In Defense of Fantasy

My professor was very skeptical as to the value of fantasy as a genre, this was my response

  1. Stormsong07
    This is a paper I wrote for my "Form and Theory of Fiction" class in college. My professor was very skeptical as to the value of fantasy as a genre, and this was my final paper in response to that attitude. I thought you all might like the read.
    (Bear in mind, I wrote this in 2007, so it may not be the best piece of prose you've ever read...but I think I touch on some good topics.)
    A Defense of Fantasy
    Fantasy fiction is a genre that is controversial to many. Some love it, others hate it. Some consider it an important aspect of literature; others think it but a frivolous and immature genre, a phase to grow out of. And yet, it is the genre that has been around the longest, with its roots dating back to 2000 B.C. So if fantasy fiction is merely a phase to grow out of, why hasn’t the human race grown out of it? What about fantasy makes it so appealing that it has stayed popular for thousands of years? Fantasy seeks to understand difficult concepts and truths and present them in an understandable manner. Sometimes this requires a departure from reality, because some problems are inexplicable without resorting to ‘magic’ or some other such fantastical device in order to solve it. While realistic fiction is bound by certain rules, and must operate within such rules, fantasy does not have these constraints. Precisely because of this lack of rules, the fantasy genre can go above and beyond realistic fiction to truly show the depths of character and emotion that are the cornerstones of all good fiction.

    As Lucie Armitt put it in her book, Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction, at its most basic level, fantasy really is all about “the need to construct narratives to explain the utterly inexplicable: what drives us, what terrifies us and why, and what our greatest desires might be” (3). The earliest fantasies were about what we as humans tend to fear the most—love and death. In his book, Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, Richard Mathews summarizes three ancient Egyptian fantasy tales. The first involves love primarily, jealousy, honor, and justice secondarily. The next toys with the idea of human control over nature, and the last, control of life and death. Even back at the beginning, these early fantasies portrayed “archetypical patterns of deep moral concern” (6) and “expression of the human imagination dealing with powers of infinity” (11). Fantasy continues to do so even today, though the genre has evolved and changed with the years.

    Love is one of those mysteries that we humans always question and fear. Fantasy stories explore the depths of this emotion, this bond between two or more people, to a level that reality fiction avoids. It is only in this genre that people are comfortable with this emotion being laid so bare, because they can tell themselves that it is not real—and yet, it feels real. As the author Avi put it, “when it comes to fantasy, the task is to find the truth, then write about it as if it were imagined. In short, in a world where the truth is often hidden, fantasy reveals reality”. As such, fantasy can often address controversial subjects, as they are generally viewed as more acceptable when not real. Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series (1990) and Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner trilogy (1997) are examples of this. Both series feature gay protagonists and graphic male/male lovemaking scenes. Both were published at a time when homosexuality was only just beginning to be accepted. Even today, it is still a touchy subject. But fantasy authors can take this fact of life and write about it in detail because their books have the comfort of being imaginary.

    Homosexuality is a form of love that tends to scare most people. It is something that goes against the ways we are familiar with. It breaks all the rules and puts some people outside of their comfort zone. And that is the reason why homosexuality is such a highly controversial subject-- because people are afraid of it. In her trilogy The Last Herald-Mage, (set in the world of Valdemar) Lackey gentles the concept of love between two males by assigning new terms to the relationship, thereby reducing the negative associations connected with the words “gay” and “soul mates”. Instead, Lackey coins new words to describe the connection between her protagonists Stefen and Vanyel. “Stef was well aware that Vanyel, like Stef himself, was shaych. And that his current state of solitude was not due to a lack of capability or desire…. Stefen was one of the few outside of the Heraldic Circle who knew that doomed Tylendel had been Vanyel’s very first lover—and according to Medren, his lifebonded, and only love” (44-45). Lackey does not limit her descriptions of deeply-bonded lovers to only homosexual couples, however. Instead, this idea of a ‘lifebonded’ partner—a perfect soul mate—is prevalent throughout all of her novels of Valdemar, and is a major reason why they are some of my personal favorites when it comes to fantasy fiction. I am a highly independent person. The idea of caring that deeply about someone does frighten me, simply because I am used to being on my own. And yet, Lackey describes her character’s relationships in such a way that it makes me also desire a relationship such as that as well.

    Fantasy fiction is important because it takes those things which we are afraid of in our world, and sets them in another world where they immediately become less frightening. It enables us to take a step back and look at these challenging ideas through a protective window of sorts. Fantasy is the bars of the cage between us and the monster. When we know we are protected from whatever frightens us, we want to look at it in more detail in order to understand why we are so afraid of it. Examining what scares us through the safety of fantasy makes it fascinating. As Robert Scholes put it, fantasy fiction “offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront the known world in some cognitive way” (Mathews, 4). It is this aspect of fantasy which really makes the genre so appealing to me as a reader. Love is one of those things that can be frightening, because it is something we cannot control. But when placed in a fantasy setting, we do have control over it, and so are more comfortable.

    The second difficult concept that we humans tend to fear is death. It is not something we understand, nor can we understand until we experience it. And so there is a lot of fiction published, both realistic and fantasy, that struggles to put death into a form that we can grasp. In fantasy, authors also strive to make death less frightening, as they do with love. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling does both. Striving to make death more understandable and less frightening, she offers a number of reflections on death and its meaning. First and foremost, it is irreversible. “‘No spell can reawaken the dead’”(605), Dumbledore tells Harry after one of his schoolmates, Cedric, dies at the hands of Voldemort. On the other hand, death is not to be feared. When Harry is sad at the thought that, without the Sorcerer’s Stone (which grants the user immortality), Nicholas Flamel and his wife will die, Dumbledore reassures him. “To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicholas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure’” (320). Her words here echo the words of an older author on the same subject. In J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Peter lies wounded on a rock about to be submerged in water, too weak to fly or swim. Just before he is rescued, he has given up all hope, and thinks, “To die will be an awfully big adventure” (84).

    In her later books, specifically Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rowling details Harry’s attempts to come to terms with death. One of the unique aspects of Rowling’s series is its universal appeal to children and adults alike. Harry’s attempts to deal with his godfather’s death are a lesson to both. It shows children ways other children handle the death of someone they love. It shows adults that the pain of losing a loved one is universal, and is something all humans feel. Fantasy fiction is one of the few genres that can have an equal appeal to all ages, because in it, we find people we can identify with, despite their living an entirely different kind of life. Harry is a wizard, and as such, he is different from regular humans. Yet he exists in both worlds—the magical and the realistic. Faced with his godfather’s death, he wants to escape his human side entirely and go perhaps into a world more fantastical than the one he already inhabits, in which there would be no more pain and death. This is the same feeling a lot of people have when they turn to fantasy fiction—they are looking for a way to escape the pain of their own lives. Harry, already living in a fantastical world, does not have this option, and so is forced to deal with his emotions. We too must eventually deal with our pain, and this is Rowling’s way of telling her readers that it is all right to hurt. Dumbledore attempts to talk to Harry about Sirius’ death, only to have Harry explode as his pent-up pain comes to light.

    ‘Harry, suffering like this proves you are still a man! This pain is part of being human-’

    ‘THEN – I – DON’T – WANT – TO – BE – HUMAN!’ Harry roared, and he seized one of the delicate silver instruments from the spindle-legged table beside him and flung it across the room…. ‘I DON’T CARE!’ Harry yelled…snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. ‘I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE—’ (824)

    Death hurts us all, even those who have magical powers. But Rowling is also very eloquent when it comes to helping people accept death. At one point, Harry thought that he had seen his dead father, but he realized that it really wasn’t. When speaking to Dumbledore about it later, the headmaster says, “‘You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? …Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him…You know, Harry, in a way, you did see your father last night…You found him inside yourself’”(427).

    Death and love are two very complex concepts that are difficult to deal with in very realistic ways. Sometimes it requires a softening of the idea before we are able to handle it adequately. This is where realistic fiction can fall short. In her book Readers in Wonderland, Deborah O’Keefe writes that fantasy fiction “work through serious issues in truthful yet imaginative ways, without the superficiality of the everything’s-fine sort of realistic book, and without the pull toward despair that can come from a meticulous, realistic examination of today’s vast and clotted complexities” (16).

    Another reason why fantasy appeals to me so much is due to the proliferation of strong heroines. Not just any leading lady, but those who perform to the best of their abilities with no gender stereotypes to hold them back. Fantasy fiction enables women to play the roles of men more often than in realistic fiction. While the rules and regulations governing women have relaxed significantly over the years, there are still certain areas where we are held back, warfare being one of these. In fantasy stories, women defy these rules and are successful.

    In the first book of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, her protagonist, Alanna, disguises herself as a boy so to begin training as a knight. Through hard work, she becomes one of the best pages, and is asked by the prince to be his squire. At the end of the second book, In the Hand of the Goddess, Alanna becomes a knight, but during a duel her sex is revealed when her opponent slices through her shirt. The last two books, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man and Lioness Rampant, deal with how Alanna handles being the first female knight the realm had ever seen. Pierce went on to write a second quartet which chronicles the experiences of the first girl to openly go through the knight training as a female, Alanna’s deeds having changed the rules -- women were now allowed into what was previously an all-male environment. I can’t even count the number of times I have read and re-read this series. To me, these books are the epitome of what I personally desire deep down. If there is one thing that really infuriates me, it is being told I cannot do something simply because I am a girl. I personally am of the opinion that women, if they are physically capable enough, should be allowed to do everything that men are. Books like The Song of the Lioness quartet have shown me how to be a strong woman.

    Fantasy is the one genre that caters to the desires of humanity. It is not constrained by the rules of our world, what is considered right, or proper, or possible. Anything is possible, and no matter what we desire, we can probably find it somewhere in a fantasy book. Longing desperately for something we can never have is something I’m sure most, if not all people can relate to. Fantasy gives us the opportunity to experience at least a little taste of our heart’s desire. It’s a way to satiate that longing for something that may not be possible in the real world. J.K. Rowling examines the idea of desire in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry discovers a large mirror in a spare room one night, in which he can see all the members of his family standing with him. The mirror has an inscription around the top which, when read backwards says ‘I show not your face but your hearts desire’. In reality, Harry is an orphan with no family. Entranced by the vision of his family, he returns several nights in a row until one night, the headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, catches him there. As Dumbledore explains to Harry (and thus the readers) what the mirror does, we also receive a warning:

    It shows us nothing more than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible… It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. (225)

    Rowling does an admirable job of examining the emotions behind the concept of desire, and the dangers of giving in to our desires.

    What drives us is something that can vary from person to person, and so it is with fantasy as well. Different characters are motivated by different things. Common themes among the characters seen in fantasy fiction, however, include the drive to see good (or evil) triumph, to acquire power, to be the best in their chosen field or profession, and to make an impact on the world they live in.

    The battle of good versus evil can be found in the center of almost every fantasy story. J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are two prime examples of this idea. The recent movie adaptations of these books are very true to the original version and have only expanded on the fantasy elements of the works, including this epic battle. In Tolkien’s story, the hobbits are very unlikely heroes. They are driven to struggle against Sauron primarily for love of their friends. They know that if Sauron should gain the Ring of Power, his forces would overrun Middle Earth and their friends, home, and family would all suffer for it. In the movie version of The Two Towers, Pippin is discouraged when the Ents will not help their cause. He suggests to Merry that perhaps they should go home. “We have the Shire,” he says. But Merry, the older of the pair, knows what will come if they give up. “The fires of Isengard will spread. And the forests of Tuckborough and Buckland will burn. And all that was once great and good in this world will be gone. There won't be a Shire, Pippin.”

    The White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a good example of those characters driven to acquire power. She greatly wishes to be queen of all Narnia and have Aslan out of her way once and for all. She also spends the entire book attempting to prevent the four Pevensie children from taking their thrones at Cair Paravel, not wanting to lose the grip she has over the land. She is ruthless and willing to stop at nothing in the pursuit of her goal. This is especially evident at the point where she thinks she has won. She had a claim on Edmund’s life because he betrayed his friends, and Aslan came to take his place. In what appears to be her moment of triumph, as she holds the knife above a bound and muzzled Aslan, she gleefully taunts him with her plans to come:

    And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was…But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.(181)


    The drive to be the best in a chosen field is also very prevalent in fantasy fiction. It is what drives Alanna in Pierce’s quartet. In her first lesson on how to use a sword, Alanna is humiliated by the teacher, Aram Sklaw. She speaks to her mentor, Coram, in despair, worried that she will never do well. Coram tells her that though she is not a natural at the sword, “Some learn the sword. They work all the extra minutes they have. They don’t let a piece of metal—or Aram Sklaw—beat them” (131). Alanna takes this advice to heart, and borrows Coram’s sword. “Alanna hefted the weapon in her hand. It was the largest, heaviest sword she had ever handled. It would be work to wield it with only one hand…She trotted off to find an empty practice room…Coram was right. A sword could not beat her—and neither could Aram Sklaw” (131).

    The main characters in most any fantasy book usually have an impact on their world in some way. Whether it is Frodo, who saves Middle-Earth by carrying the Ring to Mordor, the Pevensie children who help to drive out the White Witch, then rule Narnia in peace for many years, Harry Potter, who fights off Voldemort time and again, or some other characters in lesser-known books, the idea is there. And it is by looking at these characters and understanding why they do what they do that we understand ourselves. We, too, will fight to defend our homes and families. It may not be physical fighting, but we will stand up for those things and people we love. There are those of us who will stop at nothing to gain more power, even if they gain it in a deceitful manner. There are also those who strive to work their way up though hard work, whether they are motivated by the thought of a previous failure or simply the desire to be the best. Fantasy fiction truly is a window onto the real world, despite the general impression that it is radically different. “At first glance, fantasy seems to provide an alternate universe. Actually, I think fantasy provides a parallel universe. We read Gulliver’s Travels as a charming fantasy. In it’s own time it was understood to be bitter political satire” (Avi).

    Good fantasy is that which creates the worlds which feel as if they really could exist somewhere, and that maybe—if I look in the back of a wardrobe or just make the right wish at the right time—just maybe I could go there too. Good fantasy is the books I close wistfully, not wanting to re-enter the world of reality, which leave me wishing that I could go there, and meet those people. I agree with Avi. “For fantasy to be successful, it must feel real. Indeed, at its best, it must be real.” Readers, as in all fiction, must care about the characters and their struggles, else the story seem superficial and trite. We know we have read a good fantasy book if the author has succeeded in making us connect and care about a character that could be living a completely different kind of life. The best works highlight what is similar about all our cultures and experiences. In his essay, The Uses of Fantasy, Darrel Schweitzer comes to the conclusion that fantasy is “for writing about the big issues. It’s where you go when you want to write about courage, honor, memory, identity, power, forgiveness, free will vs. predestination, and so forth” (15).

    So why do so many people look down on fantasy and view it as an inferior genre? Because they are afraid of it, Ursula LeGuin argues. She states “fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that it truly challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They’re afraid of dragons because they’re afraid of freedom” (Schweitzer, Uses, 15). Fantasy takes real problems of the modern world and examines them deeply. It comes up with solutions or alternative ways to deal with the situation. That is why fantasy has lasted so long, why certain stories have stayed with us through all the years—because the issues they deal with are still pertinent today in some shape or form. Fantasy authors draw from real life and real people, because “to fail to imitate people as they are, even in a fable which takes as its setting ancient Nubia or outer space, would reveal a lack of the true artist’s most noticeable characteristic: fascination with the feelings, gestures, obsessions, and phobias of the people of his own time and place. One cannot imagine a Dante, a Chaucer, a Shakespeare, or a Racine without characters drawn from a scrutiny of real people” (Gardner, On Moral Fiction, 77).

    We humans need fantasy for many reasons. We need it as a place for social commentary, as in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. We need it to put those cage bars between us and that which frightens us, so that we may examine and understand those fears. We need fantasy so that we may live out our deepest desires in some small fashion, and we need it to provide a reflection of ourselves so we may finally come to realize what it is that drives us. Unconfined by realistic limitations, fantasy fiction can address a huge variety of topics in every imaginable way, giving us a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world along the journey.