Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

We use the word in the sense of "fad or crotchet". Fantasy is often characterized by the persistence of outmoded notions as authors unthinkingly echo earlier texts. Some of these notions are dead science, others outmoded cultural assumptions. Individual authors can display personal maggots – their idées fixes.

Racism (of the pseudoscientific variety founded in Scholarly Fantasy) and the closely linked notion of Atavism are two such, surviving as concepts in popular fiction, including fantasy, long after they had been discredited as science. Robert E Howard, for example, takes for granted an incoherent set of ideas about the intrinsic superiority of whites. Ideas about innate racial talents and the specifics of prehistoric folk-wanderings inform much of Howard's Heroic Fantasy, often mixed up with the racial and geographical speculations of Theosophy; Howard's imitators have not always avoided echoing all this. It is noticeable that in the fantastic Cinema there are remarkably few black Heroes and Heroines; this trend is far more pronounced than in mainstream cinema, and would seem to reflect the written form: the Fantasylands of Genre Fantasy are almost exclusively populated by whites, except for the occasional Villain. That said, there has in recent years been a backlash in written fantasy, possibly begun by Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea series – with its Aryan-style villains and Polynesian-style good guys – so black (or yellow or brown) heroes and heroines have become more prevalent; this may soon permeate into the movies (>>> Colour-Coding). Even so, James Herbert's recent Horror novel Portent (1992), where sweaty black villains vie with nice white heroes, though excoriated by some critics, raised almost as few ripples among readers as similar racial stereotyping decades earlier in the novels of Dennis Wheatley. The Herbert example is interesting in that there is no suggestion at all of him being personally racist (quite the opposite): the maggot was perpetrated unconsciously.

It is specifically and consistently argued in the work of H P Lovecraft that it is precisely the degenerate state of modern Western humanity – as embodied in modernism and jazz and the criminal physiognomies of slum dwellers – which has left the world vulnerable to incursions by the Elder Gods. Lovecraft's ideas about class and race, and his fears of Sex, thoroughly imbue the Cthulhu Mythos; it is usually possible to tell in his work the nonhuman or partly human infiltrating humanity by their possession of various stigmata of physical degeneracy derived from Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909) or from various advocates of racism. Too many of those who have adopted the mythos as a sort of Shared World have failed to consider the origins of some of these ideas and their ultimate consequences in the real world. Lombroso's ideas are still actively used by Comics artists, who generally convey villainy through facial appearance.

In both Howard and Lovecraft, and generally in the work of Lost-Race writers like A Merritt, we find the complex of ideas about primordial civilizations and Lost Lands popularized by Theosophy and by a variety of other cults. These often reflect the crudest – and largely discredited – form of archaeology's diffusionist hypothesis, whereby inventions are made once and once only and then are transmitted by the enlightened to the lesser breeds. Many lost-race novels have an intrinsically racist subtext, since the lost race usually has as its neighbours and nemeses crude caricatures of actual tribal peoples. The Tarzan Movies are very often guilty of this.

Various sexist stereotypes are informed by the discredited scientific orthodoxy of the late 19th century – the idea that women could cultivate intellect or physical prowess only at the expense of sexuality: the lovely heroine always twists an ankle when running away.

Less harmfully, various Urban Legends and discredited ideas – the idea that a dead person's eyes photograph the last thing they see, for example – were treated in all seriousness in earlier fiction and have to be regarded as maggots when they recur non-ironically. Various contemporary ideas – the complex around survivalism, Social Darwinist libertarianism, and belief in genetically programmed human aggressiveness is a case in point – are already discernible as maggots in the making. [RK]

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.