Fantasy writing often gets a bad press. It’s accused of not being serious literature, providing nothing but escapism, and encouraging us to sit around waiting for a magic resolution to all our problems.
I disagree with all of the above. I will declare an interest in the matter: speculative fiction (SF; encompassing many sub-genres including fantasy, sci-fi and, yes, the supernatural) is my favourite genre, and I feel honour bound to defend it against these accusations.
Where to start? SF is very much a personal taste – you either like it or you don’t – and trying to persuade non-fans to pick it up and give it a go seems a waste of energy. However, I can at least tell you why I read it, why I don’t think it makes me a person of little brain, and why I think it has a great deal to offer us in our journey through life.
Fantasy writing, perhaps more than any other genre, is closely related to age-old methods of storytelling, recognising that stories are our way of making sense of the world. The structure, development and characterisation of many fantasy novels would be familiar to anyone from ancient times.
Homer’s Odyssey satisfies the definition of the fantasy genre with its magic, gods, heroes, adventures and monsters.
[JRR] Tolkien was largely influenced by an ancient body of Anglo-Saxon myths, particularly Beowulf.
Placing contemporary issues within the confines of a fantastical storyline enables the writer to take a much more imaginative view of what might be. We cast off the shackles of our current limitations and ask ‘what if?’
- What if there was a magic ring with the power to control the world?
- What if ghosts existed?
- What if monsters from the void were on the verge of breaking through?
What would you do? And why? What priorities would you have? What qualities would you bring to the situation? Who could you rely on to help? What would be a distraction, and what would it be vital to hang on to?
SF allows us to picture a world in which we don’t have to worry about paying the mortgage, getting an appointment with a doctor or sitting on a train for two hours simply to get to a workplace we hate. Freed from these mundane worries, we can start to imagine what the world might look like if other, bigger problems were fixed.
- Where does our food come from, and is it sustainable?
- Why do we go to war, and what other choices do we have?
- Who has access to the world’s knowledge, and is it fairly distributed?
You’ll notice that I’ve asked a lot of questions. That’s because, at its best, SF encourages us to take a broader view and ask ourselves how the world could be improved. It feeds us wild and wonderful suggestions for how things could be, and we are left to ponder whether any of the incredible experiences undergone by the books’ characters might be something we could learn from – or even put into practice – in real life.
Also, by using ancient archetypes and familiar plotlines, SF connects us to every reader and listener from centuries gone by; we realise that we are all one human race, with ongoing struggles, trials and challenges; and we can start to see the common ground between us. And when we can think of ourselves as part of a greater whole, and not just individuals fighting for our own little spot on this planet, that’s when we can really come up with the ground-breaking, world-changing ideas.
I am not suggesting that, when I pick up a SF novel, the above arguments are at the forefront of my brain. I too enjoy a bit of escapism as much as the next person. But I want to counter the view that such escapism equates to abdicating from responsibility to society: it does not – or at least it need not.
To return to Tolkien, he refers to the subject of escapism in his essay On Fairy-Stories:
In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic… 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?
In other words – or, at least, this is my interpretation – it is vital that we don’t limit ourselves to thinking about the world as it stands. We also need to envisage what it could become, because it is only by imagining it that we can make it real. SF can equip us with the tools to make that journey.
Interested in pursuing this line of thought further? Check out my new blog series: Be Your Own Superhero.
This article was first published in our zine Bookylicious, volume 1 issue 4.