Fantasy and Realpolitik: Through the Eyes of Tolkien's Gandalf

There are reasons why German authors shy away from local myths. The fantasy genre is suitable for the critical examination of realpolitik.

A magician with a long beard and a large hat is lit from below

JRR Tolkien's Gandalf in a movie scene from The Hobbit (2013) Photo Credit: Mary Evans/AF Archives/New Line Cinema/Imago

The American author and literary scholar Michael Weingrad once asked why there is no Jewish fantasy genre. The truth is: there is a Jewish fantasy, you could even count the Bible among them. And there is also the fantasy genre in Israeli modern literature. The Israeli fantasy authors are primarily concerned with the Jewish past, history and myth as well as the connection with the Israeli present, with politics and culture.

It is a reflective, critical, often satirical fantasy. Unlike the two new television series that have recently hit Amazon Prime and HBO respectively, the fantasy genre, when it is in Hebrew, remains on the fringes for Israeli audiences.

"The Rings of Power' - prelude to the Tolkien series, and: 'The Rise and Fall of House Targaryen' - the sequel to 'Game of Thrones' - have swallowed up incredible amounts of money, and the wide attention they are garnering shows the central place these types of series occupy in cultural life.

Now one could explain this primarily with the growing escapism and the need for simplified "mythical" formulas that replace the conscious confrontation with reality. Nineteenth-century realism and modernist literature served a similar function. On the other hand, one could argue that the project by Georg RR Martin, author of "Game of Thrones", under the guise of fantasy paints a bleak picture of Machiavellianism and realpolitik.

Deceptive magic and skepticism

It's a mixture of deceptive magic, sobriety, skepticism, contempt for religion, and a sour and pessimistic view of reality. The question is: why has the vast majority of the fantasy genre of the last 200 years originated in Anglo-Saxon countries? Where is the European fantasy literature and what about the German one? The answer is obvious.

The Germans are reluctant to deal with the mythical subjects of their own culture: Artists such as Richard Wagner created an explosive connection between the Nordic-German myth and romanticism and German art. The SS and other National Socialist organizations picked up these materials, manipulated them to create a new-old Germanic myth that served ideological interests but also a neo-pagan fascination.

After 1945, for understandable reasons, there was enormous reluctance to join forces. Tolkien could afford to revive traditions about trolls, and JK Rowling could amuse himself with goblins. For German authors, on the other hand, the German mythical, pre-Christian past remained taboo. Also a work like “Der Butt” by Günter Grass turns to Kashubian myths and not to the German myth.

The direction set by Martin, the ingenious mix of mythical and magical themes and a somber and sober view of reality, could serve as a sort of rabbit hole for the Germans to return down and watch the Nibelungen, the Wotans and the Valkyries . Through this kind of critical fantasy material, a connection can be made to the traditions of the past without falling into them.

Attempts to create such a reflective fantasy have also been made in Israeli literature, with some with greater and some lesser success. But the mere existence of such attempts is of cultural significance.

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