House of the dragon: “Fantasy inspires diametrically opposed political readings”

Launched on HBO this Sunday, August 21, the variation of George RR Martin’s fantasy series was particularly awaited. Renewed, the genre does not always arouse the same readings, however, depending on the public who seizes it. Analysis with Anne Besson, author of the “Dictionary of fantasy” (Vendémiaire editions).

Marianne: In what terms could we define “fantasy” to those who are unaware of its codes and productions?

Anne Besson: Fantasy is a way of revisiting ancient myths and folklore – fairy tales, Arthurian literature, Nordic myths… – in the light of modernity. It differs in this from the fantastic, which gives it fear by introducing the supernatural into a real world, and from science fiction, which starts from the postulate that the rules of the world change because of the progress of more science. more futuristic. The birth of fantasy is intimately linked to the golden age of English medievalism in the second half of the 19th century. It owes a lot to the writer, painter and architect William Morris (1834-1896), passionate about the Middle Ages and authors of the founding works The Source at the end of the world and The Sparkling Plain. His work greatly influenced the author JRR Tolkien (1892-1973).

Indeed, the aesthetic deployed is very medieval…

After centuries of domination of the antique model, the feeling of darkness attached to any evocation of the Middle Ages attracts and inspires artists and authors of the 19th century. The dragons, unicorns or elves they describe evoke the values ​​of nobility they attribute to this period of history. The rediscovery of the Middle Ages also corresponds to the advent of nations. Unlike Antiquity, which is common to everyone, it makes it possible to build a national novel specific to each country. The codification that was created at that time still governs the rules of fantasy today.

Where does this term “fantasy” come from?

In English, it means “fantasy” or “imagination”. It has been around for a long time but defined the genre in the 1960s. Early in that decade, publisher Ace Books released a pirated version of the Lord of the Rings, originally released in 1954. It was a huge success on American campuses. In response, Tolkien released a revised edition of his book in 1965 from Ballantine Books. His popularity led him to create the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series collection in 1969, which reissued in paperback form out-of-print works by Ernest Bramah, Hope Mirrlees, William Morris… It is this collection that will, through his publications , “fix” the term fantasy.

“The forties now in power in the culture industry grew up with this culture. »

Why The Lord of the Rings was he so successful in the 1960s?

It is the meeting of a work and an era. With its little New Age flavor, the book is read like a “leftist” novel. By presenting worlds preserved from human activity, it resonates with a nascent ecological anxiety. This is logical, because fantasy was also born in opposition to rampant urbanization and the effects of the Industrial Revolution of the English 19th century. There is also a pacifist message as Tolkien wrote this story to ward off the horror of World War I. He experienced it as a second lieutenant, especially during the Battle of the Somme. In The Lord of the Ringsthe immense plains of Mordor strewn with corpses are the mark of this trauma.

Despite this success, the genre has long remained a niche hit.

It’s true. Until the end of the 1990s, fantasy mainly concerned boys who were fans of video games, role-playing games or collecting. A book of which you are the hero at Gallimard youth. In the cinema, we remain in caricature with the series of Conan Where Kalidor with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The real turning point took place in 1997 with the box of the book Harry Potter at the Sorcerer’s Stone. It is amplified by the success of the films drawn from the saga, then by that of the trilogy Lord of the Rings directed by Peter Jackson.

READ ALSO :Mythical sagas: are you more Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings?

The forty-somethings now in power in the culture industry grew up with this culture. They are aimed at generations who have always known it and who have an incredible offer to which their parents did not have access. Not to mention that fantasy has evolved and speaks to everyone. It now feeds on African, Amerindian or Asian myths. And African-American authors like NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor or Samantha Shannon defend minorities or LGBT people in their works. Today, the majority of readers are women. When they reach middle school, boys tend to stop reading in favor of video games and social networks…

In any case, fantasy seems accessible to everyone. She speaks to everyone, including politically…

It has always inspired diametrically opposed readings. One example among others: ten years after Tolkien conquered the hippie campuses, it was the young people of the Italian MSI party who “recovered” his work by organizing “Hobbit Camps”, in truth neo-fascist gatherings… More recently, the American alt-right Sad Puppies movement has spoken out against the presence of political and progressive themes in contemporary fantasy. They tried to influence the vote for the Hugo Prize, rewarding works of the genre each year. Many authors, including George RR Martin (Game Of Thrones) prevented them. Fantasy reflects the fantasies of our time and lends itself to all interpretations.

What do you expect from House of the Dragon the prequel to Game Of Thrones ?

Among the expected spin-offs, this is the most interesting, because it is built on the two volumes of George RR Martin’s novel, fire and blood (Pygmalion, 2018-2019). House of the Dragontakes place two hundred years before the events of the parent series and tells the story of the Targaryen family. Martin is involved as co-writer and producer and that’s reassuring. On the other hand, the project in preparation on Jon Snow worries me a little. In Game Of Thrones , I find the character and the actor (Kit Harington, Editor’s note) who plays him completely flawed! The vast majority of fantasy fans loved the first five seasons of this series. So there is a big expectation. Especially since Martin risks never finishing the literary cycle The iron Thronefrom which is drawn Game Of Thrones . His readers push him there but he seems to lack the desire.

The trailer of House of the Dragon:

Amazon Prime Video will invest a billion dollars for the five seasons of its series from the Lord of the Rings . Isn’t that excessive?

Tolkien readers shouldn’t expect too much, otherwise they may be disappointed! The series partially adapts The Silmarillion (1977), a posthumous work by the author bought at a gold price by Prime Video. In fact, I think we should above all consider this project in a positive way: it will breathe new life into fantasy, and that’s the main thing.

House of the Dragon from August 22 on OCS.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power starting September 2 on Prime Video.

Film Tolkien(2019) August 26 on Disney+.

House of the dragon: “Fantasy inspires diametrically opposed political readings”