Why Is Dystopian Fiction Still Popular?

A reason for the popularity of dystopian works in English-speaking countries is culturally related and lies in their representation of unpleasant future worlds as a negative foil to Anglo-American values and ideas such as individual liberty.

Dystopian fiction sparks our interest. For quite some time, we have been fascinated, stirred and disturbed by the depiction of unpleasant imaginary future societies in novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1984], Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and / or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. Film or TV series adaptations of these works and young adult (YA) dystopias like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy have also contributed to the genre’s popularity.

Broadly speaking, the term “dystopia” is the opposite of “utopia.” The latter comes from the early 16th century book Utopia, which was written in Latin by the famous English statesman, humanist writer and Roman Catholic saint Sir Thomas More.

Utopia vs Dystopia

As regards content, a traveller named Raphael Hythloday describes the island of Utopia, a city-state. Through his depiction the reader learns of its form of government, its people and its social, political and religious customs. What is remarkable is that, from our modern viewpoint, this fictional island city-state looks like a regimented, proto-communist society because there is, amongst other issues, no possession of private property.

Intriguingly, “utopia” is a pun on the Greek words for “good place” (i.e. “eutopia”) and for “no place” (i.e. “outopia”). Consequently, in connection to More’s book the term “utopia” implies a certain ambiguity.

On the one hand, the book, to a certain extent, portrays a “good place” or, to put it differently, an island society with lots of positive characteristics (, even though this city-state, apart from these features, has several negative aspects such as slavery and its practices of euthanasia and capital punishment). However, on the other hand, the island of Utopia does not exist in reality. It is just an imagined location.

Appropriately enough, the label or genre “utopian literature / fiction” is attributed to texts that are set in an imaginary ideal society, often in the future, whereas the genre “dystopian fiction / literature” includes works that present an unpleasant future world. Simply put, ‘dystopia’ (from Ancient Greek δυσ- or dus- and τόπος or tópos) means “bad place.”

Dystopias, by definition, depict, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, “a very bad or unfair society in which there is a lot of suffering, especially an imaginary society in the future, after something terrible has happened.” Moreover, in dystopian fiction present tendencies have deteriorated – from the recipient’s point of view – into terrible and oppressive conditions. Hence, the ills of the present reach their culmination.

Today, various people across the world – especially in the West – use dystopian texts, films and / or series as reference points to criticise alleged social problems and particular policies. Judging from public appearances and statements, we may think that, as far as political allegiance is concerned, both right- and left-leaning individuals refer to dystopian fiction.

Dystopian Works as Reference Points for (Almost) Everyone Regardless of Their Political Affiliation?

Female protesters in several countries, for example, have dressed as the brutally   subjugated handmaidens in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaiden’s Tale (1985) and its successful TV adaptation. By wearing scarlet cloaks with oversize white bonnets, they appear to raise awareness of the oppression of women in a subversive way.

With respect to their appearance on these occasions, the protesters support issues that are generally labelled as feminist and socially liberal or progressive. Needless to say, people in favour of progressive positions frequently identify as left-wingers. Yet, references to dystopian fiction are also made by right-wingers, conservatives and liberals or libertarians.

First of all, we should point out that the below-mentioned groups differ from one another. While conservatives as well as other right-leaning people usually aim to preserve the traditional social structures with its order, laws, principles and customs, classical liberals or libertarians are more interested in individual and economic liberty.

Despite the differences between them, individuals or parts of these political groups seemingly resort to references to dystopian worlds in novels and films. This prompts the question whether dystopian fiction provides reference points for (almost) everyone notwithstanding their political affiliation.

From a historical perspective, it is worth taking into consideration the criticism of utopian thinking since the end of the 19th century as Hans Ulrich Seeber in his article about the functions of dystopia in Anglo-American literature expounds. In political debates and discussions the term utopia has been employed pejoratively from a liberal and conservative standpoint.

Such critical attitude towards utopian thinking emerged against the backdrop of the growing socialist movement. Ever since, this criticism of utopian constructions has been intended to warn of the dangers of an authoritarian and collectivist state-socialist order that has threatened the freedom of the individual. During the 1920s the political debate intensified, when the opponents of (pluralistic) democracy came up with the concept of the totalitarian state. Thus, utopian visions have been suspected of promoting totalitarianism.

Roughly speaking, totalitarianism can be defined as a form of government which seeks to exert total power and control over its citizens. Undeniably, this notion contrasts with the constitutionally-based principles and rights in most of the Western world and particularly in English-speaking countries. Here we may ask the question whether the popularity of dystopian works in English-speaking countries lies in their representation of unpleasant future scenarios because these dystopian “visions” can function as a warning by challenging Anglo-American ideas.

The Dystopian World as a Negative Foil to Anglo-American Concepts and Individual Liberty

There is no denying the fact that dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1984] (1949) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) are literary classics. Nowadays, young adult (YA) dystopian fiction has gained in popularity across the English-speaking world as the reception of novels  such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) or Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series (2008-2010), their film adaptations and the aforementioned series The Handmaiden’s Tale (2017-present) show.

Several commentators have identified some reasons for why these works are so popular among young people. For instance, these novels or films mostly focus on adolescent characters and present breakout roles, which allow young readers or viewers in the uncertain times of today’s world to experience an alternate universe and to relate themselves to the protagonists.

Besides, these texts and films commonly end on a positive note. Accordingly, they point to signs of hope as opposed to the endings of dystopian classics like 1984. But why are these classics also still popular and why do people keep referring to these novels, when they comment on current problems?

Arguably, another reason for the general popularity of dystopian fiction – including the wildly discussed classics – in the West and, in particular, the English-speaking world is culturally related. In this context, it is useful to quote from the introduction of James C. Bennett’s “An Anglosphere Primer”:

“Over the past several years, a new term, Anglosphere, has crept into political and social discussion in the English-speaking world. This term, which can be defined briefly as the set of English-speaking, Common Law nations, implies far more than merely the sum of all persons who employ English as a first or second language. To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures. These include individualism, rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values.”

To this we should add the idea of democratic or representative government.

Although most of these “customs and values”, up to a certain degree, can be seen as “Western values”, distinctive features of the Anglosphere need to be emphasized at this point. One of them is the importance of individual liberty. Correspondingly, the continuous evocation of liberty seems to constitute a kind of founding myth of the U.S.A. Furthermore, the concept of liberty is a cornerstone of  American civil religion.

Nonetheless, dystopian fiction serves as a negative foil to Anglo-American ideas, values or concepts. More precisely, the recently published and released American dystopian stories as well as the above mentioned classics of English/American dystopian literature usually represent worlds in the future with powerful governments, technologically equipped police states and/or planned societies where personal liberty is confined. Instead, collectivism (or sameness) is promoted.

By contrast, an individual character, the protagonist and/or groups create, in the words of Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, “counter-narrative[s] of resistance” (5) by trying to rebel against their conditions or distancing themselves from the society and its order. Interestingly enough, Ewan Morrison states as follows in The Guardian:

“These books [i.e. The Giver, Divergent and The Hunger Games trilogy] propose a laissez-faire existence, with heroic individuals who are guided by the innate forces of human nature against evil social planners.”

All in all, the represented societies in the dystopian classics in addition to the modern versions of dystopian fiction challenge Anglo-American ideas and the concept of personal/individual freedom, which is embodied by the protagonists.

Sources (alongside the Linked Ones)

Baccolini, Raffaella, and Tom Moylan. “Introduction: Dystopia and Histories.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. Eds. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. New York: Routledge, 2003. 1-12.

Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.

Rüb, Matthias. “Freedom Isn’t Free: Amerikas quicklebendiger Gründungsmythos: Freiheit.” Welche Freiheit: Plädoyers für eine offene Gesellschaft. Ed. Ulrike Ackermann. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2007. 287-302.

Seeber, Hans Ulrich. “Präventives statt konstruktives Handeln: Zu den Funktionen der Dystopie in der anglo-amerikanischen Literatur.” Möglichkeitsdenken: Utopie und Dystopie in der Gegenwart. Eds. Wilhelm Voßkamp, Günter Blamberger, and Martin Roussel. München: Fink, 2013. 185-205.

 

Black vs White or Black with White – Do Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire Allude to the Magpie Image in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival?

In George R.R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire and its TV-adaptation, Game of Thrones, the frequent reference to the colours black and white may allude to the magpie image in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parzival.  

What strikes us in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) and Game of Thrones (GoT) – alongside many other aspects – is the frequent reference to the colours black and white or the combination of these colours. In her storyline Arya Stark, for instance, trains to be a Faceless Men in the mysterious House of Black and White in Braavos.

Apart from this, the mighty Wall of ice rises up behind Castle Black. By joining the Night’s Watch, recruits take the black since the men of the Watch, called crows by the free folk, are dressed in black. Appropriately enough, in the snowy areas in the far north or at the Wall they are confronted with the free folk and the White Walkers / the Others that together with the wights or the Army of the Dead pose a threat to the living.

Usually, we associate white with good, whereas we link black to evil. If all these information are taken into consideration, the frequent use of black and white might be interpreted as an indication that in ASOIAF and GoT the line between good and evil blurs. Or, perhaps we deal with an allusion to the magpie image in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parzival, which was probably written in the first quarter of 13th century.

Broadly speaking, the Eurasian magpie has a black and white plumage. Hence, the magpie image represents the idea of an ambivalent or contradictory human being.  Such a person can be characterized as – in metaphorical terms – internally black and white spotted. Simply put, good and evil or good and bad traits exist side by side.

With regard to Wolfram’s medieval romance, maybe the magpie image is applicable to Parzival (or Eng. Perceval) who commits sins and, nonetheless, finds grace. Needless to mention, in ASOIAF as well as in GoT several characters embody ambivalent human beings with moral flaws. Moreover, one of the main protagonists, Jon Snow, to a certain extent, appears to show slight similarities to Perceval or Parzival.

Sources

Bumke, Joachim. Wolfram von Eschenbach. 7th ed. Stuttgart, Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 1997.

Johnson, Sidney M. “Wolfram von Eschenbach.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Ed. Norris J. Lacy. Updated paperback ed. New York, London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.  

Do We Really Know Nothing about Jon Snow? – Is One of the Protagonists in Game of Thrones Partly Inspired by Perceval in the Holy Grail Legends?

Jon Snow’s storyline in Game of Thrones or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire shows slight parallels with the way the legendary character Perceval is depicted in medieval Arthurian romances.  (Warning! This text contains spoilers.)

“Every craft requires clear eyes, and effort, and heart: These three conditions are all one needs. But since you know nothing, and have seen nothing, decide, if you will, to learn nothing, and no one will blame you.” (ll: 1466-72; these lines are taken from the following version: Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Trans. Burton Ruffel. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1999. The text and the above lines were translated by Ruffel from Old French into English.)

The mentor figure Gornemant makes this statement, when talking to Perceval. 

In the course of the popular TV-series Game of Thrones (GoT) – which is based on George R. R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) – Jon Snow has developed from an alleged bastard into the King in the North of the fictional continent of Westeros. As it turns out, he is actually descended from a royal lineage.

While several characters in the quasi-medieval fantasy world take their inspiration from historical personalities, the portrayal of Jon Snow prompts the question of whether he is a purely original creation or partly inspired by a legendary figure. The same may apply, for instance, to Bran Stark or Arya Stark.

Jon Snow’s storyline seems to show similar features with Perceval’s quest or journey in  the medieval Holy Grail legends or Arthurian romances, which frequently employ the wasteland motif. Perceval makes the transition from comical bumpkin to Grail hero. His development is remarkable since he is, at first, deficient in knowledge, understanding and insight.

 

Although some of Jon’s traits may allude to other legendary characters, we will mainly focus on the comparison between Perceval and Jon by looking at their respective background and their particular characteristics. In this way, slight parallels – together with many differences – become more comprehensible.

Needless to say, the major primary sources for this comparison are GoT as well as ASOIAF – especially the novels A Game of Thrones (GT) and A Storm of Swords (SoS)  –  and two versions of the Holy Grail legend in which Perceval is the protagonist. The following analysis will concentrate on the unfinished Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes. His version provided the main source for Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

Later more emphasis will be laid on Wolfram’s version due to a few interesting details. But, first of all, it is worth examining Perceval’s and Jon’s respective upbringing.

Unfamiliar with Their Noble Blood – Perceval’s and Jon Snow’s Respective Family Background     

According to Chrétien’s Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, Perceval grows up in the Welsh woods. Here his mother raises him in isolation and in ignorance of knighthood since she does not want him to become a knight. After seeing a group of five armoured knights, however, the simple-minded boy immediately wishes to be one.

Subsequently, Perceval’s worried mother informs him of his noble lineage by telling him about his father as well as his brothers. All three were knights but his siblings were killed, while his father lost his wealth because of a wound and then died of grief over his dead sons. With respect to Wolfram’s version, Parzival’s grandfather was King Gandin and his mother is the sister of the Grail King, Anfortas. That means, he comes from a royal background.

Jon Snow, by contrast, is introduced as Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark’s alleged bastard son: “[T]he bastard…bore the surname Snow, the name that custom decreed be given to all those in the north unlucky enough to be born with no name of their own” (GT, 19). Unlike Perceval, he is not brought up apart from civilization but alongside the lawful Stark children at Winterfell, the power centre of Westeros‘ northern kingdom.

His bastard status, however, prevents him from inheriting Winterfell or another castle and enjoying special privileges. Consequently, he often seems to feel excluded.

Notwithstanding the differences between the two characters concerning their family background, there are some possibilities to draw slight parallels in terms of their descent. For example, Perceval does not know about his father until his mother tells him, whereas Jon has no idea who his biological mother is.

Moreover, as it turns out later in GoT, Jon is of royal blood because he is the secret son of Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Likewise, in the consulted versions of the Holy Grail legend Perceval is of noble or royal birth. Besides this, the locations – particularly in Westeros – deserve closer attention.

North vs South, Winterfell vs King’s Landing, the Woods vs King Arthur’s Court…

Jon Snow certainly does not spend his childhood in isolation. Yet, Winterfell and the north are significantly different from the south and Westeros‘ capital, King’s Landing, with its southern customs. The north, in other words, distinguishes itself from the south like the (Welsh) woods from King Arthur’s court in the aforementioned versions of the Holy Grail legend. (It should be noted that – in spite of these aspects – Jon, of course, does not go south but joins the Night’s Watch in the far north.)

Broadly speaking, the northern kingdom is, first and foremost, a place for warriors in contrast to King’s Landing (or the south) with its codes of chivalry. It is necessary to add that there are knights in the north and at Castle Black among the Night’s Watch which, to a certain extent, gives the impression of being organized like a knightly brotherhood. Regardless of this remark, we cannot neglect the existing differences between Westeros‘ various regions.

As for Winterfell, although the home of the Starks clearly differs from the Welsh woods, where Perceval is raised by his mother, some features regarding this castle are striking. In her book Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones Carolyne Larrington, for instance, states that “Winterfell’s architecture is reminiscent of the great Norman concentric castles built by Edward I, most notably in Wales…” (2016: 56).

This castle with its enormous fortification walls also lies close to the Wolfswood. Another noteworthy location is Winterfell’s godswood: “It was a dark, primal place, three acres of old forest…” (GT, 22).

Instead of overemphasising these aspects, I will continue to summarize Perceval’s quest to liken it to Jon Snow’s development. With regard to Perceval, he emerges as a simple-minded and naïve boy. To stress his foolishness as well as his naivety, especially Wolfram’s Parzival depicts him as a ‘tumbe Tor’ (Eng. naïve, dumb or stupid fool or idiot).

A Dumb Idiot, Who Knows Nothing (about Knighthood) – A Look at Perceval’s and Jon’s Respective Quest  

Perceval’s actual quest begins when the innocent boy leaves home in the hope to become a knight, even though he lacks knowledge about knighthood. During his first encounter with knights, for instance, he confuses them with heavenly beings. Thus, the description of Perceval as a naïve or stupid idiot is fitting.

Later Perceval arrives at King Arthur’s court where he inappropriately addresses the King and hurriedly demands to be knighted. After asking King Arthur to be granted the red armour of the Red Knight, he is taunted by seneschal Kay.

Despite the fact that he does not know how to behave like a knight, Perceval instinctively possesses all necessary fighting skills. He, accordingly, kills the Red Knight and takes his armour, before encountering Gornemant, a mentor figure. This experienced man instructs the boy in fighting with different weapons and in knightly behaviour. Perceval, afterwards, faces some adventures, in which he, amongst other things, falls in love with Gornemant’s niece and comes across the castle of the Fisher King.

Similar to Perceval, Jon Snow is an excellent fighter. Early in the story, Jon also expresses his intention to join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch, when he talks to his uncle, Benjen Stark. In their ensuing argument Benjen tries to warn Jon of this step at his young age.

Of course, we should not equate the Night’s Watch with King Arthur’s court. Nevertheless, the Night’s Watch at Castle Black constitutes a sworn brotherhood of men who dedicate their lives at the Wall to the protection of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Up to a certain degree, the Night’s Watch bears resemblance to medieval military (religious) orders like the Knights Templar.

At the Wall, Jon first despises the other boys or young men with whom he practices fighting. He thinks that he is better than his fellow trainees. Consequently, he makes no friends, while the master-at-arms, Ser Alliser Thorne, mocks Jon by calling him “Lord Snow” (GT, 177). Because Benjen Stark refuses to allow Jon to accompany him on a ranging, Jon’s anger increases, even though his behaviour eventually changes.

He befriends most of the other trainees, finds in Lord Commander Mormont and Maester Aemon mentor figures and matures into a leader. Jon even rises to the position of Lord Commander. Prior to his development, his aloof, distant, arrogant, aggressive and strange attitude indicates his inexperience, lack of knowledge and – at least in the beginning – immaturity. Considering this, we are reminded of  the following well-known statement: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

John Snow2
Jon Snow (Kit Harington)

During the end of the second novel A Clash of Kings and the first part of A Storm of Swords or the second and third seasons of GoT Jon Snow is among the wildlings or the free folk beyond the Wall and begins a love affair with Ygritte, a wildling woman. She keeps on saying the words “[y]ou know nothing, Jon Snow[,]” in his presence (i.e. c. 17 times in A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow and a number of times in the TV-series).

Ygritte, on the one hand, uses these words to tease him. On the other hand, she arguably wants to make him aware that he is not familiar with the history, situation, customs and conditions beyond the Wall. A case in point is their short conversation immediately after a group of wildlings sings the song The Last of the Giants:

“There were tears on Ygritte’s cheeks when the song ended.

“Why are you weeping?” Jon asked. “It was only a song. There are hundreds of giants, I’ve just seen them.” – “Oh, hundreds,” she said furiously. “You know nothing, John Snow. You – JON!”” (SoS; here A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow213).

Her often-repeated line entails some possibilities for interpretation.

It not only refers to Jon’s lack of knowledge of the area far north but also allows for interpretive connections to his previous attitude and inexperience concerning particular issues as well as to Perceval’s behaviour. On his journey Perceval really acts like an inexperienced or dumb idiot who knows nothing about knighthood.

Admittedly, contrary to Perceval, Jon – even before his development – does not present himself like an uneducated fool. That said, additional blog posts will discuss the symbolism of the combination of different colours.

Note: In this context, there is no point in discussing whether Melisandre, the red woman, can be compared to Cundrîe, the messenger of the grail. It is also beyond the scope of this blog post whether Ygritte (or, later, Daenerys Targaryen) has any similarities to Perceval’s beloved Blancheflor (or Condwiramurs).

Sources

Bumke, Joachim. Wolfram von Eschenbach. 7th ed. Stuttgart, Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 1997.

Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Trans. Burton Ruffel. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Freese, Peter. “Parzival als Baseballstar: Bernard Malamuds The Natural.” Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien 13 (1968): 143-157.

Game of Thrones: Die komplette erste Staffel. DVDs. HBO, 2012. -> The blog post also refers to the other seasons of GoT.

Game of Thrones: Die komplette dritte Staffel. DVDs. HBO, 2014.

Johnson, Sidney M. “Wolfram von Eschenbach.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. 1996. 

Lacy, Norris J. Ed. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. New York, London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996. 

Lacy, Norris J. “Chrétien de Troyes.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. 1996. 

Lacy, Norris J. “Perceval.” The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Updated paperback ed. 1996. 

Larrington, Carolyne. Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016.  

Loomis, Sherman Roger. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Renewed ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.   

Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. (1996) -> The blog post also refers to the other novel of ASOIAF.

Martin, George R.R. A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow. London: Harper Voyager, 2011.

Martin, George R.R. Westeros: Die Welt von Eis und Feuer: Game of Thrones. Trans. Andreas Helweg. 5th ed. Munich: Penhaligon, 2015.

Pavlac, Brian A. “Introduction.” Game of Thrones versus History: Written in Blood. Ed. Brian A. Pavlac. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017. 1-15.

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: Band 1: Mittelhochdeutsch / Neuhochdeutsch. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981.

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: Band 2: Mittelhochdeutsch / Neuhochdeutsch. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981.

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival. Illus. Dieter Asmus. Trans. Peter Knecht. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2011.