Author Topic: Pasts and Playfulness: Protecting Fantasy from Fascism  (Read 8081 times)

Jubal

  • Megadux
    Executive Officer
  • Posts: 35810
  • Karma: 140
  • Awards Awarded for oustanding services to Exilian!
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Pasts and Playfulness: Protecting Fantasy from Fascism
« on: September 25, 2022, 01:55:10 PM »
Pasts and Playfulness: Protecting Fantasy from Fascism
By Jubal



It’s no great secret that the European and North American far right are very keen on the medieval period and medieval aesthetics. From DEUS VULT emblazoned on flags at the storming of the US Capitol last year, to anti-Islam imagery coming with , to ‘viking’ or ‘pagan’ masculine imagery being used to promote ‘traditional’ family structures, there are many permutations and combinations out there.

This far-right use of medievalism – the correct term for imagined-medieval aesthetics, not all of which come with true medieval pedigrees – comes along a number of lines which are often conflated. There’s crusade imagery, often appropriated within a ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that presents. There are also religious-traditionalist images, often part of narratives around the supposed high or elite culture of medieval polities that is seen as having in some way degenerated (the Byzantine History-Far Right links are often in this area). Then, somewhat in tension with the former images, there’s the sort of ‘grimdark enlightenment’ view that sees a gritty, violent, hyper-masculine and often implicitly or explicitly non-Christian northern European culture with rigidly enforced social roles as an actively good and aspirational outcome. It imagines a past in which individual masculine dignity and a counterpoint submissive, protected femininity are restored by a revival of strength and 'pagan' cultural elements.


Some common, if not the most egregious, right-traditionalist responses to some fantasy photography-art claimed as a depiction of the early middle ages.

This is a complex area but the above outline will do – what I want to talk about in this article is how those of us engaging in creative pursuits that use medieval ideas and aesthetics can push back and undermine these people through our work. I’m axiomatically assuming that’s a good idea, and that part of it is in the work itself. We obviously can, and should, push back at a meta-level as well by rejecting these people’s claims: but I think it is also good when we can build wider and more interesting medieval worlds that are less simplistically easy for these people to hang their hats on. That both means not providing them with models of the past that chime so easily with the world they want to portray, and it means contesting their claims to aesthetics, imagery, and people as for example “White”, “Nordic”, or “Anglo-Saxon”, all terms that the far-right often use somewhat ahistorically and interchangeably to represent their ethnic and cultural ideals. These cross over both things that purport to represent history and fantasies that are justified by reference to that history – indeed, these things are actually a sliding scale in any creative work or representation.
In any case, I’m mostly going to focus on creative work here, more than about attempts at writing actual history: one can get sucked forever into the minutiae of why particular historical views held up by the right are muddled, wrong, and misread, and I don’t intend to wade into that in this piece. Instead, I’d rather focus on how we build medievalist ideas and aesthetics that are harder to appropriate and which help undermine far-right presentations of the medieval period in different ways.

I think one of the best ways to counter the sort of hyper white "Saxon" imaginary (examples shown in in the image screenshots here) is finding smart ways to play with it. Writers, artists, game developers etc can do a lot to shake and subvert far right claims on & about these imaginaries/aesthetics. We see even for pure fantasy settings many arguments about what is and isn't "realistic": really they're about what feels authentic, not about historical facts, though these relate to each other. But expanding that authenticity space to embrace more of human experience is vital. Essentially, we end up somewhat mentally trained to particular sets of expectations that certain things go together – and we should see those sets of things as arbitrary and malleable, they’re something that we as creators can and should actively work with.




Tales of medieval demon-fighting heroes need not be centred on Europe. British Library Add MS 5600.
That can go in lots of directions. Emphasising travel/connectivity/diversity and just diversifying the look of things is an obvious route and the one that's always talked about most, especially when it comes to issues like black representation in games. I think this is vital, though it's important to be doing it in a way that isn't just a diversity quota. There are lots of aspects and facets of representation, precisely because race and ethnicity are such complex things: simply picking a bunch of your historical knights and peasants to be exactly the same as all the others but with a different phenotype isn’t valueless: it’s perfectly reasonable for people to be able to see themselves in fictional worlds. However thinking about different groups of people and under what pressures ethnic and cultural identities are created allows for much more nuanced writing. Cultures aren't naturally rigidly sealed bubbles with a state machinery behind each one, and they don't solely come into contact through conflict. ‘Race is a cultural construct’ is often bandied around but less well utilised than it should be: it isn’t just a statement about a static feature of the world, something that got built sometime and has been squatting like a malevolent obelisk on the horizon ever since, rather it points at the ongoing process of that construction. Writing worlds that contain those processes is difficult, but it’s massively important because it stops views of the medieval past just being simplistic ones where present racial boundaries are assumed to be inevitable, inviolable, and eternal.

Engaging with people and texts about places and mythos more widely is critical: whilst the European past was considerably more diverse than the desperate imaginaries of a racist minority, it’s also important to recognise that even in that period this was not a disconnected world and that portrayals of the period need not be confined to a region that was rather a backwater in terms of Eurasia at the time. Other people seeing themselves in the past is partly a matter of “hey that guy has a face shape and hair like mine” but it’s also importantly about people finding their stories and their families’ stories in the imaginaries we build. These things help build on one another, too: the stories and names and tropes that make the medieval less European-centred may make it more familiar to some people globally who the Whites-Only Middle Ages types want to exclude, but will also make it less familiar to those versed in the standard medieval and fantasy tropes of the Anglosphere. That unfamiliarity is good! It’s fun, it stops settings becoming moribund, and it arguably presents better a world that had a potential for unfamiliarity greater than our deeply information-connected present. When I write medieval fantasy tales and games a lot of my characters whose pseudo-cultures are not very European are the result of me reading some piece of mythos or medieval text or history book where I thought “you know what – that’s really cool”, and that mix of enthusiasm and authenticity tends to work well.

I think another route which also works with the idea of unfamiliarity is to play more creatively with how weird and playful imagined pasts can be. For example I run early medieval fantasy TTRPG games that often focus on getting players to explore concepts and ideas like guest-rights and their importance. This helps combat the simplistic far-right version of the hypermasculine middle ages, in that it erodes the ideas of masculine authority and strength at the expense of the highly developed social rules and norms that people grappled with in the period. Similarly, portraying vassalage and manorialism and their very real quirks can erode the idea that medieval countries were simple precursors to modern states with their “nations” already formed. Appreciating how political and ethnic identities might not connect as neatly in a world where allegiance is fundamentally to a person not a state makes it harder for people to then accept appeals to ‘national’ moments in the medieval period as directly connected to the struggles of modern countries. Right-wing societal “values” of insular opposition to travel and outsiders, absolutist relationships with religion, and nuclear man-centred households don’t make sense in a medieval world: a complex, human pseudo-past society that needs to talk through its problems doesn't let them take that space.

 (As an aside, when talking historical games I often emphasise the "how" as well as "what", society & process as well as the aesthetic, and thus why code, quest design and narrative structure are useful to consider more. The above is one good reason why that massively matters).



"Remember what they took from you!" works a little less well as a caption for this picture.
British Library manuscipt, Royal 10 E IV f. 122.
I also mentioned playfulness. The fascist view of the medieval thrives on it being played relentlessly straight (in both senses of the term). The heroic or anti-heroic past culture-purists they imagine medieval warriors to have been are treated as precursors to their own fragile dignities in the present. It’s helpful to undercut that, and undercut it hard. Talking foxes, battle chickens, terrible puns, giant babies: the world is your oyster, and if you want to make the world an actual oyster, be my guest. Showing the bearded, axe-wielding hero of your piece, say, having to negotiate despairingly with a loquacious Saint of Snails is something you don't get to be a tough guy about later.

A final thought on an idea that resonates overmuch in fiction: the connection of blood and soil. This is (perhaps especially in Europe) a very core part of white supremacist ideals, the idea that essentially peoples are inherently connected to places by blood and culture. It's important to actively pull this one up by the roots, but it still appears played-straight in far too much fantasy, especially with the wider fantasy focus on bloodlines and inheritance as a way of passing down various forms of magical power or bond (one of my least favourite parts of Haven & Hearth, a game I generally love, is the fact that the land claims in it are referred to as A Bond Of Blood And Soil).

I think for this we should engage explicitly with ideas of nature and home, what it means to choose a place and expanding spaces of belonging so their claim doesn't land. We can and should make worlds and fey and woods and hills that explicitly reject blood claims upon them. There are any number of ways that things can be fated, and medieval rules of magic are often explicitly bizarre – check out just about any geas in a piece of Irish literature, half of them are rules like “you must never have a drink under a full moon, never eat soup at the same house twice, and never dance when there are more than three dogs in the room” or similar. We don’t need to make things entirely random, either: there’s no reason why someone’s personal, individual connection to a place or site should be derived from blood rather than being a personal characteristic of that person.

I will note that I'm not saying every work has to do all these things, all at once, and I'm definitely not saying there should be some wide shared agenda for what fantasy and medievalism should look like. What I want here is to say exactly the opposite: that taking medievalism in different directions, both digging deeper into the complex humanity of medieval material and thinking explicitly about when and where we use and reject that material, breaks medievalism out of the box and keeps it growing in a way that both offers huge storytelling potential and less fertile ground for people who want to use these symbols for their extreme misinterpretations and ideas. Making it difficult for the far-right to put their roots into medieval ideas generally also creates the space for a lot of the current common tropes and symbols of medievalism to be part of our stories and imaginations without dominating them: a bigger, more human scope for medievalism is good for everyone.

I hope you’ve found this brief discussion interesting – please do feel free to share your thoughts and ideas on this complex and growing area in the comments. Building complex, exciting, messy and human fictional worlds is something where we can all learn from one another: it doesn’t have to mean trashing or abandoning the things we love about pseudo-medieval worlds, indeed it’s the continuation of the process by which they were made. Our love of the quirky, the small, the strange and the ancient – that which cannot be made to conform – has a power, and it’s one that those who want the world to fit into cruel, bland boxes should, very reasonably, fear.




Acknowledgements and thanks for this piece coming together should go to Kat Fox for coming up with the original screenshots, Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm for her discussion of them on Twitter, and to Thaheera Althaf for reading over this piece, extended from an original Twitter thread of mine, before publication..
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

medievalfantasyqueen

  • Posts: 15
  • Karma: 1
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: Pasts and Playfulness: Protecting Fantasy from Fascism
« Reply #1 on: September 25, 2022, 02:24:01 PM »
Ahhh, this dearly beloved topic that I have been coming into contact with in varying levels of frequency over the past few months. I liked the points you brought up, particularly about the guest-rights during the TTRPGs that you run and the quirkiness of medievalism that needs to be urgently brought back into the picture. I do agree with you that a lot of the race-related issues we are facing comes from an increased attention given to grimdark fantasy, as opposed to the 'silly' kind of fantasy that we used to have some years back. Remember The Dark Crystal or The Neverending Story? And since you did mention non-Eurocentric romances, I am now obliged to share with you a few Tamil language movies from the 60s and 70s, which I realised retrospectively, having studied medieval romances, were actually playing with quite a lot of these romance and fantasy tropes. For instance, the 1965 film Aayirathil Oruvan (A Man Among a Thousand) features pirates and a maiden island, not far away from quirky fantasy movies, methinks. There is another movie, and a lesser known one, from 1967 called Mayamothiram (Magic Ring) is, as the title suggests, about a magical ring, and a witch and a curse that turns a lady into a man-eating werewolf, and there is a very fun little deus-ex-machina-esque ending to this. Perhaps if I find copies of these films with English subtitles, I will share them with you!

Jubal

  • Megadux
    Executive Officer
  • Posts: 35810
  • Karma: 140
  • Awards Awarded for oustanding services to Exilian!
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: Pasts and Playfulness: Protecting Fantasy from Fascism
« Reply #2 on: September 25, 2022, 02:46:25 PM »
Yes, I think one can write grimdark fantasy that doesn't play into these issues, too: I guess it's partly just the issue that it's relatively easy to warp grimdark anti-heroes into people others see as actual role models, and it's often profitable to start writing them that way (see for example WH40K space marines). And it's fine that people like somewhat dark and edgy in their medievalism, obviously: I very much don't want to be sitting here doing the "but that's problematic!" at everything. But the fact that a particular setting or even character is pretty brutal doesn't mean you then also need to load it up with a bunch of race-coded tropes used in very uncomplicated ways, etc etc. Indeed, anti-heroes are (for me) much more interesting when they're subverting and undermining rather than simply enforcing the social mores of the world they live in.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

pinky

  • Posts: 3
  • Karma: 0
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: Pasts and Playfulness: Protecting Fantasy from Fascism
« Reply #3 on: September 26, 2022, 01:18:13 AM »
there used to be megatowns (farming communes) that took generations to reach their ultimate form...
only to be left utterly abandoned when the first humans invented making someone else do your homework.
.
the interesting part for me, is that these megatowns were not fortified into megacities (easy)
they were simply abandoned (hard mode).
.
 a mechanic i would love to see in games like ARK or similar
would be a cautious dance of sending a Don'tMessWithMe vibe
and sending a UrgentlyMessWithMe vibe
when it comes to settlements reaching the population size: EASY PICKINGS
(hilltop defence vs loot beacon)

dubsartur

  • Citizens
    Voting Member
  • Posts: 1059
  • Karma: 4
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: Pasts and Playfulness: Protecting Fantasy from Fascism
« Reply #4 on: September 26, 2022, 03:39:16 AM »
Thanks for the long essay!  One thing that screams out is that pagan Athens, Sparta, and Rome are used in similar ways.

There is a similar phenomenon in the Arab world where all kinds of people are nostalgic for a period sometime between Mohammed (for Islamists) and the Abbasid Caliphate (for liberals).

I don't like this usage of medievalism because in Canadian English a medievalist is a specialist in the history, literature, or archaeology of the middle ages.  I tend to use terms like "medievalish" or "medieval-inspired" or "pseudo-medieval".  But I am not the one writing books!

The late Will McLean pointed out that GRR Martin's medieval-inspired fantasy has ultraviolence but not enough jokes about farting.

Yes, I think one can write grimdark fantasy that doesn't play into these issues, too: I guess it's partly just the issue that it's relatively easy to warp grimdark anti-heroes into people others see as actual role models, and it's often profitable to start writing them that way (see for example WH40K space marines). And it's fine that people like somewhat dark and edgy in their medievalism, obviously: I very much don't want to be sitting here doing the "but that's problematic!" at everything. But the fact that a particular setting or even character is pretty brutal doesn't mean you then also need to load it up with a bunch of race-coded tropes used in very uncomplicated ways, etc etc. Indeed, anti-heroes are (for me) much more interesting when they're subverting and undermining rather than simply enforcing the social mores of the world they live in.
Its instructive to compare George Macdonald Fraser (who had an adventurous life) and George R.R. Martin (who AFAIK has had a soft one).  The first George makes sure to remind you that there are heroes and honourable people, Flashman is just not one, but the second George takes a much more adolescent attitude that honour is for fools and charlatans. 
« Last Edit: September 26, 2022, 03:45:37 AM by dubsartur »

Jubal

  • Megadux
    Executive Officer
  • Posts: 35810
  • Karma: 140
  • Awards Awarded for oustanding services to Exilian!
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: Pasts and Playfulness: Protecting Fantasy from Fascism
« Reply #5 on: September 26, 2022, 12:33:34 PM »
there used to be megatowns (farming communes) that took generations to reach their ultimate form...
only to be left utterly abandoned when the first humans invented making someone else do your homework.
.
the interesting part for me, is that these megatowns were not fortified into megacities (easy)
they were simply abandoned (hard mode).
.
 a mechanic i would love to see in games like ARK or similar
would be a cautious dance of sending a Don'tMessWithMe vibe
and sending a UrgentlyMessWithMe vibe
when it comes to settlements reaching the population size: EASY PICKINGS
(hilltop defence vs loot beacon)
Which game are you on here? Sorry, brain running slow this morning re how this loops back to the above.

Quote
There is a similar phenomenon in the Arab world where all kinds of people are nostalgic for a period sometime between Mohammed (for Islamists) and the Abbasid Caliphate (for liberals).
Absolutely, there's a huge amount to be written about medievalisms (sorry, it's the term that's in use so I'll keep using it) outside Europe. I proof-read a really interesting paper on modern reception of the Fatimids recently, which I hope gets accepted and comes out soon, it was really interesting.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...