Most fiction is about a battle between Good and Evil. The Evil may be a sadistic schoolteacher or Adolf Hitler, but this is still Evil, and it is balanced by a protagonist who presumably seeks to overcome it. Fantasy is richer and deeper than reality, its blacks more black and its whites more brilliantly white than any black-and-white we know in our world. Here, Good is often faced by the likes of Smaug the Dragon, Sauron the Lord of the Rings and his phantom army of Ringwraiths, or Darth Vader and his Evil Emperor. In fantasy, Evil stands ready to shatter the world, or even the galaxy; and the forces of Good are always ready to stand and defend it. It’s a larger-than-life battlefield, where Good and Evil turn into avatars and battle it out for the right to rule the world or destroy it.
Fantasy is not new.
Lord Dunsany and Spenser were writing what would today be called fantasy back in the days when Gloriana still sat on the throne of England, and even Shakespeare was known to invoke Titania and Oberon when he required a light touch of the fantastic. But it was the distant rumbling of “The Hobbit” (published in 1937), followed by the thunder that was “Lord of the Rings” in the early 1950s, that heralded the real beginning of fantasy as a modern literary genre. J.R.R.Tolkien who established the dominance of the trilogy as the pre-eminent form by which fantasy would define itself, and “Lord of the Rings” was a seminal work grand in scope and imagination. Many an up-and-coming young writer’s publishers sought to launch a career by providing a blurb along the lines of “The Heir to Tolkien!!!” – alas, rarely deserved.
Tolkien clones – both the good and the bad – quickly flooded the market. For some reason fantasy was perceived as easier to write than mainstream fiction. One of the justifications proffered for this misguided opinion was simply that the story in mainstream fiction was rooted in the familiar everyday world and had to be plausible in the context of that world. Should one say something stupid or ill-informed in the course of such a work, there would always be at least ONE knowledgeable reader ready to expose the writer as a fraud and pick the whole thing apart. On the other hand, there appears to be a prevalent belief that writing a fantasy somehow requries less effort, as though, once you’ve broken the rules of the real world, it really doesn’t matter what you do next.
In truth, fantasy is harder to write than the average mainstream novel. It is easy enough for an author to remain consistent when dealing with the real world that surrounds us. In fantasy, however, the rules of the created world are different and the author has to constantly remember exactly which rules are different and how. A character may be killed by telepathic command, for example, but only if such an act has been previously established as possible in the world in which such a killing takes place. Fantasy protagonists simply must exist, body and soul, in their own world, and their problems must be solved through their own efforts and not some deus ex machina author intervention when they had been painted into a corner by the storyline. Special powers can’t be invented at the point of the story where they are required. If they are not set up at the outset, then they do not exist, however much they might be needed in some future crisis.
They may not be OUR rules, but fantasy worlds do have rules, quite specific and often very rigid ones, and what transpires in that world must be consistent with those rules. When looked at it from this point of view, things suddenly appear very different – the writer no longer has the comfort of relying on the real-world set of laws and conventions which other people have set up. No, the writer is wholly and completely responsible for the world being created, for the people who inhabit it, and for the readers invited to step inside.
Fifty years after the publication of the “Lord of the Rings”, the great trilogy is being released as three full-length movies directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson. The interest has been phenomenal, with countless articles and multiple websites being devoted to the subject. When the production company released the first “Lord of the Rings” preview trailer on the Internet, millions of people downloaded the short film clip into their computers; the movie itself has broken box-office records and gathered praise from both fans and critics in the aftermath of its long-awaited release in December 2001. Whether the films meet fans’ expectations or not, one thing is for certain – there is a whole new cadre of devotees just waiting out there to be wooed with a good strange new world.
But why does fantasy touch such a deep chord? What is it about the human spirit that responds to the “unseen”? The same reaction has fuelled fans of Tolkien, and of the X-Files; of Guy Gavriel Kay’s rich world of Tigana and of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and of George Lucas’s “Star Wars”. Weighty tomes of novels and series of novels, TV series, graphic novels and cartoons, motion pictures – the medium is irrelevant. It is the fantasy within that calls.
Tolkien, the Grand Master, wrote an essay on fantasy and on what he called the process of “sub-creation”, the invention of an alternate reality in a fantasy world. He scorns the label of “escapism” which is so often slapped on fantasy in all its incarnations, and trenchantly says that the only people who could possibly be so vicious in the application of the term “escapism” are jailors.
This may be part of the key to fantasy’s charm. One way or another we have made our reality an incredibly complicated (as opposed to complex), problem-ridden, frightening and sometimes arbitraily vicious environment. When daily news bombards one with constant images of people dying through various inventive and unpleasant methods, and ways of justifying that dying from the side of one or the other adversary involved in any given conflict where the “raison du guerre” is often murky and rather random in nature, it is not inconceivable that the mind and the spirit recoil and seek another sanctuary.
This is not to say that fantasy is unicorns and fluffy bunnies all the way. Indeed, fantasy literature is often violent – but the salient point is that the violence is defined and justified, and has an end. When the just war has been waged and won, justice prevails. In the real world, things are a lot less reliable. Alliances shift, and we turn on our friends because in the politics of the day they are expendable. We cannot agree on the definition of “terrorism” for the simple reason that those on the receiving end of it call it a crime and those who risk their lives to perform such acts do so for what often seem to be very good reasons from their point of view. When the ANC was fighing to come to power in South Africa, for example, they were terrorists to a man. When they achieved their aim they were reborn as freedom fighters who fought to liberate their country from oppression. And you know what? Both are right. Depends whether you’re holding the gun or staring down its barrel at any given momen t in time.
People are flocking in their thousands, in their millions, to see films like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and part one of the “Lord of the Rings” epic. It’s a respite, a cause, a reason to believe in a definition of Good and Evil that does not require dictionaries or encyclopedias or biased history books written by winners of wars and thus telling only one side of the story for all posterity. You do not have to decide. All you have to do is cheer for the Light, and watch the vanquishing of the Darkness, in whatever shape or form these have been presented in the fantasy world you are visiting.
It’s a hell of a relief, sometimes. Fantasy asks for the judgment of a human being’s heart and spirit, not the logical part of the brain, not the necessity to weigh propaganda against pleas for help and to make a decision which is which – a decision that could mean the life or death of real people.
But the decision of the heart and spirit is not the mere escapism that the detractors accuse fantasy of being. Fantasy is also the training ground where the logical mind learns to trust those other components of the human gestalt, to the extent of maybe, someday, in a situation dealing with concrete realities and genuine blood and guts of actual human beings, influencing and tempering decisions that have to be made in that hour. Trust the heart. Machines may be taught logic, but not empathy or compassion – and a human being who does not possess or trust those attributes is, in essential form, no more than such a machine.
People are looking for meaning. Many turn to religion and the various faiths which flourish in the world today. The problem with religion as the sole answer to the question of meaning is that it is so often adulterated with dogma and weighed down with protocol, the protection of the privileges of the priestly caste, and the frequent insistence of any one given religion that all of the others are at best bunkum and and at worst dangerous enough to be annihilated with fire and sword. It is religious intolerance, in part or as a moving force, that smouldered at the inception of the Crusades in medieval times; in the expulsion of the Huguenots from France; in the myriads of Catholic-Protestant conflicts over the centuries; of the Cherokee Trail of Tears where a nation’s cultural and religious beliefs were thrown into indiscriminate upheaval because the people who held them were inconvenient and in the way of progress.
Fantasy may be a violent genre, but it also, to an extraordinary extent, values life over senseless death – and more than that, it values living. Fantasy lives are so rarely a mere existence on a day to day basis – people in these stories are all here because they need to be here, because they have a role, a destiny, a sense that because of their presence and their actions the Universe is unfolding the way it should.
And that is the gift that makes people reach for the fantasy in this world. It makes individuals examine their own destiny. It gives every life value, no matter how insignificant it may appear. To paraphrase a wonderful line that Tolkien put into the mouth of Gandalf, his wise wizard – it does not matter how much time we are given in this world, what matters is what we do with the time that we have got. Learning to understand that conundrum is at the heart of a meaningful existence. And it is neither more nor less than that understanding that lies at the root of the somewhat fraught relationship which has always existed between fantasy and the audience that receives it.
Fantasy does not require blind obedience to a priest, a king, or a president. Its only demand is that seekers be true unto themselves.
This is a powerful affirmation.
Powerful enough to keep people flocking to the bookstores and the movie theatres, perhaps. And maybe, just maybe, the things learned there will help us live in the reality that we have made for ourselves.
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Alma A. Hromic, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.