Blight, pollution, and corruption are a pervasive element in modern fantasy. I began to track the idea while reading one of Roberts Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, while playing Starcraft and Legend of the Five Rings. It struck me as interesting that the Blight in Jordan’s series, and area of corrupted land from which Trollocs and other monstrosities issue was so similar to the creep, the sludge that formed in the territory of the Zerg, a monstrous alien race that used mutation and adaptation to overcome their enemies. Both were dangerous, alien areas, obvious “through the looking glass places” as well as being fantastical. But we can find plenty of places like that in Fantasy Fiction. Digging deeper, however, it is the element of purposeful corruption and pollution that link these two, and many more, together. Further thought uncovered a rich theme that permeates modern fantasy.
Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is seminal in this regard. While the elements of corruption, blight, and twisting land and creatures can be found in Tolkien and older works, Jordan codifies them exceptionally well. In his world the blight is a region, similar to Mordor in that it is corrupted, poisonous, and home to monsters and all manner of evil. The Blight stains the world in a similar fashion to the way that the male half of the Power is corrupted by The Taint. Both are a source of conflict. The Blight births monsters and poisons the land, The Taint makes it so that male channeling eventually leads to madness, birthing monsters in another fashion. Both are purposeful corruptions, manifestations of the will of the Dark One in the series.
Tolkien’s use of corruption is subtle. I overlooked it when I first read the series as a young man. The ring of power corrupts, obviously. Mordor is blighted and twisted, like a festering wound on Middle Earth. His use of corruption is easy to miss when blinded by battles, thrilled orcs and undead, intrigued by lore, and bored by Bombadil. The first orcs, for example, are either twisted elves or attempts by Morgoth to copy the elves, failing due to his corruption, which is very interesting. It mirrors the corruption of Smeagol into Gollum by the ring, an idea that pursuit of certain ends can rob us of our humanity/hobbity goodness. The blight around Isengard (and later, more obviously around Saruman’s factory in the shire) is a direct reference to the pollution of industrial endeavors, linking wanton pollution to the more primal evil of Morgoth and his rebellion against Illuvatar and the natural order.
The Zerg, from Starcraft, also make use of the blight. In this case they are an invading organism, an ecosystem that can corrupt entire worlds. This is definitely a pollution metaphor, but also a reference to urban sprawl. The creep spreads from Zerg buildings in the game, IIRC, changing the natural environment in the same way that North American suburbs seemed to swallow pristine wilderness and replace it with ugly strip malls in the 90s. The Zerg can also corrupt other creatures, including one of the main character’s Kerrigan. The organic nature of the creep and the Zerg gives their corruption a more diseased quality.
The Shadow Lands in Legend of the Five Rings, an old AEG role-playing game falls nicely in the middle as well. When Fu Leng, the Dark Brother, was cast down he fell into the shadow lands. The shadow lands are a blighted area that corrupts those who travel through it without protection. Monsters issue forth from within, terrorizing the empire. The Crab clan build a mighty wall to keep it at bay. The corruption of the Shadow Lands is both physical and mental. I probably like this one better because it was codified and examined by game systems and thus seemed very concrete.
There are many more examples of corruption and pollution in Modern Fantasy, including Grimdark where it is portrayed as inescapable, perhaps even the natural state of being. The Tyranids and Chaos from Warhammer games, the Vord in Codex Alera (purposefully similar to the Zerg), and the Dragonblight in the Iron Kingdoms are all among my favourite variations on the themes of corruption and pollution that can be found in Fantasy and genre fiction. So what does it all represent?
- Disease (Ancient): Beyond even religion and mythology, the very idea of corruption and pollution can be attributed to the effects of sickness and infections on the human body, rot on our food, and other natural processes.
- Original Sin (older): Every mythic structure has to explain the presence of evil. Original Sin is the one most familiar to western audiences, that terrible knowledge that corrupted Adam and Eve and led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This original sin taints every living person. I’m not interested in the doctrine here, since it gets complex, but it does have a definite seed for the idea of corruption in fantasy fiction. Of course there are many discussions of what this means as a metaphor, and they all tie in nicely with uses of pollution and corruption within genre fiction.
- The Fall (older): The Fall of Lucifer in Judeo Christian religions is another element that serves as the basis for the idea of corruption, blight, and taint. The origin is the same as original sin, but the metaphor is very different. Every order has a something that will rebel against it, causing chaos.
- Pollution (modern): Anyone who has stared at the scum caused by river pollution or gazed out at the damage cause by a burst pipeline can see the direct correlation to corruption and pollution in fantasy. Industrialization is power, pollution is downside of that power, one that often gets out of control due to irresponsible greed. Oil is a good example, but far from the only one.
- Radiation and Nuclear Waste (Modern): Be it the idea of a world changed by a nuclear event or the grim effects of radiation, our understanding of Nuclear forces has certainly influenced genre fiction. The idea of taint, and invisible force that sickens and changes, and the way that it is portrayed in fantasy owes a lot to studies of radiation.
Corruption and Pollution are a very strong set of themes for any genre fiction tale. Everything good comes with the potential of a little rot, corruption, or taint that can poison us if we let it fester. It is a metaphor for the rot that sets into human systems if they are not properly attended to as well as the moral rot that can occur if we do not exert a little self control.