Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Debasement

In Supernatural Fiction, debasement tends to occur – and is normally visible – as a consequence of a degrading bargain made by a human with the forces of Evil or of supernatural allure; it is something monstrous, and may well – as in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) – manifest itself in terms of deformity. In Horror, debasement tends to represent a defeat, a point when characters can no longer fight off the forces violating their integrity of being. For protagonists of a Fantasy tale, debasement is forgetting who you are (> Amnesia), and what your Story is.

Debasement occurs in innumerable ways, some particular to the fantasy genre: flouting of a Prohibition, refusing to recognize the Wrongness of a new Stepmother or ruler or Magus, succumbing to Spells or Metamorphosis or other forms of self-alienating Bondage.

Examples are easy to find. In Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) Fairy Fruit debases schoolgirls, who forget who they are and are subsequently sold as slaves. In J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), the Ring of power debases those who hold it, sucking their true nature dry, so that Frodo almost forgets who he is at the moment of climax; and the ring is destroyed only through the involuntary greed of Gollum, himself a debased relic of his former self. In Mercedes Lackey's By the Sword (1991), honourable warriors are magically transformed into killing machines; the Bard Eric, in Charles de Lint's The Little Country (1991), having been drugged out of his true self, becomes a sexual slave.

When both the true protagonist and a Parody or debased version of that protagonist are simultaneously present in a tale, that tale will normally represent a conflict for the Soul. In supernatural fiction, the Doppelgängers, Doubles, Ghosts and Shadows who dramatize that conflict normally represent the debased half of the whole person. In fantasy, they often stand for that which has been lost, remind the protagonists they are debased, and call upon them to become whole again.

In the Recognition scenes through which many fantasy tales climax, the shackles of debasement may dissolve and the metamorphosis be escaped (or finally take place). In Peter S Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968), that climax occurs on the beach near King Haggard's castle, where Molly Grue, viewing the scene, thinks the estranged protagonists resemble nothing more than painted playthings. But the moment passes, the cloak of self-alienation lifts, the characters become themselves again, and a world which has suffered Thinning and debasement shows immediate signs of Spring. [JC]

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.