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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