A virile man with glistening muscles and an impeccable tan wields a gleaming sword over his head that rightly should weigh more than he does. But he can lift it because he’s the hero. At his feet, an equally athletic woman scantily clad in chainmail and still shrugging off the bindings of her rescue appears surprised with one hand lifted to her mouth in a gesture of delicate fear.
This is your classic fantasy. Conan the Barbarian, Heavy Metal, what we might call high fantasy, sword and sorcery, or fantastic realism…and it’s an image that’s become one eternally linked to what makes fantasy Fantasy.
I grew up watching Schwarzenegger’s “Conan the Barbarian” over and over till my parents were sick of it. And yes, I even watched “Red Sonja” and “Super Girl”, all the sparkly spinoffs of the boy fantasy stuff made for girls that was just plain 80’s horrible. But it wasn’t till shows like She-Ra and Xena: Warrior Princess came along that I decided in my pubescent wisdom that I wanted to be a warrior princess.
Why settle myself to pink ruffles (or a chainmail bikini) and waiting to be saved when I could be like Xena and fix my own dislocated shoulder with a quick shove into a nearby wall? Here was a fantasy figure I could latch onto. She was smart, independent, as good a fighter as any Conan, but sensual and caring when she needed to be without ever losing her edge.
There was just something missing from the chainmail bikini-clad women of popular fantasy. They were a plot device, an archetype designed to make the hero whole. But why be a device when you could be the hero? It appealed to that independent streak in me that admired the ability to take action for one’s self. Xena still saw her share of sexy outfits, but through it all, she defined herself as a well-rounded character who took command of a central plot for countless seasons of storytelling. She was never caught in a bellydancer outfit without the “bitch please, touch me and die” glare following close behind. You knew she could kill anyone with a quick jab to the pressure points if need be.
Nowadays, I wonder what we think of when we think of fantasy and the figures we wish we could be. What art comes to mind? Vallejo, Bell, and Frazetta are some of the big few who formed our classic foundations, but who will form the archetypes of our future? What images will strike us and inspire future generations to leap about the living room in raucous games of Pretend? Will we just keep building on these archetypes or will they ever be replaced entirely?
Will it be sparkling vampires? Half-demon antiheroes? Quick-witted thieves with hidden streaks of morality and guilds at their backs?
(While dragons, it seems, are impervious to the passage of time, as far as popularity goes).
Only time will tell, I suppose. Meanwhile, I will enjoy my Xena reruns and sharpen my knives. X-actos will have to do till the time comes that I fulfill my childhood aspirations of being a warrior princess.
How about yourselves? What figures comes to mind for you when people say ‘Fantasy’? What fantastical figure did you want to be like growing up? Those of you with children, who do your kids pretend to be like?
Image by Earl Norem