“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.”
― Dr. Seuss
Fantasy has been a part of the literary tradition since literature began.
In fact, the case could be made that fantasy was the first literature of ancient culture. From Jewish folklore thousands of years old to the Greek epics of Homer such as the Odyssey and Roman tales like Virgil’s Aeneid, the first stories of literature were about the fantastical. They were about magic, and monsters, and mad heroes going on impossible journeys.
These stories are taught in schools and are respected as great classics. So when did some people begin to lose respect for the fantastic? At what point did people decide to relegate fantasy to the fringes of literature under the classification “genre fiction”?
Today the fantastical dominates both the big and small screens. Fantasy is everywhere, and is more wildly popular than ever before since today’s special effects are finally able to capture the magic we have yearned to see for so long.
But what about on the page? See, the thing that makes the written word arguably the greatest mode of storytelling we have is that there has never been a special effects budget, or necessary run time, or props. When something fantastical is described in the pages of a book, the only possible limit is what you can imagine. That is what sets literature apart from all other modes of storytelling: the reader is an active participant in the experience of telling the story.
More than any other kind of writing, fantasy forces us to push the limits of our imagination. Unlike other genres, fantasy requires us to imagine things for which we have no real reference. If you ask anybody what a dragon looks like, they can tell you—they will describe to you exactly what they think it looks like. If you ask someone what it would feel like to fly, or to turn into an animal, or to do magic, they can tell you.
But there is no frame of reference for these things—nobody (or at least none of you muggles) has actually seen a dragon. And yet in a way we can do it. Fantasy makes us imagine things that are impossible or nonexistent. It opens up entirely new worlds for our minds to explore.
Fantasy, as Dr. Seuss says, is an important part of life. It can lend us perspectives that other forms of literature cannot, trapped as they are by the conventional laws of the universe. Fantasy can shrug off those conventions and follow its own story through to the limits of its own potential without having to concern itself with what is real or possible.
As well as providing an escape, fantasy allows us to be captured in truly human stories. Even in situations so far removed from anything we ourselves could face, we can still connect with and be moved by characters in fantasy worlds. Fantasy can be a perfect outlet for exploring the human condition and connection. It strips away all the unexciting necessities of everyday life and replaces them with (way better) tasks such as homework from Hogwarts or learning to ride a dragon.
Fantasy can still be about human connection by letting us learn from our protagonists while rooting for their quests and friendships. We cry when things go wrong for them and we cheer when things go right. Fantasy also lends itself to creating incredible antagonists, evil creatures whose terrifying powers and plans can surpass the realm of possibility.
Fantasy also allows for social commentary and allegory. Fantasy can tackle problems of the real world—problems of race or social class—and present them in a more accessible fashion to younger or less educated readers. By doing so, fantasy opens them up to new ideas, which they can see reflected in everyday life.
Everybody has fantasies. Deep down, some tiny part of us wants there to be something bigger going on, some magical happenings behind-the-scenes, or some impossible monster lurking in the woods. We want to imagine that our reality is somehow bigger than it is.
It has nothing to do with belief or what we know to be true. Sometimes we all want to imagine magic.
And that is what makes fantasy such a vital part of literature and life. It brings out our imagination.
So why do we seem suddenly embarrassed by this?
Let’s put magic back on our reading lists!
-contributed by Ben Ghan