In Defence of Fantasy

Fantasy lamp post and moons

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.

Wikipedia says:

Homer’s Odyssey satisfies the definition of the fantasy genre with its magic, gods, heroes, adventures and monsters.

and

[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.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Title: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz24-book challenge
Author: L Frank Baum
Publication date: 1900
Genre: Children’s fiction; fantasy

What’s it about?The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Dorothy is a young girl living with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas, until one day a cyclone lifts up their farmhouse and carries it off – with Dorothy inside.

The house comes to rest in a strange, far-off land, and, to Dorothy’s horror, crushes and kills a Wicked Witch in the process. A Good Witch encourages Dorothy to take the Witch’s silver shoes and set off to the Emerald City, to see the great Wizard of Oz and ask him to send her back home to Kansas.

On her journey, Dorothy meets three new friends: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion. Each decides to accompany her, to ask the Wizard to grant their dearest desires: the Scarecrow wants brains, the Woodman a heart, and the Lion courage.

After many adventures they arrive at the Emerald City, where the Wizard tells them he will only grant their wishes if they kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Shocked, they nevertheless set out on the quest, and after many trials, Dorothy manages to melt the Witch by throwing a bucket of water over her.

They head back to the Wizard, who is revealed to be nothing but a humbug, with no magical ability to grant wishes. Despite this, he is able to help the three companions – but Dorothy’s situation is beyond his power. So she sets off to visit another Good Witch, who tells her that the silver shoes hold the charm that will carry her home.

With just three clicks, Dorothy is back home in Kansas.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I’m now in 1900: the era of works that have (by and large) entered the public domain, so many of them are available for free, or for a very low price, on the internet. This was certainly the case with this one. And so, as I was yet again too disorganised to make it to the library, I downloaded it to my Kindle app for a cost of £0.00.

What did I learn from it?

As with Mary Poppins, I learned that the book version differs from the famous film version. For example:

  • The Witch of the East’s shoes are silver, not ruby;
  • We do not meet the Witch of the West until the companions arrive in her own territory;
  • The Witch of the North who accompanies the Munchkins is not Glinda: Glinda is the Witch of the South;
  • It is Dorothy alone who defeats the Witch of the West: the others are injured or captured during this time, unable to come to her aid.

There are also additional elements to the story that do not feature in the film:

  • The companions have a number of adventures prior to arriving at the Emerald City; in particular, the Lion is rescued from the poppy field by a troupe of field mice.
  • Visitors to the Emerald City are made to wear special glasses, supposedly to protect their eyes from its dazzling, totally green, brilliance. We find out later that this is another con of the Wizard’s: the city is not totally green, it is the glasses that make it appear so.
  • The companions make a trip to see Glinda at the end of the book, and meet many new strange creatures (the fighting trees, the china people and the Hammer-heads) on the way.
  • Not only does the Scarecrow return to rule over the Emerald City, but the Woodman goes to rule over the Winkies (the freed slaves of the Witch of the West) and the Lion becomes King of the Beasts in a lush forest.

Again, as with Mary Poppins, the book is only the first in a series: there are several more featuring the different adventures of Dorothy and other denizens of Oz.

How did it make me see the world differently?

All five ‘domains’ in the land of Oz (East, West, North, South, and the Emerald City) are reigned over by a sovereign Witch or Wizard; and what’s noticeable is the total subservience of each population to its ruler.

I guess there’s not much opportunity to fight against a Wicked Witch, as in the East and West; and if you have a Good Witch, as in the North and South, maybe you don’t have anything to complain about.

But in the Emerald City we have the Wizard: a terrible indictment of leaders who govern by lies, deceit, and lack of transparency. And yet he is described as being well loved by his subjects – presumably because they do not know what a humbug he is.

While I appreciate that his position is due to a misunderstanding, I’m disturbed at the depiction of a society that doesn’t question what is going on around it. Yes, the people are happy – but is that happiness real if it is based on a big con? Is ignorance bliss? Conversely, can we complain if someone plays along with a false assumption that we make through lack of questioning?

My own preference is for the truth, however brutal, over a pretty lie; and yes, I believe that if someone realises they have been misunderstood, then they should come clean, even if it is to their disadvantage. But perhaps others disagree. I will certainly be paying more attention to this in future: The Wizard of Oz has given me food for thought.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

As the companions journey to the Emerald City, it becomes clear that the Scarecrow is the one who always comes up with the good ideas, the Woodman is the one who considers everyone’s feelings, and the Lion is the one who ‘feels the fear and does it anyway’ – in other words, they already possess the qualities they are so desperately seeking.

This made me wonder whether the thing we most desire, the thing we believe most to be missing from our lives, which we would dearly love to acquire but believe it to be impossible, might actually be the one thing that we already possess, which defines us. Maybe this is why it takes on such significance for us: it is everything to us, and no matter how good we may be at it, it will never be enough, so we keep on seeking it.

So I started to think about what quality or skill I really desired, and I remembered that for ages now I’ve wished I could draw. Now, I realise a talent like that isn’t quite the same as a personal characteristic such as courage – but I do believe that if something is constantly on our mind, we have it within us to express it in our own way, even if that isn’t by traditional means or even ‘good enough’ for others.

A year or two ago, while playing Pictionary, I became aware that I was having a lot of success conveying concepts in a pictorial form, even if that form was just ‘stick men’. The technical quality of the drawing was nothing to write home about, but I was clearly managing to identify key themes and connect with others’ perspectives.

This made me realise that ‘drawing’ is perhaps something I can do after all – just not in a way I had originally envisaged – and so I am going to make more effort to pursue my drawing practice and see where it leads me.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins

Title: Mary Poppins24-book challenge
Author: PL Travers
Publication date: 1934
Genre: Children’s fiction; fantasy

Mary PoppinsWhat’s it about?

Mr and Mrs Banks are looking for a new nanny for their children, when Mary Poppins flies into their world (literally, on the East Wind) and takes the position. The children Jane and Michael soon realise that Mary Poppins is not their normal kind of nanny.

Over the course of the book, Mary Poppins takes Jane and Michael on many adventures, and shows them a world of magical possibilities that they had never dreamed of. Each chapter features a new exploit and introduces a new set of strange and eccentric characters.

She is not sweet and saccharine, however; she seems to have almost a disregard for their happiness if not their welfare. It is impossible to guess what she is truly thinking at any time, and at the end of the book she flies away on the West Wind, just as she promised.

The book is the first in a series of eight, so we have not seen the last of Mary Poppins.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I searched my local library catalogues but couldn’t see any copies in a library near me, so I downloaded this one to my Kindle app. It cost me 99p.

What did I learn from it?

The main thing I learned from this book was how different it is to the film/musical version. I was prepared for this, as I’d seen the movie Saving Mr Banks, which looks at the back story of PL Travers dealing with Walt Disney in his attempts to produce the film, and I’d become aware that the character of Mary Poppins in the book is very different to how it is depicted in the film. But it was quite an eye-opener to read the book in its entirety and realise that this isn’t the only difference.

For a start, and perhaps not unexpectedly, there are changes to the Banks household. There are four Banks children (baby twins in addition to Jane and Michael); Mrs Banks is not a suffragette; and there is a third member of staff, essentially a gardener, to accompany Ellen and the cook.

There are also many more stories in the book’s 12 chapters than are featured in the film; in fact, with the exception of the first and last chapters, dealing with Mary Poppins’ arrival and departure, only three chapters tell stories that are familiar from the film version:

  • the trip into the cartoon world with Bert (which, in the book, Mary Poppins enjoys on her own; the children do not accompany them);
  • the visit to the uncle who levitates when he laughs;
  • the observation of the Bird Woman.

It’s also worth noting that the latter contains no mention of a run on the bank.

The book feels much more like a collection of miniature tales, bookended by Mary Poppins’ arrival and departure, whereas the film – again, not surprisingly – offers a more holistic narrative with plot and character development. However, given that the book is only the first in a series, this is perhaps an unfair comparison to make. I guess I need to read the others to see how it all pans out… Maybe the Banks family will have their epiphany after all.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As with any fantasy book, it reminded me that there is something magical to be found in every aspect of our daily existence. In this particular book, I found that the wealth of ‘what ifs’ in the different adventures could be used as lead-ins for pondering questions about the nature of the world around us.

For instance…

  • Do the stars really come from gold paper that a strange woman steals from our closet and pastes up in the sky? If not, where do they come from?
  • What happens in a zoo at night? Do the animals communicate with each other in a way they can’t do when the humans are there?
  • Do dogs have a class system? A pecking order? Is there anything to prevent one type of dog befriending another dog?

The book works as both a joyous series of escapades, undertaken for the pure fun of it, and as a treasure trove of imaginings for sparking further ideas. In this latter sense it is, perhaps, the perfect embodiment of the spirit of this book challenge, where the quest is to find inspiration in the unexpected and even the ordinary; to encourage further thought, questioning, and – hopefully – action.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

The biggest change for me was inspired not by the book itself so much as the difference in interpretation between the book and the film version. This is the story told in Saving Mr Banks, where Travers tries to ensure that the character she created is portrayed in a way that is true to her original intentions. The film deals with the give-and-take that accompanies any adaptation of a story from one medium to another.

This rang many bells with me, as at the time of reading Mary Poppins, I had just emerged from a read through of our Pride and Prejudice stage adaptation, where I’d received feedback on my half (Act II) from my co-author and the Artistic Director. They felt that Elizabeth spoke too often in monologue, which she hadn’t been in the habit of doing in Act I, and they suggested I cut down on this in order to make the character more consistent.

While I do generally bow to their greater experience in this area, I felt quite strongly that there were reasons why Elizabeth needed to ‘talk to herself’ in Act II, which hadn’t applied in Act I; not least the fact that she now has more secrets to keep and does not feel she can confide in people quite so freely as she did before. And so I kept faith in my understanding of this character: although I did eventually cut a few lines, I left many of the others in place – and explained to my colleagues exactly why I had done so.

From the story of PL Travers and Mary Poppins I have learned to hold true to my notions of artistic integrity, and to believe in myself. I will still listen to input from others – but I will not necessarily let that hold sway over what my own gut is telling me.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the RingsTitle: The Lord of the Rings24-book challenge
Author: JRR Tolkien
Publication date: 1954-55 [The Fellowship of the Ring: July 1954; The Two Towers: November 1954; The Return of the King: October 1955]
Genre: Fantasy (high fantasy/’swords & sorcery’/’wizards & warriors’)

Preliminary note

I first read this book in my teens; in fact, I read it numerous times. It appears in this challenge as a result of the random method by which I pulled the books together. This post, therefore, does not – cannot – describe my genuine initial reaction to the book.

 

However, it has remained with me throughout my life, as a piece of fiction that has had a huge influence on me. I hope to articulate why; and, of course, indicate in what specific way I will go on to make changes in my life because of it.

 

The Lord of the Rings

What’s it about?

Frodo Baggins inherits a mysterious ring from his uncle Bilbo, and finds out from the wizard Gandalf that it is the One Ring, forged by the Dark Lord, Sauron, to control and subjugate the free peoples of Middle-earth. Lost for many years, the Ring has returned just as Sauron’s forces are beginning to grow strong again.

Accompanied by his friends and, later, a fellowship of men, elves, and dwarves, Frodo sets out on a quest to destroy the Ring. Pursued and beset by foes such as Ringwraiths, orcs, giant spiders, cave trolls, and ghosts, not to mention the strange creature Gollum, they must find their way to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom.

For it is only there that the One Ring can be destroyed and Middle-earth saved from Sauron’s rule…

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This has been a treasured possession for around 30 years. I first read a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring that was lurking on my grandparents’ bookshelves; oddly, they didn’t have the second and third volumes. Perhaps it wasn’t their kind of thing.

So, when I realised I needed to read the remainder of the trilogy, I headed straight to the newsagent’s shop on our local high street, where a few rows of books nestled among shelves of sweets, newspapers, and stationery.

I’d saved up my pocket money for the occasion, and bought a paperback copy of the omnibus edition, complete with prologue, appendices and indexes. It cost £6.95, and was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

What did I learn from it?

I learned an extraordinary amount of what, with hindsight, was quite academic stuff; not so much within the text of the book, but within its prologue, appendices and indexes. In these, Tolkien goes into great detail about additional elements of his created world: family trees, calendars, languages, alphabets, further history, and timelines, to name but a few.

As a child, my best school subjects were languages; I also enjoyed history. Later on I would go to university to study English and French, including options on ancient versions of these languages (Old English and mediaeval French). So it was perhaps natural that I would be drawn to these appendices in a time when I was practically inhaling knowledge of this kind.

A true nerd (nerds are cool now, right?), I even kept notebooks where I copied out the runes of the elves and the dwarves; vocab books where I jotted down all the ‘foreign’ words I came across, with their meanings; and made notes on the pronunciation of the different languages. I was in my element: it was probably the highest learning point of my life.

Although I’m not quite so devoted to the intricacies of Tolkien’s world these days, I’ve retained a fascination with language. The majority of my career has been spent in roles where an appreciation of language and its nuances is vital: librarianship, web editing, medical communications, writing… It’s hard not to see the beginnings of this trajectory in my discovery of Tolkien’s astonishingly complex work.

How did it make me see the world differently?

It’s difficult, looking back, to know what effect this truly first had on me as a teenager. I can remember wishing that this imaginary world were real! – and I’m aware I’m not the only person to feel this way; I recall hearing the same of fans of the more recent movie Avatar.

But that feeling soon passed. Life moved on, and I grew up. But I never grew out of my love for fantasy; it’s still my ‘go-to’ reading and viewing material of choice. And I refuse to feel guilty about this.

Fantasy gets a bad press. I’ve mentioned this before, in passing, but I think the reason I value it is because, contrary to what is often said about it, it deals very much with issues of real importance in life.

Rather than look at problems arising out of the day-to-day, such as relationship break-ups, job hassles, or money worries, fantasy goes straight to the point of ‘why are we here?’, ‘what is our purpose in life?’, ‘what path should we choose?’. It’s about the ultimate battle between good and evil – and, even though we don’t generally think of our own lives in these terms, perhaps we should, even if only occasionally.

How many times have you…

  • …been drawn in to a conversation that’s essentially a bitching session about someone who isn’t there?
  • …cut someone up in traffic because they behaved like an idiot half a mile back?
  • …excluded someone from a gathering because you wanted to ‘get them back’ for something (perhaps genuinely awful) they did to you on a previous occasion?

All these are instances of the small ways in which bad feeling perpetuates itself throughout the world. It might seem excessive to say that one bitchy comment is the slippery slope to a dictatorship by the Dark Lord, but in all these situations, a negative action is taken over a positive one – and it’s worth remembering that, however unfair life seems at times, we do have a choice over how we react to it. We can feed the anger – or we can choose to focus on what is good, helpful, and constructive.

Fantasy, for me, highlights that we have this choice in our everyday lives – and that it matters. Not all of the characters in The Lord of the Rings are on an important quest to destroy the One Ring; but there is not a single person in Middle-earth whose actions, however small they might seem, do not impact in some way on the difficulty or ease with which Frodo pursues his quest.

The Lord of the Rings was the first book that encouraged me to see these issues for real – and to try (with varying degrees of success) to live my life accordingly.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Well, I was going to write a blog post, ‘In Defence of Fantasy’, but I feel I’ve just done that above! I may see if I can write something a little more considered, perhaps with examples, as I do feel my views on this subject warrant a bigger outlet than just this post.

I’ve also started thinking about where I will go with my writing when this book challenge is over. I’ve been enjoying it so much that I’ve more or less decided to do it on a regular basis, i.e. each year select a new list of books and blog about them – with a different focus each time. And perhaps my focus for Year 2 could be fantasy…

It’s worth saying at this point that I also plan to bring together these blog posts into a book, which I will publish when the year is over. In addition to the original posts, I’ll be adding 3-month updates to each one, reporting on whether the changes I said I’d make have actually stuck; and I will also (fingers crossed) be commissioning some wonderful illustrations to accompany each entry. Stay tuned to my Writing News section for updates!

One last comment on the real-world application of the above musings. We’re rapidly approaching a general election here in the UK, and this would seem a perfect opportunity for me to put my vote where my mouth is. Will I choose a party who represents what I believe to be good and right, regardless of their chances of getting in? Or will I opt for one who stands the best chance of being elected and thereby being in a position to make a practical difference?

I may or may not share my voting decision with you, but I will be certain to apply the lessons from this post in the way I reach that decision.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!