CSFF Blog Tour: When Pop Culture and High Fantasy Collide

In my review of Realms Thereunder, I said that Ross Lawhead was like D. Barkley Briggs in rejecting the ideal Elves of Tolkien for the ambiguous fairies of folklore. There is another way in which they are similar: Both invoked pop culture in their fantasy novels.

I’ve been pondering this. Is it a bad idea for fantasy writers to mention things that belong so plainly – and so narrowly – to our own time and culture? Dr. Who and high fantasy just don’t mix – and much, much less do Whoppers and high fantasy.

But is that part of the point? Pop culture and fantasy are generally a rude collision, but so, usually, would be the children of pop culture and the worlds of fantasy. Doesn’t the one accentuate the other – two worlds rasping against each other?

Maybe. It could also be that such references tie a book too closely to its own time. Fantasy ought to reach for timelessness – or universality, which may be the same thing. Pop culture – well, most of it, and we’d be hard-pressed to guess the exceptions – is parochial and passing. Why date a story with such things? The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is dated by the plot device of using the German bombing raids to get the children into Professor Kirke’s house; at least it isn’t dated by the Pevensie children chatting about whatever BBC radio programs were popular seventy years ago.

To flip the coin again, you can’t lose sight of the present for the future. If you write a YA fantasy novel with pop references, it may help you connect with your present readers. It may also distance you from future ones. If you had to choose – which would you choose?

And does it make any difference if you mention things like Lord of the Rings and Wizard of Oz – which already have a measure of timelessness in their own right? Is it more excusable if, like Ross Lawhead, you turn the reference to a good joke?

I don’t know. I think this post shows I can see both points of view. There are, I believe, times when referencing pop culture is entirely acceptable. Yet my inclination is generally against it. I take the side of timelessness or, better yet, universality. And anyway, rasping can make for a pretty unpleasant sound.