May 26, 2013

Lord of the Rings and other Fantasy as Post-Apocalyptic Tales

[A Guestpost by Larry Kollar / Image by JohnnySlowHand]

(Disclaimer: as a writer, I do understand that “apocalypse” is actually a revelation, but for this article I will adopt its common meaning of an all-encompassing disaster.)

Many classic fantasy tales have a post-apocalyptic element. Of course, as for most Western-based fantasy tropes, Tolkien is the standard-setter. (Tolkien’s ages of Middle-Earth parallel Greek mythology, which named the four Ages of Man: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. I’m guessing, given his background, that this was deliberate.) The backdrop for Lord of the Rings includes two former ages, each ended by their own apocalypse. The end of the First (Golden) Age, when Morgoth was defeated, was accompanied by great destruction—it was said the lands were broken, and Beleriand began to sink into the sea. The Second (Silver) Age ended with Númenor sinking into the sea, and the formerly flat world being made round.

But there are sudden disasters and slow declines, and Tolkien wove both into Middle-Earth history. During the Third (Bronze) Age, Men and Elves joined forces to defeat Sauron, achieving a Pyrrhic victory. From the end of the war, to the end of the Third Age, Middle-Earth saw a gradual and general decline. Gondor was diminished over the ensuing centuries, losing its King and population. (In this time, the old folks were right when they said things used to be better.) Elves also declined in population, as many opted to withdraw from the affairs of Middle-Earth and seek the peace of the Undying Lands. Worse, Sauron’s ring was not destroyed, and then was lost… and that led to the events depicted in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

In homage to Tolkien, many fantasy worlds often include an apocalypse as an echo from a distant past. The dark age that followed is ending or ended, and at least some recovery has taken place—all the better to set up the primary conflict, by threatening what has been regained. Such conflict is a staple of epic fantasy: a looming disaster, often unfinished business from the ancient past, sets the main characters on their quest to save the world.

My own post-apocalyptic writing, both paranormal and fantasy, pits humanity against an enemy more implacable than Sauron or even Morgoth: nature itself. In my own fantasy world of Termag, a pandemic calamity known only as The Madness destroyed Camac That Was. In the ensuing four centuries, known as the Lost Years, the remnants of the empire attempted to save what was left, or at least re-establish order. The ensuing Age of Heroes established a new civilization, or set of civilizations, with some vestiges of the old order. While my Accidental Sorcerers series takes place after the Age of Heroes, my novella The Crossover is set near the end of the Age of Heroes, and is free at Amazon and other eBook outlets at least for a while longer.

I’m sure that most people consider “post-apocalyptic” stories to be those set immediately after the apocalypse in question, but the word “after” doesn’t specify a timeframe. Still, it might be interesting to read (or write) a fantasy story that happens just after an apocalypse. I’ll have to explore The Lost Years some time…

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