I'm not the best read, but I have consumed some big fantasy works, chief among them The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, Theogony/Odyssey/Iliad, and tangentially games like Diablo 1/2/3. The main theme among these works is the irreversible loss of splendor and an obsession with finding relics of power forged in the past. I find that this casts a somber or wistful tone over the work as a whole, that we are always living in the shadow of the past, and the future will always be worse. My questions are:

How common is the theme of decay in the genre of fantasy?

If this theme is common, what is the significance of its inclusion in works of fantasy? Does it have a connection to human history, legends, and theology, such as the biblical tale of the fall of man?

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  • This is likely to be closed as too broad, but losing ability and skill and substituting posessions is a common theme throughout human history. – Radhil Dec 29 '18 at 16:58
  • Interesting! Can you give some examples? – Bryan Dec 29 '18 at 16:59
  • Well, any given person growing old and facing death is the ultimate example that pops to mind. Little fuzzy headed though, may think of something else later. – Radhil Dec 29 '18 at 17:04
  • Is the Theogony fantasy? I was under the impression that it was more in the nature of religion. – Adamant Dec 29 '18 at 17:05
  • Because Older is Better – Valorum Dec 29 '18 at 17:19

There is a fundamental cultural reason for this, and the idea that The Past was more magical than the present goes back to the very earliest fantastical stories.

As Mark Olson points out, it is an unavoidable fact that the world we live in does not have any magic in it. For pre-modern peoples, there were things that they could not satisfactorily explain, like the sun's heat, the changing of the seasons, or the phenomenon of lightning. On the other hand, there were no anthropomorphic gods walking among them. Zeus and Odin and Shang-Ti never appeared to their worshipers, so if those people were to believe that such gods really did take human form and really did work miracles on Earth, they had to believe that there had been a time in the past in which gods and magic were much more active.

So the natural human viewpoint with regard to magic is that it was more powerful in the past. For a writer like Tolkien, who (at least originally) was intentionally creating an alternative mythic past for the real world, it was thus inevitable that the grandeur and magic of the cosmology had to be decreasing over time, because the endpoint was today's magic-less world. Of course, not all writers are specifically trying to create such a mythopoeia, but there is still a natural inclination to make the past more magical than the present, because it makes the fictional world more relatable. Having a fictional world where the magic is decaying, where wizards and fantastical beasts are almost extinct, makes that world seem more like the real world, and it makes the viewpoint of the characters who inhabit that world more accessible to a real-world readership.

Urban fantasy is, in some ways, a reaction against the idea that magic has been consistently in decay. This sub-genre posits that the magic is still here in the modern day. This opens up many new avenues of exploration and opportunities for interesting plots. However, for many readers, it is harder to maintain suspension of disbelief, because we know that there isn't really any magic in the today's world.

Quoting myself from here:

The idea that magic was much more plentiful in the past is very common, both in fantasy fiction and mythology. It makes sense that myths would tend to develop this way. While there are things in the everyday world that seem magical in varying degrees (earthquakes, lightning, the bodies of the heavens), the physical forms of gods are conspicuously absent. So there is posited (either implicitly or explicitly) to have been an age where magic was more common, and the gods were closer. There might or might not be a new age of magic coming in the future, perhaps at the end of the universe.

Fantasy writing, including my own, tends to follow this formula. One reason for this is that it’s familiar from myths and folklore; it’s been a convention of the fantasy genre before the genre even existed as such. Another reason is that fantasy is often set is a world that is supposed to approximate some epoch of Earth’s past—culturally or technologically. If too much magic was available, it would change the setting drastically. (This has been a real issue in some Dungeons & Dragons campaigns I’ve been involved in; they featured magical versions of the Industrial Revolution.) Yet a writer generally wants there to be enough powerful magic to tell a good story. A natural way of resolving this tension is if powerful magic exists, but it is hidden away; and even if it is uncovered, it cannot be duplicated.

Some authors have thought through the implications of the gradual decay of magic rather carefully. Others tend to accept it as a part of the standard fantasy setting without much explicit discussion. My father, when he was reading the Silmarillion, commented that he liked how, in Tolkien’s world, a great work of magic (like the Silmarils, or the Rings of Power) could only be created once; there would not be enough power left in the world to recreate such things. And it’s worth noting that the continued use of the Rings of Elves was a major driver of the elven economy in Middle Earth.

  • Good point about urban fantasy - I forgot about the Dresden Files. Was there any impact of the idea of the Grand Past on the collective consciousness of a society - did it affect how they viewed the future, or went about their lives? – Bryan Dec 29 '18 at 19:25
  • Could you please check the broken link? It points nowhere right now. – Sekhemty Dec 29 '18 at 19:58
  • @Sekhemty Fixed. Thanks. – Buzz Dec 29 '18 at 20:55
  • 3
    "Zeus and Odin and Shang-Ti never appeared to their worshippers." *citation needed. – Adamant Dec 29 '18 at 21:52
  • @Adamant Ha, ha. You're hilarious. :( – Buzz Dec 29 '18 at 22:46

The lost golden past has been a cultural theme since Jewish priests came up with the story of the expulsion from Eden.

Ancient texts

Scholars have come to the conclusion that the Neolithic revolution, with its transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled life of agriculture was indeed a loss of a more easier life. Hunter-gatherers worked many less hours per day than peasants ("in the sweat of your face"), the hunt is fun while ploughing the soil isn't, the tribal community was more egalitarian than the steep hierarchy from king to slave of the ancient cities, and so on.

Many ancient texts contain an echo of this nomadic past and is precarious but more joyful existence.

Modern texts

Fantasy, as a literary genre, came into existence in parallel to the industrial revolution, and authors such as William Morris have used their writings to reflect on or imagine a pre-industrial alternative to the terrible circumstances that most industrial workers had to live in.

Later writers wrote under the impression of two World Wars (Tolkien), the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and all the other political, social, economic, and cultural catastrophes or near-catastrophes up to the impending end of civilization as we know it due to climate change, the latter of which contributes to the current popularity of dystopias and post-apocalyptic zombie tales.

At any given time in history, life has always been a terriple plight for the majority of humanity, and fantasy as an escapist genre searches for a pre-industrial relief from the technology of death.

As a pre-industrial setting is a defining aspect of the genre of fantasy, fantasy must by definition look towards the past (or a variation thereof). Other genres escape to the future (Science Fiction), to a fantasy of love (Romance), and elsewhere, but fantasy must by definition be concerned with the past.

  • 1
    I've downvoted for the incorrect statement that a pre-industrial setting is necessary for fantasy. The very existence of the terms "science fantasy" or "urban fantasy" suggests that this is not the case. – Adamant Dec 29 '18 at 18:10

Three points:

First, I'd argue that while treating great human issues is not essential to fantasy, they are needed for any great fiction, and the loss of Faerie, the loss of magic, and the subsequent diminishing of the world is a perfect theme for fantasy. Consequently, many of the very best fantasies use it. (Fantasies that do not engage one of the emotionally great themes tend not to be great fantasies, even if they are inventive and well-written.)

Secondly, the world we live in is bereft of magic. So if the fantasy is to happen in our world, if the magic which is necessary in some sense for any fantasy is to happen, it either happens in the past and we live in its shadow, it happens in a far future which (which might as well be a different world), or it exists but is hidden from us.

Thirdly, it's hard to have a world where magic and science co-exist without it becoming more like SF than like fantasy.

  • Thank you for the answer. I had not considered a lot of fiction is written with some sort of connection to our present day world. – Bryan Dec 29 '18 at 19:33

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