So there’s this panel I’ll soon be moderating at Fantasy Con on “The Fantastic Mundane: Imaginary Social Infrastructures” … and doesn’t that read like a social sciences essay. It won’t sound like one though. Not with these mighty world-builders pitted together at the table of challenge:
Although, ye verily, we will definitely be talking at some point about public sanitation, taxation, and education for the masses.
But not today.
Because it hasn’t happened yet and I don’t know what they’re going to say.
Instead, I’m considering the reverse situation: applying what you’ve learned from fantasy novels in real life. (I should note in advance that this is the ‘small gods’ version not a well-thought out polemic.)
Let’s begin with conkers.
I’m Australian. Horse chestnuts are not native or, indeed, especially common where I grew up. We had gumnuts. But searching for conkers was one of my first To Dos when I went to study in Nottingham. From Enid Blyton I knew what they looked like and was not about to mistake them for edible chestnuts (which are smaller and hairier rather than spiky). From Diana Wynne Jones, I knew you had to pick them as the leaves were turning, and then drill them with a skewer in order to thread them with string in bash them against someone else’s.
I wish someone then had told me how hard the bloody things are and that there must be some knack to skewers (heating perhaps?) because I never got to the bashing bit. In fact, I struggled to find folk that knew what the hell I was on about because they did not read the same books I did and their parents hadn’t taught them, poor TV-addicted urchins that they were.
At the same time, fantasy novels were my guiding light during my university courses in the UK. My degree in Australia was a combination of Commerce and Japanese, but whatever I studied abroad wouldn’t count towards prerequisites. This was wonderfully freeing. I could – and did – study whatever took my fancy.
In addition to creative writing, I took a couple of courses on built environments and countryside management (because, Free FIELD TRIPS), and a second year unit on Medieval to Early Modern History.
The latter pitted me against people who had been studying this subject, in depth, since their A-Levels. I was so clueless. My country was not even on maps of that period and what I’d learned in highschool began at the Industrial Revolution.
But I had widely read a number of authors who were expert researchers or historians, including: Judith Tarr, Ken Follett, Rosemary Sutcliffe, and Barbara Hambly.
So when it came to the Fourth Crusade I knew all about the Sack of Constantinople and that the Doge of Venice was blind and that this was the Crusade King Richard had gone on and that France wasn’t France but a mix of kingdoms generally referred to as the Franks. Oh and I knew that Baldwin, the King of Jerusalem, was a leper long before Ridley Scott made Kingdom of Heaven.
As long as I didn’t mention the role an Elvish monk and his schismatic Greek girlfriend played in the whole debacle, I owned the subject.
Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy gave me the grounding I lacked in understanding the value of trawling through archival records and using scientific rigour to build an accurate picture of past events and their ramifications.
And when it came to those fabulous free field trips, I had Pillars of the Earth to understand the architectural developments as well as the generational level of endeavour that went into built architecture. Although, I admit, I was disappointed with Sherwood Forest being an oak and birch open woodlands (good for hunting deer when on horseback), not the dark, beech greenwoods I’d imagined.
Maybe I can’t blame Rosemary for that. It was probably Kevin Costner’s fault.
What I can say is that fantasy novels formed my aesthetic and understanding of the world rather at odds to my own experience. It’s a little like Christmas. In Australia, this is usually a good day to go to the beach. Yet we also put up fir trees, frost the windows with spray-on snow, eat a lot of mince pies (so great for that beach bod), and sing freaking Jingle Bells.
I, for one, am looking forward to making a Christmas Cake this year where my icing doesn’t a) melt, or b) get eaten by sugar ants.
Which is off subject, but a good way to end.