Earlier this week I watched Jennifer Byrne present a program on fantasy. As a reader and writer of fantasy (among other things), I found the panel discussion a bit shallow and (surprisingly, given it was on the ABC) fully embracing the market categorisation of fantasy rather than a decent discussion of just what might comprise fantasy as an aesthetic category. But then, perhaps it was not so surprising. Now, this might strike some as pedantry, but every time ‘fantasy’ is reduced to epic fantasy serials in the medievalist vein, filled with elves and dragons and wizards, I get a serious case of the irrits. This is not because I dislike fantasy serials in the medievalist vein; it is because it confuses part for sum.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with medievalist fantasy (other than the stiffy many of its authors have for Tolkien), but fantasy is so much more, with writers as diverse as Phillip Pullman, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, China Mieville, Susanna Clarke, Philip Reeve, Samuel Delany, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Tim Powers, Hal Duncan and Jeffrey Ford. Some of them have written about dragons, most of them haven’t. Most of them have produced wonderfully written pieces of imaginative literature, all of them vastly different in theme and style. Not all fantasy is about wizards and dragons.
Yes, it is largely a problem of nomenclature and the word ‘fantasy’ itself has had a long, contradictory history. The word’s origin in Greek, phantasia, literally means ‘a making visible’, then in the Middle Ages it took on a more philosophical hue, meaning ‘the mental apprehension of an object of perception’. As Ursula Le Guin points out, it now means almost exactly the opposite: ‘things that aren’t perceived or present in our experience.’
Now, fantasy is antonymous with reality, both in the general sense and in the literary classification. As modes of writing, fantasy and ‘realistic’ fiction are often critically juxtaposed. Thus, fantasy scurries away from reality and is characterised as escapism, whereas Serious Literature apparently faces reality head on. This distinction has always been curious to me. The argument seems to be that fantasy readers do not wish to face the harsh realities of the world so they escape into a nonexistent world where wonders are worked. But are not all pieces of fiction set in a nonexistent world, where wonders are worked? Extraordinary, supernatural wonders are not often literalised in Serious Literature, but when was the last time you telepathically explored the psyche of another person, eavesdropping on their internal monologue? That seems kind of magical and wondrous to me.
Fantasy does not disavow what is real; it relies on what is real. After all, one can only define what doesn’t exist by what does. Returning to Le Guin, she defines the ambiguity inherent in the term and the concept of fantasy as something of a liberation:
[fantasy] remains ambiguous, standing between the false, the foolish, the delusory, the shallows of the mind, and the mind’s deep connection with the real. On this threshold it sometimes faces one way, masked and costumed, frivolous, an escapist; then it turns, and we glimpse as it turns the face of an angel, bright truthful messenger, arisen Urizen.
This may be a philosophically idealistic way of looking at it, but fantasy is not a genre. It is the very opposite of genre, if we are to interpret genre as a set of limitations. Science fiction’s generic limitation, for instance, is the application of extrapolated scientific principles. It works with possibilities, probabilities, imagining the consequences of technology and human knowledge. The future is explained, or else explains itself through its very depiction. Horror fiction’s generic limitation is that it must induce fear or perhaps some kind of abjection. Crime fiction requires a crime. Fantasy—in the more vast sense of the term—has no generic limitations. A work of fantasy’s only limitation is the imagination and inventiveness of its creator. It is a form of literature with boundless creative scope.
And yet, the market wills it otherwise. The meaning of the word ‘fantasy’ has morphed once again, now primarily signifying a particular type of work. Often, when you think fantasy, you think Tolkien and his countless imitators. And you cannot help it – that is the stuff that sells. Stuff that sells, especially in a bookstore, needs a category, and so we have elves + dragons + knights + magic = fantasy. Again, my problem is not with the categorisation itself (we need to know where to find things we want to read in a bookstore), but with the logic of the market transforming the semiotic associations of a mode of imaginative literature that can be broad, beautiful and potentially boundless.
A particular sub-branch of fantasy is now what most people associate with it as a whole. That is a shame, considering that of all the forms of fiction, fantasy is the least deserving of this sort of reductive thinking, with plenty more to offer than just wizards and dragons.