In Defense of Fantasy

Posted by Cal Hoag, CNF Editor for 8.1

The first books I remember actively reading were a series of children’s books called Dragon Slayers’ Academy by Kate McMullan. These goofy kids’ books kicked off a life-long love affair with the fantasy genre. I’ve read everything there is to read, from young adult fantasy like Harry Potter and Eragon, to classics like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and even contemporary masterpieces like my all-time favorite book: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. All this to say that I have a significant personal bias for the genre, and genre fiction in general, and so I take offense to the way it’s often looked down on across academia.

Although it isn’t always appropriate for a literary journal like Gandy Dancer, genre fiction, and fantasy in particular, is an interesting and important aspect of the literary world that’s often overlooked in favor of realistic literature, which is considered more valid. This view can end up being super condescending. Literary purists should reconsider fantasy, and, if they don’t enjoy it, perhaps find a way to respect it.

While literary fiction allows the reader to consider relationships and the human condition through experiencing a story set in the known world with our pre-established social, cultural, and economic norms, genre fiction allows readers to consider the same things in a setting that’s sometimes entirely divorced from the tired conventions that affect our everyday lives. This, in my opinion, is exactly what validates the fantasy genre. It has potential to offer a unique perspective, a look at humanity that allows readers to consider their lives in a way they otherwise couldn’t.

My favorite book, Patrick Rothfuss’s aforementioned The Name of The Wind, is a pertinent example for a fantasy story’s value. Simply put, it is a story about storytelling and can be read as a parable for the importance of all literature, realistic or not. Stories have the potential to heighten, satisfy, teach, or caution a reader. They are the friend who calls to keep you company as you walk home alone late at night. Stories are a father’s life lesson that you only understand after a misstep; a mother’s embrace, welcoming you no matter how long you’ve been away.

As Rothfuss writes in The Name of the Wind, “you have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way,” and that’s all fantasy storytelling is: surrounding a nugget of truth with all variety of wonderous, fantastical lies. Artful storytelling pervades The Name of the Wind, both at a diegetic level and a meta one. While the purpose can be myriad, storytelling’s power is never ridiculed or diminished, regardless of the medium a story is told through or the genre it falls under. Likewise, the book describes how “everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” Stories have power, and experiencing them in fantastical settings begs the question, how would you react in that situation? Whatever your answer may be, it would speak of an intrinsic, intangible property of your humanity, The Big Questions.

From an author’s perspective, fantasy also provides the potential to flex and further hone your skills as a writer by challenging to make the outlandish real. The Name of the Wind contains some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever consumed across any genre—literary or otherwise. For example, Rothfuss begins his story with an extended metaphor explaining “a silence of three parts.” After describing those parts, he finally introduces his protagonist:

The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die. (Rothfuss)

The introduction serves as exposition, it acquaints the audience with the story’s protagonist, and it proves to be the first taste of Rothfuss’s poetic writing style. Elsewhere, George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson exhibit masterful worldbuilding, while a writer like Joe Abercrombie can utilize a grittier, more brutal writing style. Writing style differs across the genre, but simply because a story is genre shouldn’t invalidate the incredible writing to be found throughout it.

I’m not any kind of science guy so this analogy may be a stretch, but if literature were a science experiment then realism would be the control group and genre fiction would serve as the space to test ideas and hypotheses. With genre, a writer can experiment with setting in order to puzzle out how people and relationships react to different stimuli; genre fiction can push the limits of questioning humanity and the results can be compared to other pieces of literature in order to determine what they mean. For example, contemporary culture serves as the primary reason why fantasy is important today—readers can consider humanity removed from the political and cultural nonsense that pervades daily life.

Observations that arise from these thought experiments are just as valid and important as their traditionally literary counterparts. The Name of the Wind, for example, considers the effects of aging and tragedy on one’s life and legacy—important themes to explore even if that legacy involves magic and adventure. It’s awfully close-minded to dismiss entire legions of stories simply because they include mysticism, space, or monsters. The themes explored in fantasy are every bit as valuable as those in literary fiction. That these themes are explored in a way that is typically more exciting and widely read than traditional literature speaks for genre’s value, not against it.

It’s ironic that fantasy is often promoted as escapism, because it doesn’t provide a true escape. True escapism would involve the ability to spend time in a reality completely foreign to our own, but the best fantasy doesn’t provide that. No, it takes familiar pieces of the real world and rearranges them in a way that gives audiences a unique medium through which they can consider themselves and their lives, while hidden safely behind the barrier of imagination. The common threads between our own world and the fantastical give people an opportunity to reflect upon their humanity in an exhilarating way, regardless of how many imaginary elements are involved in a story.

It’s the season of Halloween, which means that it’s almost time to forget reality, to put on a mask, and to pretend to be someone or something else for the night. In that spirit, maybe it’s also time you step outside the realm of the familiar and crack open a fantasy novel; you never know what you might learn from spending time in a world of make-believe.

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