In Defense of Fantasy

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration

This year, I really took for granted the fact that I was living in a Geek Suite. Every single one of my roommates shared my love of science fiction and fantasy, and I *never* had to try and justify my love to them or defend it in any way. As a consequence, I’d forgotten that to the rest of the world these things can be seen as silly or frivolous--Ginia Bellafante's semi-recent New York Times article is proof enough of that.

We are not trying in this post to claim that All People Must Love Fantasy. Far from it. What we wish, however--what we are trying to convince people of--is that fantasy is not something that should be dismissed as silly or frivolous. To us, and to countless other people out there, it is something far deeper than that.

This semester I was focused—perhaps too focused— on trying to justify science fiction in an academic setting. But one thing I discovered was that in many ways it’s much easier to legitimize science fiction than to legitimize fantasy. It’s easier to say that the postmodern existential crap that can so often be associated with science fiction is “relevant” to the real world, because in many ways it’s a completely transparent commentary on our society today. Even when science fiction consists of fun, adventurous romps a la Doctor Who, it’s still not the pure escapism that fantasy more often presents. Whereas fantasy almost exclusively takes place in worlds not our own, science fiction takes existing technologies and conditions of society and extends them, asks “but what if this were to happen…?”. And while that’s extremely powerful in its own right, this is not fantasy. The lines between the two genres blur, but a lot of people don’t see that. For example, the professor who taught my science fiction class loves science fiction (obviously), but dismisses fantasy as escapist, disordered frivolity. Because it does not have strict conventions and because it does not take place in “our world,” she claims it is pointless.

But do characteristics such as escapism or magic really make fantasy any less valid or important? Absolutely not.

I am going to argue two things here. I am going to argue that escapism is valuable for its own sake, and I am going to argue that this escapism and the sense of possibility embodied in fantasy is hugely, hugely important to people--as creative imaginers, as critical thinkers, and as just plain people living out their lives.

Let’s start with something that appears fairly obvious: Fantasy is FUN. Why shouldn’t it be? Here there be dragons and magic wands and all the things we believed were real when we were kids. Why shouldn’t we still believe in those things? Why shouldn’t we still take joy in imagination, in believing that something exists beyond our own mundane world? Perhaps I’m only stating this as a kid who never really grew up. But there are sure as hell thousands of other overgrown kids out there--and why should that be something to be looked down upon? There seems to be this ultimate dismissal of pure imagination; but what of it? I don’t know about you, but at the end of some days I want *nothing more* to just escape into someone else’s world and lives. People do it through television and literature all the livelong *time*--but dragons are a brand of escapism with ten times the adventure and fun as a reality TV show.

Yet even as we establish that fantasy is worth reading purely for the adventure and the magic, I want to go a step further and argue that the possibilities represented in fantasy are vitally important for those of us who want to imagine the prospect that the world could be different. Tamora Pierce highlighted this beautifully at a book-signing I went to a couple of years ago, when she said that “People turn to fantasy because it deals so blatantly with honor and courage and passion. And it’s the only genre in literature that deals with these themes so seriously and openly.”

There is such truth in this statement, and it’s so important. Fantasy heightens the stakes, and rarely presumes that just because magic exists the world is utopian and happy. As Cornelius Fudge kindly says, “The trouble is, Prime Minister, the other side can do magic too.” And when the stakes are raised, fantasy doesn’t shy away from showing us the worst sides of human nature—intolerance and cowardice and spite. But it also shows us that when the world’s on the verge of collapsing the best sides of human nature can emerge too—honor and courage and loyalty.

But even beyond that, fantasy gives us the power to imagine, and to dream. Yes, all literature is imagination to some extent. But fantasy is just the pinnacle of imagination. Always. You just create so much more. The limitations of the real world don’t apply in fantasy, which requires you to think in an entirely different way. People are still the same, but their surroundings are completely different—what happens then? What changes, what stays the same? How can you use different settings both to imagine an more empowering world and reveal prejudices and injustices that exist in almost every world and setting?

Fantasy authors try to answer these questions through the books that they write, and it’s up to us, the readers, to take these new worlds and engage with them ourselves. I don’t think its any accident that the people who I’ve come across who love fantasy are among the most open-minded people I’ve ever met. It’s because we’ve been conditioned from forever on to imagine different possibilities, to hold the realities of multiple worlds concurrently in our minds. And I cannot even begin to expound upon how valuable that is. We don’t need to adhere to the limitations the real world to be able to tell a story, because we can imagine so many different possibilities. And it’s fantasy that taught us that. Tolkien taught us to imagine that even the most ordinary of hobbits could change the course of the world. J.K. Rowling taught us to believe that even the most picked-on of kids can come to a school just to learn magic. Tamora Pierce taught us that even if a girl is faced with the most damning of odds and oppositions, she can, through nothing but sheer determination and work, become a Lady Knight of the realm. And if those are not valuable lessons to have, to keep and cherish always, I don’t know what lessons are.