Past vs. Present: Some Thoughts
In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn observes the prime position that past knowledge holds in much portal–quest fantasy. The past, in general, is the source of true knowledge; ”‘knowledge'”, in Medlesohn’s words, ”is to be rediscovered rather than generated” (16). History is a process of forgetting, of losing knowledge. Whether in Tolkien, Donaldson, Jordan, Goodkind, or any other of a vast number of typical quest fantasies, knowledge has been lost in the mists of time.
While reading a book in Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series the other day, however, it struck me that although the past (and the archives) may well be the standard repositories of knowledge, various works seem to have different attitudes to past and present. To Tolkien, the past is certainly ”the good old days”, a time to be restored and kept alive, a way of life to pe preserved, and any move foreward is for the worse. Goodkind seems to suggest that all trouble is caused by something of or in the past, and although the past may equally hold the key to defeating the problems, that defeat is effected through new applications of something old – a modern application of ancient knowledge.
In fact, what portal–quest fantasies seems to have in common is not a valorisation of the past but a portrayal of how the past holds relevance for today. The conflict is once of past against present but each ”team” has a number of supporters. Portal fantasies, with their heroes usually recruited from our world, often use the modern knowledge of the heroes to defeat past problems. Not always, however: muggle-raised Harry and Hermione have very little use for their ”modern” muggle knowledge and have to rely mostly on what they have learnt about the wizarding world. The children in Narnia have little use for what they have learnt in our world to defeat the various threats there (in fact, Eustace’s knowledge is a liability to him). Nor are the indigenous heroe Richard Rahl conservative; instead, he experiments with new ways to handle the old problems.
Portal–quest fantasies portray the battle between past and present, and the constant searching for old knowledge is sometimes a search for old solutions, but sometimes it is a question of knowing thy enemy. But they do show us that the past will always affect the present, and suggests that past evils will not stay buried for ever. There is always a monster at the bottom of the time abyss!