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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Joys of Fantasy & Romance Essay by Jake Seliger


This essay originally appeared at The Story's Story:

Patrick Kurp ponders why he
doesn't like fantasy, writing that “[It] feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children.” Maybe: but to my mind, it opens other avenues for looking at the world and goes places realism doesn't. Good fantasy develops its own codes and limitations; it is different from and reflects our world. In Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon says, “Now, games are important. They test us. They teach us comradeship. They're fun. But cricket, more than any other sport, is, I want to say [...] a lesson in civility.” I wouldn't call fantasy a lesson in civility, but it often imparts, aside from pleasure, lessons in how to lead and organize one's life. When teaching the LSAT, I often use the journey and confrontation plots in fantasy novels as metaphors. And if fantasy is a cheat, so too is metaphor, which takes one or multiple things and stands them in the place of others, as fantasy does.

It also inevitably returns to confront the ideals and problems of the society that produced it, as Northrop Frye argued in
The Secular Scriptures. Romance and fantasy are inextricably linked to the societies that produce them, just as fiction more generally is. The power of fiction and fantasy is their ability to be rooted in those societies while simultaneously being able to transcend them to others. I have no experience in ancient Greece or Rome, but The Iliad and The Aeneid still speak to me. I have never set foot in Middle-earth, but it seems more real to me in some ways than South Ossetia, though I would never argue, obviously, that one is real and the other isn't.

Still, the question of real and fake gets raised by this question and never satisfactorily answered, as it hasn't been in literature or philosophy. Patrick writes, “I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another.” To my mind, we're not slumming it in another world, but sharpening our sense of this one through contrast in a subsidiary world, both part of and separate from ours. Fantasy is where the imagination can run wilder than it can in reality, and it is another configuration of reality in the mind, a separate microworld that breaks off from the main world in the mind of its holder. Think of it as an extension of the
multiverse or parallel universe theories, only with fantasy itself as another world that mirrors ours. Those mirrors sometimes distort for effect, and if realism is a standard mirror, fantasy is the one that stretches, contorts, and makes us wonder at what we really think of ourselves. The best fantasy novels have rules of their own, some of which can be bent, and others broken, as they say in The Matrix. See our world in fantasy and fantasy in our world. Umberto Eco writes in Reflections on The Name of the Rose:

And so the Middle Ages have remained, if not profession, my hobby—and a constant temptation: I see the period everywhere, transparently overlaying my daily concerns, which do not look medieval, though they are.”

As said by Burlingame in
The Sot-Weed Factor, “I grew so enchanted by the great Manchegan [Don Quixote] and his faithful squire as to lose all track of time and was rebuked by Captain Salmon for reporting late to the cook.” At its best, fantasy has this effect, almost as drugs or sex are wont to do. I think there's a reason why children and teenagers are often drawn to fantasy, as it offers a relatively safe and accessible outlet for young people who feel powerless and constrained, or feel perceived constraint from parents and society. Another world offers solace and meaning, as it offers others symbolism and power. These sensations go far back in cultural time: some aspect of fantasy or fantastical journeys exist in numerous cultures, as Joseph Campbell argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Most of them and us are not Don Quixotes, who asks if we have “[...] read the annals and the histories of the England that treat of the famous exploits of King Arthur [...]” The mistaken belief in fantasy as genuine reality is ridiculous, but the belief that we can see aspects of reality in fantasy is not. The prologue to Don Quixote more lays out the case for fantasy, and, more abstractly, literature itself:

Let it be your aim that, by reading your story, the melancholy may be moved to laughter and the cheerful man made merrier still; let the simple not be bored, but may the clever admire your originality; let the grave ones not despise you, but let the prudent praise you.”

One could also say, let the adolescent find a way forward and the adult meaning in experience, and let a strong story exist for the literal and subtle metaphors and symbols for the intellectual. Only very good fantasy, like Philip Pullman's
His Dark Materials trilogy, accomplishes these lofty goals, but only very few works of fiction pass the hundred year test and become that strange beast we call literature. Defending fantasy and science fiction as literature might be odd given my lament in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters. But I only wrote that post because both cause pain when they fail to live up to literature's ideals and their own possibility. One of my favorite passages from any book occurs when Tomás and a Martian encounter one another in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles:

Let us agree to disagree," said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken?

Later, a character says, “If you can't have the reality, a dream is just as good.” A dream isn't, but it's something, and inevitably leads us back toward reality, which leads us back to imagination in an endless circle of blending into different forms and shapes. Fantasy and its cousin, science fiction, along with their forefather, Romance, are tastes not shared by all. Patrick avoids slamming fantasy to the extent he can given his dislike, and he flees that “ideologically rigid sack of theories.” I've tried to give as supple a theory and explanation as I can for the pleasures of fantasy done well, as the genre has long suffered disrespect it shouldn't. One of the best essays on the subject is still Tolkien'sOn Fairy-Stories,” which can be found in the collection
The Tolkien Reader. This essay derives and applies ideas from Tolkien's work, which is still as complete a defense and analysis of the genre. He defends the secondary worlds in their own terms:

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

I don't think it an accident that Paul Graham uses the prison metaphor in his essay about schools,
Why Nerds are Unpopular, or that Viktor Frankl survives a literal Nazi prison via imagination, as he describes in Man's Search for Meaning. Fantasy is a form of imaginary creation, like scientific invention or other forms of insight, and the worlds it creates are for any who would journey into them…

About Jake Seliger:

Jake Seliger writes
The Story's Story, a book and literature blog, and is a graduate student in English at the University of Arizona. He is also an associate with Seliger + Associates Grant Writing, where he contributes to the blog Grant Writing Confidential.

2 comments:

raul said...

Patrick Kurp exists in every english department of every college in the country.

He isnt correct and as Jeff VanderMeer points out...he isnt even consistent in which type of fantasy he feels disdain for.

At one point in the article he slams the politics of most well-known latin american realism author; which begs the question if he then only reads fiction of white bread approved backgrounds and ideologically safe environments?

You were kinder in the approach I would have taken, which would be along the lines of what popular fiction genres have always had to defend itself from the dignified snobbery in the masters programs and journals read by almost-hundreds of like-minded elitists.

Matt Hughes said...

“I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another.”

One does not "know" the world by reading fiction, whether the fare on the page be "realist" or fantasy. In reading fiction, all that one encounters is the interior of another's mind, as its faculties interpret the reality its owner has encountered and thought (and felt) about.

The characters in "realist" fiction are not "real" people, leading "real" lives. They are collections of characteristics, existing only in a mental construct shared between what the writer has put on the page and what the reader has inferred from it.

My own prediction is that the much vaunted realist genre will have its day and fade away, as all such genres inevitably do. Fantasy, on the other hand, need not fear for its own longevity; it has already endured for millennia.

Matt Hughes
http://www.archonate.com

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