Reconciling the Fantastic and the Literary

Centuries ago, as it is said, man looked at the world around him, and wondered. The why of existence captivated him, and so did its purpose. The result? He made up stories to explain it. Gave new reasons to old sights.

Then came science, reason, cultural and sociological evolution. Logic worked its way into mankind, and the world became less mysterious—its wonders suddenly had explanations, purposes that didn’t end in men hurling lightning bolts from the clouds (though I think that old way’s better. Cooler, at the least). Mankind grew up. What’s more, in growing up, it struggled to capture pieces of the world around it, and put less and less stock in notion of fancy. That realm, they left to children.

An iconic image for us all, to be sure...

No one can deny it fits nicely into the child’s realm. Such fantasy, such imagination—it cultivates and reorganizes the child’s dreams, the way they interact with the reality around them. Sounds good, right? Nice and simple? Yet the funny part is, as much as the world has tried to turn its back on all things fantastic, the fact is, children aren’t the only ones mired in imagination. Though man has grown up, fantasy still has a key place in the psyche—it is engrained in the cultural fault lines of our society, though the form may change in time.

Fantasy captures and captivates that part of us that longs for an escape from the reasonable, from the knowledgeable details of everyday life. If allows us to ask the great “what-ifs,” and break the boundaries the universe itself has deigned to slap on our weary bones. We enjoy the limitless complexity. Reality remains, in truth, a place contrary to our desires of self-importance. It has this habit of beating us down for thinking as such. Yet in fantasy, we meet characters who truly are important—who are key to the salvation of people, worlds, even universes, and we lose ourselves in them. It gives us a glimpse of grounding, and focus, that many of us will never know.

Yes, that’s right, I said fantasy grounds. It may let us fly to the boundless ends of the universe, but by god, it grounds us in questions.

Fellow fantasy author R. Scott Bakker once wrote that epic fantasy “possesses tremendous social and cultural significance, recording, at almost every turn, the antagonism between modernity and the human soul.” I don’t doubt it. In fact, I embrace that view. Many of us long for something different, an escape from the crushing reality of the modern world. We know our history, and to an extent, we know our future. Yet we can dream. We like to posit new possibilities, however unlikely. We love to dream up all the ways things could be different, even if we know they can’t, because it helps us cope.

But wait! Surely I’ve just provided ample reasoning and evidence for critics’ often uttered denunciation of this genre as mere escapism. Not so, dear fellows. This isn’t myth. These aren’t the old legends our ancestors told themselves to help the world make sense. We know fantasy fiction is just that—fiction. Hell, it’s more fictional than fiction. Fiction takes place in our own cities, our own homes. Fantasy takes place in realms and lands that never could have been.

One of Bakker's gems.

What’s more, it helps us to understand our world, and our relation to it. Yes, I’ll say it again—fantasy helps us to understand reality. By seeing what could not be, we are given insight into our own world. We look at it and begin to decipher just why it would not work, fascinating as it may be. We think of the logic behind magic, for example, how it works in the framework of the presented world, and inevitably find ourselves reclining on the thought of why it doesn’t work in our own.

Too often, I’ve heard people claim that fantasy offers nothing to the world. It’s simply not true. It helps us think. It broadens the mind beyond boundaries modernity ingrains into us. In a way, it sets us free.

…though I must admit, the world would be so much more exciting if we did have a touch of magic to brighten up the day. Make that noisy neighbor a newt for an hour or two? Yes, please.

Why, that’s probably why the genre sells so well. Crafty devils, we.

7 thoughts on “Reconciling the Fantastic and the Literary

  1. My, my!! This was ver intriguing! I am going to have to print this one out and read it over and do much highlighting :). You have me thinking! … A lot 🙂


  2. Great post, Chris! I love what you say about fantasy. I would like to think I was raised Sendarian by David Eddings and that I learned much of my independence from Patricia Wrede and L.J. Smith. I take much of my moral spectrum from those worlds, and I’ve learned what little wisdom I have from them as well.

    • And now you frequently pass said wisdom onto all those of us wandering the vast domains of the blogosphere. It’s a bloody good system, it is.

      Also: Sendarian, eh?

    • I’m honored! Hell, I settle for a swing-through from most people. That you’d want to come back and read a whole post through a second time, well…that tickles up a smile, it does. Glad you enjoyed.

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