Fantasy fiction is, more often than not, the first kind of fiction we are introduced to when we are young. Think about it. Fairy tales and tales of anthropomorphic animals are the types of things that parents read to children. Objects are given wishes and desires and set out on quests. My earliest memories of narrative are of this type and I highly doubt that mine is an aberrant case. Instead, I am quite confident in saying that out of those who have parents or a parent who read(s) to him/her, the majority are told tales of fantasy before any other type of narrative. However, there is still so much that is not understood about fantasy fiction. It is in fact a very difficult genre to properly define and as late as 1981, literature scholars couldn’t exactly define its characteristics (1). Yet it is still going strong as a genre and we have not seen interest diminish either in its readership or those who create it. I’m not here to really offer a complete and satisfying definition and theoretical framework for fantasy literature. Instead, I’d like to just share some of my thoughts on this genre and how it’s been changing and why. Also, I’d like to talk a bit about my thoughts regarding the accusation of fantasy being a purely escapist genre. I’ll begin with my thoughts on what constitutes fantasy fiction. Don’t expect that this will be the type of definition you can hang your theoretical hat on but it seems to work fairly well for me.
It can be argued that all fiction is fantasy though that definition is certainly trite and missing the point of what fantasy actually can be said to accomplish. It is equally problematic to say that fantasy is a matter of creating an internally consistent world that harbors a set of possibilities and potentialities exceeding those of the world we currently inhabit. This can equally fit science fiction which has socially, politically, and ethically complex worlds that rely heavily on technologies that greatly extend the possibilities and potentialities of the characters. This is possibly why both science fiction and fantasy have been subsumed under the banner of speculative fiction. I think that this higher order category does a lot to explain the nature of fantasy. Fantasy, like science fiction, is about considering what happens when certain conditions from our normal world are inverted, warped, or totally excised. But again, science fiction does that through the introduction of new technologies and conditions. So there is still the problem of how to understand fantasy. And yet, to me, there are two differences, and large ones at that. Fantasy may have roots in the tradition of carnival (1). In the revelry of carnival, or Saturnalia as it was known in the Roman festival, the normal rules and hierarchies of the day were inverted. Kings became slaves, slaves kings. Women of the plebeian class got to look down on those of the patrician class. During this one day usually rigid and impermeable social membranes were dissolved. Fantasy offers similar permeability for expectations of reality and what constitutes the real. We would not regularly allow for the appearance of goblins, spirits, or other supernatural entities in the world but in fantasy, this expectation is relaxed voluntarily on the part of the reader. We expect that the world we venture into between those covers will deviate from the one we are accustomed to in particular ways. The supernatural, the atemporal, the aspatial, the irrational, and all other manner of aberration are permissible. There is a further condition of fantasy that ties into this expectation and anticipation of information that challenges our daily perception of what is real and true.
Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit, discusses how epistemology is based on knowing of knowledge. Epistemology is essentially the study of knowledge and how we come to know anything. But as Hegel pointed out, and I’m paraphrasing, to know about knowing, our concepts and ideas must contain itself as a set. In other words, the set of all knowledge must have, in order to know about knowledge, in itself a complete replica of itself in order to satisfy the condition of being able to correctly understand its own nature. This creates an infinite, fractal, ad absurdum regression. Needless to say, Hegel, like Hume was a skeptic. Not only that, he was a skeptic of the truest and purest form (2). The ancient skeptics did not trust perception and believed it to be insufficient for describing Truth, if Truth was there to be described. However, because subjectivity is all we have our subjective world becomes a truth as opposed to a Truth since it is the only one we can possibly access but still lacks the absolute certainty we can not achieve. In the end, no assertion can be made about the condition of anything and no position can be taken for or against anything; the thing, the phenomenon simply exists and exists unequivocally and without underlying explanation since any explanation is another fabrication of the mind which cannot be trusted. (2). This is simply to demonstrate the difference in the way science fiction and fantasy handle truth. Where science fiction asserts the primacy of the rational mind, fantasy asks that we suspend such judgement and realize that Truth is just truth and that one world, even an incredible world, may be truthful. This is not to suggest that fantasy worlds are real in the physical sense or that worlds can be swapped but rather that in fantasy, knowledge is much more malleable than science fiction which transposes the rules of this physical world into the fictional world. So, where science fiction asserts it has Truth in the details, fantasy simply offers a series of possible truths since all truth begins in subjective fabrication. Yet, it is this marginalizing of Truth in favor of truth, in addition to another glaring detail, that has garnered fantasy criticism.
If fantasy fiction eschews a more conventional sense of realism and a faith in comprehensible objective reality, then necessarily it becomes a bastion for the mind that doesn’t wish, according to a society that has bought the primarily Western logical positivist doctrine, to confront the real world. In this case, the reader of fantasy fiction uses the medium as a way of escaping. But escaping into what? No one alive in this modern world needs a reminder as to the exponential growth of complexity in everyday life. Everything is multifunction, multicored, augmented, customizeable, upgradeable, and so on. It would certainly be understandable that someone would want to return to a more uniform, comprehensible world which is what a lot of fantasy does. Fantasy very often has medieval times as a setting or at least settings that are steeped in medieval atmosphere. However, this isn’t enough to really explain the reason why previous eras are returned to. Pre-industrial times were still complex after all. But distance in time allows for nostalgia to use the alchemy of imagination to romanticize these times into a period of straightforward intentions and motivations. Good guys are good and bad guys are bad (3). Gender is often similarly simplified (3). The helpless maiden trope has been done to death. Consumers of fantasy have thus been accused of wishing to return to a childish sense of innocence and ignorance. Fantasy provides an escape from the massive, complex forces of life. This is partially why fantasy fiction has so often been eyed with the same patronizing smirk as children’s fiction. Both have been construed as a form of verbal playpen designed to shelter the reader from the actual ugliness of the world. Fantasy has also been regarded as the wish fulfillment of the author author who seeks to create a more manageable and sensible world (3). Gender roles also have been the object of criticism with some pointing to how fantasy relies on a strict code of morals and ethics regarding sex. It is sometimes the case that the author may bowdlerize sex as much as possible (3). In pulp novels, the trend may be reversed completely and sex may become a motivating factor for the protagonist though in many cases it is used in such a way as to spur retribution (4). But again, this speaks to a binary ethics system governing the story world. It also suggests the primacy of male worldviews in fantasy (5). This however may be more a concern for the traditional producers of fantasy fiction. Nevertheless, it represents another simplification of real world issues that are converted into a more identifiable and immediately assimilated ethics system. While these charges may or may not have ground, for the past several decades fantasy fiction has been mutating into something new and unpredictable. In its still changing form, we are seeing the previous critiques being addressed and conventional tropes of fantasy subverted.
The face of new fantasy is mortar and stone. This growing mode can be called Urban Fantasy and through it we witness the re-enchanting of urban space. This is something fairly new in this genre since much of fantasy, though it may include urban settings, never creates a character of the setting itself. However, in urban fantasy, the urban environment itself is a living breathing space and the prime space rather than a fringe hub that is devoid of the magical trappings of the surrounding world. Instead, it is as if the city breathes and exudes magic. This is such a radical paradigm shift in fantasy since most of fantasy is couched in pre-Industrial Revolution settings and morals (1). In earlier fantasy fiction, the shift from a more rural society to a mechanized, urban state in which complexity was compounded by complexity in an increasingly indecipherable mechanical social contraption, people went back to pre-Industrial Revolution for escape (1). This explains the over-saturation of fantasy taking place in agrarian, feudal settings. However, we, this generation, have no experience or reference for a pre-Industrial Revolution life so we don’t have recourse to these ways of living. Though sword-and-sorcery are still popular, we can’t pretend that in seeking refuge in these stories we are indulging in anything other than a highly processed simulacra. Since the materialistic, mechanized culture is now insurmountable we have reached a compromise by finding what in our surroundings suggests the existence of the mystical beyond itself. Or it could be exactly analogous to the seeking of simplicity and order in pre-Industrial Revolution time, This speaks to not only post-modern sensibilities but a post-physical state. We now find ourselves in an information based society that is still more complex than the previous stage of social evolution. Now we may find ourselves yearning for a time that was complex but at least less complex than the hyper existence of a digital world that is inexhaustibly mercurial and changing at a rate that does not permit habituation and that keeps us strung along on a constant drip of distracting flashing opioid stimulus. Whatever the case may be, whether the Urban fantasy of such authors as China Mieveille or Jeff VanderMeer is an updating and modernization of fantasy tropes or is another temporal regression to a time believed to be more pure or comprehensible than our current time, is debatable. What is quite clear is that the current state of fantasy is more than equal to accounting for the past discrepancies of simplicity and gender inequality. In the Urban fantasy I’ve read, female characters are not typical damsels in distress (though admittedly the damsel in distress and The Madwoman in the Attic trope come into play and are played with in interesting ways in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station to some degree). But what is striking is that these stories, and others, feature complex worlds where morality is not binary and may not even be present. In VanderMeer’s Finch morality and sticking your neck out too far just makes life more difficult. In the end, higher ideals much be disregarded in favor of the basic necessity of survival. In the most conventionally, “moral,” of the books I’ve read so far, Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job , we still have a main character who is a single father trying to balance a busy work life with raising a child. His profession? Being a death dealer in the city of San Francisco. This may not be a pure Urban fantasy but the city of San Francisco and its geography play a major role in the story which makes it close enough. But the point is it features a complex world situated in the urban environment. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere takes the real location of London and, like Moore’s book, turns it into an enchanted world by suggesting that the banal is simply a veneer covering a much richer world beneath it. So the growing trend to put fantastical worlds in either real urban locations or create elaborate worlds that prominently feature post-Industrial Revolution urban settings has, “corrected,” or minimized the issues some have pointed to. But can fantasy be justified? Does it need to be?
The lingering charge that fantasy is escapist fiction, to me, is sort of a straw man attack and one that I don’t see the justification for. There are a lot of implicit assertions made in such an accusation such as the we are running from an unpleasant to pleasant situation or that escapism is somehow negative and undesirable. These further charges are just as silly as the first. Why is escapism such a bad thing? Isn’t that why we read? To escape into a world, into a narrative that isn’t our own? Still, when escapism is mentioned it is with the assumption that the escape we seek is to a world where we can live out power fantasies that modern life makes impossible. Even if this is the case, and with pulp fiction is certainly is, I don’t see why this should be such a concern. Partially, the push of realism and the academic study of literature have made such pursuits into lowly and childish goals. This creates a circle back to those early tales of childhood when things were simpler. Part of the allure of fantasy is that it allows us to dream without closing our eyes. And part of what makes a dream a dream is the dampening of the super ego with its concern for society’s rules and the ascension of the id layers of ourselves. (I just use these Freudian terms as loose terms to describe certain drives and cognitive functions.) Part of what makes fantasy so seductive yet so frightening to those who would favor realism is that fantasy, by taking what we hide and putting it into the shared space of the narrative, is transgressive. It has the potential to trigger a return to a more primitive mindset. I don’t know about the rightness or wrongness of such states of mind but I will say that these states are, despite being dressed in fantastic and impossible garments of magic, quintessentially human. In a world where every day brings dehumanization in some form or another, fantasy can drag out the raw carnal power of human desire and imagination. This ties back again to the primacy of rational thought in this world. And I’m not criticizing such thought. It is only through such thought that this essay is reading you. However, just as the skeptics ended up turning a wonderful set of ideas and thoughts into a strict dogma, so to do we risk losing something human by putting all our eggs in one mechanistic basket.
In closing, I’d say that fantasy, in all its forms, is worth caring about and worth defending. For showcasing the amazing ability of the human imagination to create worlds that might of been, never were, or never could be, fantasy presents us with the beautiful and terrifying. Nothing so far has proven to be as polarizing as fantasy when I talk to people about literature. Those who enjoy fiction may say they can’t tolerate fantasy and those who totally write off fiction simply cannot understand why anyone would waste his/her time on it. That is why fantasy is still in need of defense, to show its merits and to dispel the idea that it is genre with nothing to offer.
1. Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge,1981.
2. Forster, Michael N. Hegel and Skepticism. Harvard, 1989.
3. Hunt, Peter &t Lenz, Millicen. Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction. London: Continuum, 2001.
4. “Rape as drama,” TvTropes, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RapeAsDrama.
5. Finder, “Women and Sci-Fi Television,” last modified November 5, 2002, GLBT Fantasy Fiction Resources, http://www.glbtfantasy.com/?section=essays&sub=wscifi