In praise of fantasy

Tiffany Tree of Life
Louis Comfort Tiffany: The Tree of Life stained glass window (source: Wikipedia)

I apologise for returning to the subject of fantasy, a topic which I sometimes feel has been unduly disparaged by some critics. Oxford Dictionaries define it as “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things”. One might surmise that this suggests admirers of fantasy are somehow deluded, a bit like the fantasists who believe in those impossible or improbable things; but I maintain that most aficionados of fantasy know the difference between reality and fiction (“things made up”) and the divide between knowledge and belief.

Let’s go back for a brief moment to the origins of the word: “phantasy” derives from the Greek word φαντός (phantos) meaning visible, and φαίνω ‎(phaínō) I cause to appear, bring to light”: related words like “phantom” and so on ultimately descend from φῶς, Greek for “light”. In other words, one could argue that fantasy is about shining a light on an object, a topic, a notion.

And that’s what I’d like to argue.

At its best the genre of fantasy throws light on an aspect of life; by making it visible it creates an image in our mind, something we accept is part of the process of imagining. All truly creative minds have this faculty, that of “imagining impossible or improbable things” because how else would we have conceived, say, being able to fly (improbable), let alone travel into space (impossible)? It’s even possible to declare that all fiction (and not a little of so-called non-fiction) is fantasy: inventing characters who don’t really exist, getting them to do things in made-up locations, surely these are proofs of the faculty of imagining the impossible?

These thoughts have recently resurfaced because I’ve been concurrently reading two outstanding examples of the fantasy genre: E R Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros and Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. Eddison’s fantasy was published nearly a century ago, in 1922, and came out of a tradition that included William Morris’ high fantasy (such as the 1896 The Well at the World’s End) and James Branch Cabell’s satirical fantasy (his Jurgen was published in 1919), and also looked forward to the epic fantasy of Tolkien and his ilk. On the other hand Katherine Addison’s recent fantasy — it was published in 2014 — while sharing some aspects of the early 20th-century examples of the genre (such as the use of magic, an imagined world and a deliberate archaism) nevertheless strikes a different tone.

The high fantasy of Morris, Cabell and Eddison was profoundly indebted to its mixed heritage of Viking saga, Classical mythology and Arthurian legend, so much so that one can point to turns of phrases and motifs that derive specifically from one or another. High fantasy was a subgenre founded on masculine identity, where prowess and honour dictated one’s attitudes and actions and where women were incidentals in a male-dominated world. This may say a lot about the Western world at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when a harking back to imagined glories and certainties marked a rapidly changing world of technologies, scientific advancement and evolving politics. Whether viewed through Morris’ traditionalist approach, Cabell’s ironic stance or Eddison’s pastiche of saga, fairytale and classicism these high fantasies have a decided commonalty typifying their epoch.

Addison’s high fantasy is descended from this tradition but what a difference a century makes. Equal importance is given to female as to male characters, notwithstanding our witnessing everything through the male protagonist’s viewpoint. Gone are martial acts of derring-do and male posturing righteously presented as the norm; absent are rumours of war except for their distant echoes. Realpolitik is not presented as an inevitable maintenance of a status quo but as pregnant with the possibility of evolving into something more compassionate. Addison* — the pseudonym of Sarah Monette — comes from a background of studying Renaissance Drama, especially English revenge tragedies, and knows the intricacies of court intrigue; despite the mentions of dream-prognostication and practical magic, steampunk touches like airships and the presence of elves and goblins this could easily be a depiction of the to-and-fro in a 6th-century Byzantine imperial palace.There are also echoes of Ursula Le Guin at times.

I dare to state the obvious: the best fantasies I think do indeed shine a light on us. By setting their action largely in timeless worlds where Fate and Magic dot the imaginative landscape or rule lives they can appear to be merely an escape from the realities of our troubled present world. If they can get us to think and to question whether men are superior to women, or whether war is inevitable and hate endemic, then we can well imagine circumstances where things could be more equable, more fair, more humane; where we might even be in the position to do something about it; and where there is nothing impossible or improbable about that future.

* * * * *

* You may, as I did, wonder whether Monette chose her pseudonym Addison as a nod to Eddison, though without further research all I can do if throw that out as an idea, a possibility. (The book’s dedication is in fact to her parents, “Katherine on one side, Addison on the other.”) I’ve also touched on some of the psychological benefits of reading fantasy in “The Reliability of Reality“; and there is some scholarly discussion about the critiquing of genre fiction in “Literature, Genre Fiction and Standards of Criticism” which I’m still ruminating over but which you may find interesting. My title is a veiled reference to Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (Moriae Encomium), written by the early 16th-century philosopher and humanist as a critique of the darker practices associated with religion.

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3 thoughts on “In praise of fantasy

  1. Fantasies are all you say, but also enable the story-teller to take the reader to stretches of imagination beyond those of most other genres. I think the test of a good writer is whether one’s disbelief has been suspended or not. The difference between presenting a ‘can’t be true’ as opposed to a ‘could be’. This is why I like SF where the writer is of scientific bent and stretches some of that knowledge to provide explanations for the technology postulated.

    1. Agreed! And what’s increasingly the case, I feel, is that the boundary between ‘hard’ SF — which often treats of extending the present bounds of technology and science into the near-ish future — and the SF that deals with quantum physics and such is as blurred as this last almost metaphysical physics often seems with aspects of classic fantasy. As you note, the test is one’s willing suspension of belief.

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