Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Thinning

Fantasy tales can be described, in part, as fables of recovery. What is being regained may be (a) the primal Story that the surface tale struggles to rearticulate, (b) the True Name, or home, of the protagonist, (c) the health of the Land (>>> Fisher King) through a process of Healing, or indeed (d) the actual location of the land itself (> Arcadia; Otherworld; Polder; Time Abyss). But, although it is true most fantasy stories finish – and tend to end in a Eucatastrophe – it is also true that the happy endings of much fantasy derive from the notion that this is a restoration, that before the written story started there was a diminishment.

Even in High Fantasy – which tends to be ringfenced from time's arrow – the Secondary World is almost constantly under some threat of lessening, a threat frequently accompanied by mourning (> Et in Arcadia Ego) and/or a sense of Wrongness. In the structurally complete fantasy, thinning can be seen as a reduction of the healthy Land to a Parody of itself, and the thinning agent – ultimately, in most instances, the Dark Lord – can be seen as inflicting this damage upon the land out of envy.

The passing away of a higher and more intense Reality provides a constant leitmotif in the immensely detailed mythology created by J R R Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) comes at the end of aeons of slow loss. Within the global thinning manifested by the text throughout, local thinnings occur, examples including the realization that the elves are leaving Middle Earth for ever, or the return of Frodo to the Shire to find it has been thinned into a secular Waste Land. Probably the best known and certainly the most telling evocation of the central drift of the tale, keeping in mind the underlying reason for his awareness that at the heart of his being he has become impoverished, comes when Bilbo Baggins tells Gandalf why he has decided to pass his stolen Ring on to Frodo and disappear from the Shire: "Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread." Similarly, in The Farthest Shore (1972) by Ursula K Le Guin the exhaustion of the wells of Magic movingly confesses the thinning of an edenic secondary world (nor does Earthsea ever fully recover from the haemorrhage inflicted by the Dark Lord from the Underworld of the dead).

When the fantasy tale is not ringfenced beyond a Threshold difficult to pass, or beyond time, or within the autonomy of a secondary world or Land, then thinning becomes more than a leitmotif: it becomes an explicit and central concern. In Low Fantasy, Crosshatch fantasy, etc., rarely does the world provide venues unthreatened by one or more of a huge range of diminishings or dismissals of the old order: through the desiccations of the secular and of technology; through the draining of Magic from the energy pools of creation; through the coming of Death into a world hitherto prelapsarian; through the crushing advent of Homo sapiens, which exterminates the old fauna and drives the inhabitants of Faerie into Wainscots or into Pariah-Elite roles; through the triumph of Christianity, which criminalizes worship of, e.g., the Goddess; through the increase of entropy, which ages the world. Thinning is a sign of a loss of attention to the stories whose outcomes might save the heroes and the folk; it is a representation of the Bondage of the mortally real.

It would be rash to claim that any fantasy set in the real world must engage with thinning – indeed, tales dealing with the contemporary world, like Sean Stewart's Resurrection Man (1995), may well present a recongestion of Reality – but fantasies set in history almost invariably deal with the loss of the old richness. Lisa Goldstein's Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993) is entirely typical: "A great change is coming," prophesies a Fairy in conclave: "This world and all we have known will pass away. Trees and stone, wind and rain, will be as naught. It will be a world of artifice, of vast gears interlocking in one enormous mechanism." Goldstein's fairy speaks for almost every character in every historical fantasy written in the 20th century.

In Alternate-World or Multiverse stories, which often involve Time Travel, the weakening of the fabric of probability – which is generally a consequence of any tampering with Time – can also be described as a process of thinning. When this process is treated with a dancer's disdain – as in the Temporal-Adventuress tales of Michael Moorcock and later UK writers – then the resulting story will, perhaps unwittingly, embody elements of consolation.

There are so many examples of thinning in fantasies set wholly or partially in the real world that it is perhaps unnecessary to mention any further examples. But some do stand out. The work of Thomas Burnett Swann – almost all of whose novels deal with Christianity's slow elimination of a world crammed with pagan and supernatural beings – should be noted, if only for the violence of its lamenting; Swann's work constitutes a late-20th-century version of the sentimentalized Pan-worship engaged upon by the many Edwardian fantasists – including J M Barrie, E M Forster, Kenneth Grahame, Arthur Machen, Barry Pain and Saki – who bemoaned the loss of childhood and the rise of suburbia. Many of the stories of Clifford D Simak – an exemplar being "The Autumn Land" (1971) – treat the interface between the deracinating modern world and his favoured Pastoral alternative in terms of patterns of thinning. A harsher and more complex rendering of similar material informs Peter Vansittart's The Death of Robin Hood (1981), which carries the eponymous Mythago figure from the Middle Ages to Nazi Germany. Esther M Friesner's Yesterday We Saw Mermaids (1992) treats similar material from a perspective even later than Swann's. The type of Rationalized Fantasy created for Unknown almost invariably posits a "scientific" model for the workings of magic, which is therefore subjected to a constant threat of being drained; the fantasy tales of Larry Niven – in The Magic Goes Away (1978) and others – provide perhaps the clearest workings-out of the implications of treating magic as drainable. This model has been accepted very widely, certainly in Genre Fantasies featuring wizards who exhaust themselves casting Spells; more movingly, it can serve to represent the coming of age of hero and land in an extended paean like T H White's The Once and Future King (1958) or its lighter-toned successor, the Chronicles of Prydain sequence (1964-1968) by Lloyd Alexander.

Thinning may be kept at bay, generally by dyking it: physically through a polder of some sort, within which a toughened reality can be maintained through constant vigilance; promissorily through knowledge that somewhere a Sleeper Under the Hill awaits the call to restore to the world the savour 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.