A leafy branch came out of nowhere and hit Anthropos in the side of the head. “Who threw that?” said Anthropos, whose everyday name was Child of Man. But no one answered. Child of Man looked up at the sky and saw only light and a few distant birds. And Child grew angry. It was Air that had hit Child, Air that aimed the branch.
To get back at Air, Child built a great fire and when it was roaring, covered it with more leaves. Smoke billowed out; Air turned black. Child started coughing and before long Child had to run away from the dark cloud. But the cloud followed.
Pretty soon it began to get hot under the cloud. Child had the idea of driving Air away. Air was so big it would take a big force to make it move, so Child went to a nearby mountain and started cutting down trees. Child cut a whole forest and lashed the timbers together with vines to make a tower. Child placed a fan made out of branches at the top of the tower and harnessed a river to make it move. Behind the tower was a glacier: the fan would draw cold from the ice to make Child more comfortable.
It all worked: the running river turned the fan, the fan brought a stream of cool from the ice, and the cloud was pushed away to someone else’s country. But the forest was gone and that made the river dry up. The ice had already started to melt because of the smoky cloud, and now the fan evaporated the melt-water. Child thought Air had gone away, but Air was still there, invisible without its load of smoke. “I have beaten Air,” said Child. “Air is nothing.”
Far from the tower, Air was gathering strength. And when Child was looking the other way, Air brought a great wind to the mountainside. The tower swayed and fell, the fan smashed to pieces, and with a great gust Air knocked Child face-down on the ground.
The term “Anthropocene” summarizes the idea that the earth has been irrevocably altered, for the worse, by human activity. We live amid human-caused climate change, desertification, mountains of trash, and mass extinctions, and so it seems like the height of folly to go on telling stories about ambitions, love affairs, and financial scandals as if those purely social concerns were unaffected by, and had no effect on, the natural world. As Ursula K. Le Guin (1989a) said many years ago, realism can’t do the job any more: it is “the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence” (53). Yet what kind of literature can really encompass the sense that the world community includes more than just our species, and that we have done and are doing this community great injustice? Some poetry perhaps, and the kind of nature writing that bridges the gap between science and art. Political rhetoric, when it rises to rare greatness. An obvious answer is science fiction, which employs extrapolation and utopian critique to wake us to the devastation in which we are complicit and encourages us to imagine other ways to live and organize ourselves. But fantasy? Isn’t that just escapist nostalgia and game-playing nonsense? How can a bunch of imaginary quests and wish-fulfillments tell us anything about the real environment or the economic and social systems that threaten it?
One way to address this question is to go back to the beginning. No one seems to agree on exactly when we entered the Anthropocene era, but I suggest a starting point that also coincides with the birth of written literature, the moment when oral storytelling, which is as old as humanity itself, gave birth to its less perishable twin and rival. The epic of Gilgamesh is often called the oldest story in the world, but really it is just the oldest long story committed to writing, with partial versions dating back more than 4,000 years. It is full of elements that seem fantastic to us—monsters, gods, transformations—and that were probably always seen as outside of everyday, secular reality. It’s a mistake to extend the realism/fantasy divide back too far in time, but that distinction—between the everyday and the extraordinary—usually works. One of the story’s key episodes concerns the hero Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu entering a great forest of cedars to challenge its guardian, the monster Humbaba. Why? Because with its defender dead, the cedar forest can be invaded and exploited. The greatest of its trees is cut down to make a gate for Gilgamesh’s city. The story treats this as a triumph, the moment when Gilgamesh, who begins as a tyrant, truly becomes a leader.
It is also a moment that sets the pattern for much fantasy, which traces the paternal side of its ancestry (on the distaff side are fairy tale and ballad) to epics like Gilgamesh’s. A hero requires a quest, and the ur-quest is a journey into the wilderness to confront a primordial, chthonic monster like Humbaba. In other words, the hero narrative is about imposing oneself
on the landscape, turning a complex environment into mere backdrop for a larger-than-life human figure. By becoming a hero Gilgamesh makes everyone around him into antagonists or helpers, spear-carriers or love-objects: only one hero to a story.
Gilgamesh’s story is the story of civilization, quite literally: of the ascent of the civitas, or city-state, at the expense of the wild world outside the city walls. The city redefines wilderness as enemy, just as the Hero remakes the defender of the wilderness into a monster. As Le Guin (1989b) points out in another essay:
Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is Other—outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women and the wilderness, to be used as I see fit.
However, in Le Guin’s own fiction, including her fantasy as well as her science fiction, woman answers, “Hold on! Not so fast.” There are other stories—have always been other stories. There is no monomyth, Joseph Campbell notwithstanding, as Alan Dundes (2005) and others have pointed out.
One reason there are multiple stories is that we don’t all live in the same world, or the same epoch of the world. For some, like Gilgamesh’s people, the Anthropocene began (or began to begin) thousands of years ago. For others, such as the Barasana people of the Amazon, it has not yet happened: they still live in a world dominated by nature or God. For them, people are locked in a struggle for survival against powerful inhuman forces like hunger and disease and predators that walk on four legs instead of two. In such a world, only divine will can prevail against hostile nature. Actual wilderness is rare these days, but a lot of folk still see the world in such terms even if they themselves never tremble at the howling of wolves or the growling of tigers.
The Anthropocene, like any term for a period of history, covers not the entirety of experience at that time but whatever the majority perceives about it. Raymond Williams (1977) has a good way of sorting this out. There are at least three ways of living in any given historical moment.1
The most evident is whatever is culturally dominant; the generalized spirit of the age; the mainstream. But if we are talking mainstreams, the same river has eddies and backwaters and cascades. Some groups will always hold onto beliefs, customs, entertainments from an earlier era. Williams identifies this as the residual
part of culture. Others will rush ahead, riding the faster water at the outside of the river bend. They are already moving into the next era. Williams terms that kind of culture emergent
. Residual and emergent cultures, says Williams, “are significant both in themselves and in what they reveal of the characteristics of the ‘dominant’” (122). Of course, at any given time, it is impossible to tell whether a particular cultural phenomenon is going to prove itself to be emergent or merely eccentric: “Oh that crazy Gilgamesh and his wild ideas about subduing the earth. That’ll never catch on!”
The cluster of beliefs, practices, and attitudes that constitutes the Anthropocene is now dominant worldwide, but it is unclear how long that has been the case. As mentioned before, starting dates for the epoch vary wildly, with common guesses ranging from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to, essentially, yesterday. Other designations for our moment imply other starting points; for instance, if we term this not the Anthropocene but the Plasticene
(Ross 2018), we can date it from the time plastics began to form a significant portion of sediment that will eventually show up in layers of rock. But the exact date doesn’t matter: we’re here now, whether we want to be or not, and we need stories to tell us how we got here, where we are going, and how to live in the human-created world.
Many fantasies represent a shift from one configuration of the cosmos to a fundamentally different one. Gilgamesh is an example: by the end the gods have withdrawn, immortality has been grasped and then lost, and the king has learned to be responsible to his people. In the realm of modern fantasy, The Lord of the Rings depicts one of those great cosmic precessions, a realignment of heaven and earth. In the novel’s third volume, The Return of the King (1965), J. R. R. Tolkien identifies the shift as the end of the Third Age: “The Days of the Rings were passed, and an end was come of the story and song of those times. With them went many Elves of the High Kindred who would no longer stay in Middle-earth” (309). The reconfiguration involves losses both epic and personal:
To Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart.
The Appendixes at the end of The Return of the King make it explicit: the Fourth Age of Middle-earth belongs to men and their smaller kin, Hobbits. Leaders will be human, and so will their adversaries: in place of dragons and balrogs, people of good will must confront human tyrants and petty grifters like Sharkey, the former wizard Saruman. In the same volume, the chapter called “The Scouring of the Shire” can be read as a depiction of the coming Fourth Age—in miniature, as the Shire is a scale model of the world and Hobbits are humans seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Villainy in the Fourth Age is going to be accomplished through deception and demolition, rather than through enchantment. Heroism will likewise be stripped of magic and achieved without semi-divine mentors like Galadriel and Gandalf. Implied in the chapter is that a single scouring is not enough: other scoundrels will replace Sharkey and his crew, and other ordinary Hobbits will have to stand up to them as Merry and Pippin and Sam have done.
The Fourth Age is the Anthropocene, with all its ills forecast in the scene that greets the returning heroes in the Shire:
The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great waggons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.
(Tolkien 1965, 296)
We know this world. We live in it. We made it.
Much subsequent fantasy follows Tolkien’s lead in showing the end of magic and the implementation of a strictly human, which is to say Anthropocene, order of things. The trajectory
of these stories is summed up in the title of a story by Larry Niven: “The Magic Goes Away” (1976). Other examples of the pattern from around the same time include Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (1964–8) and Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series (1965–77), but the trope was already familiar from such earlier works as Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow
(1926) and Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill
(1906). These fantasies share the bittersweet quality of Tolkien’s ending, though few are as explicit about reconfiguring power and responsibility from a divine order to a purely human and perhaps self-dooming arrangement. These fantasies depict the structure of change into an Anthropocene order: humans take on power and responsibility but lose nonhuman guidance and grace. The world grows more uniform and thus less resilient. Mystery evaporates. We inscribe ourselves upon the land.
But to return to Williams’s ideas of the residual and emergent, other fantasies in the same period invoke world-models based not on an Anthropocene configuration but on states of the world either prior to or following upon it. C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books (1950–6) have an overall arc that runs counter to that of The Lord of the Rings even though they were written concurrently, by a close friend. Though the first couple of volumes bring humans to Narnia and give them increasing dominion over it, by the end the creator figure Aslan repossesses his creation and essentially smashes it to start over in a more perfect reboot, one that people can’t mess up. Lewis offers a similar model of history in the third volume of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1946), which ends with the planetary intelligences, the oyarses, descending to earth to reinstate an angelic order. The ascent of humankind has been halted; a residual viewpoint is represented structurally and thus validated.
But fantasy does not always speak for a residual, or even a dominant worldview. At the same time Lewis was publishing his Narnia books and Tolkien was polishing The Lord of the Rings, an American writer named Jack Vance began issuing a series of stories about the Dying Earth. The premise is that in an unimaginably far future, as the sun is burning out and the earth lies covered in rubble and ruins, magic has returned in the form of half-forgotten technology. A remnant population of humans must deal with magical hazards and bizarre creatures, some of which are our mutated cousins (Vance 1950).
This fictional set-up might seem more residual than emergent. Vance drew on earlier writers’ creations to invent the Dying Earth trope: it harkens back to tales by Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson, with imagery courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary and Percy Shelley, and H. G. Wells. In its influence on others, however, Vance’s creation soon began to seem less nostalgic than prescient, especially when the Dying Earth concept was taken up by authors such as Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, and Elizabeth Hand. As each of these writers in turn reinvented the end-of-the-world scenario, it became more explicitly an account of the end of human domination: what comes after the end of the world?
A recent version of the Dying Earth scenario is N. K. Jemisin’s multiple-award-winning Broken Earth trilogy. Jemisin’s work resonates strongly because it shows us where we might be headed, toward our own self-induced downfall. The world of the series, called the Stillness, is a geologic chaos and an ecological catastrophe. Near the beginning of the first volume, The Fifth Season (2015), this disastrous state is explained as the result of “Father Earth’s tireless efforts” (8). Father Earth seems at first to be a myth, a fictional Someone to blame for the periodic catastrophes that bring down every civilization humans try to esta...