Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Here Lie No Dragons: Unspoken Rules of Socially Acceptable Storytelling

(Or, What I Learned from Ursula K. Le Guin and Jules Verne)

UPDATE: I expanded this blog post into an article for The Federalist, (read it here).

As I peruse Jules Verne’s dramatic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I am repeatedly struck not just with a case of I-am-not-buying-into-this-improbable-event-in-your-plot, but with actual discomfort. There are certain passages that conform to Nineteenth Century mores but clash with ours. Nowadays, when we talk about the astonishing creatures of the ocean, we are supposed to sound…. well, positive. Admiring. We aren’t supposed to judge them according to human standards of behavior or physical appearance, and to declare some of them (such as gigantic octopi) “monstrosities of nature,” or to decide that others (like sperm whales) are “mischievous creatures” who should be slaughtered in a “wholesome massacre” because of their supposed viciousness toward other, nicer whales. Our modern stories are supposed to focus on the danger that unrestrained humanity poses to the animals, not the danger that wild animals pose to humanity. To read about a scientist who says, “What a magnificent specimen of a rare creature! Quick, kill it!” feels downright awkward. I myself am no foe of hunting, but I am enough of a child of my era to experience unease when the fictional sea runs red with the blood of whales.

I am also reading the first story in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (a collection of novellas that intersect with her Earthsea fantasy novels). What fascinates me is the contrast between this story and the author’s first Earthsea novel from 1968 (in the forward to Tales from Earthsea, Mrs. Le Guin herself acknowledges that the vast social changes in moral outlook have changed her own view and thus her stories).

The first Earthsea novel is called A Wizard of Earthsea. In it, a young man named Ged travels the difficult path to wizardry and self-knowledge. The story is unconventional in many ways that were, in their day, quite bold. For instance, although not all the book jacket illustrations reveal this, the hero and most of the characters are not white people. For another, instead of engaging in epic warfare (or any warfare at all) the hero endures a long quest that ultimately revolves around facing and accepting his mortality. It is a hero saga and a quest story with a counter-cultural, reflective atmosphere (and without any fair-haired maidens who require rescue).

Yet the book also uses storytelling structures that are no longer kosher in the world of modern fiction. For instance, it is assumed in this story that dragons must be conquered, because they are dragons, and if you don’t kill or defeat them, they will show up and eat your population. Just because that is what dragons do. Nowadays, the idea that any race, culture, or species is beyond redemption is no longer “in.” Nowadays, we don't hold "wholesome massacres" to cut down the sperm whale population, and we don't assume that the dragons' side of the story is not just as legitimate as the human point of view. The newer Tales from Earthsea make it clear that the author’s views on dragon hunting have changed. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Certainly, a rejection of aggressive violence is good, as is a proper humility about our own ability to always know friend from foe. Yet I think the shift is also tied to a widespread, paralyzing relativism. It’s a funny thing--  a healthy humility about our own virtue seems to have created a potentially dangerous disbelief in virtue itself and therefore in evil. We are no longer comfortable with the idea that anything is worth killing for (or dying for). We might feel differently if we did not live in a prosperous, safe, first world society.

Even more dramatic is the gender situation. In Ged’s world, only males are wizards. The entire school of wizardry is male and it is males who dominate magic. Most of the females who possess some magical arts are ignorant village witches. The only truly gifted witch-woman with whom Ged interacts fits right into old tropes by attempting to use her beauty to entrap him into slavery (meanwhile, she is also trying to trick and betray her husband). She is an interestingly vivid character (after all, she comes from the pen of Ursula Le Guin!) and she adds to the story overall, but the message that seems to be provided by her life (“watch out for females who do magic”) clashes with modern desire for gender equality.

In the newer Tales from Earthsea (thus far; I am still reading it) it is men who make all the trouble with their arrogance, their desire to dominate, and their foolish distrust of the earthy, old-power-magic of women. It is men who fear female power and female sexuality, and women who can be counted on to maintain a proper perspective.

Of course, all fiction requires reader buy-in. Even if the events of a story are not strictly realistic in their own right, they can feel satisfactorily real within the premise of a well-crafted book. The cultural rules for storytelling play a large role in this. Today, readers can be expected to accept that a female character is routinely able to beat up trained male fighters. They can be expected to accept the idea that anyone who wants to win can do so, if they want it hard enough (actual training not required). We accept these plot devices because they fit with our own cultural narratives.

All of this to say: There are very strong, very stringent, unspoken rules about how the stories of any given culture should be constructed. These rules change as the culture changes. They are invisible except by contrast with a different culture. That is one of the reasons why we should read old books: it is good to know what the rules are that are busily shaping our hearts and minds. It is helpful to observe these narratives, these rules, these demands upon storytellers. We need to challenge them, lest we as a culture begin to believe in narratives merely because they are familiar.


  1. Very interesting. I have an ongoing dialog with myself and with God about "blind spots." We can talk so learnedly about the blind spots of past futures---the racism, disrespect for women, acceptance of violence---and yet we don't even acknowledge that there are most probably "blind spots" within our own cultural expectations that by their very nature we are unable to see. I often wonder what they are, and I ask the Holy Spirit to show me, search my heart.

    1. I appreciate your approach to the issue. I'm sure that I have some blind spots myself (even if I happen to be able to spot a few of the more common ones in modern fiction), and it is helpful to remember that, in all humility.


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