Why Fantasy? Part 1

The political news has been making me feel particularly sick lately. So tonight I’m going to talk about why I write fantasy, as opposed to more realistic fiction. Why I write about women who marry bears or cities invaded by sorrow or how all the mad scientists’ daughters get together and form a club.

This won’t be a long post, because I’m still very, very tired. This morning I woke up and went to dance class, where I realized once again just how much I lose if I don’t go to class for a couple of weeks. It’s not the steps – I remember all of those. What I lose is the way it’s supposed to feel, the way the parts of your body separate, move independently. I lose balance. And of course flexibility: from working for weeks at the computer, I’m terribly stiff. But it felt wonderful to be dancing again. And then I came home and fell sleep, then woke up and ate lunch and read an academic article written by a friend that I want to respond to, then fell asleep again. And since then I’ve been grading. But I keep falling into hours of deep, deep sleep, as though my mind and body desperately need it. Which I think they do.

Where was I? Oh yes, fantasy.

Let’s start with a blog post on this subject recently written by Lev Grossman. He says,

“Something is up with fantasy – I feel like the zeitgeist is taking an interest in it. Like the Great Lidless Eye of Sauron, the zeitgeist has turned away from the big science fiction franchises of the 1990s (Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, The X-Files) and swung towards big fantasy franchises instead (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, True Blood, Game of Thrones). [ . . . ]

“But what is the Great Eye seeking? What questions does it have that fantasy answers? Or at least asks? Like I said, I get asked this periodically, in public, and it’s a hard question to answer. Probably impossible.

“Though one place to start is with longing. It’s something fantasy does especially well. Lewis and Tolkien were virtuosos of longing. They had, after all, lost a world, the world of their Victorian childhoods, which had been erased by the calamities of the 20th century: automobiles, the electrification of cities, the rise of mass media, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. They lived through, if not a singularity, then a pretty serious historical inflection point, and they longed for that pre-inflected world.”

I think that’s a good place to start. Fantasy did have to do with longing for me, when I was a child. I longed for so many things – for a place that felt like home, for a life that felt significant. Middle Earth, Narnia, Hogwarts are all about that sense of longing. The experiences you have in those places are difficult and dangerous, but they’re with friends, and they’re meaningful – you get to save the world, and it’s worth saving. Meaning, friendship – aren’t those the things we’re always longing for? Even as adults? And of course, a home to go back to once the adventures are over. In the sort of world where you want to live your life.

Grossman goes on to say,

“Longing for what exactly? A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense – not logical sense, but psychological sense. We’re surrounded by objects that we don’t understand. Like iPods – they’re typical. They’re gorgeous, but they’re also really alienating. You can’t open them. You can’t hack them. You don’t even really know how they work, or how they’re made, or who made them. Their form is abstractly beautiful, but it has nothing to do with their function. We really like them, but it’s somehow not a liking that makes us feel especially good.

“The worlds that fantasy depicts are very different from that. They tend to be rural and low-tech. The people in a fantasy world tend to be connected to it – they understand it, they belong in it. People in Narnia don’t long for some other world (except when they long for Aslan’s Land, which I always found unsettling). They’re in sync with it. (iPods and Macs kind of mock us, don’t they, the way they’re always sync-ing with each other but never with us.) [ . . . ]

“This longing for a world to which we’re connected – and not connected Zuckerberg-style, but really connected, like a dryad with its tree – surfaces in a lot of places these days, not just in fantasy. You see it in the whole crafting movement – the Etsy/Makerfaire movement. You see it in the artisanal food movement. And you see it in fantasy.”

I don’t have an iPod or a Mac, so I can’t say to what extent they’re alienating. But I suspect that in some sense human beings have always been surrounded by what they didn’t understand – once it was bacterial infections, invading armies. There’s a reason witches are not a new phenomenon – people have always needed a way to explain the unexplainable. It’s what we don’t understand that changes.

I do think we have a longing for some sort of authentic connection to the world, for an understanding of it. I suspect we always did – there have always been legends of lost golden ages, fairy islands to the West. That connection has always been located in an inaccessible distance or past. But fantasy isn’t always about that connection. It’s also about alienation, about the destruction of the world, the ways we no longer fit into it. Frodo has to leave. Narnia is destroyed. Dumbledore dies. And that’s just in what we might call consolatory fantasy. It doesn’t even begin to address the work of fantasists such as Jorge Luis Borges or Angela Carter.

You could turn Grossman’s argument around and say, fantasy is so popular nowadays because it is the air we breathe. We live in a fantasy world in which our technology works like magic. (What do you do when your computer isn’t working? Turn it off and turn it back on again, hoping it will work. Right?) Fantasy isn’t what we turn to because our tech is alienating. Our tech is fantasy.

Grossman does conclude by saying, “Other people’s fantasy is probably about lots of other stuff, and I shouldn’t go around theorizing about it, except that I occasionally get asked to and, weakly, I give in.” But I’m glad he’s theorizing about it, because it allows me to theorize about it as well. And what I want to say, through the tiredness, is that I do write fantasy in part because it allows me to speak about longing and connection. But I also write fantasy because it allows me to describe the world we actually live in – a world which can be profoundly alienating, which is at its core fantastical. And it allows me to imagine a world that is different from the one we live in – because imagining different worlds may be the only way we can actually understand and change our own.

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7 Responses to Why Fantasy? Part 1

  1. Sofia says:

    “… because imagining different worlds may be the only way we can actually understand and change our own.” Reminds me of what Peter Medawar said about scientific research: that it “beings as a story about a Possible World, and ends by being, as nearly as we can make it, a story about real life.”

    Thanks for another great post.

  2. Tired or no, that’s a lovely post, Dora.

  3. Peter Huston says:

    This is interesting. I hope you write more about this subject as your thoughts on this subject are interesting. After several years off to attend graduate school and other things, I am now writing but it’s often moving away from fantasy and towards strange versions of the real world.

  4. Kareem says:

    Thank you for this post and for having the “longing” to articulate why fantasy is so important. My life threads were woven together by fantasy, and I have often felt “other than’ in a world that has lost those things that are so important to a good fantasy novel. Honor, oath, friendship, sacrifice, connection to place, reverence for history and heritage. I cry when cottages on the shore of cape cod are bulldozed and replaced with plastic sided colonials, when the shore birds don’t come back any more because their breeding grounds have been destroyed. I am disturbed when people no longer look each other in the eye and say hello, good morning, because the twitters in their i phones hold more glitter than the light in their fellow human beings. But when I open The Hobbit, or The Fellowship or re visit the halls of Hogwarts I find my friends are still there. I long to meet them and jump head long into a adventure where our deeds of honor matter to the world. I long to test my strength and skills against some evil thing in a way that matters. There are ways to do that in this world as well, but it is not the same, and more disconnected. What drives the characters to such deeds are the bonds of tribe and friendship which has splintered in our individualistic culture. I swo enjoyed reading this post, thank you for saying what I feel.

  5. The longing for sure, but magic itself is something amazing. 🙂 Not to mention all the possibilities it represents. . .

  6. Thanks, all! So glad you liked this. 🙂

  7. This discussion reminds me a good deal of some of the points that Ursula K. Le Guin made in her essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” She had a good deal to say about Realism as being myopically human centered, Pope’s “The proper study of mankind is Man.” Le Guin’s response was, “When fiction disobeys Pope and begins to include the Other, it begins to shade into the ghost story; the horror story; the animal story; or science fiction; or fantasy. . .” Towards the end of her essay, she writes, “The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.” And, finally, in regards to realism and Pope’s admonition, she says, “It is Man studying Man alone. It is the reality trap. Is it any wonder that people want to look somewhere else? But there is no somewhere else, except in what is not human — and in our imagination.”

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