Over the last few days I've been watching the discussion of modern fantasy which began with Leo Grin's dramatic decrying of the state of the genre these days, continued with a response by Joe Abercrombie (whose work Grin roundly criticized in his article), and many comments from others (summarized here at Black Gate).
To summarize quite briefly, the idea put forward by Grin was that Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Howard (Conan the Barbarian) wrote works of genius that upheld a sort of superior morality, and that modern fantasists who subvert visions of good versus evil and clear-cut morality are a sign of the decline of modern Western civilization.
"Post-modern deconstructionism," a concept that came up in this discussion, is not an unfamiliar term to me. As someone who has spent time immersed in academic discussions of the history of Anthropology, Discourse (a la James Gee), Cultural Capital (Bourdieu), and how to define Literacy, I feel rather as though I've witnessed the fighting on the front lines of this discussion. The arguments on both sides of this sound very familiar to me, but filtered through the lens of fantasy fiction.
I was most intrigued, I think, by the following quote from the response of Philip Athans:
If fantasy has evolved to take on a darker tone, matured to address adult themes, isn’t that more likely a response to the world around us now—that the myths of the early 21st century will be different in some way from the myths of the mid-20th century—than that there’s some kind of conspiracy to pervert a genre that apparently not only peaked but effectively stopped with Tolkien and Howard?
The force at work here, as I see it, is the general change in what we call "Western" culture, much of it driven by the expansion of information transfer on a global scale. Tolkien and Howard did their work in the 1930s and 1940s, subsequently to the first world war and during the second. This was a world culturally very different from our own - one where feminism was just beginning, and one which had yet to feel the influence of cultural relativism. Several of the commenters in the debate have mentioned that they don't feel Tolkien and Howard's work are quite as pure as they have been portrayed, and I feel this also. Certainly I recognize the mournfulness of The Lord of the Rings (which is brilliant, but I could never really enjoy until I was an adult). I have read articles arguing that The Lord of the Rings was some kind of allegory of the world wars, and counterarguments to that position. My sense is that even if Tolkien was not deliberately referencing historical events, those events had an enormous influence on the cultural ambiance of the time, and that can be seen in his work.
As culture has changed, so have wars. World War I was "The Great War"; in a sense, World War II was the last "great war." In both of those conflicts, there was a sense of good and evil - a kind of clarity which had changed drastically if not entirely disappeared by the time of the Vietnam war. For better or worse, wars have changed. Perhaps it's because the motivations behind our entry into conflict are more widely debated and better understood by the general populace (something I relate at least in part to the expansion of global information). In any case, the earlier wars referenced a very clean and clear-cut morality, while more modern ones are commonly questioned, and their morality seldom is reducible to good-versus-evil. I believe this march of history runs parallel to the developments in fantasy fiction.
I don't really see this as a cultural decline - it is a cultural change. More voices are heard these days than in the past, from more people of different cultures. Morality seen from the viewpoint of several involved parties looks a bit different from what it was when we used only one lens. We're starting to hear women's voices, and the voices of those traditionally ignored or considered "other." To me this is a welcome change. I'm sure some feel threatened by it, but on the other hand, I've never felt that cultural capital was something finite. Giving voice to groups who have previously had none doesn't mean we don't hear the voices we always have. It just means that those voices will ring differently.
Fantasy reflects history, and it reflects reality. Neither heroes nor anti-heroes are new. Hercules himself was a hero who happened to cause terrible collateral damage. I happen to be someone who welcomes the idea of questioning cultural assumptions, and though I've read books where the attempted "realism" in terms of bodily injury etc. is too much for me, I'm glad those books are out there.
Books open our minds and make us think; their compass helps us better understand our own.