243. On Fantasy: Archaism

Marion Zimmer Bradley is well known for her fantasies, but she cut her teeth on science fiction. Her Darkover series was a massive best seller in its day. Darkover is a planet in our universe, populated by humans from a stranded starship, whose powers of the mind come (quite scientifically) from the pollen of psychotropic plants and from interbreeding with non-human natives. Lost and out of contact with their technological roots, they evolve a feudal society. They create an archaic world from a purely science fiction starting point.

Of course this is a reductionist view of a complex and massive series of novels and short stories. But it makes the point that archaism in fantasy is easy to achieve. You could almost write a formula:

HORSES + SWORDS + MAGIC = FANTASY

Of course it takes more than that to achieve good fantasy.

The time before known time is an ancient idea. Atlantis and Mu fit into it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth came before recorded history. So did the world of Conan. The worlds of Michael Moorcock seem to be of this nature, but a closer reading will have to follow them sideways in time. Alternate histories allow access to archaic worlds coexisting with our modern world. We can go to other 2016s, where the Native Americans are the only Americans, or Rome still rules, or Muhammed became an atheist. Take your pick, and if you can’t find what you like, you can write your own.

Remnant stories also let the past live on. Professor Challenger found dinosaurs still living deep in the Amazon. Hilton’s characters found Shangri-La. Even Rick Brant, in the favorite series from my childhood, found a lost remnant of an earlier age hidden in the Himalayas in The Lost City.

You could go sideways in time, or backward, or to some lost valley and find dystopian, crowded cities, but that almost never happens. Archaism is about escaping modernity, crowding, complication, and life in cities. Back to simpler times. Back to the good old days. Back to the land of childhood. Back to the middle ages where knights in shiny armor rode pretty horses and rescued damsels with big bosoms and pearly teeth from dastardly villains – or dragons.

Does anybody believe this? Of course not. Does anybody want to believe? Of course. And in the friction generated when those two truths rub together, the fire of archaism is born.

So our hero goes back (or sideways) and he/she finds the land of her/his heart’s desire and it isn’t what she/he expected at all. But it isn’t bad. There are problems to overcome, heartaches to endure, and villainy to face, but so what? That’s true in Portland, and Austin, and New York City as well. In the new/old world  there are beauties and wonders, in addition to troubles. And it’s probably green, with trees and meadows, even if it also has rain and snow instead of eternal sunshine.

Above all, there aren’t any traffic jams. And the cell phone never rings.

Wait a minute. I’ll get my backpack, and we can go.

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