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?