Class Struggles in Fairyland: Strange Evil and War for the Oaks
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
“Tolkien wrote the seminal text for fantasy where morality is absolute, and political complexities conveniently evaporate.”
China Miéville has never been shy in his critiques of that juggernaut trilogy that need not be named, the yardstick by which the rest of the genre is measured. Miéville’s perspective is that of an author and a radical socialist, decrying the impact of Tolkien’s legacy in upholding the conservative values of little England through a form of “feudalism-lite”:
“If there’s a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it’s because he’s a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they’re likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it’s a bad kingdom…)”
Miéville was far from the first. Michael Moorcock raised war banners against Middle Earth in his 1976 essay Epic Pooh – prompting furiously-typed counterattacks from hordes of Tolkien fans ever since. But as fun as it sounds to join the skirmish of bloodied nerd noses, we might instead look for contemporary work that better fulfilled the genre’s potential for political complexity – fantasy that resists the shackles of black and white morality, of handsome heroes and villains genetically predisposed to evil.
Somewhere there is a case to be made for suggesting Jane Gaskell’s Strange Evil is the anti-Tolkien. This relatively slim, relatively forgotten novel written by a fourteen-year-old girl is a far cry from the franchise-launching epic composed by an Oxford don in his sixties. Gaskell’s book came out in 1957, three years after The Lord of the Rings was published in instalments, and has been championed not only as a work of striking poetry, but an exploration of class struggle and radical revolution.
The protagonist is Judith, an artist’s model whose life takes a turn when visiting cousins are revealed to be members of the Internals, an aristocratic fairy race who live, fittingly, inside a mountain. Whisking Judith away to Fairyland, they reveal the Internals are caught in conflict with the Externals, a rural rabble who split off from polite society to mingle and breed with satyrs, and who now demand access back to the mountain. Of course, Judith comes to doubt the explanation given by her friends and realises the political dynamic is not so clear. The Externals are being exploited by a callous ruling class. They are not crude peasants or rapists (the Internals’ prejudice against the satyrs is a recurring aspect of their elitism), but neither are they the “good simple folk” Miéville rails against – hobbits with hooves. This aspect of Tolkien’s class delineation was fervently criticised by Moorcock:
“He sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo.”
Gaskell’s Externals are anything but sentimentalised. Judith’s extended ruminations on the beauty of their pastoral existence as they farm and till the soil seem more like a set-up for what is to come. Driven to desperation, the Externals stage a violent proletariat uprising against the inhabitants of the mountain, “men brandishing peculiar sharp one-sided long-bladed hoes, women with lance-like tri-forked weapons reminiscent of the hayfield.”
Much has been written about Tolkien’s trilogy as a response to the recently concluded Second World War. Gaskell herself was born in 1941, yet her treatment of conflict is remarkably less binary than that of a man who had experienced warfare first-hand. Strange Evil opens in a London of arts studios, sexual liberation and emerging youth culture. One could argue Gaskell’s intention was to shock the reader, as post-war society is invaded by devils out of a symbolist nightmare, an Ealing Comedy rewritten by Aubrey Beardsley (The Under the Hill Mob, perhaps). Yet even when the focus switches to Fairyland, reality is never truly forgotten. Judith overhears nervous discussions about the A-bomb, and whether this new human weapon might cause irreversible damage to the fairies’ atmosphere. Gaskell brings our attention to the horror wrought by the Allies a decade prior – one of the most devastating examples of blurred morality during wartime.
This emphasis on the real world might make Strange Evil a forerunner of the subgenre known as urban fantasy, the stomping ground of authors like Miéville, N.K. Jeminsin and Neil Gaiman. This might further help distinguish it from what Moorcock dismissively referred to as Tolkien’s “rural romance.” But, while the idea that being geographically rooted to reality has made authors more inclined to engage with social change and oppose conservative stagnation is an interesting one, it is rarely useful to make sweeping judgements about entire genres. Instead, it might be worth briefly comparing the revolutionary lessons of Strange Evil with what many consider the first true work of urban fantasy, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks (1987).
The base premise is exceptionally similar – a human, Eddi, is brought into a fairy war between two races. The political dynamics are explained early on by the phouka, her shape-shifting guardian who comes as an emissary of the Seelie Court, the noble rulers of fairyland. The phouka tells Edi about their enemies:
“Where there are those who think themselves noble folk, there must be some poor sod to play the commoner […] and in our case, we have the Unseelie Court, the most sodden lot you’re like to see.’”
Right from the beginning, Bull is setting up the binary between good and evil fairies, but also the promise of a reversal akin to Strange Evil. The Unseelie are described as “sodden,” hardly threatening, while the Seelie “think themselves noble.” The phouka himself, despite being a Seelie, has little warmth for his lords and ladies. Towards the middle of the novel he and Edi discuss the Magna Carta. Since the fairies have no equivalent document in their world, the ruling class can’t be held accountable for their frequently cold-hearted actions.
However, by the end of the book the Seelie’s rock-solid class structure has escaped destabilisation. Bull’s anti-authoritarian thread drops with the arrival of the Queen of Air and Darkness, ruler of the Unseelie Court. Edi’s objective becomes all too clear: remove the evil outsider, and in doing so uphold the Seelie monarchy. War for the Oaks is perhaps too firmly rooted in the politics of Tolkien. It’s a class fable that gets distracted along the way and fails to live up to its revolutionary promise. It suggests that urban fantasy as a genre is no guarantee of socialist values or radical shifts – but that isn’t to say it can’t be more quietly transgressive. Bull doesn’t provide a moral spectrum entirely undiluted by doubt. There may not be a violent overthrow of oppressors, but we are left with a suggestion that the phouka has cast off Fairyland’s dogmas to live on earth with Edi. Perhaps for Bull, revolution can be found within an act of love. For Gaskell, it is a measure which rejects black or white morality. The strange evil we must grapple with in the fight for justice is not always self-evident. It may be found in individuals, the structural systems in which we place our trust, or even in ourselves. ▲
Victor Rees is a freelance writer living in Birmingham. He took an Undergraduate degree in English at Cambridge and has recently completed a Masters in Playwriting at the University of Edinburgh.