Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Bondage

A term of central importance to the understanding of the nature of Story in the literatures of Fantasy when used to describe not (as in general parlance) an act of tying up but a state of being contained or trapped in a particular place, time, physical shape or moral condition. At first glance, a definition so broad might be assumed to apply not only to fantasy but to all narrative art. In almost any tale, for something to happen there must be something to happen against. There must be a given state or problem, an inertia, a resistance; and there must be some sort of process of change which acts upon that condition. The resistance could be called bondage; the process of change could be called Story.

In fantasy, however, this statement about the nature of story is true in ways which make the term "bondage" peculiarly appropriate. In mimetic tales the constraints against which stories are acted out may be no more (or less) than the author's understanding and presentation of the world as it is given, the world understood as a mortal coil. But in a fantasy the nature of the world is not a given. Even if most Genre Fantasies show little sign that their authors have made much creative use of this fact, it is still true that, in fantasy, the world – and the means within the story by which that world can be made to work and change – have at least theoretically been chosen. The consequence is a heightening of all the elements which in a mundane story would be understood as part of the consensual background. (This can also be seen as a demarcation between the full fantasy and the Fantasyland fantasy, because Fantasyland is likewise a consensual background whose details do not need to be spelled out: a wizard is a wizard is a wizard.) Humans die of old age in a mundane world; in a world of fantasy they die because, perhaps, the author has chosen not to give them Immortality. A storm in mundane London may be no more than weather; a pea-soup fog which derails a Quest in a Gaslight Romance set in London is almost certainly meaningful (and may well be an actual agent in the tale). In fantasy, in other words, death and weather (and all sorts of other things) are not necessarily just part of the daily world; they may be forms of bondage.

In fantasy, then, death and weather – to stick with these examples – are peculiarly subject to interrogation and challenge. When they are easily defeated, a fantasy tale may be open to the (frequent) accusation that it is mere Escapism. But when the world itself, or all the dramatic forms of bondage that can be found in fantasy, cannot glibly be transcended, then the "escape from prison" (as J R R Tolkien regarded escapism in fantasy) can be understood as one of the movements of Story that we, as readers, respond to most deeply and most legitimately. Fantasy – more clearly than other forms of literature – seems well designed to satisfy this inherent human need for tales of escape (> Fantasy; Metamorphosis; Recognition; Story).

There are reasons. Fantasy, as noted, tends to address bondage directly. And, because fantasy is a story-telling genre, it tends to treat bondage as a condition to escape from – what could be less story-like than a state of immobility, whatever its cause? Bondage is stasis. Stories move. They tell bondage away. The fully structured fantasy is a tale of escape. (Contrariwise, the triumph of bondage in fantasy is likely to be announced precisely through stories which do not end: the Arabian Nightmare, in which nests of stories almost invariably fail to reach a conclusion, has as its main theme the deepening of bondage; and any Posthumous Fantasy – like Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (1967) or Gene Wolfe's Peace (1975) – whose protagonists fail to integrate their past lives will tend to convey that deepening of bondage through stories that stop before they end.)

Bondage/escape is such a pervasive pattern in fantasy that examples could be provided indefinitely. Almost any tale of Metamorphosis, for instance, normally involves either an initial escape from the immobility of bondage (Ariel liberated from the cloven pine in William Shakespeare's The Tempest [performed circa 1611; 1623]) or an entry into it (Lucius's Transformation into an Ass in Apuleius's The Golden Ass [circa 165]), though only very rarely will the condition be permanent – significantly, Lucius's bondage in The Golden Ass is told in a kind of elaborated Frame Story; and much of the novel is taken up with stories which are told to completion in his hearing.

Doubles are in bondage to one another. Mirrors transfix. Almost any fantasy Quest can be understood to have liberation from bondage as its ultimate goal. Bondage may be personal (the protagonist may be bound into Amnesia, may be under a Spell which s/he must decipher, may be an Ugly Duckling in search of a true role, may be a Puppet or some other form of constricted being who longs to be a Real Boy, etc.) or it may be larger in scale (the Land may have lost its communal memory, Magic may have disappeared to leave the world rigid and sere [> Thinning], the monarch of the land may have become a Fisher King, a Dark Lord may have desiccated the land through the bondage of his Parody of just rule, etc.).

Indeed, the quest itself can be thought of a bondage to be transcended. In Nancy Kress's The Prince of Morning Bells (1981) the quest is defined – through a succession of terms which could apply to all forms of fantasy bondage – as a form of "gyve" or shackle, which locks Heroes and Heroines into "Enchantment. Cloistering. Caesurea. Captivity. Arrestment. Often accompanied by bewitchment. You can't walk away from that. It holds you immobile. You turn into something you're not." [JC]

see also: Accursed Wanderer; Obsessed Seeker.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.