What is fantasy, exactly? How is it different from other kinds of fiction? Where does it come from? Much better writers than myself have explored these questions over the decades, but they are still fascinating to pursue.
In a sense, all story-telling derives from the human urge to understand the world around us, and most importantly, our place within it. To understand ourselves and the human condition.
In ancient times, that urge led to imagining gods as beings similar in appearance to humans but with immensely greater power. What caused the thunderstorm and the lightning which split apart that tree? Why, there must be a god of the thunder, bellowing with anger, and casting his deadly weapons at the earth. What caused the crops to fail last season? Why, there must be a goddess of the earth, who is displeased with us for some reason.
Such simple concepts are of course the basic foundation of most world religions.
But human beings, it seems, can’t let well enough alone. Once we had invented such powerful beings as gods, then what more natural than for us to spin tales of ever-increasing complexity about their lives, their loves, their jealousies, their battles? Or for us to imagine how the gods have interacted with human beings: ordinary human beings, who take on heroic status by confronting the gods, or meeting the vissitudes and challenges imposed by the gods. Or who fail because of their own inherent flaws.
Here are the roots of both comedy and tragedy. And, of course, of modern fantasy, which at its best draws on these deep sources of myth and transforms it into something new and more relevant to our modern selves.
A sceptic like Dicken’s Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times might say that we have no need for fantasy, that people can live by facts alone, but that is far from the truth, as Gradgrind himself finds out. Stories help us to understand what it means to be human. Here’s Ursula Le Guin, herself one of the most wonderful of story-tellers and a writer of both fantasy and science fiction:
“…a person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. For the story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
—from an essay quoted in The Language of the Night (1979)
So much for stories in general. But what is it that distinguishes fantasy from other forms of literature? There’s no doubt that fantasy is the most ancient form of story-telling, in the myths and legends which I have already discussed. Is that why it seems to have particular force, particular power over us when written well? Fantasy seems to connect with the deepest of our fears, the deepest of our yearnings, in a way which other genres are less able to do. Done well, fantasy writing is modern myth-making, tapping into what the pychologist Carl Jung called “the collective unconscious”.
To do this, fantasy—good fantasy, at least—has to be more than a mundane story dressed up with a few dragons and wizards, just as a good science fiction story has to be more than a commonplace tale dressed up with a few spaceships. Here’s Theodore Sturgeon’s attempt at a definition of science fiction, which I think is pretty good:
“A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.”
—Quoted in The Issue at Hand by William Atheling Jnr (James Blish)
It doesn’t quite work for fantasy if we just substitute in here ‘mythic elements’ for ‘scientific content’, but it does come close. We as humans are interested in stories about human beings and human problems. The key thing about both science fiction and fantasy is that they allow us to cast such problems in unusual ways, allowing the reader to see things from a different angle—in some cases, a very different angle. That fresh angle can often open up real insights. Or it can arouse empathy and understanding of those in very different circumstances from the reader’s own.
Some people seem to consider fantasy to be only suitable for children (although Le Guin mentions a friend reporting that her local library had put The Hobbit only in the adult collection as “we don’t feel that escapism is good for children”). Children, it is true, have an instinctive love for, and understanding of fantasy. Almost all of their natural play is fantasy. “I’m the King of the Castle and you’re the Dirty Rascal”. But “child’s play” is by no means a simple thing.
Diana Wynne Jones, a brillant writer of fantasy, discusses the play of a group of children in a wood playing just these kinds of pretend roles:
I bear in mind .. the peculiar happiness of the children wandering in the wood. They are killing one another, terrifying one another, and (as queens) despising one another and everyone else too. And they are loving it… Fantasy can deal with death, malice, and violence in the same way that the children in the wood are doing. You make clear that it is make-believe. And by showing it applies to nobody, you show that it applies to everyone. It is the way all fairy tales work… It does seem that a fantasy, working out in its own terms, stretching you beyond the normal concerns of your own life, gains you a peculiar charge of energy which inexplicably enriches you. At least, this is my ideal of a fantasy, and I am always trying to write it.
—“The Children in the Wood”, in Reflections (2012)
I’ve long been puzzled by adults who refuse to read books ostensibly written for children. Why let kids have all the fun? And “children’s books” include some of the greatest works of English Literature and certainly some of the greatest works of fantasy.
Setting aside even older classics, if you’ve never read Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It; C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, your life is the poorer for it. If you did read them as a child, you will be surprised at how well they repay re-reading. In more recent times, no adult should miss reading Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence, Neil Gaiman’s An Ocean at the End of the Lane, Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels, Diana Wynne Jones’ The Lives of Christopher Chant, and for that matter J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Fantasy written explicitly for adults can perhaps be darker, and tackle more troubling concerns than those of children, but not by much. There may be little or no sex scenes in children’s fantasy, but other than that, fantasy for children written by the best writers can be just as challenging and thought-provoking as anything written for an adult
As Diana Wynne Jones says, fantasy “gains you a peculiar charge of energy which inexplicably enriches you.”
What more could we ask for?