The Unconscious Expression Of National Character Through The Fantastical

book_logoI recently read a short exegesis on the topic of US and UK fantasy fiction betraying features of the underlying character of the countries that the authors themselves probably never intended to betray. In both cases the actual setting is unimportant – fantasy is often set in a sort of pseudo-historical European, or at least classical / Asia Minor world. What’s important is the underlying themes of the fantasy.

The archetypal American fantasy story can be boiled down to the works of writers like Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Leiber and Raymond E Feist. Certainly there are other fantasy writers of North America writing in quite different veins, Le Guin, Bradbury, Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin come to mind, but for now let’s focus on the ‘classical’ American tale of the fantastic. Such stories are usually about a heroic Übermensch, a self-sufficient, self-made man who often as not starts out dirt-poor and claws his way to the top. This is a very male vein of fantasy, and perhaps if we were to look more closely at female writers we could draw out different conclusions. But keeping our focus for now on these masculine fantasies, it very much seems that the US fantasy ‘classic’ is one of a heroic frontiersman, regardless of whether that frontier is an ancient imagined world or Mars.

UK fiction in contrast has quite different obsessions. It is much less hopeful and much more obsessed with a fall into decadence and bleak ruin. Mervyn Peake’s Gormengast is a good example, so too is Elric of Melnibone, but Middle-Earth also is full of the grey ruins of bygone and lost kingdoms. Modern authors like China Mieville also tap into this sense of lost glories and modern corruption. In terms of underlying character, UK fantasy tends to have more of a pull-together, collective, everyone-in-the-same boat feel in opposition to the rampant individualism of US fantasy. UK fantasy also focuses a lot more on domesticity, most keenly evidenced in fantasy like Harry Potter or Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the film), and other less well known children’s fantasy, like Alan Gardner’s earlier works, such as The Weirdstone of the Brisingamen, or the delightful (if arguably naively) executed The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker, along with many, many others. There is certainly less of a tendency to climb the social ladder during a British fantasy outing, although this might actually be due to rather unsavoury elements of classism rather than a more admirable tendency to avert from avarice.

The thing that struck me was how much of the unconscious character of nation does seep through the fantasy pages, and of course immediately I began to wonder about what aspects of New Zealand and Australian character might be visible in the fantasy of these nations. To be honest, there isn’t a lot of New Zealand fantasy to work with, though a love of landscape, a belief that there are mysteries hidden in the earth, and a tendency towards viewing the land itself as somehow a character or even a sort of sacred presence might be just discernible in what work has come out of that country. There’s also a strong sense of the grotesque and absurd intersecting with ordinary life in works by authors like Margaret Mahy or Peter Jackson’s early films.

In Australia there is more to consider, but I find rather embarrassingly that I don’t think I’ve read enough to be a really solid judge of the matter. Margo Lanagan and Shaun Tan both write stories in quite different but equally weird and magical landscapes. In Shaun Tan the characters are often explorers of the strange neighbourhood – I’d almost describe this as an suburbanist fantasy mixed up with a good dose of everyday weirdness. DM Cornish also writes about landscape and the brooding nature of nature. It’s no wonder to me that Australian authors might focus a lot on the feeling that the landscape you are looking at is looking back at you and isn’t especially impressed. Anyone who has stood in the endless, relentless and timeless red interior knows with certainty that the Australian landscape has not noticed you and never will. You can do anything you want including detonating a thermonuclear device – the landscape will recover and eventually it will forget you even existed. You are temporary. The landscape is unchanging and eternal. I also tend to think that the animals that people encounter have subtle effects on culture – the raucous madness of cockatoos, noisy miners and wattlebirds, the friendly otherworldliness of a possum on a fence, the haughty and just-plain-bizarre expression on the face of a kangaroo… I think all these things probably do filter through the psyche of people living among and with those creatures.

I need to read much more widely to have a good feel for this, but I wonder if alienation from the landscape is a part of Australian fantasy. The landscape being unfriendly. The landscape being a watchful and yet unbothered thing.

There are other elements too. The importance of friends and ‘mateship’ (a useful if ugly term) does seem to drip through. Often, friends are as important, or more important, in an Australian fantasy tale than might be a person’s family. Bizarre wondrous imaginative freedom also shines and dances. The writing of some fantasy workers like Garth Nix glow with the same sort of larger than life flourish of beauty that bright parrots and wattles in flower wave about with disregard for modesty.

There are some other elements of the Australian character that might be worth considering, though I can’t think of ready fantasy examples. The tyranny of distance should perhaps be lurking in fantasy works written by Australians – the feeling of being isolated from the great cultural centres of the world can be profound. Self-reliance and number eight wire ingenuity might have been more of a thing in days gone by, and perhaps it isn’t too surprising that this particular trope is hard to find in stories by modern writers living in modern Australian cities. I wonder if Australian fantasy might be more multicultural than stories from other nations? Especially cities like Melbourne and Sydney are multicultural in a way that many global cities only claim to be. I would have also expected some guilt about an oppressed earlier people to be more common, though perhaps that is yet to permeate the culture to the point that it actually might express itself through fantasy stories except in more overt metaphorical examples like John Marsden’s The Rabbits.

That draws me more or less to the limit of what I can think of. I think I shall have to go off and read more works by Australian authors of fantasy to really get a grip on this. On the other hand, it might be that only an outsider will really have the perspective necessary to identify the patterns that do weave through the genre here… it’s something that I’m quite intrigued by now, though I expect it will take me some time to refine my thoughts on it. In the meantime it’s a good excuse to go read some fiction by local writers, especially those who I’ve never quite got around to picking up.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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  1. American fiction generally always seemed to be slightly more optimistic than British. I’m just thinking in particular of the differences between American and British television hospital, law and crime dramas. In a majority of American shows, the professionals are in it for the love of doing Good and Right and even if there are lots of tears and horrors in the backstory, unless it is for a Very Special reason, things usually come good and everyone hugs each other and makes an affirming, whimsical speech. The focus seems to be on the good that a group of people can do when they believe in each other and yay doctors/police/lawyers.

    In British shows, the main character is also usually in their profession for Good and Right, but they have a much harder time of it. The system’s corrupt, their superiors are corrupt, lives are ruined and good people have terrible things happen to them, their friends and colleagues doubt them, and often what results is a Pyrrhic victory at best.

    That said, I don’t really watch procedurals very often so I may be wrong, and I can’t comment on any Australian variant of those particular types of shows since I’ve never watched any.

  2. Christopher Johnstone

    Interesting point. I hadn’t considered extending the comparison to other cross-Atlantic genres like police dramas. I wonder if anyone has done a comparison of soap operas in the same way – except that the favourite soaps in the UK are actually Aussie soaps, Home and Away and Neighbours in particular.

  3. Dimitra Stathopoulos

    I think you can see the same kind of aspects separating comedy. It’s quite handy to look at remakes eg. The Office, where the English version has a sad bleakness to it, the U.S. version – while they tried to tinge it with the same mood – became a more hopeful, playful creature.
    I could also compare shows like VEEP, The Thick of It and The Hollowmen, but this comment would just become an essay and I might as well post that.

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