So where did all the treasure hunters go?
I don’t mean in real life — they’re alive and well and hanging out on internet marketing forums. I mean in fantasy.
I ask this question because I recently completed a short film called Dangerous Treasures. It’s set in a Lovecraftian version of the modern day, featuring a couple of treasure-hunting geeks looking to Get Rich Quick With Mythos Powers. It all goes… well, watch the film above and see.
Now, when I created that film I was working on the assumption that treasure-hunting was pretty much a core part of speculative fiction.
After all, everything from Conan himself to The Hobbit to a substantial chunk of the Fafhrd And The Grey Mouser series centers around riches and the rapid acquisition thereof (sometimes with additional kingdoms and dragons), usually in a manner that isn’t exactly approved of by their owner. Fortunately said owner tends to be evil, inhuman, and generally in need of some serious slaying.
(Modern-day treasure hunters doing Search Engine Optimization might say the same of their target search engine.)
But in the 21st century, treasure as a motivational factor seems to have disappeared off the radar. There’s one exception, that being Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first Gentlemen Bastards book, but given the entire setup there is “a heist movie in fantasyland,” it’s hard to see how he could have avoided it.
But what about all the others?
Y U No Want Treasure?
Perhaps one of the reasons is the cultural background of the writers.
Virtually all the classic treasure-hunting tales were written by people who had grown up in time of extreme poverty. Howard lived through the Great Depression and wrote many of his short stories in that period. Tolkien was writing later, but was still of an age to remember both the economic troubles of the ’30s and the rationing in the UK during World War 2. Fritz Leiber grew up during the Depression likewise.
For these authors, wealth, money and scarcity were real, vital concerns. And it’s easy to see why their characters were focused on acquiring wealth, given they’d seen what the lack of it could do.
That might also explain why one of the features of the Witcher computer games — truly excellent fantasy storytelling all — is a quite unusual focus on money (although not explicitly treasure-hunting). Andrzej Sapkowski is not only an economist, but also grew up in Poland during Communism. Again, having seen the effects of the lack of wealth means his characters have a realistic focus on its acquisition.
It may also be that the effects of social media and 24-hour news cycles have brought other concerns closer to home. All the treasure-hunting tales I mention above were written pre-Watergate, at a time when the public at large trusted their governments considerably more. The cynicism of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series or the political backstabbing of A Song Of Ice And Fire resonates with our age and its cynicism about and concern with government in a way that it wouldn’t have done 60 years ago.
Societally we’re not inclined to look up to the rich these days, either. It might just be an assumption, but I get the impression there’s not a huge crossover between Trump supporters and fantasy readers. So heroes striving to become rich don’t have the same appeal or identification. This might relate to a demographic shift in fantasy readers too — are we more affluent these days as a genre? — but I don’t have the data to support that here.
So is the treasure hunter a dead trope at this point?
Con The Dragon
I can see a resurgence in treasure-hunting narratives in the future.
As the world moves toward the Uber model, so the readership of fantasy moves toward being what some commentators have called “The Precariat” — permanently semi-employed on zero-hours contracts. Uncertainty about employment is on the rise, and most of us are being pushed toward some kind of entrepreneurship whether we want it or not.
One of the reasons I made Dangerous Treasures was because I am an entrepreneur, and I’m familiar with the forums and discussion groups where people, mostly younger people, gather to figure out their financial future, get support for their fledgling businesses, and learn how to navigate the choppy waters of Doing Business On The Internet. It’s an environment full of daring, of ambitious ventures, and of risk.
It’s a very dramatic environment. And one that’s quite friendly to the treasure hunter ethos.
So as we start to see literature come from people who have grown up in that environment — people like me — I’d expect to see a resurgence of the quest-for-money trope. It’s an entertaining trope. It provides strong motivation for all characters. And it’s fun.
Will we see the Uber / Lyft / Amazon / Airbnb world spawn a new Conan?
That would certainly be cool.
What do you think?
Hugh Hancock has been a filmmaker and serial entrepreneur for the last 20 years. His work has been featured in the New York Times, in Entertainment Weekly, and on CNN. Currently he divides his time between teaching internet marketing and developing new films, games, and Virtual Reality experiences.