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June 6, 2011

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Fantasy – A Genre Redemption

Posted by on Jun 6, 2011

I have often been criticized for my near exclusive preference towards the literary genre of fantasy.  The most criticism occurred during my recent 13 month stint reading through all 13 Wheel of Time books. I’ve been accused of being obsessed with dragons (guilty), escaping reality through fiction (semi-guilty), and reading crappy literature (not guilty).  So I have taken it upon myself to back up my favorite book genre, and delve into why we (the royal we) read fantasy – what we like, what we look for, and why there is so much value / potential for value within Fantasy as a genre.  While I’d like to sum it up with one word – Dragons – I will refrain and attempt a legitimate analysis.

Before I delve into saying what we want from Fantasy, I feel the need to define the term ‘fantasy.’  My realization of how differently people react to the word fantasy really came to light the other day, while at a happy hour.  When asked what I was talking about (which turned out to be HBO’s Game of Thrones), I responded with a question of my own – “Are you a fantasy nerd?”  To me, this question seemed straightforward, but I instantly had to clarify my meaning.  In my experience, here are the three most common definitions of the term ‘fantasy.’

  • Fantasy – An imagined ideal situation or experience.  For example, someone’s fantasy could be imagining themselves as a rap star, with flocks of pimped out rides, a few mansions, and endless monies.  Or, for a typical guy, a fantasy is an imagined perfect (often sexual) experience with the perfect girl(s).  You get the picture.  So does Ludacris. ‘Nuff said.
  • Fantasy – A created sphere in the athletic world.  This refers to the internet phenomenon of Fantasy Sports.  It stems from the idea, “What if I could come up with my own sports team, using the players currently in the league, and play against those chumps I sometimes refer to as friends?” And so ESPN, CBS, and many other networks have created fantasy leagues, where players do just that.  They then can have a personal investment in just about every game of the season, because their players are spread out amongst all the different teams. There is a draft, standings, playoffs, league champions – the whole 9 yards.
  • Fantasy – A genre of fiction.  Immediately, this is where my mind goes when I hear the word fantasy, and instead of cringing and running away, I often plead, “Go on…” Fantasy as a genre is the literary category in which some form of an alternate world is created – a world that displays different rules, different limitations, different creatures or races, and/or different boundaries. Here Earth’s impossibilities are not only possible, but prevalent.  Magic, elves, dragons, vampires, and superhuman elements just a few possibilities.

If you were hoping for a smattering of absurd sexual fantasies or a ranked list of who to pick for the upcoming NFL season (if there turns out to be a season at all), I’m sorry but I have to let you down.  I’m sure Google search can assist you.

Good fantasy has 4 essential elements:

  • Original plot embodied by some form of struggle between good and evil
  • Fantasy Good and Evil doesn't always have to be so black and white

    This is a core element of fiction at large, and that is no less true for fantasy in specific. Traditional fantasy, as established by our good friend Tolkien, defines good and evil in strictly black and white terms.  Sauron is the Dark Lord.  Gandalf is the White Wizard.  The arc of the plot centers on good beings who want to save/preserve the world battling an overly evil being who wants to take over the world and rule it with an evil iron fist.
    We can see this pattern over and over in fantasy books:  Rand al’Thor facing the Dark One; Harry Potter pitted against Lord Voldemort; Eragon vs. Galbatorix; Jedi vs. Sith, and the list goes on and on.  This can become a worn and tired motif: The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon) has received a significant amount of bad press for being unoriginal and ripping off of other fantasy epics.

    However, as fantasy is evolving, so is the mold of neatly defined good versus evil. A Song of Ice and Fire is often lauded as pure brilliance because it dwells mostly in the gray, where there is no clear struggle between a good underdog and a powerful malevolent being. Even here however, struggles are reactions and retaliations to ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ events – the attempted murder of Bran Stark comes to mind.  The only difference is that most of the characters have, in their own right, participated in said events – and it is difficult to tell who to root for.  This is a refreshingly original structure. Readers of fantasy nowadays are sick and tired of the old mold, but there’s no requirement that fantasy solely follow that blueprint.  Good can fight evil, but the lines need not be so strict, and the fundamental struggle need not mirror that of Lord of the Rings.  In stepping away from that delineation, we get fantasy that we can relate to – lives that mirror our own.  We, like Frodo, can find ourselves faced with tasks that seem impossible. We hurt, like Harry does, when misfortune strikes. Or, we can be tricked, betrayed and manipulated by people like Littlefinger and Tyrion.

  • Real characters, who possess and display real human traits and characteristics
  • Tyrion Lannister - The wee man with not-so-wee plans

    No different from any other genre, it is the characters that truly comprise the heart and soul of a fantasy book.. A reader can explore fabulous worlds, discover amazing creatures and fanciful beings, but how much can one really relate to only these?  What connects us to a story are the characters – the flesh and blood people who find themselves in this alternate world.   These people are crafted with personalities and traits that can be found in our own world.  They can be valiant, craven, intelligent, rash, loving, selfish, sadistic, or gentle spirited – in essence, they display truly human emotions and responses.  This lets us relate; we can glorify or truly despise characters.

    Lord of the Rings has Samwise, the blundering but faithful gardener turned hero; and Aragorn, who wants no glory but to do the right thing.  Mat, of The Wheel of Time, is selfish, irrational, loyal, clever, lustful, and a fool – but we can’t help but be attracted to him  Game of Thrones has Tyrion, the crafty imp who you cannot decide whether to love, or to hate, or both.  These are real characters, not caricatures. Real characters make real literature. Others, molded after the Superman Problem, are less fun to watch and root for/against, because you know that whenever they are in a sticky situation, they are going to make it out (cause if they didn’t, there goes the whole plot of the story). You cannot relate and engage.  Good fantasy must have real characters.

  • A realistic (believable) existence, setting, and feel
  • Let's see Cortez try to rape and pillage THESE uncharted lands!

    In a fantasy world where magic and elves preside, there must be an overall realistic and believable feel.  If the average reader cannot relate from their own personal experience of life on Earth, the connection is lost.  Too different becomes too crazy.  For example, worlds such as Westeros (Game of Thrones), Middle-Earth (LOTR), and Narnia (the Chronicles of Narnia) are all medieval worlds that resemble our own – there are mountains, lakes, seas, oceans, and forests that closely resemble that which can be seen on Earth. There are magic beings, strange creatures, giant spiders and dragons, but they fit into this landscape, and are as natural as whales, dogs, and humans are to our world.  By contrast, C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra is wildly foreign, with its floating islands, oddly moving seas, random fires and misshapen land formations. The reader cannot really believe the existence of such a place – it is too foreign, and there are too many logical inconsistencies. In that case, I believe Lewis made a conscious choice – to better portray his story as an allegory by disconnecting the reader from the world – but it does not engage the reader in the same way.. If a reader cannot relate to the setting or the elements of a story, how can an author expect them to relate to the characters and the overall plot flow?

  • A fantastical world, where impossible things are possible
  • "Can you make a Palantir do this? That's what I thought"

    First off, it pretty much goes without saying that fantasy has to be, in some dimension, fantastical.  Be there sorcery, centaurs, elves, immortal mythical gods, or simply superheroes, there must be the occurrence of something that is impossible in everyday normal life.  Literature cannot be fantasy without the fantastical.  Sadly, I think it is often this element that turns people away from many well crafted and brilliant pieces of literature.
    In most regards, creating a world with different rules than our own is a much more significant challenge for the writer (if done well) than writing more realistic fiction.  And the appeal of the fantastical?  Well, most everyone at various points in their lives, wishes that they could do or be something they cannot – be that simply being more athletic or successful, or having the ability to fly, to tame dragons, travel to other worlds, or to use magic.  By reading fantasy, it opens doors for the reader to not only discover new characters, places, and events (as you would reading any piece of fiction), but also to explore a completely novel sphere of existence, with different rules, beings, and abilities.  By reading you can place yourself IN that sphere, and truly explore entirely new worlds.  For me, there is little that can top that – I can be my own Lewis and Clarke every time I plop down on the couch to read.

It is the existence of these four essential elements that attract readers to the genre.   Granted, every reader has her own tastes – which is why authors such as JRR Tolkien and Jody Picoult can both be successful authors.  However, I argue that the first three elements of fantasy are essential elements of any good piece of fiction – and, by extension, that it is those components that create good fantasy, and keep readers coming back for more.  The last facet of Fantasy, the existence of a fantastical world, simply places a literary work into the genre – it is the characters, the believable existences, and the plot struggles that really define the work, and elevate it to greatness (or plunge it into the pit of despair). Yet the advantage of fantasy lies in that fantastical element. Certainly, that is not solely, or even largely, what we as fantasy readers look for in a book, but where you combine the fantastical with a good plot, engaging characters, and a believable world you get the ability to soar across places you can only dream of using nothing but your imagination.

Fantasy often gets a bad name, and is thrown into the basement alongside the weird, misunderstood 13-yr-olds playing Dungeons and Dragons.  This genre deserves better.  Yes, there is terrible Fantasy out there.  But there is awful literature out there in every genre.  Fantasy is more than an escape from reality, a way to be someone you are not, or the ability to interact with fantastical creatures – fantasy speaks to us about the human condition, about who people are and how they think, act, and change, and about who we want to become.  As a genre, the potential is enormous.  I am not ashamed of my attraction towards fantasy – in fact, I wear it proudly.  And with the creation of popular media portrayals such as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and HBO’s Game of Thrones, Fantasy is beginning to earn a good name for itself – a name that it rightfully deserves.

  • Tom

    What’s wrong with a little D&D?

    • What’s wrong with a LOT of D&D?