Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Brief Defense of Fantasy

I have a very intelligent, very funny and witty aunt who can't stand to read fantasy books. During the height of the Harry Potter craze, I overheard her talking about how she just didn't get it. She had tried reading Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling, only to be very frustrated with the books. She just couldn't get over the fact that these worlds were NOT REAL, and how on earth could people, adults specifically, find this childish make believe interesting?

My gut instinct was to feel very, very sorry for my aunt, because how dull must life be if only lived in the real world? I thought she was particularly crazy for her inability to appreciate fantasy, but I've since learned that many people share her opinion. In fact, most of the adults I meet these days, even ones who are voracious readers, don't care much for fantasy. Apparently, I'm the crazy one for enjoying it like I do. "Normal" adults seem to believe that fantasy books belong in the realm of children's or young adult literature, and adult fantasy is written only for that nerdy subset of socially awkward people who never grew up and moved out of their parent's basements.

Well, I mean no offense to all the intelligent readers out there who personally have no taste for fantasy, but I would like to take a moment to defend the genre against general snubbery. Here are a few of my points of defense:

1. Many dismiss fantasy as mere fluff, escapist literature with no greater value than to entertain. I take issue with this. After all, even Shakespeare wrote about fairies and magic, and his target audience was never children. Fairy tales themselves hardly originated as stories for children (have you read the original Brothers Grimm?). So our culture as a whole used to find some value in such fantastical stories for adults. Have we, as a scientific, modern society outgrown the need for such stories as adults? Or have we lost something valuable, if intangible, in rejecting this way of expanding our minds? You might guess I believe the latter.

2. Writers of fantasy are often snubbed by the literary canon and those scholars of literature who deign themselves wise enough to create such a canon. I have often reflected on why this is. While I agree that much fantasy is formulaic and poorly written, I believe this same feature is true of most genres. Truly well written fantasy actually requires an immense amount of work on the part of the author, for they must create an entirely new world with a history and often a language all their own (Tolkien, anyone?). They must create laws of magic, often as complex as the laws of physics in our own universe, and then they must craft a story and develop characters within this world, keeping everything straight and presenting the story clearly enough for the reader to understand. This ability to create a new world, and tell a story within it, is extremely difficult to do well. I feel these authors deserve more due for their extraordinary efforts.

3. While the worlds and magics may be NOT REAL, the story still resonates. What is it about the hero's journey, or the buldingsroman, the coming-of-age story, that speaks so directly to our cultural conscious? That is a question for academic consideration. And often I've found that questions of morality, of good vs. evil, of virtue and goodness, and of complex human emotion, affect me in deeper ways that influence my behavior in the real world when presented from the perspective of a not-so-real world. After all, I want to be that hero.

Maybe those arguments are not as eloquent or fleshed out as they might be, but the point is, I find a lot of value in fantasy. Or maybe it's just the value I find in stories in general. In my opinion, it is the well-told story that is the highest form of literature. The themes, the lessons, the language all hangs upon the story. There is power in stories, fantastical and otherwise.

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