Modern fantasy, fish out of water and the romanticisation of struggle

By Sea Pawanrat Vachanavuittivong

“The new normal” is a phrase which has been thrown around ever since the pandemic really took hold in the Western world. Masks, distancing and hand washing are now regarded as the social norm, but how realistic is this statement? As any Atwood fan will tell you, history has a tendency to move in cycles, the same events repeating themselves in different disguises. However, there have been many examples in literature, especially modern fantasy, where people have been thrown into a situation that seems devastating and have thrived. Do these books fetishise struggle and the idea of being a ‘fish out of water’? How realistic are the portrayals of these situations in fantastical literature? 

With this level of unfamiliarity, people have been forced to change and adapt. Some have been forced to remain home, others have had their time at university experience dominated by covid. This theme of existing in unfamiliarity has been seen in literature across all of time. One older example of the fish out of water trope is seen in carnivalesque comedy. This is the idea of transporting the characters into an unfamiliar and whimsical setting, the entire premise and development of the plot solely hinges on the character’s surroundings. Whilst this may seem unrelated to covid, this is simply a display of how the idea of being thrown into unfamiliarity has infiltrated literature for seemingly forever. 

The idea of being thrown into unfamiliarity has existed in literature forever.

More modern examples of getting thrown into unfamiliar settings are fantasy books. Staples in modern fantasy such as Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, part of the Kingkiller Chronicles thrive off of throwing their characters into an unfamiliar setting and having them succeed regardless of the unlikely circumstances. Rothfuss’ book is well beloved within the fantasy community arguably due to it’s extremely romanticized portrayal of this fish out of water trope where Kvothe, a poor, struggling orphan pursues his dream of education at ‘the University’. Kvothe is often described as a ‘male Mary Sue’ as anytime he faces a challenge that seems impossible to overcome, he is able to slip out of the problem with a quick wit and a solution that only becomes obvious once pointed out. 

In contrast to Kvothe’s ability to adapt with ease, it feels as though everyone has been flailing to keep their head above water throughout the last eighteen months (No pun intended). I can only speak for myself in this regard: as an international student attempting to attend university, this last year has felt like a manifestation of when children hold hands to form a chain so they do not lose each other, but one of them falls over and causes the whole line to collapse. Going home and coming back to university is always uncertain, and the idea that I will spend another year isolated again never seems that far away. University is enough of a change for everyone, without a pandemic on top of it. Currently, we are more like fish out of water in space. Unlike the fantasy books that romanticise characters being thrown into a distressing situation, I can very confidently say I have not thrived in this last year. Sure, like everyone else, I learnt to crochet, made some clothes, learnt how to code, but it is unrealistic to think people can go through situations this distressful and come out the other side unscathed. 

University is enough of a change, without a pandemic on top of it. Currently, we are more like fish out of water in space.

Books that will be referred to as ‘regular’ for the purposes of this article often refuse to acknowledge the extreme trauma and impact being the fish out of water can have on people. Instead, books that do address the effects of an extremely unfamiliar situation on one’s mental and physical state are labeled specifically under ‘mental health’. Dealing with the impact of being a fish out of water is seen as an anomaly deserving of a separate label instead of a norm. This suggests that the acknowledgment of the impact of something like the pandemic in literature is sparse and hard to find unless one goes looking for it. 

Whilst, the impact of this collective trauma on society will remain unknown for a long time, I am not convinced that COVID will instill long term change for the wealthier countries. Instead, COVID will become another issue for ‘developing countries’ as they struggle to afford tests and vaccines. Countries like Thailand who have previously thrived off of travel are now struggling economically, experiencing a 6.1% decrease in GDP, the largest contraction since the Asian Financial Crisis. 

Whether we have to adapt to this ‘new normal’ or return back to the old ways, there is hope that we will be able to find our way back to the water soon. The political and economic turmoil on a global scale as well as the personal impact of everyday lives and people is not something most of us have seen in our lifetime and can only watch as the effects continue to unfold before us. 

Image: Florian Klauer via Unsplash.

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