Or: Making The Past Great Again
I’m at that stage of parenthood that has way too many sentences that start with ‘Back in my day’, or ‘When I was growing up’, or something similar.
Now, I’m not that old. Early thirties. Cars that were of the same vintage are only just getting the ‘classic’ moniker and only half the movies of that year have been ruined by remakes. But was life any better back than it is now? On that, can I even call it ‘back then?’ – after all, it was less than three decades ago. But the world has changed plenty in that time, and there are elements of the past that I miss – like certain TV shows, a distinct lack of responsibilities, and not being almost entirely reliant on a mobile phone for pretty much every job I have had.
There is a really good conversation on the Troll Bridge bonus episode of the PratChat podcast about the nostalgia of the young, on how it’s brought about by recognition that we are a remnant of an unrecognisable world. It’s an interesting line of thought, the idea that a pre-digital age just a couple decades ago has changed so much, and it brings a certain element of nostalgia that really seems odd. But then again, everything about nostalgia is kind of odd, and the unique nature of it can be used to great effect (much as (P)Terry Pratchett did so well in Troll Bridge). In fact, it’s so powerful, in just a few pages Pratchett is able to use nostalgia to bring about full and complete emotional growth.
I won’t go into a spoiler-filled summery, but like most Pratchett stories Troll Bridge is both hilarious and poignant. It expertly used nostalgia as the connection between the two main characters resulting in a positive change. It’s used as both a facilitator and a pathway. But importantly, it can be used for many other functions, and much of it related to a character’s reaction to the nostalgia.
Nostalgia has a long history in fiction (as well as being a huge part of modern politics) because of that emotional pull. The standardised beginnings of Once upon a time, or A long time ago (potentially followed by in a galaxy far far away) show how that pull of the past has become so embedded in storytelling. They immediately take us to the past. It has many other functions though. As discussed it can facilitate dialogue and emotional change, point to a way forward, and it can also provide simultaneous internal and external conflict. What it doesn’t provide through, is an achievable destination. When characters believe it can, we get some interesting results.
The reason it is not a destination (at least my theory – which works for stories) is that nostalgia relies on a disconnect. It relies on a memory and an impression, not the reality of a place or situation even though a character might believe it does. The disconnect is unique and the basis of what makes it both internal and external.
What I mean by this is that nostalgia inherently drives that yearning for a past ideal. Internally there is a desire for something unattainable, and externally there is a dissatisfaction with how things are and an inability to fix it. It leads to frustration, clouded views, and despair in some cases – but also familiarity and connection.
Looking at some of the classic fantasy characters, I always come back to David Gemmell’s Druss. He is a character who epitomises a time of a great hero, who inspires purely by name, and brings about the nostalgic view of when the fortress city of Dros Delnoch was an impenetrable emblem of Drenai strength.
But he’s also a realist. He knows that time is past and he knows his time is past. His reaction to the nostalgia is to see it for what it is and use it to guide a way forward rather than reaching back. It’s one of the reasons he was one of my favourites as a young reader.
Conversely, look at one of the greatest bad guys of the century – Sauron. Ultimately, he wanted to regain what was lost; personally regarding an actual body, the power dynamic through the One Ring, he wanted to return to the war-torn world he knew. It isn’t explicitly stated, but if we saw the world from his viewpoint, I imagine there would be much angry yearning for the past. He never sought another way forward because he didn’t want to move forward – he wanted to take the world back to where it was when he left it, and only change it from that point.
There is a tragic parallel within the Tolkien universe in Thorin Oakenshield. Again, his downfall was his idyllic version of the past and his desire to return to it. It drove him to the brink of madness, and arguably lead to the Battle of Five Armies – arguably a battle made more tragic by the utter unnecessary nature of it, and the refusal of any party to withdraw. However, in this we see another function of nostalgia in fiction – motivation.
Characters faced with something challenging their worldview do drastic things. They make bad choices, and bad choices make great stories.
One of the most fascinating organisational arcs of this is the Red Ajah on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. At the start of the series doing all they can to prevent a magic-capable male from becoming The Dragon Reborn. Their whole reason for existing is pretty much to maintain the status quo and ensure he doesn’t come to exist.
Then, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story, he does come to exist and it is clear that the Red Ajah have categorically failed. Yet instead of this recognition, they plot against him, try to prove he is a danger, and try to bring him down – all to the detriment of their own order.
Why this always fascinated me is because we see the time they want to go back to, we see the events that make that an impossibility, and we still see their efforts and understand their motivation, despite the fact it’s self-defeating. They have their view of their perfect world and their ideal role, and can’t get out of it. It drives conflict, political intrigue, and creates a whole new arc for the Ajah as well as a massive obstacle for Egwene.
It drives bad decision after bad decision, divides the Aes Sedai, and effectively supports their enemies. Yet they still think what they are doing is right. They still think they are the good guys (some of them, anyway). There is a disconnect induced by the nostalgia of a known world in which they fit, and the refusal to accept their inability to return to this idealisation a great subplot.
If there is one thing that Troll Bridge brings it is to show the hope and comfort that nostalgia can bring to characters, and it also shows the value of just sitting down and reminiscing about the past can help leave it as exactly that – the past. But on the other side of the coin are characters like Sauron, Thorin and the Red Ajah. Characters who see the past as a destination, as some desirable place to reinstate. But when our idea of the past is based so much on a glorified version that only ever existed in our memories, this is a self-defeating exercise, which tends to make characters make worse, more outlandish decisions. Which is great for the story, even if a little more tragic for the character.
Overall though, regardless of what function you use nostalgia for, the biggest feature comes back to that memory and impression. Essentially, it’s a very specific emotion that almost every reader can understand on some level. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word we use in writing should be aimed at having some kind of function. But nostalgia gives the emotional tie in as well. That ability to do both makes it worth considering how we, as writers, can incorporate it to full effect.
Also, if you enjoy Sir (P)Terry’s work, check out Ben and Liz on Pratchat. The puns alone are worth the listen.