Fantastic Trumps – and Where to Find Them: on Fantasy Tropes & Political Narrative

by Alex Waygood

The exhibition currently showing at the Christ Church Picture Gallery, Fabulous Beasts and Beautiful Creatures, documents the human fascination with the animal kingdom. Combining depictions of real-world creatures with those of myth and dream, the collection stands in marked contrast with much of the rest of the pictures on display at Christ Church. A horse, reduced to barely a few lines on paper, feels as though it moves before your eyes; a sketch of a lion hunt overwhelms in a cacophony of colliding bodies and spears. The beasts on display are alive: many are depicted in scenes of epic battle where confusion of lines prevails but the spirit is captured. The immediacy and mess of these pieces (primarily pen, pencil or chalk on paper) could not be further apart in some respects to the stylised intricacy of the canvas paintings on display elsewhere in the gallery.

A special in-focus display case gives information on the seminal British animal artist Francis Barlow. Subtly exaggerating the key aspects of the animals portrayed, his work lies on the border between naturalism and caricature. A trio of treetop squirrels is lovingly sketched as they call to each other, with special attention (naturally) given to their tufty ears and bushy tails. As with the rest of the exhibition, the emphasis is on the movement and vivacity of the natural world – the innate beauty and strangeness of the creatures around us.

The timing of the exhibition, naturally, comes as no coincidence. It doesn’t take a sleuth to suppose that the topic of the display (running from 18 February to 29 May 2017) was chosen to coincide with the latest film from J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In many ways, the collection of pieces has most in common with the original 2001 book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the inspiration for the development of the recent film. Taking its name from a textbook mentioned in passing in the original Harry Potter book series, Rowling’s spin-off tome took the form of a catalogue of information and drawings of faux-fauna from the realm of Harry Potter – detailing both those mentioned in the series (such as Hippogriffs, Flobberworms and Kappas), and also newer inventions such as Chizpurfles and Lethifolds.

The newer film finessed the original material by adding a backstory (including a mandatory love-interest) to the writing of the book by the renowned magizoologist Newt Scamander. Yet the emphasis on the wonder and quirkiness of Rowling’s world was retained – a welcome relief from Harry Potter films that all-too-often seemed to sand down the magic and charm of the books into something ultimately far too boring and serious. (Where is Peeves, the parodying poltergeist? Why do we never get to see the Weasleys battling with their garden gnomes? What happened to SPEW, Hermione’s Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare?)

Rowling’s creatures in the film are often wonderful works of the imagination in their own right, and frequently feature her trademark intertextuality. The Thunderbird, a huge North American relative of the phoenix that generates maelstroms merely through flapping its wings, has its originsin the folklores of North American indigenous peoples such as the Algonquians, the Menominee and the Ojibwe. Meanwhile, the Occamy, a winged serpent that has the ability to grow or shrink to fit the available space, has clear roots in the dragons of East Asia that can shrink to the size of a silkworm. In a Chinese legend about the Zen Buddhist sage Huineng, a fierce and destructive dragon is tricked into shrinking small enough to fit into his rice bowl[1]  – a scene that has an uncanny echo in Rowling’s film.

An extraordinary world, populated by creatures that stretch the bounds of reasonable belief, is fundamental to the definition of fantasy – a nearly facile observation when you consider that ‘fantasy’ shares its etymology with ‘fantastic’. Key to the definition of the genre is an inherent escapism – in the best fantasy works, the plot itself is often incidental; the author draws you in through the sheer intricacy and originality of their imagined world. (By the by, in my opinion this is probably why fantasy and science fiction are often undervalued by traditional literary critics.)

Yet, walking out of my first viewing of Fantastic Beasts, the creature that struck me most was neither the Thunderbird nor the Occamy, but the amorphous Obscurus. The writhing clouds of dark smoke, that Newt describes as an ‘unstable, uncontrollable dark force’, represent the latest manifestation of another key fantasy trope: the inherent, unexplainable evil.

The classic example here is Tolkien. Sauron is evil, because… well, because. In such an extraordinarily long and detailed saga, you’d think there would be some time to probe this a little. But that would be missing the point. The beauty of the fantastic escapism is a fundamental simplicity to the conflict at hand. There’s no need to probe such pressing questions as whether orcs have rights (or quite why the tyranny of the kings of Gondor is better than the tyranny of Sauron) simply because the story is better without fussing over all that. The conceit of the inherent evil is so successful because, well, shades of grey make our heads hurt – it’s a conceit that the reader is fully willing to engage with.

The Obscurus – shapeless and unreadable – is a particularly elegant employment of this trope. The trope works best when the Inherent Evil has as few human attributes as possible: whereas humans have motivations, reasons and purposes, the Inherent Evil by contrast is unexplainable, unreasonable and purposeless. It is the Unknown, the Other. The Evil that has no meaning behind it, and sins for sin’s own sake.

Hence the prevalence of masked and mutilated villains. Star Wars’s Darth Vader is effectively faceless; his ‘humanity’ is only restored to him after he finally returns to the good side of the force at the end of Return of the Jedi. At this point, his life-support unit is symbolically removed, revealing a human face beneath. G. R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire is a series that seems to specialise in shades of grey and set out to pour scorn on this trope. Yet even Martin cannot avoid the allure of the unknown horror: his White Walkers (who are at times even referred to as ‘Others’) are described as having ‘flesh pale as milk’; ‘faceless, silent’, they have eyes that are ‘blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice’[2] .

The Inherent Evil frequently works through human counterparts: unseen and working from afar, yet manipulating the whole of Middle Earth through his servant Saruman, Sauron is far more terrifying. Sometimes the dynamic is inverted. Voldemort, Rowling’s villain in her original series, was never entirely successful simply because he was ultimately far too human. The Dementors, however, who eventually become his servants, are truly terrifying: faceless, voiceless and cloaked, they feed on fear; in a similar way, Fantastic Beasts has both a motiveless Inherent Evil (the Obscurus) and a human antagonist with a purpose (Graves/Grindelwald). In Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, the villain is ostensibly the robber Capricorn. Far more frightening, however, is his slave The Shadow:


Sometimes he was red as fire, sometimes as grey as the ashes into which fire turns all that it devours. He leaped from the ground like flame flickering up from wood. His touch and even his breath brought death. He rose up at his master’s feet, soundless and faceless, scenting the air like a dog on the trail, waiting to be shown his victim[3].

And yet – I wonder if problems don’t arise when these tropes are applied to real life.

Fantastic Beasts – with its frequent allusions to Grindelwald’s dreams of ethnic cleansing, and with the populist political propaganda that is in the background throughout – carries clear reference to the fascist movements of the 1930s (the period in which it is set). And the Second World War is frequently depicted in just the same way as a fantasy conflict plays out: a clear-cut battle between Good and Evil. The below poster – an anti-Japanese US poster – is representative of the way the fantasy narrative of an inhuman, intrinsic evil was employed in propaganda at the time. Even now, the Second World War is often remembered as the last ‘simple’ conflict – when you knew who was in the right and who was in the wrong. I’m not questioning the horror of the Nazi atrocities or trying to be an apologist for the Axis regimes in any way – but it’s worth remembering that most soldiers in the War were, at the end of the day, just fighting for their country, and atrocities were committed on both sides[4] .

It’s hard to talk about the 1930s nowadays without discussing the current political climate, and to an extent this tendency is fair enough. The parallels between the two periods are clear: far-right parties are on the rise across Europe; the US have recently voted in a nativist, isolationist president; and supranational unions such as the EU seem increasingly fragile. Fantastic Beasts, whether it was intended or not, can’t help but seem as though it is making reference to current regimes in Hungary, Poland, and the US.

To look at a lot of political rhetoric at the moment, the fantasy narrative of Good vs. Evil also seems as though it is being employed in just the same way as it was in the 1930s.  Trump has become an image of Evil Incarnate for many, with Democratic activists – despite their political impotence in Congress and state legislatures – determined to obstruct and resist at every turn. A Poor Print article in November spoke of the need to ‘fight against the darkness and coldness that people like Trump and Pence bring’. To an extent, I agree.

Yet the issue is that the great works of high fantasy usually climax with an epic battle, such as the culminating scene in The Lord of the Rings; or the great battle against the forces of the White Witch at the close of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

This is where the metaphor can no longer be applied to reality. Bernie Sanders, the hero of so many left-wing students, is no Aslan. Neither he nor any other Democratic politician is ever going to lead a cavalry charge against the Trumpists of the US.

As politics grows ever-more divisive, liberals (and I use the term in the loosest sense of the word) increasingly appear to be fighting arguments on the basis that to disagree with the liberal point of view is already a moral sin. Too many liberals no longer appear to  try to persuade those of differing opinions. Political campaigns are focusing more and more on increasing voter turnout by railing against the Other Side rather than attempting to convince naysayers; more and more activists appear to be complaining that they’re ‘tired of making the same arguments time and time again’. The implication is that when those who disagree are just wrong… why should we have to engage?

That’s no way to win this war. Political battles are won in a different manner to those of folklore and fable. Far from annihilating a horde of alt-righters, instead the end goal must be to change the minds of the horde. To rewrite the Tolkien narrative, the orcs of Mordor have to be persuaded to vote for Aragorn (…or whatever 2020 Democratic challenger comes closest). Shouting at Trumpists will only get us so far. Calling those of differing opinions a ‘basket of deplorables’ will never persuade them to your way of seeing things. The righteous indignation of a political minority is utterly useless.

It’s easier said than done. Changing minds is hard – Confirmation Bias is strong, meaning people will always more easily agree with something that chimes with existing beliefs than with something that fundamentally change their outlook. Social science research shows that reasoned argument generally has no effect on people’s outlook when it comes to polarised issues – and indeed, it often causes a ‘backfire’ effect that causes people to dig in deeper into their preconceptions.

But people’s opinions can, and do, change – even on polarised issues. The steady increase in support for same-sex marriage in the US – from 31% in 2004 to 55% in 2015-16 – is testament to that. The rapid change in attitudes on this issue – both in the US and across much of the West – is incredible.

The roots of the liberal success on the same-sex marriage argument are complex, but nonetheless contain lessons for political campaigns on other issues. Key to the increase in support was a steadily increasing number of people coming out as LGBTQ to their family and friends – causing the issue to become normalised; causing people to learn more about the issue; and creating a multiplier effect by encouraging others also to come out. In a similar way, some advocacy groups have reported that open, non-confrontational discussions with people on doorsteps have far more persuasive potential than conversations where activists actively try to change views. The idea is that these generate less hostility and may be more successful in normalising arguments. (Thorough research on this is currently inconclusive.)

Many will find the takeaway here slightly depressing. Though I’m not endorsing fake news, facts are somewhat useless when it comes to changing minds on divisive issues, since our moral reasoning[5] is rarely based on evidence in these situations. Rather, it is more usually dependent on the opinions we perceive to be acceptable among our personal social group. The crucial year in the same-sex marriage debate in the US was in 2009, when for the first time support for same-sex marriage started rising among Republicans at the same rate as among Democrats.

The real mystery, however, is why so many mainstream political candidates still struggle to grasp this. Remainers can cry foul at the conduct of the Brexit referendum all they like, but the truth is that the argument had been lost long before the referendum campaign even started. Whereas tabloid newspapers and UKIP had unfailingly screamed at Europe for decades, pro-Europe politicians had been notably timid. No debunking of false facts on Brexiteer buses was ever going to make up for the years of silence, or the failure to create a convincing Europhilic emotional narrative. The fantasy narratives have one thing right – much as G. R. R. Martin’s ‘Battle for the Dawn’ is repeated every few millennia, the battle of ideas is never truly won. Political success is rarely permanent; liberal arguments must be repeated again, and again, and again.

So rather than shouting at the alt-right and bemoaning the end of the world, the lessons for liberals are clear. Don’t give up the argument. Don’t be disheartened where you fail to persuade – we have to be in this for the long run. However much you hate their opinions, try to restrain your gag reflex when dealing with those with whom you disagree. And an emotional narrative is crucial. Facts are important – but don’t rely on them to make your case.


Fabulous Beasts and Beautiful Creatures’ is showing at the Christ Church Picture Gallery until 29 May, 2017, and free of charge to students at Oxford.

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is no longer showing in cinemas, but can be bought on DVD from Amazon for £10.

The Trump presidency has a forecast expiration date of 20 January, 2021.


Footnotes

[1] American Museum of Natural History (2016), Mythic Creatures and the Impossibly Real Animals Who Inspired Them. Sterling Signature, New York. Adapted from an exhibition curated by Laruel Kendall & Mark A. Norell, with Richard Ellis and the American Museum of Natural History Department. See an abbreviated version of the book’s contents online here.
[2] G. R. R. Martin (1996), A Game of Thrones (prologue). Great Britain: Voyager.
[3] Cornelia Funke (2003), Inkheart (Chapter 40), trans. Anthea Bell (original title: Tintenhertz). Chicken House publishers.
[4] Incidentally, Tolkien always denied that The Lord of the Rings was intended as a metaphor for the War, arguing that ‘if it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied’. [J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Lord of the Rings (Introduction). George Allen & Unwin publishers.] As a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, it seems far more likely that his Dark Lord was inspired by monsters in ancient myths such as Beowulf, an epic which has innumerable echoes in The Lord of the Rings.
[5] Jonathan Haidt, 2012, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Tom Davy, Joanna Engle and Chris Hill

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