March 22, 2013

Enjoying (and overthinking) Fantasy as a Jew

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 4:55 am by chavalah

medieval hero on screen The other week, I checked out this book from the university library with the intent of reading and summarizing the entire volume to fit with the thesis above. But as I continue reading, I get the feeling that I’m trying to fit a square peg into a round hole rather than write something organic. The fantasy I’m most thinking about (aka watching on tv) isn’t addressed in this book (though I did come across a disquieting article on conservative values in E.T. and the original Star Wars trilogy. :/ Anywho.)

My two fantasy obsessions of the moment are Once Upon a Time, which is winding down, and Game of Thrones, which premieres in a week and a half. Fantasy is often set in the Middle Ages—Game of Thrones is based on the War of the Roses and features a social strata that is similar to that era—and Once Upon a Time is largely based on fairytales, many originating in the Dark Ages as “cautionary” or “morality” folk stories about good behavior. As a Jew, I occasionally find my interest in this largely conservative, European Christian mindset a little disconcerting, which is why I picked up the book.

When it comes to the shows, however, I already have some theories. Firstly, all four major show runners are of Jewish ancestry, lol. David Benoiff and Dan Weiss of GoT even compared fan criticism of the show to scholars debating the Talmud (which doesn’t make me any less shy about picking apart what I don’t think works, guys. :P) Beyond religion, though, I tend to view both shows (and the ASOIAF books) as subverting the genre.

Game of Thrones supposedly subscribes to two rigid world views—the medieval one, where people are assigned to roles in society with an ironclad sense of duty; and the fantasy one, where generally the characters and plot are divvied into a magical hero’s journey and/or good guy/bad guy showdown. But author George R. R. Martin created a world of gray characters, many of whom shirk the duties put before them; and a world of war where human cost is emphasized over heraldic honor. My favorite character, Sansa, is seen by some as a stand in for the audience—like us, she believes whole heartedly in the romance of chivalric knights and goodly prince, good men who get their due and bad men who are punished; but she must learn to adapt when the fairytale turns out to be a bit muddier in real life.

Once Upon a Time keeps much of the fairytale backbone—there is good and evil, as exemplified through magic, in both the Enchanted Forest and Storybrooke. The difference comes when acts, not people, are labeled evil. The stories are fleshed out, too. In Snow White vs the Evil Queen, the conflict isn’t a murderous desire for vanity, but a grieving, vengeful woman who blames a girl for losing her true love. Everyone has a sympathetic backstory and everyone, if they work for it, can be redeemed, or at least take some steps on the path. Both series’ are dedicated to complex, relateable characters over a black and white, medievalist worldview. So in essence, I’m being an anti-medievalist, or at least a rebel with a cause. 😛

But speaking of real medievalists, I did stumble upon an interesting quote in The Book regarding J.R.R. Tolkien’s equating his fantastical Dwarves to the Jewish people. I’m not posting this for the sake of agreeing with it, but it’s a fascinating, linguistic look into how we (Ashkenazim only, most likely) were perceived by the Grandfather of Modern Fantasy.

Tolkien on more than one occasion compared the Dwarves to the Jews, “at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.” The Dwarvish language is therefore intended to be reminiscent of Hebrew in construction and sociolinguistic function. It is an ancient language, treasured but not much used as a common speech, spoken by a wandering people long ago expelled from their original home. (p. 32)

Granted, essayist David Salo may have put a few words in Tolkien’s mouth, but it does make me wonder that if The Hobbit were written, say, after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1949 with Hebrew as the national language, maybe the Dwarves would have turned out a little differently. 😛



  1. Silk said,

    “…all four major show runners are of Jewish ancestry.” Yeah you got 2 major shows, who are the other 2?

  2. Silk said,

    I mean what are the other 2 major show runners?

    • chavalah said,

      With the term “show runner” I was referring to the executive producers/creators, not the shows themselves. Each show has two–Eddie Kitsis and Adam Horowitz for “Once Upon a Time” and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for “Game of Thrones.”

  3. […] few years ago, I touched briefly on this blog about Jews and fantasy, but now I’m actively seeking it out. Also Jews in science fiction, after reading Phoebe North’s […]

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