Fantasy is a Marmite®™* genre for many readers: though there is often a middle ground of those who can take or leave it, there are plenty for whom it is anathema and others who regard it as the only true reflection of their hopes, dreams and, occasionally, nightmares. I myself enjoy many manifestations of the genre but not all appeal to me, by any means.
I often wonder what the sticking point might be for those who are anti-fantasy. Not enough realism? Magic too arbitrary or illogical? Aimed mainly at children or the childish? Too full of clichés? Or is there a deeper root that irks the sceptical?
Much of so-called Epic or High Fantasy is predicated on a sense of Fate or Destiny, with prophecies about someone (a Chosen One, if you like) who will bring about changes to a world order. The term Chosen One was used humorously of Harry Potter, but Lyra’s prophesied role in the worlds of His Dark Materials was specifically hidden from her.
But the whole notion of Fate is a controversial one involving whether free will truly exists, or if there is a Being who has their hands on the controls. I don’t intend to get into the philosophy behind the arguments — it’s beyond my wit, let alone my remit here — except to say that bloody wars have been fought over this very issue.
Two things come out of what to me still smacks a bit of predestination. The first is that classic fantasy has its roots in mythology, as has religion (if you like, religion is mythology saddled with prescribed morals); adding to the mix are elements of legend, folklore and fairytale.
The second aspect that occurs to me is that while the goal may be predetermined in such narratives (fantasy, religion, fairytale, it’s all the same) the way and the manner you get to it isn’t necessarily set. Mistakes, missteps, rogue events — they all imperil the protagonist and make their journey a hazardous pilgrimage, one often stretching over trilogies — or even seven-book sequences.
Like fairytales the idea is to allow the listener or reader to empathise with the protagonist, to appreciate the difficult decisions they usually have to make, to vicariously experience their thoughts and actions, and to interact with the archetypes they meet along the way. A basic humanitarianism or morality is the crucial ingredient, particularly an all-encompassing and ultimately unselfish love.
I write all this as a sort of response to thoughts expressed in Alicia’s comment on a post on Jeanne’s Necromancy Never Pays blog, not to necessarily disagree with them but to express my belief that the Chosen One trope is actually one we have to internalise — because that’s all we can cling to, isn’t it: the idea that we each exist here for a purpose even it we don’t know what it is. It may not have a basis in reality, of course, but quite often it’s essentially what we have to give meaning to our existence. Because ultimately there is only one certainty.
And in times of rapid, profound change, where control instead of being self-generated is palpably external and seemingly arbitrary, maybe narratives that suggest that the weak and downtrodden may be destined to right the balance are quite literally the lifeline that we need.
* Other yeasty spread products are available, eg Vegemite®™