Three Comrades Go on a Quest… – Panel Report

Little by little, I’m continuing with my reports from the panels I attended at WisCon 31.

On Saturday afternoon, I attended the “Three Comrades Go on a Quest…” panel, moderated by Janine Ellen Young and featuring Leah Bobet, Laurie J. Marks, Meghan McCarron and Hilary Moon Murphy:

So many of the traditional fantasy tropes rely upon distinctions either of class (princes/princesses, lost heirs to thrones, etc.) or that map quickly to class (the aristocracy of those who can use magic, say, lording it over those who can’t.) How do we fix this? Who’s already done the work that we can look to for examples, and what are the traps we want to avoid?

My notes for this panel are incomplete and a bit sketchy for two reasons. The first being that I had expected the focus of the panel to be something quite different from what it actually was. I walked in thinking that it would be a panel about class in fantasy literature generally, which was of great interest to me because Karen (Healey, my frequent co-writer) and I are working on a series of fantasy novels that have class issues in them, and we’re always trying to make them better.

Janine Ellen Young, the moderator, quickly narrowed the focus down much tighter than I had expected, starting the panelists off by outlining the big question of the panel as: Can we have egalitarianism in a quest theme?

Since I don’t write much questing, I’m afraid my notes lost a little bit of focus, and then, sadly, cut off completely and abruptly sometime near the middle of the panel. The reason for that was that I had a sudden fit of uncontrollable coughing, and removed myself from the room rather than distract the rest of the audience.

However! I did take some notes, and I shall share what I can of the experience of attending this particular panel.

After Young’s big question about the possibility of egalitarianism in a questing story, Meghan McCarron observed that quests, even though they tend to feature participants from multiple classes, ultimately end up reinforcing the status quo. Discussion swirled around this point for a while, with people noting that even quest stories where a seemingly lower-class farmer’s son type character turns out to be the rightful prince are about reinstating restrictive class structures, in the end – not breaking them down.

McCarron then wondered whether there’s always a member of the nobility (or equivalent) in the party that undertakes a quest. Hilary Moon Murphy noted that one of Terry Pratchett’s novels, The Wee Free Men, has a questing group without any princes or similar in it, and an audience member suggested that The Wizard of Oz might also qualify.

Leah Bobet suggested that some kind of social order and class-like structure is important in fantasy, because without it readers won’t have enough of a common frame of reference to connect with the text. Laurie J. Marks was quick to point out that while some form of social order is needed, it doesn’t have to be class.

Murphy wondered how all of these questions are affected in stories where a character possesses some form of accidental aristocracy, citing Garth Nix’s The Keys to the Kingdom series as an example.

It was at this point, I’m afraid, that I started coughing, and so my notes end here.

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  1. […] 31 (which is on my list of cons to get to, along with ReaderCon). The most recent post she made was an unfortunately abbreviated look at the question of class in fantasy novels, especially the usual q…, and how the quest tends to reinforce class distinctions and […]

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