Reading fantasy

Arundel Castle quadrangle, from an old postcard
Arundel Castle quadrangle, from an old postcard

In a sense all fiction is fantasy, isn’t it? Derived from Latin phantasia, ‘fantasy’ comes ultimately from the Greek word φαντασια, ‘imagination, appearance, apparition’, formed from a verb meaning ‘to make visible’. When we write we create images in the mind of the reader, ‘phantoms’ of what might be real but isn’t; indeed, even non-fiction is always a construct which, while trying to reflect reality, necessarily creates an illusion seen from the particular point of view of the writer.

Nowadays, though, fantasy is genre-specific: it implies magic, imagined new worlds, new eras, often contingent on our own but having no true existence. Sometimes literary snobs call their preferred fantasy ‘magic realism’, as if a different label fools anyone, but of course magic realism is fantasy, pure and simple. Fantasy is often dismissed as not only essentially unreal but also escapist, for people who can’t accept how the world actually is or even was. A shame, this, as fantasy fiction has a way of commenting obliquely on ‘real life’, by which I mean the life of our imagination through which we mediate all that we experience.

How do you read fantasy? Do you race through it for that sense of brief escape? Do you obsess about it, write fan fiction around it, role-play parts in costume, communicate with like-minded individuals and treat the key characters as if they are, indeed, real people? Or do you approach each work as a piece of literature and accord the author a bit of respect for their role as demiurge in the creation of a new world?

Here’s how I approach fantasy (and, by extension, most of what I read): I take notes. Is that a bit nerdy? Not if ‘to be nerdy’ is meant in a pejorative, socially inept and anti-intellectual sense; I see it as being actively interested in things and asking those key questions about it all, namely who? what? when? where? how? and why? When I taught study skills in secondary school many aeons ago the process was called ‘active reading’ (a counterpart of ‘active listening’); related skills were making spidergrams and mindmaps, all designed to stop the recipient from passively and probably transiently processing what they heard or read.

So, my active reading of fantasy involves note-taking. I’ve finally embarked on Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, nearly half a century after I abandoned it as a disappointed student greedily in search of the next The Lord of the Rings. To keep track of what’s going on and to help form those phantoms of the imagination I’m filling pages of a notebook and odd pieces of A4 paper with scribbles. What are these? Here is a sample:

  • maps and plans (which keep growing and expanding)
  • annotated family trees and relationships (a dramatis personae which is also expanding)
  • timelines (I’m discovering the Groans of Gormenghast go back nearly two thousand years, through seventy-seven generations)
  • rituals, social interactions and cultural objects

I regard all this as a creative response to Peake’s vast work, a way of making sense of and keeping track of what’s described, as well as a way of fixing those images (a parallel to the old photographic process) not only in my mind’s eye but as a reference while I continue reading and for eventual review. And did I mention that I’m enjoying all this immensely? That’s a justification in itself, if any other were needed.

That’s then how I read fantasy (and other genres, classics and, of course, non-fiction). So, how do you read yours?


31 thoughts on “Reading fantasy

  1. Q: do you approach each work as a piece of literature and accord the author a bit of respect for their role as demiurge in the creation of a new world?
    A: That sounds like me. See my Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s imagination, which exploits (among other things) Peake’s own statements about being the creator of the world of Titus Groan.
    You seem to assume that imaginative literature creates images in the minds of readers. You might like to consider that not everyone sees pictures; some people’s response is more auditory; others respond with sensations, and a few can smell how the story will turn out.
    I look forward to reading more of how you respond to Peake’s fiction . . . and perhaps his poetry?

    1. Good to hear from you, Peter, especially as you’re clearly well informed about Peake. I’m pleased that he did see himself as a demiurge, and I’m intrigued enough by the title of your book to fully intend to chase it up; thanks for drawing attention to it.

      I took my cue about the visual imagination from the classical etymology, but as a musician I can appreciate that other senses can and do play their parts. I don’t have a developed sense of synesthesia but for me words and visuals work together most strongly, with accents and natural sounds contributing more than, say, smells or tastes. It’s certainly an aspect I’ll bear in mind as I progress with Titus Groan.

  2. Fantasy is akin to metaphor, and thus to poetry — all modes that shake up our assumptions and open us to new possibilities, to surprise and wonder. Yet there are still even greater depths of surprise to be plumbed in the human heart, as we have hardly begun to explore what we may be capable of, for good and ill. That’s why I get impatient when people find fantasy “escapist,” as if that were a bad thing. We need to escape from where we are now, to grow and change, and how can we do that if not by means of the imagination?

    I don’t generally take notes when reading fantasy, although I can certainly see their value when venturing into a place like Gormenghast. But I try to pay close attention to what might be revealed about the world and myself, through this magical medium.

    1. I absolutely agree with you, Lory; life is about living, and human life must be about what distinguishes us from other sentient beings, the presence of a free and unfettered imagination.

      And, to add to your point about notes, there are different ways of responding to a text; I’ve a very visual mind and that works for me, but you and others will be able to absorb a text more efficiently than me and can well do without such props!

  3. Interesting comments on you post. I don’t like the labelling of anything let alone writing genres. I enjoy “escaping” into any kind of fiction or indeed non fiction, that takes my fancy. “Magic” for me is in the world around us in so many forms. From the complexity of our own bodies to nature to the amazing things we can achieve with our brains (like this technology).
    I have read the Gormanghast trilogy and more of Peake – you’re in for a real treat in my opinion.

    1. I tag reviews with genres for those looking for them, Alastair, but really — like you — all I’m after is a good read. And yes, magic’s all around us in the form of nature, science, technology.

      I’m enjoying what I’m reading of Peake so far — great mix of genres in itself so a plague on those who try to pigeonhole it!

  4. You’re so right about fantasy often commenting on our own world – as sci fi does too. I always found Terry Pratchett was very good at that – there was the whole satire on the High Fantasy genre to begin with, then he’d focus on different aspects – cinema, the theatre, sexism, racism – and exploit the ridculous in each subject.
    I just love a book I can vanish into, whether it’s classed as historical, fantasy, sci fi. Just give me a whole world to explore and I’m happy.

    1. That’s what I like about the fantasy I enjoy — and SF too — that predisposition to make the fantastic an intensification of our human fears and desires, concerns and interests, predicanents and wished-for resolutions, to make the unusual relevant. That, Lynn, and of course the magic and the wonder that characterises them!

      1. It’s no wonder genre fiction is so popular is it? In good examples, there’s something in there for everyone. For the seriously minded and for those who just want to escape, and I can’t blame anyone for wishing to do that from time to time

  5. Fantasies (particularly with a quest theme) have become my favourite genre – no doubt that is why I write them and compose music to run on the same lines. I immerse myself in the reading and like the scenes to come alive in my mind. This is a handy gift when editing – it helps to pick out when the picture no longer rings true or when false notes are introduced without reason.
    Unless editing, I don’t analyse but like to go with the flow and immerse myself in the adventure as a participant. This applies particularly when writing. Maybe that’s why developments often take me by surprise.
    I enjoy well-crafted surprises, too. A book I edited recently was unusually rich in them. Great entertainment.

    1. Yes, that quest meme, Col, one of the oldest plots and for many of us a metaphor for Life!

      Your editing skills of course must make you particularly sensitive to how narratives work, Col, if they work and satisfy, and when they don’t. No doubt your figurative blue pencil does a similar job to my detailed note taking …

      1. It is always very subjective, of course. What satisfies me as a narrative will have others sniffing disdainfully and muttering, ‘Trite!’ For one thing, I like happy endings.
        I have not noted anything to make any disparaging notes of in your notes.

        1. Ah, I see what you did there! I meant of course that your editing was a parallel to my note-taking. But your not finding anything to disparage in my commentaries?! You’re just not trying hard enough!!

  6. Exactly my thoughts about fantasy. In fact I wrote a blog post about it a while back. I don’t read fantasy any differently to the way i read any work of fiction. Like you I expect that the hows and whys will all be coherent and feasible. The objection to anachronism, that ‘it’s fantasy so I can write what I like’ is just an excuse for sloppy writing. If you base your fantasy world on an alternate real historical epoch (usually a Tennysonian notion of the high middle ages) you can’t couldn’t and never will be able to walk up to a castle, knock on the door and have a king with a crown come and open it for you. You can’t and couldn’t have a peasant cottage with upstairs bedrooms, a study with books, lamps and writing paper. If an author doesn’t follow the basic rule of treating the reader like an intelligent, questioning human being, I don’t read the book. End of story. Rant over 🙂

    1. Jane, so sorry to have overlooked you thus far — huge apologies, I don’t know how that happened. I totally agree with you, for that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that all good fiction, not just fantasy, entails there must be a large dollop of relevance to real life before our imagination takes flight — or else we risk free fall.

      Of course dream sequences, and more frequently fairytales, allow us to accept a king opening his own front door, but we’d never accept it as commonplace — it’d have to be as a consequence to some unusual circumstance … Mmm, a story suggests itself …

      1. If you can take that serious YA fantasy story I read—where the character knocks on the castle door, the king, crown on head, opens it, and we look straight into the throne room where the queen and the princess are having their breakfast—and make me do anything but laugh, I’d love to read it 🙂

        1. Ah, the scenario was meant to be taken seriously? Then I can see you being justifiably scornful! I can see a Nesbit, a Joan Aiken or a Diana Wynne Jones, for example, weaving a light fantasy around this opening and deliberately making one smile, but as a realistic proposition in an epic fantasy of any pretension? Certainly not! (Are you possibly up to naming and shaming the guilty party?! Would help me avoid said author!)

          1. Sorry, I can’t remember what the book was or why I even contemplated reading it. Maybe it’s the term Medieval fantasy that shouldn’t be used, as it implies that the reader should recognize Medieval Europe in the society, and very often, it’s pure… fantasy 🙂

  7. Calmgrove – I get the strong sense that you have read Nabokov’s ‘Lectures on Literature’. If not, then I think it would be a great pleasure for you – he was big on note-taking and map-making as a reader!

      1. Oh that’s great – actually Nabokov is one of my favourite writers, but I didn’t know about the lectures until someone bought the book for me after a conversation along the lines of your post above. I’m sure you’ll love it. It involves a close look at Works by the following: Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Stevenson, Proust, Kafka and Joyce.

  8. earthbalm

    Great post. I love the idea of taking notes and drawing diagrams to promote an active rather than passive response to a text. It reminds me of some 10 – 15 years ago when we were using DARTS (directed activities responding to texts) in primary school. Would you mind sharing some on this blog or point to posts where you’ve already done so? Hope you don’t mind me asking, I’ve always been a lover of mind maps and spider / cloud diagrams. I begin each new piece of school planning, song writing or web site design in that way.
    Thanks for posting.

    1. An example that springs to mind of a DARTS-type post is a review of Joan Aiken’s The Kingdom Under the Sea ( I included there a sketch-map of routes taken by characters in two Eastern European tales re-told by Aiken, based on scribbles I did as I read the book. It’s entirely diagrammatic, Dale, I suppose a bit akin to Australian aboriginal sand pictures or Hindu mandalas, which as you know were symbolic depictions of the universe or a divinity’s abode (but without the symmetry).

      1. earthbalm

        I did a lot of work on story development at one time which involved children mapping out the development of a narrative. Just like an Australian aboriginal picture. thanks for the URL.

  9. elmediat

    Fantasy, poetry, and dreams are where the conscious and unconscious minds meet and communicate. The waking rational mind builds up complex narrative (events & conflicts) and setting (time & place). The poetic mind calls up metaphor, symbol, image and archetype to reveal that which the waking mind wishes to ignore – multiple points of view, emotional causality, and nonlinear reality.

    The complex narrative and setting can be an immersive experience that allows escape. It can be admired for technique. The greater meaning must be decoded and slowly savoured. 🙂

    Contemplate the levels of meaning found in the cental characters of Harry Potter and Star Trek.

    Choice of Action that synthesizes emotion and logic expressed in the characters of Harry and Kirk.

    Logic and rational of the problem expressed in the characters of Hermione and Spock.

    Emotional evaluation of the problem expressed in the characters of Ron and McCoy.

    Complexity of layers
    – The doctor (medical rationality and surgical precision) with the strongest emotional setting. The emotional and at times over sensitive Ron is a chess player, excellent goal keeper, and puzzle solver.
    – Spock brought up in a culture of Vulcan logic & control must bear the weight of hybrid physiology and psychology. Hermione, a Muggle-born witch – parents are both dentists in London – possesses a brilliant academic mind, and a gifted studious and bookish student.

    1. Your second paragraph encapsulates it all for me, especially the ‘decoding’ and ‘savouring’! And I do like your comparisons between the principal trios in the Harry Potter saga and Star Trek — again, lots of opportunities for savouring this decoding. 🙂

      (I notice I do tend to use just two emoticons online ( 🙂 and 😦 ) and wonder if that’s a symptom of AS, the restrictions social media have in accurately conveying emotions or my general aesthetic dislike of emoticons. Or all three, in fact.)

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