Some interesting debate came in the comments of my post on antiziganism, with respect to the generally positive depiction of travellers/gypsies in fantasy fiction versus how they are perceived in reality. I thought it worthwhile highlighting some of the key points.
Certainly they are frequent visitors to its pages: the tinkers in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, the strange dwarfs (some of them made in the eerie ‘gloottokoma’ boxes rather than born), fortune telling Mams, and brightly painted caravans of the Mingulay Peninsula from M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, Philip Pullman’s Gyptians from His Dark Materials, the Edema Ruh of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and even, a bit tangentially, the wandering rangers of Tolkien, to name a handful that spring to mind… With the exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula however, in almost all of the examples that I can recall, travelers are portrayed sympathetically. They are typically allies or at least benign presences who help, shelter, give advice or direction to the “heroes.” I can’t think of many who are shown to be sinister or in the employ of the titular dark lord… Even if they are shown to have a reputation as thieves and dishonest traders in knives and horses, in the stories themselves, they almost always have hearts of gold hidden beneath their dark looks and bright scarves.
Beneath it all, I suspect that it can be reduced to simple capitalist concepts such as ownership – in the real world, it seems to mean something that nomads occupy a space and turn it into a temporary autonomous zone. The act is seen as bad, because it affects us personally. In a fantasy world, we feel no such affinity to the land. We do not own property there, and beyond the page we do not possess rights. A classic case of nimbyism if ever there was one.
In fantasy, the situation seems to be reversed. Travelers are romanticized for all the same qualities they’re vilified over in real life: freedom from urban lifestyles, ignorance of private land use, picturesque pre-industrial occupations, colorful dress, exotic customs, tight-knit family/tribal communities, roguish disregard for local authorities, and the ability to up stakes and move on when things go against them or greener pastures beckon. They also don’t go to the law of the land to seek redress, nor do they have much faith in its protection. As Mark has pointed out, it’s not our land, so we don’t have the same emotional attachment. Add in a whiff of mysticism and stir in some pseudo-eastern girls (and boys) fluttering their dark lashes, and I can see why they’re popular in fantasy settings.
There are a lot of Gypsy, Traveler-Types singled out as noble liberated folk (the Edema Ruh are spot on when it comes to flamboyantly unrealistic depictions of life on the road. Tra la la, we sing, everyone loves us and we’re filled with ageless wisdom, tra la la.).
BUT… in the generic, I’m betting that (lower-case) gypsy-types are baddies.
If you need your high fantasy hero threatened in the early chapters, there are always lawless / landless / roving thugs to do it.
When it comes down to it, generic fantasy is rooted in a lot of very traditional ideas. One of which is that national identity is Vastly Important and Unchanging. People are Countryians from Country, and that’s their key defining trait.
I’m sure it harkens back to the quasi-medieval origins of the genre, but, whatever, I’m betting it is there.
As you can see, quite an interesting discussion. It’s an area which, on the surface, suggests that fantasy words are quite different – at a very basic, concept level – from the real one, which I’ll admit is the opposite of my personal approach to creating a world.
Does anyone have any further thoughts or examples on this topic? I’m trying to think if there are similar associations to make between this and, for example, issues of race. That is, do many fantasy novels – which, at their heart are novels of escape – avoid addressing real-world cultural confrontations? Do many writers intentionally view such matters quixotically? Is there even anything wrong with that?