discussions genre stuff

Travellers: In Fantasy Fiction vs Reality

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.

Eric wrote:

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.

I replied:

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.

Eric responded:

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.

Jared added:

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?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

5 replies on “Travellers: In Fantasy Fiction vs Reality”

Thank you Mark for this:

Not only am I interested in hearing about other examples of travelers in fantasy, but you raise a good point re race.

It’s not, I suspect, that gypsies are simply more likely to be welcome in a faux Medieval, vaguely Western European setting than a modern one. Gypsies and other travelers were certainly reviled and persecuted as early as the late the Middle Ages in Europe.

To what extent was this due to their perceived origins in the Islamic “east” and the colour of their skin? As opposed to the natural problems faced by a traveling people in the face of more settled kingdoms/city-states.

I’d be curious if anyone knows how such groups were treated in earlier periods by the Islamic and arab empires they first entered after leaving Persia and north-east India. They have a long presence in Constantinople; does anyone know how they were viewed by the Byzantines and the Greeks?

Then again, most prostitutes have hearts of gold in fantasy novels (well, in fiction in general – just look to the movies), and thieves certainly get a more romanticized treatment that we’d expect to be their share in real life.

So perhaps, it’s all just down to the unreality of the common fantasy tropes.


My two cents. I hope in correct English and not so messy.

Personally I cannot stand Fantasy books completely disconnected from reality. They can be far far versions, as far as you will, but they must connect my imagination to real facts, even if (better if) from a totally different perspective.

I’m writing in these last years a saga that goes to the heart of the problem: could Fantasy books make people think about our world from a different perspective? Could we, writers, manage to spread a message through our stories? My answer is yes.
I’m trying to do this in a particular way: taking the classic (starting from it), put it in a vast world that has no classic races (apart at the beginning) and trying to lead it to real topics without no masks, no limitations and no restrictions (passing from a classic Fantasy to a Science-Fantasy).
Well, the first book I wrote didn’t collect so much appreciations, but I read some glimpse of comprehension. Some loved it in a way I had not imagined before (the best reviews I ever received in four published books). But in Italy readers aren’t prepared for Fantasy-challenges. I’m not saying that my book was a great book, only that the topic I was talking about in its pages (genetic) was considered “strange” for Fantasy. Too real, as if I was totally out of topic.

I guess it’s not so easy to make Fantasy talk about our world directly. But I’d like to go on in this direction, to prove to readers that genres are only a change of perspective.
Maybe the secret is not to lie to the reader about the topics, never. All the sentences and point of view must be sincere.
So, to explain my vision using the example in here. If you’re going to use gypsies, even if they are in a “medieval world”, you need to talk about the ways in which they are living, without romanticism, that is talking about their good hearts and their talent at play instruments, as about their solidarity and strength as a group (I’m forced to talk about them in a superficial way, generically, to be short), but in the meantime you must talk about the use of the women and the children by the men (their, in a short way, male chauvinism), their inclination to thief (as a direct consequence of living in a society totally different), their inclination to claim for rights that they cannot pretend to claim, being “no Country people”.
I’m sure that Fantasy can talk about our world, but in doing it there must be a deep, not superficial way to analyze every shade of grey, not only the black and white of issues.
There’s no easy way to think about a Fantasy world with its inner coherence. Even harder is building it to reflect reality, in my opinion.

Hope they’re two clear cents.

Thanks for your two cents, Andrea. I think there’s certainly something there worth discussing. I do wonder just how much people are prepared to have their views of the real world challenged, from their experiences in a secondary one. Perhaps being a fiction of escape, for many readers, they simply my not see the real world comparisons? And of course, not everyone reads the same newspapers, which means they might not understand the same concepts in the same way. Is it limited to fantasy fiction, or could we say the same about all fiction?

Thank you for your questions, Mark. (And for your answer, too. 🙂
Well, I guess that it’s still possible to talk directly about reality with fantasy fiction without being so… direct. Ahem! One of the point is to write on different levels, always being connected to the power of a story, that must be entertaining. Without entertainment fiction betray its first purpose.
I’m saying this just to point out that I wasn’t talking about something heavy, in which deepness rime with tediousness. And for this reason I wrote that, in my opinion, it’s even more difficult to write about reality with fantasy fiction.

In any case, I’m not so sure what I’m doing it’s fine. I only hope it will be. As I said, the first reactions, taking all of them, are not so hopeful. Maybe it’s pretending too much from fantasy readers, to provoke thoughts about reality and its complexity.

There’s another point, though: *your* books, as the ones by Erikson and Bakker (just to name two), are going exactly in this way from my point of view. I’m not saying you’re “fulfilling reality”, but I hope not to sound too arrogant saying that the complexity of your (you and the other brilliant writers named) worlds try to represent life and society complexity as we, human being, know it.
The difference, *maybe*, is that I’m trying to do it consciously – how presumptuous I am! Really!

As for understanding: who is the writer to pretend that everyone comprehends him as a brother would do? And he cannot pretend to be read. On the other hand, is our world messy because of this lack of listening? Or is it simply a consequence of different sensibilities we have to take as the real treasure of humanity?

What I believe, Mark, is that first of all a writer must challenge his readers, whoever they are, even if he’s writing fantasy fiction (he’s writing, that’s enough!). Challenge them not to agree with him, challenge them to confute his perspective. If they care enough to disagree and confute, the book was worth writing.

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