appeal to relatively young audiences since that's when we fall in love with fantasy worlds. Also young romance is more appealing.

3) It's harder to introduce a whole new world from the perspective of a character who already knows all about it.

So I don't think there is any bias against it being a skill, hell I think that plenty of fantasy novels are implicitly the story of how being smart can make you the hero. It's just that you need to combine awesome powers with a story that allows the hero to be naive enough about the world to explain it to the reader.

You get more flexibility in a standard fantasy realm but if you want something new you can't introduce it with a hero who doesn't have any of the awe or feeling of strangeness the reader will have.

Expand full comment

You could equally well ask why do so many books occur in something very similar to the real world or one of a small number of familiar sci-fi scenarios (navy in space, cyberpunk, space tanks/mechs). There is a large cost involved in familiarizing readers with a totally new environment and if the story you want to tell can be done without that you probably avoid it.

And if you do choose that path there are multiple pressures to use a young hero (relatable to audience, everyone appreciates young love, and most importantly you can explain world from their eyes) so that limits the ability of long training to play a role in their great power.

Expand full comment

This is the kind of content I subscribe for! Thought-provoking, perceptive, and witty.

I think there's one big aspect that Scott is missing, though. The point of fantasy, IMHO, is *not* to stoke a person's ego by making them believe, "I may be the Chosen One tasked with saving the entire world!" That veers into arrogance and hubris, which are hallmarks of the evil side, not the good. (Which, if you want to identify with the evil side when reading a fantasy story, that's your right I guess, but that's not why these stories were written.)

Instead, I think of fantasy epics like LOTR or Star Wars as a sort of magnified reflection of what goes on in a person's mind/soul. All of us have in us the capacity for good and evil, and we must choose between them. As Solzhenitsyn famously said, "The line between good and evil runs through every human heart." Fantasy epics dramatize this internal struggle. They inspire and give hope: "Even if the right thing to do feels really, really hard, you can still choose to do it, just like Frodo chose to take the Ring to Mount Doom, even though he knew it was extremely dangerous and he would most likely die in the attempt."

This kind of struggle is recognizable to every human being. In real life, it most often is not epic, but rather takes the form of tiny, mundane decisions. The point is, in real life, you can choose to do the right thing even if you are not especially gifted or brilliant - you can choose to be kind, generous, responsible, hardworking, etc.

And yes, the "humble hero discovers super-duper magic that makes them special" trope is common in fantasy, but it's not the magic that makes the hero special, it's the choices he/she makes. In terms of raw magical power, the evil is stronger than the good in these stories. Emperor Palpatine, Sauron, and Voldemort have more powerful magic than Luke Skywalker, Gandalf, and Harry Potter, respectively. It's the hero's choice to fight for what is right in the face of overwhelming odds that makes them admirable.

Expand full comment

On the Ancient Progenitors, forget invidious, pejorative theories like "The Ancient Progenitors are just another way of giving a force multiplier." One gets much closer to what, for many of us, is a very deep and lifelong love with the issue of mystery. I've been infatuated with old, far-off, forgotten things (happy or unhappy) since as long as I can remember. The feeling is impervious to reason or questions of instrumentality. If you don't share the love, at best you'll have trouble getting it. De gustibus . . .

Expand full comment
Apr 28, 2023·edited Apr 28, 2023

"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)."

You knew this was coming 😁 One author of a fantasy novel did indeed try this - "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" by G.K. Chesterton:

"The old gentleman opened his eyes with some surprise.

"Are you, then," he said, "no longer a democracy in England?"

Barker laughed.

"The situation invites paradox," he said. "We are, in a sense, the purest democracy. We have become a despotism. Have you not noticed how continually in history democracy becomes despotism? People call it the decay of democracy. It is simply its fulfilment. Why take the trouble to number and register and enfranchise all the innumerable John Robinsons, when you can take one John Robinson with the same intellect or lack of intellect as all the rest, and have done with it? The old idealistic republicans used to found democracy on the idea that all men were equally intelligent. Believe me, the sane and enduring democracy is founded on the fact that all men are equally idiotic. Why should we not choose out of them one as much as another. All that we want for Government is a man not criminal and insane, who can rapidly look over some petitions and sign some proclamations. To think what time was wasted in arguing about the House of Lords, Tories saying it ought to be preserved because it was clever, and Radicals saying it ought to be destroyed because it was stupid, and all the time no one saw that it was right because it was stupid, because that chance mob of ordinary men thrown there by accident of blood, were a great democratic protest against the Lower House, against the eternal insolence of the aristocracy of talents. We have established now in England, the thing towards which all systems have dimly groped, the dull popular despotism without illusions. We want one man at the head of our State, not because he is brilliant or virtuous, but because he is one man and not a chattering crowd. To avoid the possible chance of hereditary diseases or such things, we have abandoned hereditary monarchy. The King of England is chosen like a juryman upon an official rotation list. Beyond that the whole system is quietly despotic, and we have not found it raise a murmur."

"Do you really mean," asked the President, incredulously, "that you choose any ordinary man that comes to hand and make him despot — that you trust to the chance of some alphabetical list...."

"And why not?" cried Barker. "Did not half the historical nations trust to the chance of the eldest sons of eldest sons, and did not half of them get on tolerably well? To have a perfect system is impossible; to have a system is indispensable. All hereditary monarchies were a matter of luck: so are alphabetical monarchies. Can you find a deep philosophical meaning in the difference between the Stuarts and the Hanoverians? Believe me, I will undertake to find a deep philosophical meaning in the contrast between the dark tragedy of the A's, and the solid success of the B's."

"And you risk it?" asked the other. "Though the man may be a tyrant or a cynic or a criminal."

"We risk it," answered Barker, with a perfect placidity. "Suppose he is a tyrant — he is still a check on a hundred tyrants. Suppose he is a cynic, it is to his interest to govern well. Suppose he is a criminal — by removing poverty and substituting power, we put a check on his criminality. In short, by substituting despotism we have put a total check on one criminal and a partial check on all the rest."

...Two grave-looking men in quiet uniforms came up the hill towards them. One held a paper in his hand.

"There he is, officer," said Lambert, cheerfully; "we ain't responsible for him."

The officer looked at the capering Mr. Quin with a quiet eye.

"We have not come, gentlemen," he said, "about what I think you are alluding to. We have come from head-quarters to announce the selection of His Majesty the King. It is the rule, inherited from the old régime, that the news should be brought to the new Sovereign immediately, wherever he is; so we have followed you across Kensington Gardens."

Barker's eyes were blazing in his pale face. He was consumed with ambition throughout his life. With a certain dull magnanimity of the intellect he had really believed in the chance method of selecting despots. But this sudden suggestion, that the selection might have fallen upon him, unnerved him with pleasure.

"Which of us," he began, and the respectful official interrupted him.

"Not you, sir, I am sorry to say. If I may be permitted to say so, we know your services to the Government, and should be very thankful if it were. The choice has fallen...."

"God bless my soul!" said Lambert, jumping back two paces. "Not me. Don't say I'm autocrat of all the Russias."

"No, sir," said the officer, with a slight cough and a glance towards Auberon, who was at that moment putting his head between his legs and making a noise like a cow; "the gentleman whom we have to congratulate seems at the moment — er — er — occupied."

"Not Quin!" shrieked Barker, rushing up to him; "it can't be. Auberon, for God's sake pull yourself together. You've been made King!"

With his head still upside down between his legs, Mr. Quin answered modestly —

"I am not worthy. I cannot reasonably claim to equal the great men who have previously swayed the sceptre of Britain. Perhaps the only peculiarity that I can claim is that I am probably the first monarch that ever spoke out his soul to the people of England with his head and body in this position. This may in some sense give me, to quote a poem that I wrote in my youth —

A nobler office on the earth

Than valour, power of brain, or birth

Could give the warrior kings of old.

The intellect clarified by this posture —"

Lambert and Barker made a kind of rush at him.

"Don't you understand?" cried Lambert. "It's not a joke. They've really made you King. By gosh! they must have rum taste."

"The great Bishops of the Middle Ages," said Quin, kicking his legs in the air, as he was dragged up more or less upside down, "were in the habit of refusing the honour of election three times and then accepting it. A mere matter of detail separates me from those great men. I will accept the post three times and refuse it afterwards. Oh! I will toil for you, my faithful people! You shall have a banquet of humour."

By this time he had been landed the right way up, and the two men were still trying in vain to impress him with the gravity of the situation.

"Did you not tell me, Wilfrid Lambert," he said, "that I should be of more public value if I adopted a more popular form of humour? And when should a popular form of humour be more firmly riveted upon me than now, when I have become the darling of a whole people? Officer," he continued, addressing the startled messenger, "are there no ceremonies to celebrate my entry into the city?"

"Ceremonies," began the official, with embarrassment, "have been more or less neglected for some little time, and —"

Auberon Quin began gradually to take off his coat.

"All ceremony," he said, "consists in the reversal of the obvious. Thus men, when they wish to be priests or judges, dress up like women. Kindly help me on with this coat." And he held it out.

"But, your Majesty," said the officer, after a moment's bewilderment and manipulation, "you're putting it on with the tails in front."

"The reversal of the obvious," said the King, calmly, "is as near as we can come to ritual with our imperfect apparatus. Lead on."

The rest of that afternoon and evening was to Barker and Lambert a nightmare, which they could not properly realise or recall. The King, with his coat on the wrong way, went towards the streets that were awaiting him, and the old Kensington Palace which was the Royal residence. As he passed small groups of men, the groups turned into crowds, and gave forth sounds which seemed strange in welcoming an autocrat. Barker walked behind, his brain reeling, and, as the crowds grew thicker and thicker, the sounds became more and more unusual. And when he had reached the great market-place opposite the church, Barker knew that he had reached it, though he was roods behind, because a cry went up such as had never before greeted any of the kings of the earth."

Expand full comment

Nice try, Scott, but I'm still pretty sure it's all because Tolkien was the only actually creative person in human history.

Expand full comment

Scott (and my fellow commenters), if you're looking for a fantasy epic that doesn't follow some of the tropes above, I highly recommend The Dandelion Dynasty series by Ken Liu. It's like "A Game of Thrones," but set in an archipelago modeled after ancient China. There are four books; the first one is "The Grace of Kings."

The story has really fantastic worldbuilding, well-done characters, and an exciting plot. The one big weakness is that sometimes there's too much worldbuilding; the author will go on for pages describing how some aspect of the world works, instead of getting back to advancing the plot, already. And the story sags in book three, but then the author pulls it together and really sticks the landing in book four. Be warned: Ken Liu gives George R.R. Martin a run for his money in the "beloved characters die in horrible ways" department. Very highly recommended overall.

Re: Scott's comment on why all fantasy has to have elves, dwarves, and goblins/orcs? This one doesn't. Almost all protagonists are human, and Ken Liu goes out of his way to describe protagonists of many races, which is a nice touch (there are very dark- literally black - people, pale white people with red hair, and everything in between). There are gods, and they sometimes interfere in the affairs of mortals, but they are mostly minor characters. And there are fantastic animals, like sentient whales and flying, fire-breathing not-dragons.

Expand full comment

I think a lot of this template can be placed at the feet of Gary Gygax and DnD. He (as the exemplar of the modern role-playing game creator) took a bucketful of influences from SF and Fantasy, but mostly Tolkien who had become the 800lb gorilla. The magic system, I am told, came from Jack Vance. Hence why the fantasy races (sorry, "species", this term has now been Politically Corrected) were all some variant of Human, Elf, Dwarf and Hobbit (with different names, perhaps). There was a bit more room in the evil/opponent races for development, but again dragons were the favourites.

Fantasy novels, therefore, when they were being written built up on these templates because they were being aimed at, and sold to, the market of DnD players and SF/F nerds. This was the tie-in/crossover market the big publishing houses were interested in, because they weren't going to waste time and money on original fantasy novels that might sell about a dozen copies. Everyone wanted the next Tolkien, so we got a lot of copies of Tolkien-clones.

I myself read the Shannara books for lack of other new fantasy (remember, we're talking the days of the 70s/80s and for all the Del Rey/Ballantine fantasy libraries, there were about ten publishing houses who didn't care about that nerdy crap) and I have to say I didn't much like it (too American, if you will forgive the Eurocentrism). But Brooks did indeed develop a formula and a template that worked, his sales were impressive enough, and that set the pattern from then on: fantasy novels had to be at least triple-deckers with the standard Dark Lord and Hero plot.

Expand full comment

I really enjoyed this, so I will show my appreciation by nitpicking a bit.

There's an argument that the real hero of LotR is Sam - he may not even be the chosen ringbearer, but when the lava hits the fan and he can't carry the ring, he can at least carry Mr. Frodo. Score one for the ordinary working-class person!

Tolkien almost certainly considered the Silmarillion his magnum opus, but it's LotR and the Hobbit that got him fame, maybe because they so closely fit the common fantasy tropes. Maybe there's authors out there who are trying to invent new archetypes and races of fantasy, but they only get a very small readership but the ones who mostly stick to the standard narrative get all the publicity? It might be because there's genuinely a bigger market for that (Scott's points #2 or #3), or it might be that marketing executives or whoever selects which authors get book deals go for what shareholders will see as the safe option, just like Disney is going with the n-th Star Wars franchise film yet again. If it's the executives, then we'd expect to see more "diversity" in self-published internet fan fiction as that cuts out these particular meddling middlemen.

That said, all this is Western fantasy. I'm by no means an expert on South Chinese fantasy but what I do know of it is that the hero is generally a Kung Fu master (not exclusively male), monks and nuns fulfil vital NPC roles, the counterpart to the Lost Ancient Civilisation is the burning of the Shaolin Temple causing the masters to disperse and share their knowledge with whichever locals take them in, dragons are generally good, and people living by rivers and lakes may or may not be bad but are definitely chaotic.

Also, whoever wrote Journey to the West was at least as inventive as Tolkien, as they basically came up with the genre of D&D fan fiction back in around 1600.

Expand full comment
Apr 28, 2023·edited Apr 28, 2023

I like this, but I would add that I think the progenitor civilization which has collapsed serves to underscore the stakes that the main characters are playing for. One of the Wise Characters explains: "Look, there was this awesome ancient civilization with technology we still don't understand X thousand years later, but it collapsed because they failed to deal with the Dark Lord effectively. Imagine what the Dark Lord and his pals can do to *you*, you later, lesser son of great sires! And who knows, maybe if you carry out your quest and defeat the baddies, the great ancient civilization can then be rebuilt, ushering in a new golden age, and we'll all have you to thank for it! Get to it, bucko."

Expand full comment

Competence porn is an essential thing for me. Harry Potter series without Hermione/Dumbledore would be lame. LOTR without Aragorn/Gandalf/Elves would be lame. The archetypal elf is hyper-competent and they exist to provide the competence porn and rare knowledge. Dwarves are more down-to-earth, figuratively and literally. In the star wars universe, the Jedi are the elves and the gungen/wookies/smugglers are the dwarves. Dwarves are there to provide comic relief or be more relatable for people with small egos. Orcs and Goblins exist only to be the Dark Lord's foul minions. In Star Wars, Stormtroopers are the orcs. And I guess the sith are drow. I guess you could draw a 2x2 matrix where the good is above evil and competent is to the right of incompetent.

Top left (good, incompetent): hobbits,dwarves,gungen,wookies,ewoks,ron,neville

Top right (good, competent): elves, jedi, mandalorian, gandalf, dumbledore, hermione, aurors

Bottom right (bad, competent): Dark Lord, sith, drow, dark wizards, bond villains

Bottom left (bad, incompetent): orcs, goblins, stormtroopers, crabbe, goyle, bond mooks

I think a fantasy universe needs to have all four quadrants covered. I don't think a neutral row is necessary because the neutrals almost always end up picking a side.

Expand full comment

Obligatory mentioniong of my my favourite book (web serial) Worth The Candle, which explores mentioned fantasy tropes and subverts them.

Expand full comment

Soviet sci-fi, in the form of Strugatsky brothers, features sentient dogs and a kraken (not in any great detail and not as the principal protagonist, but, they're there). Bernard Werber's Les Fourmis (Empire of the Ants) has all sorts of insects (predominantly, of course, the titular ants).

Expand full comment

It has been a few years since I have read the song of ice and fire series, but I can't remember Arya getting a Valyrian steel sword? I think the sword she has at the beginning of the series, Needle, is castle-forged steel. IIRC, the smith of Winterfell forges Needle for her out of his own initiative, which he would certainly not be able to do with Valyrian steel. Perhaps she gets such a weapon later, but it seemed not particularly plot relevant to me?

Also, unlike light sabers in Star Wars (which btw checks all of the boxes for the fantasy tropes) Valyrian steel is not very plot relevant because for the people who might wield it, personal combat is not very plot relevant. And with the queen reforging the captured Stark sword into blades her spoiled son, Valyrian swords get tainted by association as a stupid status symbol, I would say. Spoiled rich kids get Valyrian swords, chosen kids get their own mystical animal companions (direwolves, dragons).

Furthermore, the only major character who is not obviously born into high nobility is Jon Snow. (There are minor characters such as the mercenary Bronn who go from rags to riches). The rest of the Starks, the Targarrians, and Lannisters certainly do fall on hard times, but all of them are aware of their claim to nobility from the minute they appear.

Expand full comment

Sentient Dolphins.

Use them and you’re ripping off David Brin (Startide Rising).

Is there some sort of general rule that you are allowed to conform to everyone else, but if you are trying to be eccentric, you should be eccentric in a unique way?

There’s so much fantasy and sci-fi out there that you’ll be ripping off someone, in particular, for any creature you choose. But if you use Elves, well, everybody uses Elves. No big deal.

Expand full comment

Loosely speaking, sortition seems pretty common in fantasy? That’s what an Artifact of Power discovered by chance is for. [1] Then the problem becomes why someone doesn’t take it from you when you’re sleeping.

Another example is the Golden Ticket in *Charlie and the Chocolate Factory*. I guess to make this plausible and fun in a more modern environment, you need an eccentric billionaire?

There are also stories about winning the lottery in the ordinary way, and this would be a fantasy but not Fantasy, more likely a comedy. A “fairytale” romance is about someone meeting a Prince by chance, and maybe it doesn’t work as well for people who know they’re not that beautiful (or that young)?

I guess to be real sortition, you also need a society that’s okay with choosing ordinary people as leaders by chance, and that’s a lot of world building? Maybe it somehow makes you royalty?

I think writers do often invent interesting races and civilizations, but if done well, they become so associated with that story that nobody else can use them without seeming derivative. (Consider Star Trek’s alien races.) Maybe the question is how something becomes popular but also generic? Somehow, borrowing from Tolkien is okay, maybe because he borrowed from earlier traditions?

Browsing TV Tropes for “research” would help in answering the sorts of questions raised here, but then we’d never get anything done.

[1] https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtifactOfPower

Expand full comment

From "My Fairy Tail Life" by Jack Zipes...


Once upon a time, when the famous scientist Albert Einstein worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a tiny old woman approached him as he was walking home. She was schlepping a skinny young boy of about six who was dragging his feet.

“Meester Einstein,” she called out in a strong Central European accent. “Meester Einstein, stop your tracks and help me!”

Einstein was taken aback. He didn’t know what to do except stop.

“How can I help you?” he responded with a smile as he took out a pipe.

“Meester Einstein, stop. You shouldn’t smoke. It will kill you,” the old woman said.

Again, Einstein was taken aback, and he put away his pipe.

“Is that better?”

“Much better,” the old woman said as she drew her timid grandson toward Einstein. “Jaky, stop fiddling and listen to this great man.”

Now she turned her attention back to Einstein.

“Meester Einstein, I want you should tell me what my grandson must do to become educated like you. I want he should be a great scientist.”

Einstein didn’t hesitate with his reply. “Fairy tales. He should read fairy tales.”

“All right,” the woman replied. “But what then? What should he read after that?”

“More fairy tales,” Einstein stated bluntly. He took out his pipe and continued walking toward his home.

The old woman was silent for a moment, but then she grabbed hold of Jaky’s hand and began dragging him through the park again. Suddenly, she stopped.

“You heard, Jaky!” She pointed her finger at the frightened boy. “You heard what the great man said! Read fairy tales! Do what the man said, or God help you!”

Expand full comment

Wait were you specifically thinking of Aaron as "the Frodo" and the Comet King as "the Aragorn" writing Unsong?

Expand full comment

It might be worth applying this sort of analysis to other genres. Romance has been mentioned, and perhaps something similar can be done with mysteries, or perhaps the sub-genres of mysteries.

I haven't seen analysis of thrillers, though to judge by my little free library, they're possibly as popular as romances. I think thrillers can be typified as near-future science fiction (that is, one new piece of technology which hasn't changed things generally) that involves fighting against a conspiracy.

The boundaries are blurry of course. There's science fiction about fighting conspiracies and romance can be included in anything.

Expand full comment

Alright, one hopefully productive comment, one criticism.

Sure, we'll try sharing this to Notes, new button.

So, with Tolkien and this ur-myth, I think it's probably fair to say that Tolkien less invented all the tropes than recognized and polished them. What Tolkien fundamentally did was obsessively study English and old English/Germanic mythology, which was hugely influential and popular for centuries. He studied 1000+ years of mythology, selected what tropes and elements worked best, polished them, and crafted a unified world out of the best of that tradition. He choose elves and dwarves, and we recognize those, because they're built out of the best of earlier traditions. For example, elves aren't fairies but they play a lot of the same story role and a lot more. And he feels so definitive because, well, he was a genius who worked on this pretty much his entire life in the best possible environment to do it: Oxford University. If you're trying to summarize and polish the best of 1000 years of mythology into a single story, well, that's super hard and it's very hard to top what he did.

As for the criticism, I think you're leaning far too hard onto the power fantasy element, or really the lack of agency. The vibe I get reading this is of people wanting to be powerful without doing work. And there's something to that but...the prince isn't the prince because he worked hard. People's situation they're born into plays a fantastic role in their outcomes. There's a power fantasy of just being a good person being enough but it's not hard to find medieval princes and kings who were fools and their reigns would have been far better for everyone if, ya know, they were just a good person. And I think it's very easy to confuse the fantasy of getting rewards without work or agency with the fantasy of just being born with a better starting position or better natural talents in life.

Maybe this blends over to the competence fallacy, like John Wick or James Bond, but even then James Bond never practices, he's just that good, he's just talented. Ya know, um, I remember watching one of those silly motivational videos with Kobe Bryant and he's bragging about practicing three times a day while everyone else in the NBA was practicing twice. And maybe that's legit, maybe he really did outwork everyone else in the NBA. But, ya know, China is full of sweatshop workers and peasant farmers who will work 10-16 hour days from adolescence to...basically death. And it's hard to convince me, or I think anyone, that the reason Kobe Bryant was a rich sports celebrity and they're working themselves to death in a factory is because Kobe Bryant just worked so much harder than they did. How do you differentiate between people fantasizing about getting the rewards without work and people fantasizing about just being born in a better place in life?

And some of this is about...kind of a moralizing tone but there's also something practical. Hey, ya know, I see a lot of guys with talent falling into this fantasizing and it is very destructive but, hey, some guys are born...just kind of dumb and unlikable. Half of people must be born with below average intelligence and half of people half to be born with below average charisma and that's basically how you improve your lot in life. The economy doesn't really need them and if they work hard they might go from flipping burgers to...being a shift manager and making $1.00 more an hour. And I don't like this advice but if those guys want to slip into a fantasy world of fiction, video games, and (usually) weed, I think that's bad but it's hard to make a case that their life would be better if they worked harder.

Expand full comment

I enjoyed this article. I do think it's a mistake to focus only on the fantasy of being the person in the story. Sometimes it's fun to pretend a cool person exists so you can enjoy admiring them. Sometimes, for example with a pure, naive, and strong hero, you like the hero and enjoy rooting for them, are happy when things work out for them, but don't really want to be them.

Sometimes a story can focus on and present a purer version of a good thing that exists in real life. We can enjoy imagining it in the story, and then be more ready to pick it out of the mess of complicated things in real life. I don't think that kind of pleasure in imagining good things is silly or empty.

Expand full comment

This post is interesting, but as I read it, I kept thinking of great series I'd consider "fantasy" that go far beyond these parameters and are all the better for it.

An adult example is Stephen King's Dark Tower series. A young adult example is the Sword of the Spirits trilogy by John Christopher (one of my favorite authors, his young adult novels are a hugely underrated treasure trove — especially the Tripods series).

Expand full comment

Hmmm . . . applying this theory to my fantasy novel . . . yes, it fits well. I have two protagonists, one the "Aragorn" competence guy and the other needing to figure out the power she was randomly granted to save everyone else.

Expand full comment

In the Prisoner's Dilemma of the world, the legend of the normal person who saves the day, despite possessing only ordinary talents, is a strong virtuous fable. The world is actually saved by normal people, without extraordinary talent or power, choosing goodness and honesty, when they could choose selfishness and lies. If ethics has any meaning ("not what you should do to achieve some given end, but what you should do, full stop") then the ordinary person who is one of the 3 billion people who save the world every day by refusing to betray their neighbor is just as good as the ordinary person who gets a magic sword that lets her save 3 billion people. All this particular fantasy trope is doing is throwing the real ethical situation into high relief.

Expand full comment

"Random person using ordinary-people skills like friendship and self-understanding to save the world" is less escapist than it might seem at first, really.

It's rather common for people to be unexpectedly required to deal with difficult problems through no fault of their own, and rather common for the solutions to involve some combination of self-understanding, clear communication, networking, perseverance, and trust in goodness as an ultimately successful strategy. Ordinary-person-saves-the-world fantasy is just dramatizing those ordinary-life skills, so that people will have them internalized and ready when they suddenly have to deal with ordinary-life demons.

As a wise hobbit once said: "Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. [...] Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding onto something. [...] That there's some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."


There is a pattern that's kind of always bothered me about fantasy races. Typically, there's humans, who are organized into seven nations following the values of each of the seven Elder Gods, and each nation has its own system of class stratification and resulting social problems that follow from the hidden contradictions in the virtue ethics embodied by the particular Elder God they follow, or whatever... and then, somewhere off to the side, there are also some elves who live off in the forest and like nature, and some dwarves who live underground and like gold, and a few marauding bands of barbaric orcs who like killing. They're monocultures; don't think too hard about them.

In other words, the fantasy races rarely have the kind of internal diversity and adaptability that the humans have. Authors put a lot of thought into their unique human cultures, but then just drop in the fantasy races as a prepackaged trope that fills a narrative function.

I think that's partly why you don't see too many unique non-human races in fantasy. You can drop a bunch of dwarves into your story and trust your readers to accept them based on their pre-existing imported knowledge about dwarven culture, but they're probably going to have a lot more questions about the day-to-day life and moral beliefs of the giant wasp mercenaries which the author may just not want to spend pages exploring.

(Personally, I think that you shouldn't even bother including non-human races unless you're willing to do the work to make them seem completely alien, in a way that goes beyond the differences among regular human cultures. But I've still never gotten around to writing a proper fantasy story myself, so what do I know?)

Expand full comment

The last part probably does not go much farther than what you've already said, it simply saves time to not have to explain a race. Also characters that are similar to humans are easier to write compelling stories for and relate to. Warhammer40k famously gave up on writing stories from the point of view of anyone except humanity because they didn't sell even when all the races are basically human stereotypes.

Expand full comment

I think this is an accurate analysis of the "standard" ordinary-teenager-saves-the-world fantasy and its subversions, but there's so much more to the genre than that.

Some examples I've read recently that match little or none of your description:

- N.K. Jemisin's "The Broken Earth" trilogy. We're actually at the high point of what might some day be known as the Ancient Progenitor Civilization. Our protagonists' positions in society and personal characteristics are critically important, and their eventual pivotal roles rely on training, a lifetime of experience, and individual innovation. While there is a "born in obscurity and then identified as magical" element to the backstory, the way it plays out is...different. There are no elves. Dark lords are a matter of perspective, I suppose.

Suyi Davies Okungbowa's "Son of the Storm": Nobody is plucked from obscurity. Our protagonists' social positions and personal characteristics matter. Politics are central to the story, multipolar, and highly complex. There is no Ancient Progenitor Civilization (or maybe we're in it). There are no elves or dark lords.

Naomi Alderman's "The Power": There is no Ancient Progenitor Civilization. There is a sudden event that upsets the balance of power in a way that empowers some ordinary teenagers, but the outcome is not exactly saving the world, and the protagonist who ultimately comes across most strongly as filling the "ordinary person becomes hero by being a decent person" role is not one of the empowered teenagers. There are no dark lords or elves. There are guns.

I have a vague sense that some of my 20th-century fantasy favourites also broke the mold pretty thoroughly, but I don't remember any off the top of my head.

Expand full comment

I think there's an argument for LoTR as the TED-Talk of High Fantasy. Tolkien gets credit for writing the books, but as others have pointed out he was drawing on existing literary, historical and cultural tropes. And then the sophistication and popular success of the books strongly reinforced some of those very tropes. People generally like tropes because they are familiar (that's the definition) and that familiarity is comforting, but you also score points for cleverly inverting tropes. Others have also mentioned Joseph Campbell and The Hero's Journey as a sort of uber-trope.

Scott wrote: "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."

I think this misunderstands the monomyth and LoTR, but probably through (because?) of the lens of the modern rationalist. I want to recommend Eliezer Yudkowksy's Harry Potter: Methods of Rationality fanfic (https://hpmor.com/) here because he's explicitly trying to address that aspect of the juxtaposition Scott is weighing. Harry exists in the modern world of science, so EY does an awesome job of presenting Harry's modern, rationalist reaction to the apparently arbitrary magical world. In contrast, it's "presentism" (reality-ism?) to project the modern epistemology of science into the feudal or more ancient past. It requires a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience to give up their modern rationalism to access the characters' experience. There are other takes on modern rationalism encountering the magical world. The Magicians was a pretty good recent TV series about this.

There's a close analogue of Scott's ideas that I can't find right now about how there are two superhero archetypes: Batman and Superman. Batman is the competency fantasy. He is given a purpose and becomes a superhero to achieve it. Superman is the agency fantasy. He is gifted super-agency and becomes a superhero to justify the gift. Every superhero is either Batman, Superman or some linear combination. They are both takes on the monomyth with the call to adventure either being the purpose (Batman is orphaned by crime, Ironman must escape his actual/metaphorical prison, Black Widow's "ledger") or the revelation of power (Superman, Wonder Woman, Thor). In LoTR Frodo has a superpower. It is (paradoxically, trope-inverting) his ordinariness , which makes him capable of resisting The One Ring almost to the very end of his hero's journey, and that's what makes him a hero.

To restate all this more succinctly: Tolkien both used and reinforced existing tropes. We like tropes and trope-inversion. The monomyth is a very big trope in human experience, arguably. You can think of modern rationalism and the epistemology of science as a trope-inversion of the way almost all humans have lived, so "fantasy" is a modern willing suspension of disbelief in order to access the lived experience of most humans, and their stories.

The genius and likely cause of part of the success of Star Wars and superheroes are that they are literally fantasy cosplaying as modern rationalism. Space wizards FTW.

Obligatory meta self-reference:


Expand full comment

Great article overall. On the "mystery" front, my wife and I always talk/joke about how she (and myself and most readers) simply love "revelations!" So many books spend huge amounts of time setting up (and if they are at all good) paying off revelations. It also causes a lot of bad/frustrating writing where characters are needlessly non-communicative and withholding so there can be needless conflict and later "REVELATIONS!".

You also didn't do enough here talking about how so much of what happens in books and who the characters are is about setting up plausible excuses to explain things to the audience. Which is why the main characters, or if not a super important character is always a neophyte.

As always I have a "I am not Scott's definition of 'normal' " note:

>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 would definitely not put any of those as strengths of mine, or qualities I particularly possess.

Expand full comment

I think the main reason to re-use setting elements like elves and dwarves and fallen empires is that it saves exposition. Why reinvent physics, why reinvent races? When doing D&D, I prefer to play with this by having the common knowledge be exactly that: what's in the PHB and the Monster Manual is what a normal uneducated human thinks. How much is accurate? Trolls are probably big, and probably regenerate, and it's probably best to burn them with fire if you want them to stay dead. Probably. Unless someone was drinking too much, somewhere along the line. Do red dragons really look that much different than blue dragons? Do they actually live in different areas and have different personalities? Do you unquestioningly believe everything Herodotus wrote?

I'd separate this from the trend in fantasy to have reader-surrogate characters, or reader-power-fantasies, or things like that. That's a different matter altogether, IMO. There's plenty of fantasy that doesn't have it.

Also, for a fun twist on elves and dwarves, there's Steven Brust's Dragaera books. Unsophisticated Easterners call Dragaerans "elfs", which isn't terribly offensive. Unsophisticated Dragaerans occasionally call Easterners "dwarfs", which might not be offensive, it's hard to tell. Both refer to themselves as "humans".

Expand full comment

>. 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;

Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters", in case you have read not it, has a similar theme, including the reference to the kaballistic names of God. More generally, he explores a number of other more unusual forms of "fantasy". That said, people tend not to call it fantasy any more, e.g. wikipedia calls it "steampunk".

Expand full comment

To be honest, I think I fundamentally disagree with the premise that fantasy isn't an experimental genre. What you refer to as Here Be Dragons type fantasy, what I usually call Epic Fantasy, is just one sub-genre within the category. I wouldn't even say that Tolkien invented it, a ton of it is clearly derived from the Kalevala and other sagas from Northern Europe. He was a great writer, and as a result successfully popularized many plot elements, but I would call that the evolution and cementation of just one particular sub-region, as you follow the path through D&D and Dragon Quest.

But there's a lot of other fantasy out there! Much of it is even developed independently. As far as I can tell isekai came about pretty much wholly detached from what was called Portal Fantasy in the west. Certainly I can't find many parallels between Mushoku Tensei and Narnia/Conan/Alice in Wonderland/A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

I also see many ways in which Fantasy splits off from the Saga-esque. Harry Potter is the most profitable Fantasy series of all time, and shares very little with Tolkien. They call Voldemort a Dark Lord, but the name is about all he shares with the likes of Sauron; the man is basically just the leader of a terrorist organization in a single country. Twilight stands out to me as well, showing the ways in which Fantasy has largely absorbed Horror and rebuilt it to fit contemporary desires. Urban Fantasy is another notable sister; The Dresden Files is likely the most famous example within the English speaking world, but I would also offer up much of the Korean Web Novel scene. Works like Solo Leveling, SSS-Class Suicide Hunter, and Omniscient Reader's Viewpoint are utterly unlike anything I've read from the US. There's Gaslamp Fantasy, like the works of Diana Gabaldon; Flintlock Fantasy, like Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky; Gothic Fantasy, like Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake; Ninja fantasy or whatever you want to call all the Naruto-derived series out there. I don't even really feel like I've covered the tip of the iceberg here, I don't particularly care for LotR or its copycats, so these other forays in the genre are almost all I read of Fantasy.

I will grant to you that the Fantasy races tend towards repetitiveness. There are exceptions, like Jim Butcher's Codex Alara or maybe Nisioisin's Monogatari series, but they're certainly rarer. My theory on it is that you only really have so much space to introduce your reader's to new concepts. There are a lot of jokes about authors who first page is 25% made up fantasy terminology, and at the end of the day there's not a lot of impetus to bother. Fantasy races are generally specific archetypes with a purpose. Sure, an author could take the time to create a whole new race that specializes in crafting wondrous weapons and artifacts, but what does that do for your reader that using Dwarves doesn't? For the purposes of developing your themes, or politics, or character relationships, just about every niche already has a fully fleshed out archetype that your readers are already intimately familiar with. For the books that deviate, it's usually the deviation that is their entire focus. The story becomes about introducing your reader to these races and their society, and convincing them that they matter. If that's not what you're writing, it's just a lot of unnecessary work.

Expand full comment
Apr 28, 2023·edited Apr 29, 2023

...This is just wildly inconsistent with the fantasy books I've read.

Like, I agree the generic fantasy setting described here exists. It's D&D. Or, rather, it's D&D percolated through MMOs, Japanese webfiction, and pop culture in general. But books aren't actually set in it, aside from D&D tie-in novels (which used to be a pretty big deal, but less so now). In non-tie-in published fiction, almost no one copies all of Tolkien's races, and dungeon-diving is even rarer. And basically every actual story I've read that does use this generic fantasy setting is trying in some way to subvert it - usually not done very well, due to the writer confusing the generic fairytale or pseudo-medieval setting, Middle-Earth specifically, and that generic D&D/MMO setting.

But, as some other commenters have noted, if you want novels with more creativity than that, there's literally thousands of options.

Expand full comment

The simplest theory is that this Platonic-ideal world of fantasy does exist, and the various popular authors are merely describing it ...

A slightly more complicated theory is that it lives "in the hearts and minds of children everywhere", much like Santa Claus.

Expand full comment

Relevant post by Balioc (one of my favorite Tumblr bloggers): https://balioc.tumblr.com/post/628726469386960897/a-taxonomy-of-magic

Expand full comment

I find the omission of Star Wars confusing. It's *the* fantasy I'm most used to hearing discussed in these terms, and I have some evidence that Scott's familiar with it

Expand full comment

There really isn't any easier way to say this: this is, at best, limited and misguided.

First of all, this piece contradicts itself, conflating the 'born special' people of Shanara with the not at all special Frodo (S.A. seems to bith find and miss what is distinctive about Tolkien). And it then goes on to conflate Middle-earth with Discworld, when they are nothing alike (Discworld starts as a parody of the pulp fantasy that is now largely forgotten- Thongor of Valkarth etc. etc.) Pratchett also dips into the pre-Tolkien fantasy motives, e.g. having DEATH actually be present on stage, something the medieval would immediately recognise.

It isn't that Tolkien was the only creative, it is that he is like Shakespeare: later writers have struggled not to be him. Some succeed: Martin & Moorcock. But if you look at the pre-Tolkien fantasy, you find no such commonality as S.A. suggests. See Poul Anderson "Three Hearts, Threw Lions", Cancer "Dying Earth", Fritz Leiber etc. And, of course, there's Narmia.

So no evidence for commonality there.

I will go so far as to say S.A. does injustice to Isekai. Yes, there is a lot of tripe out there, that deals with the same tired fantasy tropes. There are also ones like "Tanya the Evil", "Hero has Returned", "Haibane Renmei", and the masterly "Now and Then, Here and There", which explores what a world that would use random children as soldiers would actually be like (the maker researched groups like the LRA).

So - what's left of the original premise? Not much. All we know is there's a bunch of power-fantasies marketed to people who want power-fantasies. That's it, really.

Expand full comment

> 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?

I think this is mostly false. It's true that quite a few fantasy worlds have these races, but there are many (more?) that don't. Mieville has already been brought up, as has Sanderson, but I might throw Pullman into the mix as well since your mention of sentient wasps put me in mind of the Gallivespians (we also have talking bears and sign-language-using elephants who ride wheels!).

And sure, you can say "well Perdido Street Station isn't really the type of fantasy I was talking about" or "Well the Parshendi from Stormlight are kind of like orcs" or "Pullman is a bit too close to science fiction". But in the end, you're either being tautological ("the fantasy I'm talking about is the kind with orcs, elves, and dwarves") or you're taking "elves, orcs, and dwarves" so broadly that any woodland folk count as "elves", any subterranean folk count as "dwarves", and any ugly baddies count as "orcs".

(The phenomenon you describe is definitely present, to be clear: orcs, elves, and dwarves are somewhat overrepresented. But I'd say not as much as you imply.)

Expand full comment

“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”

Harry Potter

Expand full comment

It seems to me this post is very much a continuation of themes present in "Nerds and Hipsters" and especially the Highlights from the Comments on that. Isn't there an impulse behind all three posts that, in an important sense, is just more of what Weber called "The Protestant [Work] Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism"? It's secularized, of course, as Weber said that spirit was already by the 18th century. But there's the same exhortation to police one's use of time ("what comes naturally . . . is to browse Reddit and play video games"), the same valuation of (more or less) anhedonic effort over pleasure (a cultural production is worthy to the extent it requires effort on the part of the consumer), and, overall, the same obsessive drive to *produce* (although the product is now cultural status in a 21st-century sense, not wealth or bourgeois respectability). Mightn't "Do better!" be translated as "Work hard, young man, and don't you come out of your study until you have something worthy"? There is a place for this spirit in the maintenance of certain aspects of human vitality. But, after so much, dare one say, scolding, does not even the lamest--perhaps especially the lamest--fandom come to seem like the pleasure principle's cry in the wilderness, and a necessary corrective to relentless meritocracy? Should we not give even a moment to the--admittedly not intellectually rich, but still authentic--call of “I enjoy it because it’s fun”?

Expand full comment

The newish fantasy animated series on Netflix 'Arcane' which is based on League of Legends plays around with the idea of 'someone has to invent spells and then everyone can use them'. It's pretty great

Expand full comment

To quote the man himself, from his essay "On Fairy Stories":


"There are, however, some questions that one who is to speak about fairy-stories must expect to answer, or attempt to answer, whatever the folk of Faërie may think of his impertinence. For instance: What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them? I will try to give answers to these questions, or such hints of answers to them as I have gleaned—primarily from the stories themselves, the few of all their multitude that I know.

What is a fairy-story? In this case you will turn to the Oxford English Dictionary in vain. It contains no reference to the combination fairy-story, and is unhelpful on the subject of fairies generally. In the Supplement, fairy-tale is recorded since the year 1750, and its leading sense is said to be (a) a tale about fairies, or generally a fairy legend; with developed senses, (b) an unreal or incredible story, and (c) a falsehood. The last two senses would obviously make my topic hopelessly vast. But the first sense is too narrow. Not too narrow for an essay; it is wide enough for many books, but too narrow to cover actual usage. Especially so, if we accept the lexicographer's definition of fairies: “supernatural beings of diminutive size, in popular belief supposed to possess magical powers and to have great influence for good or evil over the affairs of man.”

...The diminutive being, elf or fairy, is (I guess) in England largely a sophisticated product of literary fancy. It is perhaps not unnatural that in England, the land where the love of the delicate and fine has often reappeared in art, fancy should in this matter turn towards the dainty and diminutive, as in France it went to court and put on powder and diamonds. Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of “rationalization,” which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood. In any case it was largely a literary business in which William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton played a part. Drayton's Nymphidia is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested. Andrew Lang had similar feelings. In the preface to the Lilac Fairy Book he refers to the tales of tiresome contemporary authors: “they always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple-blossom… These fairies try to be funny and fail; or they try to preach and succeed.”

But the business began, as I have said, long before the nineteenth century, and long ago achieved tiresomeness, certainly the tiresomeness of trying to be funny and failing. Drayton's Nymphidia is, considered as a fairy-story (a story about fairies), one of the worst ever written.

...Fairy, as a noun more or less equivalent to elf, is a relatively modern word, hardly used until the Tudor period. The first quotation in the Oxford Dictionary (the only one before A.D. 1450) is significant. It is taken from the poet Gower: as he were a faierie. But this Gower did not say. He wrote as he were of faierie, “as if he were come from Faërie.” Gower was describing a young gallant who seeks to bewitch the hearts of the maidens in church."

Expand full comment

As others have pointed out, the "protagonist is/becomes the chosen one" [0] is a trope which is ubiquitous. It appears in fairy tales (Cinderella?), SF (Matrix), space opera (Star Wars) as well.

I think it is actually somewhat less frequent in pen & paper role playing games. D&Dish systems have one of the more extreme power curves, to the degree that no amount of level one characters can hope to best a single high level character. Still, apart from being heros, the PCs are not inherently special. There are also NPC sorcerers of high level, and from my understanding most games people play do not have the goal of the PCs reaching godhood or something. White Wolf's World of Darkness games typically start with somewhat-near-ordinary human levels of power which then goes through the roof (especially for Mage).

In Shadowrun, the characters are the underdogs, which is why they need to use covered actions in the first place. There is no power level reachable which allows the characters to fry Lofwyr and take over Saeder-Krupp. The dark eye (DSA, a German system) also has little power leveling. Getting into a fight with a few dozens angry people with clubs is generally a poor idea even for an experienced character.

Contrast this with (single player) role playing video games. I think there are different levels of Chosenness:

* The PC is a non-unique hero who happens to have solved the previous quests (Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout series, VtM: Bloodlines)

* The PC is plotwise Chosen, but does not get extra personal combat power for that (Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate, later-series Dragon Age and Mass Effect). Typically they get a title ("Commander") as well as a fort, an army or a space ship.

* The PC is Chosen and gets extra-special powers to reflect that (Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous eventually drops ten Mythic Levels on the PC enabling them to do extra-special stuff, Skyrim's Dragon words). Instead of earning lichhood through long-winded study ~like Pharasma intended~, you basically get it gifted as a goodie from an NPC.

I think this is because computer RPGs are agency simulators. Nobody wants to play a game where they are constantly running defenseless from helicopters shooting them. Power curves work very well for that. If you started out being able to one-shot mirelurks, that would be much less impressive than if you start out being totally powerless against them and then later are able to evaporize them or whatever. The choseness seems mostly to tie the PC in the plot. KotOR would work if the main character was just a random person who eventually became a Jedi, but then the story would not be particularly memorable.

[0] https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheChosenOne

Expand full comment

> As far as I know, this extremely basic idea (someone has to invent spells, but then anyone can use them)

Multiple Brandon Sanderson books have systems adjacent to this. In Warbreaker the magic system is accessible to everyone, and scholars work to develop new spells.

Another of his books, Elantris does have a genetic component to magic, but the magic system was broken by a cataclysm a couple generations ago. The protagonist then figures out that it can still work with modifications, through a huge amount of poring over books and experimenting. Also, the magic system is clearly supposed to basically be programming.

I think Sanderson books are pretty close to "technology, but magic is the technology" so that's why they don't fall into the mold described here.

Expand full comment

"In the sadder corners of the Internet,"

Well, no wonder. I thought the internet was round.

Expand full comment

I am commenting only to say that whatever is happening with Substack, with the popups and un-dismissable BS, is maddening and destroys the platform for me. Fix it immediately or I never interact with this site or susbtack ever again.

Expand full comment

> 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;

In Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicle the main character invents a new magical device, patents it and is paid royalties.

This book is also basically the opposite of what you are describing: the main character is very competent (though often unwise), both gifted and very dedicated. The books also don't really have any Dark Lord (well there kinda is one, but he doesn't play a very big role in the story) and don't really have elves, unless you count a kind of a succubus that likes keeping men as sex slaves and some other creatures like that.

Expand full comment
Apr 30, 2023·edited Apr 30, 2023

You kind of touched on this with your reference to D&D, but it seems to me that fantasy RPGs, video games in particular, operate on a different, superficially opposite fantasy, i.e. that there are large and predictable returns to work. You kill the monsters, gaining gold and experience, and you use them to become stronger, until you're capable of accomplishing your ultimate goal. Success is virtually guaranteed, as long as you put in the hours.

But maybe they're not so different. In single-player games, there's still a chosen-one aspect here: If it's so easy, why isn't there any competition? Because you, as the sole player character, are the chosen one. Even if the narrative says that you're just a regular guy, you're the only one with agency, which makes you special.

On the other hand, in MMORPGs, there is competition. Nowadays, I think they're more skill-based, but in the early days many of them really did come down to putting in the most "work," playing into the work -> reward fantasy without the chosen-one element.

Of course, to some extent the real world works that way as well, but it's a lot messier. Talent and luck play important roles. There are fairly reliable ways to turn talent and hard work into a pretty good result, but exceptional outcomes require luck as well. And if you don't have the talent, hard work can only take you so far.

Expand full comment

This explains well why I don't like the genre.

Expand full comment

One thing I appreciate about R. Scott Bakker's second apocalypse books is that they actually do take the logistics of moving massive medieval-tech armies seriously, and often use those problems as key plot points.

They also just in general contain about zero of the tropes laid out here.

Expand full comment

> But also: the way to become John Wick is to practice shooting, every day, again and again, more obsessively than anyone else.

Oddly enough, I'm currently reading the *Cradle* series (by Will Wight), which is basically this. The protagonist starts off at the bottom (actually, below even the bottom), and acquires incredible power through a). relentless grinding all day, every day, b). getting involved in fights with significantly more powerful people than he could ever imagine, and c). winning (or at least surviving) the fights through a combination of perseverance and blatant cheating. Then, he goes right back to (a), because he's on a deadline, and unless he manages to attain virtual godhood in time, everyone and everything he loves will be destroyed. He's not the classic Chosen One, either: yes, the heavens have blessed him with their attention, but only to say, "your self-imposed mission is kind of impossible and you should probably give up". He doesn't.

Expand full comment

One way to think of fantasy is as a literary genre that pretends to be folklore. Middle Earth is in some ways a unique creation of Tolkien but is in other ways the same world that traditional fairy tales are set in. Tolkien described The Hobbit this way explicitly. Tolkein's big groundbreaking idea wasn't the concept of elves or whatever, but rather the idea that fairy tales could be written for adults and have literary merit. Fantasy literature (at least in the Western tradition) feels same-y because it all draws from the same European folkloric roots. The Lord of the Rings didn't have any unicorns in it, but when subsequent Tolkien-derived fantasy works include them, nobody bats an eye. Even though Tolkien didn't draw on the specific folkloric concept of unicorns, drawing from folklore is the same kind of thing he was doing, so it still feels like it fits. Fantasy doesn't usually have sentient wasps and whatnot, because then the work would lose that feeling of being this ancient tale from folklore. Not that out-of-the-box ideas like that couldn't be fun, it would just be a different feel.

Expand full comment

My exposure to fantasy is mostly through gaming, so I have a different perspective about why these kinds of tropes show up there. In RPGs, the point of the game *is* for the players to exercise agency and use their PCs' special powers to solve their problems, so the idea that the point is "for someone who's not unusually talented or agentic to be the hero" does not apply.

However, one thing that does apply is that you need problems that the players can come up with solutions for *without needing a lot of context*, because the players will almost always have less information about the fictional world than they do about the real world. For instance, going back to Scott's example of gaining power in a democracy. If you wanted to do an RPG where the PCs are trying to win an election in something resembling a modern democracy, you would need a lot of the following information:

- who the different constituencies/demographics are

- what are the different issues, and what sorts of people have what positions on what issues

- who your opponents are and what *their* positions are

- who possible campaign donors are, what they want, and what might convince them

- what you will have the power to do (or at least what voters think you have the power to do) once elected, i.e. what you could credibly promise

- and so on.

Now, we're familiar with a lot of this stuff *in our own world* just from living in it our whole lives and paying attention to the world. But a lot of this stuff is totally different e.g. between different countries at the same time, between today and a few decades ago, and maybe even between different U.S. states. So if you wanted to do a campaign like this in some totally different world, you would have to give the PCs a huge amount of background information before they could even start.

So you end up with things like "if you can kill the old king then you become the new king", because that reduces the problem to how to kill someone, which the players are already familiar with how to solve.

There *are* fantasy themed games that do focus more on other stuff. Like the way you described Celebrimbor: "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." That basically describes the board game Alchemists (not that *exactly*, but in Alchemists you're trying to learn the rules for which potion ingredients have which effects and then publish your results). Those, however, are usually board games or computer games rather than RPGs. In that case the game rules are what provide the necessary context.

Expand full comment

The standard fantasy race package is a thing for the same reason fanfiction is a thing in general - explanation length/inference distance: to create a memorable race or culture (or a character or an archetype, or world mechanics, or (...)) one needs a lot of work and many words that don’t push the story forward. Doing it competently and not derailing your story is _hard_. Using already established culture is easy and short, just write ‘dwarves’! As a bonus, you get superficial creativity points for misspelling the name or subverting one irrelevant part of the trope (no need to first establish something you’ll subvert, neither, that’s already been done for you!).

Expand full comment

The fantasy races fit very nicely into stereotyped categories. We humans love our stereotyped categories, but don't condone doing it with real people anymore. Instead, we get to have fun engaging in stereotyping behavior and categorization with dwarves, elves, orcs, etc...

Expand full comment

Two weird fantasy universes that don't exactly fit this:

- Miracle Jones' "The Fold"

- Walter Moers' "Zamonia"

Expand full comment

A NZ writer called Maurice Gee wrote a short but wonderful three-part teen fiction series called The Halfmen of O that most NZers my age (40) will have read. I thought of it over and over as I read this piece. Susan, the 12yo normal human protagonist, as a baby receives a magical birthmark from a transworld visitor who was about to die and couldn't find an adult to pass his mark on to at the critical moment. But she doesn't find out about any of this for years. So she's born totally ordinary, raised ordinary, but at the onset of adolescence is chosen for an extraordinary task (to save the other world from fascism, basically) and given some "mystical powers lite" to do it, with help from her totally ordinary cousin Nick. It's a great coming of age story but the fantasy world of O is also beautifully imagined and original. No dolphins, but there are talking seals, as well as bloodcats, varg (giant polar bears), and flying birdmen.

Expand full comment

This article, ironically enough, has been "psychologically life-changing" by convincing me that my problems / problems I want to solve, will yield more to doing *unusual actions* (obsessive practice, novel thinking) instead of "finding myself". Thank you, Scott.

Expand full comment

What other races have become standard, or are becoming, standard?

Some suggestions:

- catgirls and other animalfolk/beastkin/furries

- minotaurs/tauren

- dragonkin

- aasimars and tieflings/draenei

- reckless-tinkerer goblins/gnomes/kerbals

- werewolves

- vampires

- zombies

- maybe genies/djinni/djinn?

Expand full comment

There are few books inbetween which bring some difference, given that 99% percent in this genre are just even more primitive adaptions of the Vogler's Journey with such a bad storyline that "Deus ex Machina" becomes a writing style of its own. Mostly standing out is Nalini Singh with her first books of the Psy Universe, there you get your Dolphins and whatnot and a much broader scope of psychological insight. On another plane there is the Shadowrun Universe, hero stories yes, but reverberating the sacrifices of the average player saving some human values.

Expand full comment

Arya Stark never got Valyrian steel in the books. Even the dagger she gets in the show is basically forgotten there, and it seems like a first-book-ism for such a valuable item to be in possession of some nameless catspaw.

Others have pointed out Robert Howard's Conan stories as a contrast, but I don't know if Tolkien had any awareness of that (that might be too American & low in prestige). He was aware of Lord Dunsany & E. R. Eddison, and disapproved of the former's cynical approach to religion and the latter's Nietzcheanism. He was also critical of Shakespeare's approach to fantasy (thinking the medium of theater is inherently deflating of anything magical) and Michael Drayton for perpetuating the most childish & cutesy form of fairies (following in the tradition of A Midsummer Night's Dream).

Expand full comment

Planescape Torment, at least, tries to transcend these tropes (tho not fully, and it still borrows a lot from fantasy worlds, maybe with different-than-stereotyped roles).

gaspode can do things :)

Expand full comment

>“what if the Dark Lord’s henchmen unionized?”

They did, that's what created the Dark Lord in the first place. Before the union vote, they were all just hardworking Orcs trying to feed their families and working the mines for Amalgamated Mithril LLC. But then smooth-talking Sauron showed up, started talking about workers' rights and class struggle, and installed himself as Union Rep. Now it's nothing but immanentizing the eschaton by furthering the revolution all day long.

Expand full comment

Don't look for a Watsonian answer to a Doylist question.

Fantasy is genre fiction. It is largely commercial, trying to sell a recognizable product to an established audience.

Even if the pulp market isn't what it was, the conventions formed by the pulp market run so deep by now as to be part of e definition of the genre. Would pre-Tolkien works such as The Well at World's End and Islandia (neither of which I have read, btw) be recognized as fantasy nowadays?

This is, incidentally, why Warsaw-Pact sci-fi such as Lem's feels not-quire-sci-fi while having obvious qualities: Lem didn't *get* (until later in life) that sci-fi was supposed to be genre fiction, in the commercial sense.

Then there is the case of established literary figures trying their hand at the genre (as in Olvidado Rey Gudú, which I *am* reading now). Then some tropes have to be recognizable and salient (map on the first page, grimdark) or else there would be nothing to comment on; pastiche needs references.

Expand full comment

How about a story 4: we've effectively redefined "fantasy" to mean "Tolkien-like universe", so we hardly recognize other fantasy worlds as such. One that comes to mind: Piranesi (Susanna Clarke). While you could probably find a few parallels to the tropes you outline in virtually any story, this one doesn't really participate in them, yet it's a masterwork of fantasy. Anyone know of other good but very different fantasy worlds?

Expand full comment
Jan 19·edited Jan 19

I think the author has come to some very wrong conclusions based on a narrow experience of the fantasy genre. To illustrate the point, here are examples of fantasy doing nearly every thing he claims it does not do.

Magic must be discovered, but can then be used by anyone - The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

No ancient progenitor civilization - The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron.

No sealed dark lord - The Magic Goes Away by Larry Niven.

No dark lord at all - Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny (if you read only one thing of all the stories I'm citing here, make it this one).

All of the above in the same work - A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Leguin

Ancient progenitor civilization didn't fall - Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone by J K Rowling

Sentient dogs - Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Sentient cats - The Wild Road by Gabriel King (you din't ask for this one, but it's really good)

Dolphins - The Dolphins of Pern by Anne Mccaffrey

Bee people in hive cities - Codex Alera by Jim Butcher (this is a series, the bee people don't show up until the later books).

One Inch People - Give of a Useless Man by Alan Dean Foster

Mercenary Wasps - The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is the closest I could think of on this one, though it doesn't fully fit (mercenary pixies that fight like wasps are close, but not exact).

But I think the disconnect goes even farther. I browsed the fantasy section of my local bookstore last week and don't recall seeing a single book that meets the definition of "the fantasy world" as you've laid it out here.

Expand full comment

The core appeal of the Isekai/LitRPG genre has more to do with the game mechanics than the setting or tropes. Most people live in a world where it is incredibly easy to work hard for nothing and feedback is usually more status-noise than signal. By contrast, in a world with video game mechanics, objective feedback is constantly available (how good at guitar am I? character sheet says 7). And there are generally a set of clearly understood actions that lead to improvement.

The appeal of isekai fantasy is not in getting results without hard work. The appeal of isekai fantasy is in having the ability to advance and improve with just hard work.

Expand full comment

I think fantasy races are so well-established because they map well to social classes. Elves are noble, beautiful, and few in numbers, which makes them resemble aristocracy and elite. Dwarves resemble burly workmen, hobbits resemble diligent farmers, and humans are left out to be sort of middle-class bourgeoisie. Obviously, there are dwarven kings and elven traders, but the similarities to the social classes still hold. And once there exists a niche for such races, the niches get filled with some winning variants, like elves being called elves, having pointed ears and liking archery.

The only classical race that does not fit this picture is orcs. Their niche is the "Evil and Dangerous Other", and so they are similar to barbarians and/or steppe nomads, which were the typical enemy in the cultural narrative (and one substantially different from "Us" in a way that the nearest rival kingdom is not).

Expand full comment

Someone, I forget who, claimed that the Harry Potter series are anti-Christian because the assumption that things can be achieved by merely waving a wand, once one gets the hang of it, is at odds with the Christian ethos of struggle and just reward (if any) only after effort and perseverance. That is a brief summary of his point, as I recall it, but he developed it more fully and it seemed quite persuasive at the time.

Expand full comment

Redwall fits what you ask for at the end to a T.

Expand full comment

About the last paragraph - the reason you don't see animal protagonists and deuteragonists much in fantasy might be because they don't have opposable thumbs. I remember reading a blog post by, or maybe an interview with, one of the original game developers at Insomniac Games. They were made famous by their Spyro the Dragon trilogy for the original PlayStation. He said that they didn't continue the series because they ran out of gameplay ideas for a quadruped. They really wanted a main character who can pick things up and use tools with hands. And so their next platformer game had a whole new universe with a new main character, Ratchet, who's essentially a furry human, and the gameplay focus is on beating things with a wrench and shooting them with guns.

I think the same thing is at play with fantasy books. A story where the main character cannot wield a magic sword, cannot have a magic sword. Any character that's not based on human anatomy would have very limited ability in what actions they can take, and thus what the story featuring them can contain. And there aren't that many human-shaped creatures in reality. You basically have to choose from tall humans, short humans, midget humans, pretty humans, ugly humans, humans with funny ears, humans with beards, humans who live in forests, humans who live underground... And all those kinds of fantasy humans already have names: elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins and so on.

Expand full comment