What makes good fantasy? This is one question that has always been in the forefront of any fantasy author's mind. For a while I thought I knew the answer. Like any good wannabe fantasy author, I had done my homework. I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, and Silmarillion. I read his counterpart, C. S. Lewis. I had delved into the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. I read and re-read one of my all time favorite series, the Old-Kingdom Trilogy by Garth Nix. I even took the time to analyze in detail modern upstarts such as Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle. By this point, I thought I knew everything about how a good modern high-fantasy book series was put together.
I knew that in modern fantasy, detail is everything. Every good story I read had detailed maps of its lands. Every city was mapped out, every culture was explained in detail. A fantasy world had to have a well defined history that explained the layout of the world. It needed a cosmology explaining the birth of the world and why it worked the way it did. Magic especially had to be well defined. The reader had to understand that magic came from so-and-so place and was controlled by such-and-such means. In most modern fantasy, magic clung desperately to the words of Arthur C. Clarke, "Magic is just Science we don't understand yet."
As an aspiring author I knew without a doubt that all these things were consistent throughout all the best fantasy I had read. Then I picked up a book. It was a book titled "Phantastes" by the author George MacDonald. (MacDonald is a lesser known writer, but it should be known that his work had a heavy influence of both Lewis and Tolkien) The book was small enough for me to finish over the course of two days, and it was a stand-alone work. There was very little lore behind the story, There was not enough information in the entire book to draw any form of accurate map. There were no in depth cultural groups, no distinct languages, no political borders, and no in-depth history whatsoever. In fact, there was so little attempt at modern World-Building that any of the places or landmarks in the story might as well have ceased existing once the story left them behind.
But in those two days, my entire view of fantasy was flipped on its head. In "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," C. S. Lewis wrote of a story so wonderful that any reader was lost in it, and yet once it was finished its details quickly faded from the reader's mind, leaving only a great sense of contentment. I can not help but wonder whether Phantastes was the inspiration for this idea. It affected me in a way that no other story has ever affected me before, and it left me wondering, "How?"
How did this little book, without any of the World-Building I so adored, manage to topple books such as the Silmarillion and climb to the spot of first place in my mind. I soon came to realize that there is something severely lacking in modern fantasy, even when compared to the works of Tolkien that all modern fantasy descend from and idolize in some way.
The best way to illustrate is to look at the treatment of elves in fantasy. In Tolkien's universe, elves held a position of being less than gods, yet more than men. While some things like greater speed and agility were used to help high-light this Tolkien's best tool lay in creating a mysterious aspect in their nature. At times their minds worked in ways that were unexplainable, because majesty of Tolkien's elves was meant to be beyond the comprehension of any mortal reader. Their beings, their basic personality was meant to extend into a spiritual world which we could never comprehend.
Now look at modern elves. Modern fantasy has become filled with D&D and The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age. In most modern fantasy elves have been taken out of their spiritual domain and placed fully within our understanding. The supernatural nature that their enhanced grace and beauty were meant to hint at have been replaced with the much more understandable ideas of Grace and Beauty themselves. Modern elves have become nothing more than long-lived, super-agile, super-pretty human beings with pointy ears.
What greater maturity they have as a race stems from their longer lived experience rather than their semi-divine nature. Now this concept is not in itself a bad one, but it shows a strong trend away from the moral and philosophical and more towards the physical. All throughout modern fantasy, non-human races have become nothing more than various forms of Human2.0. In the Lord of the Rings, the magic of Gandalf was strongly connected to Tolkien's concept of the divine in his universe. This meant that even the smallest of spells carried great weight, and larger confrontations between forces such as Gandalf and the Balrog became show-downs between primeval forces of Satan and the Almighty. In modern fantasy, magic had been reduced to nothing more than the dressed-up pseudo-science of Arthur C. Clarke. Even the concept of spirituality has become less religious. In modern fantasy, spirits are often nothing more that super-powerful forms of the afformentioned Human2.0. Even the concepts of heaven and hell are reduced to something along the lines of alternate dimensions which, while still abstract, still places them in the realm of the "safe and understandable".
I will say that none of these ideas on their own are bad, in fact many are very creative and could be used to create great stories. But all together they show a disturbing trend.
I believe there is one great reason for this trend, Marketability. Modern authors have become fixated with writing for as many people as possible, and to do this they have designed their works to as comfortable for as many people as possible. The problem is, any moral or philosophical concept worth discussing is usually going to be hotly contended by different groups. Anyone who has read Tolkien's Universe knows that it was unnashamedly shaped by his Christian faith.
For a modern writer this would be considered literary suicide of sorts, it would be considered distasteful and disconnecting by anyone who was apposed to the Christian worldview. For this reason, most writers limit themselves. If there is a god, he is nothing more than a human2.0, albeit an extremely powerful one such as Marvel's Thor or Odin. Above all else the writer must avoid creating the idea that there is a being with the authority to single-handedly define and redefine morality solely on his own say-so because this concept above all others is one of the most controversial we now face.
In short, in order to be appealing to all a book series must be profound to none. Because once you say something profound, your book is no longer a safe-space for those who disagree with you.
But this is where Phantastes truly shines. It does not hide the complexity of its morality, and it does not shy away from hinting at the deepest and most controversial aspects of our religion. It provides a mirror that shows us the darkest aspects of ourselves, and for this reason when it shows us redemption it truly means something. Phantastes almost completely abandons the ideas that are palatable to everyone, and occurs almost entirely in circles that challenge our very beings. But it is for this very reason that it ends up meaning far more to the reader than any D&D campaign ever could.