[GUEST POST] Katherine Addison (Author of THE GOBLIN EMPEROR) on Breaking Down the Walls of Fantasy


Katherine Addison‘s short fiction has been selected by The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her new novel, The Goblin Emperor, was just published by Tor. She lives near Madison, Wisconsin.

Tolkien, Orcs, Elves and Goblins

by Katherine Addison

I write a lot of different things, but one of my first and deepest loves is the genre that sometimes gets called “epic fantasy” or “secondary-world fantasy”: stories that take place entirely in imaginary worlds. Unsurprisingly, I came to Tolkien early, I loved–and love–him deeply, and he is undeniably one of a handful of very profound influences on my writing. (Tolkien, Wolfe, and Kushner are the three fantasy writers I most want to be able to write like, which probably explains a great many things about my books.) I love the world he invented, and I strive in my own writing to give the same sense of depth that he does, the same intense sense of history. And if I could write travel narrative as well as he does…well…that would be shiny.

But at the same time, and without diminishing my respect for him one bit, I find Tolkien frustrating for his tendency to drift toward allegory, the way his elves are demi-angels and his orcs are demi-demons. I understand the idea behind it, the reason Tolkien made the choices he did, and certainly no one can match Tolkien for creating a palpable sense of evil. But I like his orcs more than I think I’m supposed to and I always, uselessly, want them to have a chance to be something other than Sauron’s minions.

Or, you know, not so uselessly.

The initial impulse behind The Goblin Emperor was to put elves and airships in the same story. Because, seriously, there’s no point in being a fantasy writer if you can’t say to hell with it and knock down some walls. But it wasn’t very long before that old frustration with Tolkien crept in, and I started thinking about ways to write elves and goblins that wouldn’t follow Tolkien’s pattern–or the D&D pattern, which is mostly Tolkien without the allegory.

And at the same time, I was thinking about the other version of elves, the Fair Folk: the Seelie Court and its dark reflection, the Unseelie Court. “Untheileneise” is what happened after I tinkered with “unseelie” long enough, and while obviously these aren’t the kind of elves who lure humans under the hill for seven years or leave withered changelings in kidnapped babies’ cradles, the idea of the elvish court as a place of labyrinthine danger was an important part of putting the world of the novel together. And it’s probably worth noting that readers should be thinking of Froud elves, not Cate Blanchett and Orlando Bloom.

And then there were the goblins. It was kind of exciting not to think of them as evil, not to see the Uruk-Hai behind them at every turn, although they did still turn out to be very warlike. And the goblin ruler, the Great Avar, is the Great Goblin from The Hobbit, dramatically reconstructed but still recognizable. (I imprinted hard on John Stephenson as the Great Goblin in the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, so that’s not actually much of a surprise.) But at the same time, they aren’t parodies of the elves; the relationship between the two peoples is complicated and contentious with a long history of mistakes and morally dubious decisions on both sides.

It’s very limiting to divide people into “good” and “evil” (not to mention being a false binary that causes all sorts of trouble in the real world, thank you very much), and dressing them up as aliens or orcs doesn’t change that. One of the brilliant things about fantasy as a genre is that it means you don’t have to put up with limitations. You don’t have to do something just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Elves can have airships. Goblins can be sailors. And nobody has to be evil just because they were made that way.

One thought on “[GUEST POST] Katherine Addison (Author of THE GOBLIN EMPEROR) on Breaking Down the Walls of Fantasy”

  1. Thanks, Sarah!

    I am reminded, perversely, of the computer game Warlock. You play a wizard seeking mastery of the world, by building cities themed around various races. It’s rather amusing to see Goblins declare (“best Goblin archers…in the world!” when you click on a sharpshooter stack to attack.

    And yes, the way the crazy game works, you can have your goblins, and your elves and your humans marching next to each other to conquer the world together, as God intended. No race is automatically “Evil” OR “Good”.

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