In one sense, every story that is made up, or imaginary, is a fantasy.
A hundred years ago, if a writer were discussing and writing fantasy, he would have used the term fantasy that way. Today, when discussing fantasy as a literary genre, we often are discussing a branch of literature. Fantasy offers some strangeness as a primary draw, such as a strangeness in the setting for the story such as imaginary places or magic systems. It also does in the characters that inhabit our own world—vampires and supermen. So why write fantasy today?
Some people consider science fiction to be a subset of fantasy, though it can be quite different. Science fiction is most often a literature that deals with speculation about the future. To some degree it might even be predictive of the future in a way that fantasy is not.
The editor Donald A. Wollheim once suggested that bookstores create a section called “Wonder literature” that would include stories meant to arouse a powerful sense of wonder. Science fiction and fantasy would thus be sold together under his model. I rather prefer this. You see, we tend to categorize books nowadays by the primary emotions that they elicit. These are often humor, romance, horror, thrillers, and so on. Wonder literature makes sense, though there are those who recognize that horror is often closely aligned to fantasy.
After all, the strange is often terrifying as well as wondrous.
Some of the big players in the fantasy genre include people like Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Most of the bestselling books of all time are fantasies—things like Harry Potter, Twilight, or the The Alchemist.
In fact, I’m going to make a prediction: eight of the ten top-grossing films this year will be fantasy or science fiction. I’m pretty safe in making that bet: it’s been true every year for the past 20 years.
Yet many folks don’t recognize how important fantasy is in our lives.
I grew to love fantasy as a child, sitting on my mother’s knee, as she told me bedtime stories like “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Hansel and Gretel.” I don’t think that I recognized that animated stories—cartoons like Bugs Bunny or movies like Peter Pan—were roughly the equivalent of those bedtime stories.
Yet fantasy permeates society and my love for it blossomed as a child—from bedtime stories to cartoon, from cartoons to comics and fables and myth, from myth to more contemporary fantasies in the form of novels.
So what is fantasy for? What good is it?
Quite simply, fantasy is what we as storytellers use to hold the attention of our audience as we prepare to tell them something important.
Whenever something strange is introduced in a story, it grabs the attention of the audience. Whether we speak of a haunted house, or bring out a ghost, or have a character sucked back in time as we introduce a strange conflict, that grabs the reader’s attention, but quite often the story carries lessons that are of more value than mere entertainment.
In Homer’s The Odyssey, we learn about the need for courage to face the future, but we also learn about the duties that soldiers owe to brothers, and the ethics of how one should entertain strangers in our own homes, and so on.
In the same way, fantasy today carries lessons for life.
I have a theory about fantasy. I suspect that the human brain is incapable of storing most of the information that we need to know in order to really understand the world. So very often, ancient history gets stored under the guise of fable.
Let me see if I can explain it more clearly. Take an incident from your own family history, something far in the past, and try to examine what you really know about it. The truth is, you probably don’t know anything—just the fable.
For example, I’m going to pick, “The day that my father killed the cows.” In our family, that was a significant day. For some of his children, it is proof that my father had an uncontrollable temper, and it has become something of a legend for most of the kids in our family. A couple of years ago, I was talking to my sister and she brought it up as one of my father’s notorious deeds. But I realized that she hadn’t been there, and didn’t know anything more about that day than the legend.
Here’s the legend: One day, my father got so mad at our cattle that he went out shot them all, along with our sheep.
And it’s true. He did go out and kill all of our cattle—seventeen of them, along with a couple of sheep and pigs. He was in a fey mood that day, you might say, and it was a day that changed his life. You see, once he shot all the animals, he had to spend the next two days butchering them. Then he had to put an ad in the paper and sell the meat before it spoiled, since he didn’t have freezers to put them in.
From that incident, he got enough buyers that he decided to start his own meat company, and that led to a level of prosperity that he’d never had before.
Now, the simple “legend” is that my father had a terrible temper and went around shooting things. But the truth is far more complex.
He did kill animals when he got mad. I saw him do it at least a dozen times. He shot six of our neighbors’ dogs once when they attacked our sheep. A few days later, we had another neighbor whose dog kept howling, so my dad shot it. The same day, our neighbor’s rooster was crowing in our back yard, so it got blasted. For a few weeks there, it seemed like everyone was in danger.
But as I said, the truth is more complex than the legend. My father had been raising livestock for several years, and he was losing money at it the year he killed the animals.
Yes, killing the cattle while in a fey mood does seem impulsive. However, he had talked about it earlier in the week. Realizing that if he butchered the animals, he’d saved on feed, and ultimately might still be able to turn a profit. More than that, the cattle had been breaking down the fences on our acreage–one steer in particular that seemed to think it was a game. He’d just push the fence posts over to get out.
This had caused my dad to be late for work several times the week before he killed our animals. He was afraid that he might lose his job.
In fact, he’d been laid off his previous job, and he was really scared. You see, we were living at 1/3 of the poverty level. His job in the sawmills was his income. But my father had been working part time as a meat cutter for several years, and had always dreamed of starting his own business.
In short, one could look at his act of shooting the animals as proof of his nasty temper. Or one could look at it as a wise business decision, or perhaps an act of desperation. In later years, my father talked about it as if indeed it had been a business decision. But by simplifying the tale, by simplifying the history, we are able to hold it in our minds, along with thousands of other simple tales that are only partly true.
In fact, if you listened to my brothers and sisters, they’ll give a slightly different account than what I just did. The truth is that even though I was there when my dad shot most of those animals, I only recall it vaguely. (My mother had me run into the house, afraid that I would get shot along with the rest of the animals.) I remember only a few key facts because I’ve told them to myself over and over. There might not be much truth to them at all. Did my father shoot those seventeen cows after killing the neighbor’s dogs, or was it really a week before? My brothers and sisters might recall it differently.
Yet much of our history is that way. We have bits and pieces of events, without much context.
The further we get from the event, the less substance we get at all. Our lives are like a tree rooted firmly in the present, and the farther back we go, we climb up limbs that taper off into twigs and then disappear into thin air, until all real truth is lost. Eventually, only the fiction is remembered and becomes more significant than the fact. For example, most kids in America have heard about how George Washington chopped down the neighbor’s cherry tree. He honestly confessed when asked if he had done it. He served as a model for integrity.
I have an ancestor, Martha Wolverton, who was George’s neighbor. She mentions spanking him for climbing on her picket fence when he was a child. She didn’t record ever having him chop down her cherry tree. I suspect that the whole story is a fable, a lie meant to teach children to always tell the truth.
Which is more important today, the truth or the fable? I vote for the fable.
Ultimately, that is the value of fantasy: it allows us to delve deeply into our psyches for important truths and then shape them into enduring forms.
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