Kids' Stuff

This morning, drifting in and out of sleep just before the alarm went off, I remembered a conversation I had when I was about fourteen. A neighbour - same age as myself, perhaps a little younger - was over, and I was trying to persuade him to play D&D with me and my brother. It was becoming apparent that there was a fundamental disconnect here; he didn't recognise the word "fantasy". He didn't know what Lord of the Rings was, and when we got down, in mild desperation, to "swords, knights, wizards, magic, goblins", he said scornfully "That's kids' stuff!".

Turned out that grownups only read about cars, tractors and football - or cooking, depending on gender. Anything that wasn't in those categories was either kids' stuff or for girls, there being a subtle distinction there that neither I nor my brother got. Eventually, we gave up, left him to watch football, and played D&D ourselves. We seemed to enjoy the afternoon more.

Some of this is coming to mind because there was an exhibition running over in the RDS last weekend called "Toys for Big Boys", featuring a large range of gadgets, consoles, sports cars, and booth babes. Some more because I spend a lot of my time playing games. And then there's the fact that after I scan the scifi/fantasy shelves in the second-hand bookshops I frequent, I usually turn around and check the children's shelves, because fantasy novels often get shelved there. I think my neighbour at home (who, as far as I know, has grown up to a life containing much in the way of cars and tractors, somewhat less football, and almost no cooking) would be horrified by the children's section and the games, and insulted by the word "toys".

Why? Plainly, much of the market for fantasy, for science fiction, for games and for toys, is actually driven by adults. In many cases, such as some computer RPGs, tabletop RPGs, and most f/sf novels, children are never thought of. Why does a significant portion of the population dismiss these as frivolous, as "kids' stuff"?

This is now leaning back towards my previous experience with French comics, wherein adults engage in what's seen as a children's pastime elsewhere. And I think we have to point at something similar - it's cultural. For some reason, Western culture, particularly anglophone Western culture, has belittled fantasy (and to a lesser degree, science fiction) for at least a century.

There really must be one cause for this. I've not yet done much research into it, but I'm initially inclined to lay the blame at the feet of the Victorians. Before them, I think, folklore was taken more seriously. Their collections of myths, legends and stories preserved them, certainly, but in some way it also trivialised them. Their cute pictures of faeries at the end of the garden, and mythical heroes defeating monsters all have a certain smug air about them, one that implies "We know those things don't exist, but aren't they fascinating?"

I'm going to do some digging around on this, both online and off, but I'd appreciate any pointers you have - are the Victorians responsible for the trivialisation of Anglophone fantasy?

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Posted by Drew Shiel at December 9, 2004 6:56 AM | TrackBack

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Tolkien was born a Victorian, and as a Germanic scholar and philologist, he wouldn't have been out of place had he spent most of his adult life in the nineteenth century instead of the twentieth. And observe the energy with which the Prussians studied the Teutonic knights and with which the Victorians studied Gothic architecture and mediæval history; I think the cast of mind of people was receptive enough, and Robert Jordan could have published door-stopping cycles of fantasy to widespread readership in 1890, had he been around, and had the publisher to do it.

I don't have any reason to doubt that the Grimms' _Kinder- und Hausmärchen_ were descriptive of the extant folklore, and that folklore was pretty dark and un-twee--not really children's stuff. But it didn't involve swords or knights; the field needed a Tolkien to spark it off into its current shape, and the guy was a one-off.

Jules Verne invented modern science fiction, with both an adult and child readership, and since him, it hasn't, at all, been purely kids' stuff--Brave New World sparked debate and is a standard cultural reference point, Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Asimov are hardly obscure and puerile. I'm not sure it's even perceived as childish; what child would be interested in Kubrick's version of 2001?

And, imagine there had been two networked computers in your house and networked Quake--for which the storyline was pure fantasy--was available. Do you think he would have had any qualms about joining in? I doubt it.

Fashions change, and vary. It's almost impossible to say why. A hundred years ago, playing cards was as pervasive a hobby as watching football is now (okay, perhaps that can be explained by television; but what about in pubs? It's as effective a way to pass time when drinking now as it was then.) I believe playing chess is a pervasive habit in Russia, down to the smallest hamlets; you'd be looked at like you had two heads if you suggested it as an appropriate way to spend an evening in male company down t'country here.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at December 30, 2004 2:51 AM