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Fantasy: The Blueprint of the World

World tree by AlexanderFaolchuFantasy sinks its figurative talons into us all. Its origins are ancient, with roots in the epic Icelandic Eddur and Old English poems like Beowulf. It owes a debt to Shakespeare, to the adventure narratives of the eighteenth century, to the Gothic movement, Romanticism, the medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites and to the fin de siècle. But perhaps it didn’t begin to be shaped as a distinct genre until authors such as George Macdonald (1824-1905), William Morris (1834-1896) and Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) popularised the creation of fantasy worlds. Among others, they mined the imaginative concepts that J. R. R. Tolkien would later forge into the first real commercial epic fantasy.

This short summary alone reveals how deep fantasy runs in the human psyche, how it drives human creativity. It is an elemental force, a willing immersion in the mythic. We – and the stories we write – are shaped by its archetypes, allegories and emotions. So what attracts us to fantasy? What rough magic compels us to walk in the footsteps of heroes?

I’d like to use a favourite quote from Middlemarch, George Eliot’s classic, as a starting point to explore this rather enormous question. She writes:

If we had a keen feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Of course, even ‘ordinary’ human life is anything but. Beneath that silent surface, hidden by what we do not or cannot say, there is a fast flowing current of the emotions, thoughts and perceptions that are a human’s birthright. It’s a dangerous current, were we to be swallowed by it. Our conscious mind protects us; truth distilled in the unconscious is imparted gradually, with caution. Humans are complex beings, driven by powerful forces: desire, ambition, our spiritual and aesthetic principles, and we are constantly aware of our mortality.

To Autumn's Shade by theflickereesunderstand why we’re drawn to fantasy, I think it’s first necessary to understand that the human mind functions on many levels, not all of them easily labelled or accessible. Creativity allows us to access the subconscious; to express the archetypes that we unknowingly utilise in our comprehension of the world. In a recent article for Waterstones, I quoted Alan Garner. Myth [he said] is not entertainment, but rather the crystallisation of experience, and, far from being escapist, fantasy is an intensification of reality. Myths survive the passage of time because they embody the archetypes of essential human behaviour. Our strengths, weaknesses, wisdoms and follies are recorded in stories that hopefully equip us with a better understanding of each other and our place in an ever-changing world.

Fantasy expresses this in its purest form, uncluttered by contemporary living. Archetypes are present in every creative endeavour, but in fantasy they tend to be unclothed: clarified not simplified. Like myth, we can tap into fantasy and are rewarded with comprehension on the most important, fundamental level. Fantasy doesn’t shroud itself in intellectualisms. It doesn’t use metaphor for the sake of metaphor. It goes much deeper to uncover and bring to light the very essence of progress, the determination to shape our environment, to undertake the journey across distant, perilous lands in a quest to understand the Self.

This is why we identify with the hero archetype. They are on the same quest as us; they strive to shape their destinies as we do. We live and die beside them. We mourn their passing as we mourn our own. And we rejoice in their accomplishments because therein lies the possibility of coming that little bit closer to grasping the elusive truth at the heart of existence.

Stardust - The WallI’m going to make an odd connection here and say that the Middlemarch quote reminds me of Stardust by Neil Gaiman. More specifically, it reminds me of Wall, a town on the edge of a frontier. Beyond the wall for which it is named lies a riotous realm of magic and adventure, so different to the comparatively humdrum world where we – and Stardust’s hero Tristan – live our lives. We are like the inhabitants of Wall. There is a place of wonder and danger just beyond our sight, a life of intensity that calls to those who listen. Some of us catch glimpses of it in dappled sunlight, or in the cloud shadows that darken the hills. We yearn towards that life. Surrounded by it, we can confront the aspects of ourselves that frighten or confuse us. Characters have the ability to guide us, Dante-esque, through the internal challenges we face. They show us that we’re not alone. Our thoughts have been thought before.

The camaraderie we feel with well-crafted characters – of shared trials while questing – is one of the reasons I started reading fantasy. I was an unsociable, diffident teenager and a bit of a loner frightened to make friends. The physical and psychological transition from childhood to adulthood is the hardest we face as individuals, and many of us find ourselves reaching out to others in the same situation. I found myself reaching out to characters that lived in entirely different worlds. That was part of their gift. Unable then to adjust to an adult world full of novelties, I felt that I could only grow with – and learn from – those who fought their battles and faced their demons in the realm of myth.

Moria Gate by John HoweConsidering the huge Fantasy-Faction community alone, I doubt I’m the only one to weather difficult years under the auspices of Dragonlance, the Six Duchies, Middle Earth and countless more. The fantasy I read during those years had a strong hand in shaping the person I am today. And the farther away I roamed, the closer I came to understanding who I was, what life was, what I wanted to contribute. Those deep and abiding stories sustained me, embodying as they did, the sweeping search for identity.

Unlike Garner, I won’t deny that there is an element of escapism involved. The fantasy genre is not alone in offering us a means to briefly transcend everyday life, but it is famously suited to that purpose. Geekdom is enjoying new popularity, powered into mainstream culture by shows like The Guild, which hilariously catalogues the real-world adventures of a band of MMORPG players. This series takes the usually introverted pursuit of fantasy roleplaying and – while making full comic use of stereotypes – sheds light on a level of social interaction that takes place in one huge, shared imagination.

The number of World of Warcraft subscribers for example (7.7 million at last count), reveals a compelling desire to create an alter-ego and then to invest real time and money inhabiting it. And that’s just one SFF game. There are dozens more, each with their own subcultures and communities. I think that this kind of investment in a fantasy alter-ego is different to roleplaying games set in carbon copies of modern society. I’d be interested to see just how many fantasy MMORPG players would also consider playing something like Second Life. Does a game lacking overt fantasy elements give people seeking alter egos the same level of satisfaction?

Warcraft by WulfsbaneSpeaking as a former WoW player, I don’t believe so. The things that drew me to WoW first and foremost were its fantasy characters and fantasy world…and all the adventures they engendered. Who wouldn’t want to fly on drakes, be a warlock or warrior and kick ass in Naxxramas for epics? This kind of immersion fulfils us on several psychological levels, but it is also dangerously addictive.

The same addiction runs throughout fantasy as a genre. Once you embark on that quest, it’s hard to pause in your exploration, or retain a sense of perspective. Fantasy deals in powerful symbols and exploits the most inescapable yearnings of human nature. It is a bridge over the river Imagination, whose far bank tempts us with the impossible.

Why should we not enjoy being able to fly, possess super-powers, speak to magical creatures? We can interact with history. Past ages appeal by virtue of their being not now. But that distant bank promises darker, more morally complex things like immortality or apotheosis, even control over time itself. This is the realm where normal rules do not apply. This is the realm where you can live forever, be rich, rule an empire, heal or kill with a thought. In a realm such as this, it’s about holding onto your humanity in the midst of chaos. Thus stories are born.

I Das Tagebuch by Schnettebegan this article by saying that fantasy has its talons in us all. Even if you don’t feel an affinity with the genre, you reference it whenever you express a wish for something to be other than it is. If you’re anything like me, however, who lives each day on the fringes of fantasy, you’ll know how it colours everything you see. A walk in woodland conjures images of elves or fae. The rocky tors on Dartmoor conceal a knight’s tomb or a troll hoard. Antique shops are home to cursed masks or paintings, or a prophecy hidden in a newspaper from 1925. Imbuing the everyday with the power of fantasy brings to me a kind of clarity of observation, as if I am seeing things for what in essence they are.

Writing is about making the familiar unfamiliar. It’s about crossing the bridge to find the stories that, as long as there are people to hear them, will live forever. And it’s about the truth that remains with us after the last page is turned. When I first finished The Lord of the Rings, I was devastated, knowing that I couldn’t sail to Valinor with Frodo. I had to leave the Fellowship behind. Although our own lives call us back at the end of every adventure, I’d like to think we return a little bit wiser. Ultimately, and as Gandalf so rightly says, all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Title image by Su Blackwell.

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4 Comments

  1. A very lovely article with which I full-heartedly agree – however, I am not quite convinced as a long-time WoW player that the fantasy setting is the reason for its success. I might as well play a scifi game, for all that it’s worth, but books, literature will leave a quite different impression on me …

    So my point would be that immersing yourself in a fantastical world still very often happens with books and mostly so – as literature is the medium of individual appropriation and the one which leaves your own flights of fancy to yourself. With games and films your own creativity is severely curtailed.

  2. […] of the points I raised in my recent article for Fantasy Faction discussed the ability of fantasy to offer us an escape from the everyday. I was delighted that […]

  3. […] of the points I raised in my recent article for Fantasy Faction discussed the ability of fantasy to offer us an escape from the everyday. I was delighted that […]

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