Fantasy Fiction and Vampires vs Orcs
When do we turn to vampires, and when do we turn to fantasy thieves, dwarves and orcs? What lies beneath the escapist trappings of fantasy fiction?
Ignoring, for the moment, that vampires are eternal and orcs and dwarves come from an impossible land located bang next to ours but separated by extremely tough border controls, if you put them in a timeline then the characters of fantasy feel far older than vampires. Far older. Vampires may be eternal (unless they’re real vampires) but dwarves are from time immemorial.
The first English vampire story was written in 1819 by John Polidori, but the trolls and goblins that J.R.R. Tolkien lovingly plundered for his 1954 fantasy literature epic The Lord of the Rings have been around as long as we’ve had fairy tales and fluttering will o’ the wisps utterly failing to guide us through the swamps. The setting of vampires and fantasy reflects this: Fantasy tends to be a medieval setting, whereas the vampire mythos is in love with the la-di-da frills and lace of the Renaissance upwards. Seriously, vampires are the new kids on the block. All bite, no trousers.
We love you, Tyrion Lannister. We love you even more than Model Unicorn Guy.
Fantasy stories lend themselves really well to RPG video games like Skyrim, Dragon Age and Witcher. That’s because, like fantasy, an RPG game with all its sidequests wants you to take the looooong way round.
Vampires and Fantasy characters are both extremely rewarding, but their tropes tap into very different parts of the human psyche. Vampires have quite recently become all about the politics (ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you The Vampire Masquerade and, ahem, Blade). Mostly, however, with the biteyness and the proffered necks and swooning harems, they’re blatantly about the sex, sex, sex. And, if you think about it, carnally transmitted badnesses. This aspect of catching sexual bad became more prevalent in vampire fiction since the eighties, when AIDS came into the fore. Along with 28 Days Later and a plethora of zombie movies, vampire fiction addressed the desire to give in to basic needs and desires, and the fear of results sweeping across the human population in a seemingly uncontrollable plague. A moment on the lips, a lifetime in the coffin.
Whatever your thoughts may be about the giant empowered bubbies blancmange that is the Game of Thrones TV series (and I’m a massive fan), fantasy is considerably less about the sex. There’s plenty of sex in modern fantasy fiction, and plenty of love and romance too, but in most cases that’s not why fantasy readers and writers turn to it as a genre.
Fantasy is about delicious escapism, of course. But it’s about a slowing down of time, and about appreciation of labour, endurance and people exploring and working with nature. In the age of the internet, microwave meals and thumbs evolved through texting we are looking for swords, not guns. Skilled thieves, not unscrupulous bankers. Hemp and silk, not the synthetic aesthetic. Journeys that take a really long bloody time. Time that we don’t have, because we’re too busy working shifts, trying to find shifts to work and checking Facebook.
Fantasy is also all about addressing priorities. It’s about achieving greatness from humble roots, ideally taking the long way round (why tell a story in one novel when you can tell it in a series of 3-7?). Strider becomes Aragorn and the nature-attuned wanderer becomes the king, but we all liked him far more when he was greasy-haired Strider. Princesses prove their worth by exchanging feisty words with unlikely thief companions and proving they’re not going to stress about sleeping under a haywagon instead of on a feather bed. Fantasy folk are always given skills that have taken a long time to learn, whether it’s sleight of hand, spellwork or dexterity with a sword.
There are no shortcuts in fantasy fiction. People eat from dirty trenchers, and it’s usually stew which takes absolutely hours to cook, and they really savour their food. Just as they take time to savour their women. And their bloody victories. And, when you put it like that, maybe fantasy characters and vampires do have much in common after all…
Fantasy is about a mythical past, where life is to be enjoyed, endured and fully savoured. It looks to a mythical time when men were real men, women were real women and gnarled hairless goblins nicking your favourite jewelery were real gnarled hairless goblins. Fantasy encourage to make the best of ourselves in adverstiy, to glean the most experience from the simple things in life. It takes the humble and makes it great.
Beyond the wizard-sleeves, dragons and fireballs, fantasy is a place where we can escape to and remind ourselves what it is to be slow, to appreciate our environment and apply ourselves to the labours of life with vigour, knowing that the quest is worth more than the crown at the end of it.