Why I Write Fantasy: Because it is the Mother Genre

Fantasy is a universal touchstone. Every culture has its myths, its origin stories, its tales of creation and destruction through which stride gods, monsters, and heroes. The first stories that we crafted were all fantasies. They formed frameworks to explain our world, and ourselves, to pass on cultural traditions, to reinforce social norms. Fantasy came first, all other genres came later. Gilgamesh, Achilles, and Bhishma were rendered immortal in the poetry of their people. The myths of the Maya and the Norse told of beginnings and endings, individuals and peoples wrestling with their own mortality, the devastating sense of the impermanence of even their entire culture’s way of life. They knew they were teetering on the brink of disaster, and told stories to try to make sense of that feeling.

Today fantasy has been reduced in the minds of many to Tolkien and his successors, forgetting the wellspring of culture from which Tolkien drew his own inspiration: the rich tapestry of ancient human experience and literature. Fantasy is at the bedrock of human expression, no matter where you look.

Now I love me some Tolkien. One day I hope to write my own full-on Tolkien trilogy, complete with elves, dwarves, a pair of warring siblings and a character who walks out of a mountain with no memory, and who may be an agent of light or dark, that both court and neither trust. It’ll be awesome. Especially the dwarves. Oh yeah.

But the fact is that Fantasy is so much more than the admittedly rich modern tradition Tolkien is in large part responsible for. (Lord Dunsany and E.R. Edison were very significant in their time and largely forgotten now. They were influences on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and thus on myself and many others at a step removed. I think I once read some Dunsany but have little recall. E.R. Edison I enjoyed as some wildly over the top writing, with florid characters absolutely ruled by their passions. One day I would love to give full blooded voice to a world of Edisonian characters ruled by high emotion, with all the drama and disaster that would accompany such creatures of unfettered extremes!) So to denigrate the fantasy genre (given its true scope and ancient origins) is to me somewhat foolish, as you may as well discount the bible as being influential in the world of literature, which I don’t think anyone would reasonably attempt to argue. Fantasy also deserves its place of honour.

So for me, in writing fantasy I am not just writing stories filled with wonder and excitement (though that is a huge draw!). There is a small part of me that delights in touching one of our most ancient traditions. I may be turning it to modern purpose, seeking to entertain, engage, and provide enjoyment to my audience, but speaking in the original vocabulary of our first story tellers, with their gods, monsters, and heroes, is a joy and a privilege.

It seems to me that we instinctively love the idea of the unexpected being just around the corner, the curtain of normality being pulled back to reveal the magical. We want to accompany that named hero to those strange lands, to see wonders and return home, enriched by the experience. That for me is one of the strengths of fantasy fiction, the ability to take people on that journey, a journey many of our ancestors have shared, when they listened to the fantastical tales and myths of their eras.

The other great advantage is that fantasy can encapsulate or incorporate almost any other genre within its expansive bounds. Romance, thriller, detective story, horror, satire, social commentary, can all easily be found within the realm of fantasy. About the only thing that may escape it is the closely drawn study of modern contemporary life, the ticking clock of our current obsessions and struggles, though many contemporary literary heavyweights have not been immune to the adoption of magical realism, which is to say, elements of fantasy. Universal human truths and struggles can be touched upon and revealed without the need for a contemporary setting, however, else our old myths and the fantasy fiction that draws upon those stories would not have such enduring power.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Write Fantasy: Because it is the Mother Genre

  1. I think it’s very risky to try to associate ancient myths with fantasy fiction. Certainly, looking back from the present period we see them as fantastic, because we know they are not real. But the people of ancient Babylon believed their stories were real, as did the Greeks and the Romans, etc. For them it was not fiction, it was the true history of the world. This is the case with all myths; they are true for those to whom they are written. Modern societies have their own myths, too. In the case of America, these range from George Washington being a great general (which he wasn’t), and single-handedly winning the American Revolution (which he didn’t). In East Asia you still have the myth that Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people and cultures are somehow distinct (which they aren’t; no culture is), even with separate and pure bloodlines (not going to even go there). Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, is read by people who know full well the work is untrue. It is a contract between reader and writer to suspend disbelief. As such, I would imagine fantasy as a genre probably starts around the 1600s with Edmund Spencer’s “The Faerie Queene” and maybe Shakespeare to a lesser extent. Then came the fairy tales of Andersen and the Grimms. These were works that were read as allegorical, rather than true. The same cannot be said for myth, which is why it is usually left out as a type of fantasy, at least as far as I can tell. Modern fantasy also borrows heavily from adventure tales from the 1800s onward, which it probably the part I like the most! Also, the great benefit of fantasy, from a writer’s perspective, and as opposed to science fiction, is that you don’t have to explain yourself.

    1. Some very good points there, but I respectfully disagree that myth (as embodied in early epic poetry and classical period plays and poems) should not be included as a form of fantasy literature, and as such place fantasy at the bedrock of all literature. Even to the listeners at the time, the histories and stories they heard of gods and men were out of reach. Sophisticated citizens of Athens, Rome, and Babylon would have had plenty of skeptics among them who enjoyed the stories as just that, as metaphorical rather than as historical accounts. Aristophanes made a career out of lampooning and being self-aware about his society and the myths that its people shared. Ovid and Virgil had present day political concerns in mind when writing their poetry, concerns their listeners would discern, (and could get the writers into trouble if their meanings seemed unfavourable to Augustus) so their tales were not merely mythic retellings to an unquestioning audience, but active acts of creative imagination incorporating cultural touchstones to new effect, in my opinion. Of course lip service would be paid to belief systems, but there is a stage at which mythic stories start to be enjoyed as something other than a core belief system, even by the societies that originated them. At that stage they become, in my opinion, literature separated from liturgy, as it were, and certainly the progenitors of fantasy fiction.

      Closer to home, Chaucer included the fantastical for entertainment, as did the Pearl poet, in both cases they were not merely repeating folkoric tales, they were working them into something more, stories to amaze, amuse, educate and provide moral teaching, depending on your viewpoint. The traditions that Spenser and Shakespeare drew upon long predated them, and were not of the orthodoxy of their day, clearly, as Christianity dominated their world as the primary vehicle for belief, though space was kept for old traditions.

      So risky it may be to associate ancient myths with fantasy fiction, but once they are written down and performed, which they were in very great antiquity, they become something else in my opinion, and that is literature, and fantasy literature to boot! Thank you for such a thoughtful engagement!

  2. Tracy Miller

    My first thought was to respond with, “Why I Read Non-Fiction” 😁 Even if it’s not my thing, I love you and hope you’re happy and become wildly successful! Btw, I think you should do your own short podcast. You were the highlight of that radio interview.

    On Mon, Jan 8, 2018 at 10:04 PM Roderick T. Macdonald wrote:

    > rodericktmacdonald posted: “Fantasy is a universal touchstone. Every > culture has its myths, its origin stories, its tales of creation and > destruction through which stride gods, monsters, and heroes. The first > stories that we crafted were all fantasies. They formed frameworks to expl” >

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