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All those wizards and dragons

Ye olde wizards and dragons – By Rhea C.

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.

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Comments

  1. Hi

    You raise some interesting points in your post about how genre’s are decided and classified and how the term itself can be represented. I studied Children’s and Young Adult Fantasy Literature at uni last year and the books covered in the course were an interesting mix ranging from steam punk to the Ursula Le Guin book, The Wizard of Earthsea. In this course and in subsequent English courses there has definitely been some confusion about what constitutes a genre and what doesn’t. The other interesting point is about the books that are regarded by academia as worth studying – thereby setting up another branch or sub-branch called Literary Literature.

    Olga from http://revedoa@blogspot.com

  2. Nice post. Must say, the prospect of a “literary” show (was it the book show?) doing fantasy doesn’t exactly fill me with glee. Almost no genre needs a more delicate touch.

    • Yeah, it was the book show, or some “fantasy special” version of it. Every time someone said
      “fantasy is all about good and evil” or “there HAS to be magic” without being challenged, I got annoyed. But then, that show annoys me in general, as it champions a smug middle-brow approach to literature.

  3. Great post thanks Matthew. I’ve just checked out the fantasy ep of First Tues Bookclub and agree that it went off track (didn’t watch it all) but it did start very promisingly, with opening spiel about fantasy being the oldest form of fiction with its roots going back to the very start of story itself, from the Odyssey to Beowulf, from the 1001 Nights to the legends of King Arthur. So far so good, including the opening question: ‘so how did fantasy come to be segregated from its literary roots?’ But yes, then devolved into chat about wizards and dragons, as you say. (One of my all time favourite novels is Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’ which I’d call fantasy.)

    I’m interested in your idea that fantasy is not only not a genre but is the opposite of genre. So what is fantasy then and – given your line (which I love) ‘But are not all pieces of fiction set in a nonexistent world, where wonders are worked?’ – is all fiction essentially fantasy?

    • Hi Jane,

      I’m not entirely certain just what fantasy is. And I kind of like it that way. I am sympathetic to Le Guin’s thinking–that there is a delectable ambivalence when we try to pin it down. But I am not a “all fiction is fantasy” guy. If we’re being pedantically semantic then yes, I guess it is. But I’d rather not be pedantic. It is obvious that fantasy, as a mode rather than a marketing category or genre, is doing something different to other types of fiction. I guess it comes down to the different ‘horizons of expectations’ for different forms of writing.

      I think fantasy offers more of a permissive context that extends the horizon of expectation almost infinitely. More room to stretch conventional verisimilitude beyond breaking point, to literalise metaphor and to produce images or ideas unrestrained. Yes, I am talking about potential and being idealistic, but it’s good to think about.

      Anyway, that probably doesn’t make any sense! The point is, yes, I agree it’s an interesting question.

  4. Yeah, that does make sense Matthew. And I especially like your comment about literalising metaphor. I’m writing in this area for my PhD (fantasy v realism) and that’s exactly where my research seems to be heading, to an examination of metaphor.

  5. Oh, I want to add more people to your list! Sheri S Tepper in particular has a wonderful knack of building fantasy in ways that have nothing to do with the typical depiction, while Alastair Reynolds largely roams what I think of the sci fi world, yet has startling breaks into truly fascinating fantasy – such as his recent ‘Terminal World’, which was a thrill of a read. I know there are others I love, but I’m blanking on names…

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