Monday, February 7, 2011

In Praise of 80s British Fantasy

In between working on this, that, and the other, I've also been enjoying some casual reading in the realm of classic British fantasy from the 80s in the form of Dragon Warriors and and the Lone Wolf gamebook series. This is always a pleasure for me, dipping back into a time when fantasy imagery was firing both my young imagination and my love of history.

Although I can see some merit to latter-day, anime-influenced fantasy such as one finds between the covers of Pathfinder, my heart will always belong to 80s fantasy. I've written of my unabashed admiration for Larry Elmore in his prime and the "fantastic realism" of American fantasy in the 80s, but where I get really starry-eyed is with British fantasy art and imagery from that decade. I suspect that, in addition to pure nostalgia, this has a lot to do with the fact that my attraction to D&D in the 80s stemmed in large part from my budding interest in medieval history. Knights, princesses, and dragons came first; Tolkien and Howard came some years later.

As someone who went on to develop that budding interest into a B.A. in History and writing history professionally, I continue to appreciate the imagery of British fantasy in the 80s (and down to today in the form of such heritage brands as Warhammer and Dragon Warriors). British fantasy seemed to take the concept of "fantastic realism" to an almost absurd degree. For example, the world of Legend, the default setting for Dragon Warriors, is barely more than a mythical medieval Europe with a fresh coat of paint hastily applied. Warhammer's Old World is hardly better.

Yet these are not faults in my eyes, but rather assets. I can't really explain it, but the rampant historicity of those worlds - or of my own personal favorite, Magnamund - clicks for me in ways that 6-foot swords and wuxia theatrics never will.

That being said, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Warhammer's Old World and the land of Legend perhaps stray a bit too close to being simulacra of our own past. I think that's why I prefer Magnamund; for all its trappings of an 80s British fantasy world, it also includes healthy doses of Tolkien and even Star Wars. Although it's possible to spot the historical analogs, they're not as glaringly obvious to someone schooled in medieval/Renaissance history.

I'll leave things off, then, with a little tour through the visuals of Magnamund courtesy of the inimitable Gary Chalk and the late, great Brian Williams. Whether this is all new to you or you're an old hand, I do hope you enjoy...

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