Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why Fantasy? Part II

Pennsylvania Renaissance knight
A couple of weeks ago, I asked if there isn't something a little wrong with a 40-year-old woman writing medieval fantasy. Why fantasy? Why is it at all popular or relevant in 2011?

I got some great answers from you in the comments. The desire to escape into another world was primary, along with capturing the magical feelings of childhood and, yes, pretty clothes!

But I think that it goes deeper than that. All genre fiction is an escape from reality to some degree. I'm not talking about nitty-gritty realistic or literary fiction, but the stuff that we read for fun.  And it seems to me that, despite the general claim that traditional fantasy is out of mode, there is a faithful cache of readers who love it.

But why swords instead of six-shooters?  Why magic instead of science?

These questions have plagued me for months, and I find myself uncharacteristically at a lost for answers.  Being an analytical, big-picture kind of person, the fact that I can't pin it down bothers me.  So here are my random theories, and I'm genuinely interested to know what other people think. 

My first theory is that, due to the highly technological and time-bound culture in which we live, a world without machines or clocks or anything that ties us to half a billion other people every second of the day is tremendously appealing.  I think we long for a sense of mental and personal space.  A chance to find out who we are when not driven by the whip of technology.  But we don't like being bored, either, which is why we want a story and not just a vacation to Ireland.

Not that Ireland is boring! I'm going to get myself in trouble here. I really want to go to Ireland some day. What I mean is... not just to reside in a castle somewhere for a week but to have an adventure populated with living, breathing contemporaries and an element of danger.

Speaking of danger, the world around us is dangerous enough. I take my life in my hands when I drive to work each morning in New Jersey traffic. I'm haunted by the images of body parts in the Moscow airport after last week's suicide bomb, and I would really like to know about the other people who were shot at the same time as Congresswoman Gifford.  Who are they?  How is their recovery process going? I actually gave my husband an itinerary of where I was going to be last Sunday at the Philly Area Writer's Meetup, in case someone decided to go on a shooting spree in Center City. It was eerie, knowing that was my conscious reason for being so detailed in communicating my plans. I'd never done that before.

But all of these things are out of our control. We can't go after the bad guys with a sword, or shoot a catapult at our irritating neighbor's house no matter how many times they block our driveway with their car.  We need a release.  I know that video games serve that purpose to an extent.  I also believe that the reason the states in these "United States" don't break out into wars all the time like Eastern Europe does is that we have football instead.  The solution to world peace is the NFL.

But besides just emotional release, we want a story.  We want the struggle to have meaning.  So much of life does seem meaningless.  When your number is up, it's up.  And when you lose your job, tough luck. There is a sense of drudgery underlying all the flash and hype.  I am bombarded with ads constantly everywhere I go. "Be healthier.  Have more fun.  Eat this. Drink that. Wear these."  But no matter how many {blank} I buy, I will still have to get up and go to work and meet my boss's (and my own) expectations, fight the traffic home again, make dinner, walk the dogs and cope with all the family stuff, good and bad, or with being sick or with not sleeping well.

It *feels* like a heroic struggle some days.  Yesterday was one of them. I wasn't sure if I'd pull through.  I had a killer headache, been unable to sleep the night before, spent two-and-a-half hours in traffic, had a huge presentation due at 2 p.m. that wasn't ready, and I really thought I'd just throw up right there in the big corporate meeting I'd been summoned to. But I didn't. When lunch was brought in I ate something, grabbed a Coke, slipped out to the atrium and finished my presentation.  I gave it at 2:00 with enthusiasm and a smile, with much success.

But I felt like Faldur.  I think that his character - totally unexpectedly - has tapped into something very deep in me.  His endurance, discipline and unwillingness to let go of a mission, is something that I think I have been unconsciously cultivating my entire life.  There are those of us Who Do It - and those of us Who Don't. Not that it's always a person's choice.  I had a hard time at first with the concept of a "hero" until I realized that sometimes it's just a question of being born strong.  (Or pig-headed, if you ask my husband.) 

Some of us start out life charmed, and some struggle for every accomplishment.  Marenya is one of those who struggles. She doesn't see herself as important or capable except in very small, domestic things. But in the end she realizes that she is exceptionally gifted and powerful in ways she could never have understood if she hadn't been tested.

One more thing... Magic is a universal stand-in for spirituality.  C.S. Lewis has a quote that I cannot for the life of me find again about how fairy tales let us put spiritual truths in beautiful stained-glass colors for anyone to see.  That's what I'm trying to do with "The Golden Gryphon."  I hope that it will resonate with my audience as much as it does with me.  Because ultimately I'm writing myself a story.


  1. my own opinion - if you don't love your story and write it for yourself first, i don't think your heart will be in it.

  2. We all often feel like we're conquoring a new territory (mine is currently partenting a toddler). THe fictionalization is relateable, but removed enough to be entertaining. And I like the CS Lewis quote!

  3. For me it has something to do with the particular mystery of the transition from the Dark Ages to the Middle Ages. I like all parts of history, but there are some moments more fascinating than others. Ancient history can seem too vague, while the Romans were great but also well documented. Then everything falls into chaos and mystery for awhile as the Roman empire collapses. We finally come out of it again, but that mystery period there in between seems to draw many of us in. We see the remnants in the great castles and other medieval ruins, and we can read some of it in the tales like King Arthur. I like cowboys and such, too, but there's not much mystery to them, and there's not much of the mythic romance of dragons and trolls either.

  4. Ted, those are very good points. I admit I don't know as much about history as I should, but you are right about the period of chaos in which the world sorted itself out after the fall of the Roman empire.

    Which inevitably begs the question.. what will happen when the US collapses? And are we already starting to see its preliminary effects now? No, I won't get into a political discussion. But the parallels are a little too uncanny.

  5. There's a kettle of fish! The US Empire will end, as all Empires do, but the "how" will determine whether or not there's another Dark Age. If we get all Mad Max about it, there won't be many records left.

  6. It may be worth pointing out at this point that many historians don't use the term 'Dark Age' precisely because it implies too much in the way of chaos, rather than just being 'dark' in the sense of generally unrecorded.

    On the fantasy note, I've always been of the opinion that fantasy is more than just an escape, because it gives us precious distance from which to comment on the world as a whole. Where writing about something directly might not feel right, sometimes writing about similar situations in a completely made up world can work.

  7. The eventual fall of the US will be interesting and most likely frightening. We could push it off for a long time if we were willing to reinvent ourselves, such as by simplifying by dividing into two or more countries, but of course we won't. We always choose the hard way, putting of for ages what we should be fixing now.


I apologize for the word verification. I hate it, but the spammers made me do it.