Janet Morris Discusses Heroic Fantasy, GOT, and More

Your upcoming presentation at the Library of Congress is titled “Social Reconstruction through Heroic Fiction.” What is advantageous about heroic fiction in pursuit of this goal as opposed to writing in other genres?

Heroic fiction is one of the earliest forms of fiction known to humanity. Broadly referred to as myth, heroic fiction allowed our ancestors to transmit values important to culture from one generation to the next while telling a memorable story. From the earliest stories of Gilgamesh and the Flood, heroic behavior has been taught through story, including self-sacrifice, the concept of putting oneself in service to an ideal, and the value of honor, ethos, and personal struggle. Writing heroic fiction allows the modern writer to tap into the timeless energy provided by ideas of heroism, courage, and moral struggle, showing how these matter to us today. And these ideals do matter, in a time where other genres laud anti-heroes and chicanery and the supremacy of gadgetry and those who triumph through being the worst they can be. In a market where fiction editors tell writers they must put blood on every page, the writer of mythic or heroic fiction may still do that, but the battle fought will be a battle on many levels and the hero will suffer pangs of conscience and make ethical decisions as a role model; without the transmission of these values, any society is doomed by its own excesses.

Although the works of Homer are canonical, modern science-fiction and fantasy is sometimes considered “unworthy” of advanced study. What are your thoughts on supposedly educated people maintaining a dismissive attitude of entire genres? 

Great mythic storytellers are never classed with “genre” writers: From Homer and Hesiod and Virgil, through Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton; including Mary Shelley, Kipling, Melville, and C.S. Lewis, to the best writers of our day, if the work has literary merit it is never classed as fantasy, or science fiction, or horror: if it is “good” it is called literature. So many of the formative works of heroic fiction are never labeled as what they are – but still read, still taught, still enjoyed, because good stories are timeless, and a good story is always one that teaches us something about the human condition and our own selves.

Do you think that the popularity of “Game of Thrones” is hurtful or helpful to the reputation of Heroic Fantasy as a genre? 

Game of Thrones is a series, to my mind, which is firmly based in anti-heroism, the situational ethics of the late 20th century, and purposely so. Its characters have no moral compass beyond their allegiance to their family or even personal ambition; no higher cause; no gods or ethos drives them. So, although it is not the violence or sex that makes me say The Game of Thrones is not heroic fiction and can never be so defined, I say it because GOT sneers at the shared ethos of humanity, often called the “monomyth” because so many cultures share its tenets, and those characters which thrive do so not out ethical superiority, but unmitigated appetites, cunning and viciousness.

Speaking of GOT, there was recently a social outcry when a rape was depicted on the show. However, in previous shows a man had his genitals mutilated and there was no social outcry. As a male, I thought this social response was highly hypocritical. Can you offer us a perspective on this inconsistent social response? 

The lack of concern about the castration of an anti-hero on a show full of graphic violence surprised me; the sudden concern about one rape out of many, which rape happened to be by a male of a female, also surprised me, but women have organized to impose a political correctness that they believe is important; this thirst for correctness is fine in politics, but dangerous ground when politics dictates what artists may do or say. Despite all attempts to rewrite history, reality remains in full force. Men are aggressive; women are territorial; genetics predetermines this and no amount of political pressure can do more than create a fantastical fa├žade over reality, which helps no one if understanding one another is our goal. Penetration has, since ancient times, been dominance behavior on the planet Earth: as often as not, men as well as women were penetrated by their conquerors. The term “sack and pillage” was socially modified from the earlier and more direct “rape and pillage” but the two terms denote the same behaviors. Rape of females now, in the 21st century, is a political issue; and this series which in every episode has the most flagrant abuse of people by other people, hit a sore spot in this particular episode. Not, interestingly enough, because of the treatment of children, which it might have, but in a particular rape of a woman whose own behavior through the series has been reprehensible. In response to an outcry about this particular rape in a story not set on Earth or subject to any Earthly ethics or morality, the creators purport to justify its violence as ‘historical.’ In our greatest myths, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, men and women enslaved one another, seduced one another, sacrificed one another, killed one another – but did so within the acceptable norms of their culture, and for reasons often precipitated by their gods. So to compare GOT to mythic, Homeric, or any other heroic fiction is to compare apples and oranges: members of a morally bankrupt culture such as the families of Game of Thrones would in a heroic fiction eventually be destroyed by affronted gods or heroes sent to end their reign of terror; in that series, so far as I know, the destruction of these characters by one another is simply another opportunity for gruesome special effects.

I understand that “Beyond Sanctuary” generated some controversy on its release due to a torture scene. How is the modern public different in what it reacts to and how it reacts, than the public of ten or twenty years ago? 

The torture scene in Beyond Sanctuary is but a few sentences long: to make one character reveal what he knows, his friend is staked out over an animal’s den and the animal is smoked out. The scene is not graphic in today’s terms, but the words are clear; the torture is worse for the man not being harmed, who tries to tell his torturers anything to save his friend, and cannot. I’ve heard that this torture technique, a venerable one, spread from there to many other books and perhaps films, but I don’t know for certain. There is sack and pillage in the Sacred Band of Stepsons series and the Beyond Sanctuary trilogy: these are ancient war-fighters, not choir boys and girls. There are prostitutes and drug dealers and slave traders, as well, and traitors and vengeful deities. The realism in the Sacred Band series may disturb some people; the treatment of women by men, and of men by women, is often disturbing, and meant to be so. A hero needs to struggle against heinous malfeasance, against tremendous odds. Ours do, and sometimes they fall from grace. They struggle most with conscience; some have the equivalent of post-traumatic stress; above all they strive to adhere to the ethos that drives the series, honor, loyalty, and love for one another.

You are very active with social media such as Facebook. How has social media helped or hurt your career?

I still don’t know if participating in social media is worth the time it takes away from writing, but I am experimenting with it. And through it, I am gaining insights into the readership, and into the ongoing fragmentation and recasting of cultural norms as we become a world culture; in this homogenized future, where tolerance must prevail, heroic fiction may once again take its rightful place as the glue which allows societies to understand one another better and cooperate effectively for the greater good. After all, the monomyth has obtained in nearly every culture around the globe, and its resonances still live in every heart among our nearly eight billion souls..

Lastly, is there anything upcoming that you would like to mention or promote?

We are doing the Library of Congresstalk, of course, on June 25, 2014. The next event for us is the release of our 2014 Heroes in Hell volume, Poets in Hell, the most ambitious yet in this long-lived shared-world series. We are publishing some new writers, and writing new books ourselves. We have recently released The Reader of Acheron, the first in Walter Rhein’s series, a dystopian heroic fiction which has fascinating possibilities. We’re writing a book about Rhesos of Thrace, one of the most overlooked heroes of the Iliad, and planning both a new series of anthologies of heroic short stories called Heroica, featuring many newer writers, and a new volume in the Sacred Band of Stepsons series, tentatively called “Sciamachy” and centering on precisely that: a sciamachy, which is a war with shadows, and probably the most exciting Sacred Band novel yet.

Beyond that, we hope to publish the audiobook of The Sacred Band this year with Auidble.com, narrated by Chris Morris, close to twenty-three hours long and truly outstanding. And we continue to search out new and exciting writers for our micro-publisher, Perseid Press, providing books worth reading for the experienced reader.

And, alongside all that, we’re continuing our reissue and “Author’s Cut” program, republishing expanded and revised versions of our favorite works from the 20th century.

Thank you for this opportunity to tell your readers about our current and future projects. As the heroes of the Sacred Band say, life to you all, and everlasting glory. – Janet Morris for Janet Morris and Chris Morris