Why Fantasy Matters

Hello again, dear readers: prepare yourselves for an argument.

I do mean ‘argument’, by the way, not ‘flaming row’. It is my intention to argue, to ‘debate and persuade by means of reason and logic’, not ‘scream at you until you give in’, which is how teenagers, or fundamentalists, or cats, argue.

I’ve been thinking about fantasy recently, for a couple of reasons. I went and saw Roland Emmerich‘s new film, 2012, on Saturday night; and I’ve been writing a festive Screwtape Letter for the church magazine, which needs to be finished and submitted by the end of the week, so that I can re-read it (I have also been given the job of copy-editor on said magazine, which does not as yet have a title. Some have suggested ‘St. Columba’s Chronicle’, others have asked for ‘St. Columba’s Coracle’: I vote we split the difference and call it ‘St. Columba’s Carbuncle’. There could be regular features columns that continue the linguistic experiment: there are lots of doctors in the church, so there could be regular health advice, ‘St. Columba’s Clinical’; news from the church office, ‘St. Columba’s Clerical’; the music group, ‘St. Columba’s Canticle’; and maybe even a puzzles page, ‘St. Columba’s Quizzical’).

Screwtape will appear on this blog in due course, encouraging us to “Wreck the halls with bouts of folly (tra la la la la, la la la la)” but in the meantime I’ve been thinking about other things I want to discuss with you. I’ve been reading Fantasy again, and also Charlie Brooker’s new book, “The Hell of it All”, which comes with both a language warning (for those of you offended by bad language) and an enthusiastic thumbs up from me, who isn’t offended and in fact found one of his non-sweary columns so funny it made me laugh until I cried. In fact, because I’m nothing if not enthusiastic about sharing this kind of stuff, here is that very column. Thank me later. Brooker’s book is relevent because, as the linked column indicates, he lives his life at some kind of right-angle to reality and the resulting magical realism of his columns makes for very entertaining reading. Brooker also writes quite a lot about reality television, and reality television is a very good example indeed of total fantasy.

I care about this because fantasy matters. It matters a lot. It matters so much more than many people think. And the reason it matters (there are many, but this is the big one) is that it enables us to examine ourselves in a way we can tolerate.

I’m not talking here about the hideously clunking machinery of Allegory. There are very few allegories that stand up to serious scrutiny and emerge with their reputations as stories still intact. They are portentous, and, as a result, are usually dull beyond the bounds of any reasonable definition of tedium. This is the prime (and horribly massive) failing of so much Christian fiction. The authors are so busy trying to Tell Us What The Story Means that they end up forgetting to Tell Us The Damn Story. It really, really gets on my nerves, for the simple reason that it’s a tremendously bad way to communicate anything effectively.

Human beings live at the place where stories become real, or perhaps at the place where reality becomes a story. There’s an argument – not one I fully hold with, but quite valid nonetheless – that human beings are not members of that species ‘Homo Sapiens’, the ‘Man Who Knows’, but ‘Pan Narrans’, the ‘Ape Who Tells Stories’. And all stories, technically, are fantasies, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either an idiot who hasn’t fully thought through the implications of what he’s saying, or he’s tremendously clever and has decided to lie to you.

The reason why all stories are fantasies is very simple and would be depressing if it wasn’t quite so liberating: no one, fundamentally, has any real clue as to what’s going on. There’s too much information involved, and we don’t possess all of it, and then we have to work out what, of the bits we do have, to ignore. Telling stories is mostly about leaving stuff out. Try telling everything if you don’t believe me. The next time someone asks you how your day was, give them every single relevant piece of information. Tell them how many times you breathed. Tell them what your heartrate was. Tell them all the emotional highs and lows, and every single part of the transitions between them. Tell them every conversation, no matter how inconsequential; tell them every daydream, every idle thought, every decision important and minor.

You can’t do it. Partly because you simply don’t recall that information to that level of detail, and partly because the task would take you a week. In order to answer the question “How was your day?” you are forced to make something up, something that, depending on your inclination and the interest of your interrogator, bears a closer or looser resemblance to the full truth of the story. You are forced, in other words, to create a fantasy.

Fantasy is the ground state of all stories, even the true ones. I’ll go out on a limb here and add that even books of received wisdom are fantasies. The Bible – and I say this as a Christian – is a fantasy. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien agreed on this, though they phrased it rather better: “Of course the contents of the Bible constitute a myth. It’s just a myth that happens to be true.” Myths, in turn, are important, because they are the examples par excellence of the meta-narrative, the big, overarching storyline to which we can all adhere because our own little stories tend to match up with them. The reason why Shakespeare remains on school curricula is not so much the beauty of his language (though you would have to go a very long way to find anyone comparable, and even then I suspect you’d be looking among the great poets – Dante, say, or Milton – rather than among playwrights or prosaists) but because he is the great storyteller of English. Shakespeare’s plays are the definitive works on emotion, virtue and vice: what is Macbeth if not the greatest story of ambition ever told? Othello if not jealousy? King Lear if not hubris? They become myths through their universal relevance.

All of which puts The Lord of the Rings into an interesting place. It’s not big enough to become a myth, not strong enough to stand alongside other great works of literature (don’t get me wrong, I love the story, but sometimes the language is just crashingly awful. As a friend of mine once put it, “Oh no, not Lord of the Rings…it’s just elves wandering around singing at bloody trees.” Or, as Hugo Dyson, Tolkien’s friend and fellow academic, once put it at a meeting of the Inklings in which Tolkien was reading from his then work-in-progress, “Oh f***, not another elf!”) What it does accomplish, however, is to believe completely in itself. It takes itself seriously. In some respects it is rendered impervious to standard literary criticism because of that: it doesn’t care whether it’s well-written or not because “the play’s the thing”. It is in the business of what’s called ‘Mythopoeia’, myth-making, but what it ends up being isn’t a myth, exactly, as much as it is an escape map.

Ah yes. Escapism. Well, we had to come to this eventually, so let’s gird our loins and face the issue foursquare. Tolkien once coined the aphorism, defending his books’ offer of escapism, that it is “Jailer[s who] don’t like escapism.” (Alright, you pedants, that was Terry Pratchett’s paraphrase of Tolkien’s thesis, but it was Tolkien’s thesis, in his massively influential essay “On Fairy-Stories“). Michael Moorcock’s devastating riposte to this, in his essay against Tolkien’s thesis, “Epic Pooh“, is that jailers love escapism – what they don’t like is escape. China Mieville continues the argument, explaining that “The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can’t escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren’t about the real world they therefore ‘escape’ is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality.” He’s right, but I’m not sure that he hasn’t confused the baby with the bathwater. When I read literature to escape, of course I bring my culture and history with me. But Mieville is wrong to assert that that essentially political construct is what I am trying to escape. When I was at school, and having an unremittingly horrendous time of it, I read to escape. I was at school in the dying days of the Troubles, but the Troubles (my culture, my history and society) weren’t my primary concern: my primary concern was the bastards I had to share the classroom with. And I could escape them: they were my jailers, not my political surrounds. (My synthesis, therefore, of Tolkien’s thesis and Moorcock’s antithesis, is that jailers, when they’re there in the room with you, hate both escapism and escape).

However, I take on board Moorcock and Mieville’s criticism that Fantasy should not be seen as inherently escapist, or, at least, no more so than any other genre of literature. I also take on board the fact that Fantasy, and particularly ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy, world-building fantasy, tends to be political, but not necessarily well-thought-out political. (Mieville, again, draws attention to the regrettable cliché that “if there’s a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it’s because he’s a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they’re likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it’s a bad kingdom…). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters–and often whole races–lining up to fall into pigeonholes with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ written on them.“) This is something that Terry Pratchett’s most recent novel, Unseen Academicals, addresses: the protagonist is an Orc. But he’s not the traditional Orc, the Tolkienian Orc; he’s his own person, with a corresponding capacity to make his own moral choices. (I offer this evidence topped and tailed with provisos: Mr Nutt the Orc comes from a race bred for carnage, as in Tolkien, but his upbringing has been hugely atypical.)

Which leads us, neatly (because I can both essay a segue and segue an essay) to Terry Pratchett and my original contention that what Fantasy excels at is its ability to hold a mirror up to reality in such a way as we can examine ourselves without flinching – or at least, not at first. Pratchett is brilliant at this sort of thing, particularly since he stopped chasing after the joke and started chasing after the story (a point raised by Neil Gaiman). So too is Mieville, though they approach it from vastly different angles: Mieville is more overtly and explicitly political, while Pratchett looks more wryly, with a more obviously humanist perspective, at mundanities and trivialities and reminds us, the readers, that these are our mundanities and trivialities too. We might not have to battle dragons, exactly, but we do have to battle against the corrupting influence of power, at however petty a level. Both oppose the ‘consolation’ that Tolkien posited was Fantasy’s purpose, by reminding us that we are not to be consoled in our inadequacies but, rather, that we should strive to overcome them. Fantasy matters, ultimately, because it enables us to imagine ourselves, better. After that, all we have to do is live up to our own expectations.

“Fantasy is like alcohol – too much is bad for you, a little bit makes the world a better place. Like an exercise bicycle it takes you nowhere, but it just might tone up the muscles that will. Daydreaming got us where we are today; early on in our evolution we learned to let our minds wander so well that they started coming back with souvenirs. After all, if we didn’t have the ability occasionally to unfocus reality, we’d still be sitting by the ancient river – fearful of the plop.”

– Terry Pratchett

Your Zen for today:

Don't tell Mieville, but there's a King at Perdido Street Station... King George V arrives at the head of the afternoon express

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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