The most influential film of my childhood years was Disney’s oft forgotten Sword in the Stone, adapted from T.H. White’s Once and Future King. It was my first real exposure to Arthuriana, and eventually led to my reading the full novel and, in fact, contributed significantly to my study of the Middle Ages in college. Plus, reflections of Merlin and Wart are in every early story I wrote (and, likely, still there in what I write today).
Since then, I’ve learned that much of SF/F deals with the taking, gaining, and control of power. It’s about stature, about relationships. It asks the questions that traditional fiction and nonfiction just can’t, because it (literally) removes us from our own world as we know it. It’s a long series of “what if’s” set to an intergalactic soundtrack that continues to kindle our imaginations.
But the very strengths of sci-fi and fantasy are what cause people to so often dismiss them. Oh sure, the Force is exciting–but start defining it as a parasite, and boy, we lose our love affair. Explain too much, and there’s no whimsy, no room for imagination. Critics of both genres hate the black-and-white delineation in novels and film. We live in a world where more and more, people realize that there are shades of gray, shifts in perception, and decisions we make that put us on one side of the fence or the other.
I don’t think SF/F will ever go away, and I certainly don’t want them to. But in order for these genres to survive, and to continue challenging readers and writers alike, we must fend off the expected. As writers, we owe it to our readers to write fully imagined characters, each with the good, the bad, and the ugly as part of who they are. Sure, archetypes are important–but we are all flawed, and we’ve all had to make choices. Nothing irks me more than “purely” good or bad characters.
And that brings me back to Arthur, I think. The thing I’ve always loved about the Arthurian canon is that, in spite of additions and emendations throughout the centuries, it’s not a happy ending. The most beloved knight in the entire kingdom not only fails at the quest for the Holy Grail, but has an elicit affair with the Queen who just happens to be the wife of his best friend, Arthur. (That this realistic approach was brought to life by medieval writers is amazing in and of itself!)
Everything falls apart. There is no celebration, no wedding, no making up. Sure, Mordred (usually) gets it in the end, but so does Arthur. The world he fought for is gone. Ended. Caput. T.H. White does a heartbreakingly good job of showing us this at the end of The Once and Future King. Near the book’s conclusion he writes, partially in Arthur’s own mind that
The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.
White was writing as a man in the middle of wars–both World Wars–and later as a conscientious objector. He asked the difficult questions, like the famous Might vs. Right argument and ultimately influenced a whole new generation of writers. Writers including, Michael Moorcock, J. K. Rowling, Gregory Maguire and Ed McBain also cited White as an influence (from Wikipedia: T.H. White).
My point, my meandering and somewhat obvious point, is that we ought, as writers of these incredible genres, to hold up a mirror to our own world, and ask the important questions. Fantasy and science-fiction mean nothing if we cannot tie them to the human condition and contrast the far-off worlds to our own somehow. And it can happen in the most expected places, like the Arthurian canon for instance. It isn’t always what we say, but how we say it. This is from White again:
Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe–his courage no more than a reflex to danger, like the automatic jump at the pin-prick. Perhaps there were no virtues, unless jumping at pin-pricks was a virtue, and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction. Perhaps Might was a law of Nature, needed to keep the survivors fit. Perhaps he himself…
Before dying, Arthur, the paragon of knightly virtue, the greatest of all men, cannot find the right answer. He cannot say what his life was worth, because he does not know. He cannot know. He is only a man in a story, in the end; but his thoughts, his questions, they become ours.
And in that way, he does continue on.
In that way, there is a great deal of hope.