Who doesn’t like a good fantasy? Dashing knights, greedy dragons, fair maidens, odious goblins, perilous elf women, cunning trolls… it doesn’t get any better than that!
But it sure can get a lot worse. And it certainly has. From the inspiring heights of Dunsany, Howard, and Tolkien, fantasy has descended into grime and incoherence with each passing decade. In the silver age it had to pay tribute to sticklers, hecklers, modernists, and socialists– slipping under the radar as “science fantasy” as it did under the hand of authors like de Camp and Pratt. And don’t get me wrong, some good stuff was created in this period to be sure. Luckily fantasy winter didn’t last too long and writers like Leiber, Moorcock, and Zelazny made the signature works of the bronze age.
Not everyone saw this correction in the fantasy marketplace as a good thing. And if critics like Joanna Russ didn’t quite declare epic fantasy dead, then they certainly declared it bad and would have gladly pushed it back underground again like it had before the swords & sorcery revival if they could. But Tolkien being amply available in paperback format combined with the sensational cargo cult that was Dungeons & Dragons ensured that the genie was more or less permanently out of the bottle: the iron age dawned with works like Sword of Shannara, Lord Foul’s Bane, and the veritable deluge of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels.
Where are we now…? Firmly in the dung age where fantasy is exemplified by Game of Thrones and the people trying to outdo George R. R. Martin in their explorations of wretchedness, depravity, and awfulness. I know, the next stage really should have had some redeeming qualities– iron mixed in with the clay as it were– but it really doesn’t. And episode three of BBC’s The Last Kingdom does an excellent job of illustrating why.
In the first place, everyone looks positively filthy, as if the feces-covered peasants of Monty Python and the Holy Grail were the touchstone of historical realism. The Christian characters are shown to be superstitiously pious and highly judgmental of the lax morals of the devilish “heathen” than have conquered what would ultimately become England. But though marriage is supposedly integral to their great enlightenment over and against the pagan Vikings, the filmmakers go to great lengths to establish that none of the people that matter are capable of governing their appetites for fornication and adultery for even half a day– even in a very small community where everyone knows everyone else and no one can keep a secret. This makes half of the players more than just uninspiring and unlikable. It makes them downright odious.
As bad as Christendom comes off here, Breeda the Saxon girl raised by Vikings is even worse. She could have been cute. She could have been fun. She could have been nice. Instead she is a nagging, loud mouthed, foul mouthed and sassy lout that cannot hold her tongue to save her life. And that’s a shame, really, because pagan’s celebrated any number of virtues that she could have exemplified. Instead we get a repeat of the “hand on glass” moment from Titanic as she and the protagonist (I can’t call him a “hero”) go at it like dogs right in the middle of Alfred’s anointing.
The way the BBC contrasts this with the religious elements here, it’s as if they are absolutely mortified that anyone among their history had anything to do with the church. Meanwhile, Breeda lets everyone know how stupid she thinks they are– and yeah, I can’t help but agree with her on that– as she wanders off to get high off of mushrooms. Incredibly, she sees a vision of the future! So while the Christians are depicted as being lame and superstitious for swearing oaths on their holy relics and so forth, har har har! the even more dung-covered and flea-ridden pagans are shown to have real honest to goodness supernatural powers. It makes you think!
And yet the story-tellers are not done making you feel gross and beaten down. A consequence of Breeda’s free love and drug use is shown to be… a miscarriage. And that is the anti-climax of the episode. At which point I can’t help but hope that this train wreck of a character gets shipped off to another island where she can be a part of plot threads that don’t make the cut for the rest of the series. Good riddance!
What is left, after all, when you set out to create a fantasy where no one is even remotely likable, where no one really believes anything, and where everyone’s worst moments and least flattering aspects take center stage? A bunch of dirty people with absolutely no redeeming qualities who don’t have even a tithe of the epic appeal of characters like Conan and Aragorn or even Harold Shea and Elric.
This show is horrible. And it’s past time for fantasy to just start over.