No Elves in Greece

Every country gets the fantasy it needs, it seems, whether that’s elves and wizards in the UK, US and Australia, or fantasy more rooted in the real world in Germany and Greece. I always thought fantasy was pretty much a universal genre, with many of its tropes based in ancient story-forms.

But a correspondent, Julian Wilson, pointed me in the direction of the Uncertainty Avoidance Index used in cross-cultural communications theory to map a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

The index indicates how much a society tolerates the new, the unknown and the different. Germany, which has a relatively high uncertainty avoidance index, is a society which relies on rules and regulations and tries to reduce its risks to the minimum. The US and particularly the UK have relatively low scores on the index.

In Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind, Geert Hofstede says, “Marieke de Mooij has pointed out that cultural values can be recognized in both the subjects and style of literary fiction produced in a country. As examples of world literature from high-UAI (Uncertainty Avoidance Index) countries, she mentions Franz Kafka’s The Castle from Czechia and Goethe’s Faust from Germany. In the former the main character is haunted by impersonal rules; in the latter the hero sells his soul for knowledge of Truth. Low-UAI Britain has produced literature in which the most unreal things happen: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.”

Later in the book he suggests that countries which have low uncertainty avoidance are more likely to have “literature dealing with fantasy worlds” and those with high uncertainty avoidance are more likely to have “literature dealing with rules and truth”.

So if you live in Greece, Portugal or Guatemala (high UAI) or Denmark, Jamaica and Singapore (low UAI), let me know if this is just another example of Academics Gone Mad or if it has some bearing on the tastes of fantasy readers around the world?

10 thoughts on “No Elves in Greece”

  1. Thanks for the mention Mark.
    Funny thing is, Greece has the highest UAI in the table, but on the other hand it’s home to one of the world’s great mythologies. Perhaps its UAI has increased over time, or maybe the uncertainty avoidance index isn’t a foolproof predictor of fantasy literature. I wonder how many Greek authors have written fantasy in the last hundred years.

  2. An interesting concept.

    Funny thing about Singapore on my visits there is that the shops are extremely well-stocked with fantasy, some of the book loan shops in particular. Rows and rows of ’em. But when I think about it, maybe these are catering for the ex-pats more than the indigenous Singaporeans, who are on the whole a cautious folk. Now if only we could hang onto the fantasy here but still have their lovely subway system, that would be akin to going some way towards the idyllic!

  3. Well, Singapore has the lowest UAI in the table, meaning Singaporeans are on average comfortable with uncertainty and new ideas. If the theory above holds, that means finding fantasy literature there wouldn’t be surprising. Is it all imported or is some of it home grown too?

  4. Given the conservative nature of the society in many ways, that did surprise me. But when taking into account what an ultra-entrepreneurial society Singapore is, uncertainty and new ideas is may well be something they are comfortable with.

    I think most, if not all those fantasy novels are from beyond Singapore’s shores, Julian!

  5. That’s what’s been puzzling me, Lermentov. While I have no hard figures, I get the impression that most fantasy comes from Anglo countries. Why don’t non-Anglo countries write more fantasy? Does the UAI score have anything to do with it?

  6. I winder what these ratings are based on. Singaporeans are entrepreneurial alright, but they also live in a very tightly regimented society in terms of laws – there are regulations on what length men’s hair can be, on chewing gum, etc. Of course they may just ignore the laws.

  7. My wife, who is Singaporean, Laurel, doesn’t seem to follow any laws that I can fathom!

    Sir Ian McKellen talked about some of the pitfalls that he had as an openly gay man in Singapore when touring with King Lear recently, in which, on the heath, as Lear he gets his kit off. But not in Singapore. ‘Apparently in Singapore no one has sees their genitalia until the age of twenty-one’, he said! He kept his undies on for that trip. But there are gay communities in Singapore and there are most definitely red light districts and cheap hotel chains notorious for prostitutes doing business among them. It is something well known by Singaporeans and joked about by them.

    I think this does – believe it or not! – related to the theory in Mark’s thread: like all such things, it may provide a grain of truth but does not constitute the sole ingredients of the whole bag.

  8. Laurel, I agree that the need for rules is normally associated with high uncertainty avoidance rather than low. I expect other factors strongly outweighed this in the case of Singapore. These include the answers to the survey questions: how often do you feel nervous or tense at work? and how long do you think you will keep working for your current company? Of course, a willingness to break the rules when necessary would lower the score (as you point out – ignoring the laws).

    See here for Hofstede’s summary of his ideas:

    Going back to the writing fantasy issue, the following Wikipedia entry mentions a couple of Singaporeans who’ve written science fiction (which admittedly isn’t exactly the same thing).

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