Why I Love Fantasy

This week I had a conversation in which I defended a book I have never read because the primary criticism I heard leveled against it was simply that “it has magic.” My response was, equally simply, “what’s wrong with magic?” The magical and the fantastic has long been seen unfairly, in the minds of some “serious” readers, as fundamentally lesser works or as lacking in basic literary merit. I have to ask, though, what are The Odyssey and The Tempest if not works of fantasy?

I read a lot. I watch a lot of movies and I’ve seen what is probably more than my fair share of television, and I tend to read a decent amount of comics, or graphic novels for those too afraid to admit that they like them. In my countless hours of “study”, I have come to some conclusions about what makes a work valid or consequential. A work is never important simply because of its subject matter. Never. A fantasy novel involving elves and dwarves can have more to say about the human condition than one about an impoverished family trying to make ends meet; a graphic novel set after a zombie apocalypse may delve more deeply into the psychology of what makes us human than a tome about the relationship of Freud and Jung. Everything comes down to the quality of the writing and the believability of the characters and their interactions within the constraints of their settings.

A few days ago I finished reading an epic fantasy trilogy by David Anthony Durham called AcaciaAcacia is a work in which magic and dragons and non-human intelligent races appear; some of the characters flirt with apotheosis, and others achieve immortality. At its core, however, Acacia is a work that is about the compromises men (and women) make, and the consequences those compromises bring. I have read several works, academic and literary, about slavery, in the United States, in Rome, and elsewhere, but I have honestly never read anything that pondered the implications and the psychology of slavery, of both the slaves and the slavers, as deeply as the Acacia trilogy. The only work that even comes close is Howard Fast’s excellent Spartacus, but the Acacia trilogy literally spends hundreds of pages with slaves struggling towards freedom, and the slavers struggling towards justification.

The city works on multiple levels, much like the story. For that bad pun, I apologize, but I don't regret.

The city works on multiple levels, much like the story. For that bad pun, I apologize, but I don’t regret.

An argument oft-repeated regarding why works of fiction set on our world, using the rules of the universe as we understand them, are more likely to hold relevance, is that characters in a fantasy setting are more difficult to relate to if the events in the story they inhabit can’t actually happen. That is an argument that I can fully understand while simultaneously disagreeing with wholeheartedly. For example, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods gets what makes the modern man tick more thoroughly than any other contemporary novel I can think of, and most of the major characters in that novel are literally divine. On the other hand, your typical bodice-ripping romance novel is no more reflective on the human condition than the paper it is printed on.

Thus far, I have written about why works of fantasy are not inferior to their less unrealistic cousins, but I have yet to discuss why I have such an adoration for the genre. If I had to describe the appeal of fantasy in one word, it would be this one: vastness. Fantasy, and hard science-fiction for that matter, possesses a potential for the vast that most works of fiction simply can’t rival. This is certainly not without exceptions, for example the more major works of Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, and James Michener. But the best works of epic fantasy tend to be of a scale most authors don’t approach in more ways than just sheer page length.

The works of J.R.R. Tolkien set in Middle Earth, most notably The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, create a world that has been imagined from the ground up. The characters have genealogies, the races have their own unique languages, and the world has a history. Many fantasy epics, especially Tolkien’s tome, transcend the typical limitations of fiction into something more mythic. The best known works of fantasy have become something more than just books, they are shared secular mythologies. While mythologies of the past have been far from forgotten, their relevance in today’s world has certainly diminished. The trope of the rightful king returning to reclaim his throne is less associated with Horus, and it’s more associated with Aragorn. The dragon needing to be slain is not faced down by Beowulf, it is faced by Bilbo and his primarily dwarven companions. Additionally, what are the Marvel and DC Comics universes if not mythologies for the modern age?

J.R.R. Tolkien, keeping it classy

J.R.R. Tolkien, keeping it classy

Fantasy as a genre certainly has a decent amount of clichés, and many works are arguably just retreads of those that have preceded it (and anyone claiming that’s unique to fantasy is delusional), but that certainly doesn’t mean that they are interchangeable. I can’t count how many Dark Lords you’ll find while browsing the fantasy section of a bookstore (Sauron, Voldemort, Morgoth, Galbatorix, the Dark One, Emperor Palpatine, etc.), but that does not indicate that they are all identical. In the case of the Harry Potter series of novels, Lord Voldemort is merely a fallen man, someone twisted by his own desires and shortcomings. While in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is something much more ancient, more primordial, and is truly more of a conceptual evil rather than the human threat that is Voldemort.

Fantasy series will frequently have similar, at least superficially, protagonists. Typically males, but not always, a year or two away from adulthood, generally they have been orphaned or at least have lost one parent, eventually they will gain a sage mentor, etc. It is true, yes, that these tropes are frequently obvious, but they are not necessarily indicative of characters similarities to one another. How alike are Jon Snow and Harry Potter? Or Rand al’Thor and Ged? Or Paul Atreides and Lyra Belacqua? Every character in every work can be matched to an archetype, without exception, but that does not mean that they can’t differentiate themselves from the pack.

One aspect of fantasy (and also science-fiction, somewhat) that is unique to the genre is the word that spurred on this tirade/plea/faux-diatribe: magic. Magic is a word that makes some people squeal with delight and others scoff in derision, and I will be one of those people scoffing if something in real life is described as magical, but when it comes to books or movies, I’m all for it. Magic in fantasy isn’t sunshine and sparkles and impossibly colorful flowers: it’s physics. In The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire or The Lord of the Rings, magic is part of the makeup of that reality. Harry Potter’s life doesn’t become easier when he discovers he’s a wizard, that’s when his life becomes complicated and dangerous.

Winter is Coming

Winter is Coming

Systems of magic vary from work to work, from the clearly defined (except for when it isn’t) pseudo-normality of the Harry Potter series, to the vaguer, more rare and religiously tinged systems in A Song of Ice and Fire. All magic-systems are not identical, for example Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series incorporates a system where some people have the innate ability to use certain metals as fuel for superhuman abilities, and there is no wizardry to be found. Even in something like   the comic-books featuring the X-Men, the mutant gene is really just their system of magic (and I know that Marvel comics are loaded with actual magic, so sit down Dr. Strange, your film will come), despite its more scientific explanation in-universe.

I have often heard people claim that writers of fantasy (or science-fiction) are just not as good as the authors of “real” novels. This is, simply, preposterous. It would be impossible to convince me that writers like Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe are not among the best wordsmiths of the twentieth century. Or that authors of “real” novels can craft a work as complex, comprehensive, and gut-churning as the multi-tiered narrative that is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Fantasy authors can write, never think otherwise.

Fantasy is a genre intimately tied to the beginnings of literature, and art in general, so the stigma that tends to keep many people from taking fantasy seriously is, in my mind, both illogical and unfair. I am not saying that everyone has to like fantasy, and I am not claiming that fantasy is better than other types of fiction, because I know that isn’t true, but there is one other thing that I know for sure: fantasy certainly isn’t worse.


14 thoughts on “Why I Love Fantasy

  1. Chris G.

    Reblogged this on The Waking Den and commented:
    Good morning, happy people. Today I draw your attention to this essay on Fantasy, from the Self Aware Nerd. Quality stuff–and includes classy Tolkien being classy. Read on!

  2. Pingback: Why I Love Fantasy « Virginia ASSEMBL…age

  3. nightwing17

    I’m always surprised by this line of thinking. Especially in this world, where Batman picks up an Oscar for best supporting actor and fraternities gather round a screen for a game of Halo as easily as a game of football, it seems unthinkable how many people, especially people who frequently consume fantasy, have it rooted in their heads that it’s a fluff genre. After all, The Lord of the Rings is the second best selling novel in history (the first having one-hundred, admittedly less commecially valuable, years without its competition), and The Hobbit (the fourth best-selling novel of all time) is viewed as profitable enough to support three movies!

    Admittedly, I think that Tolkien has a lot to do with our society’s issues with fantasy. The Lord of the Rings did best as a massive cult hit, playing on romantic and environmentalist sentiments of the time, and, for all its genius, is something of a dry read at times. More important, however is the turn that fantasy publishing took after it’s success. Instead of seeing the value of well-written intelligent fantasy, surprised publishers saw a market and dove to fill it with superficially similar stock. While I can’t give any of these books a fair appraisal (not having read many), it’s hard to deny that these stories (often described as epic in scope, limited in originality of premise, and widely repeatable) pigeonholed the genre and contributed to it’s underground nature. The same phenomenon is clearly visible in the field of mystery novels but they haven’t had quite the same level of judgement cast upon them.

    But that was only one facet of fantasy, and one that I imagine was harshly condemned without much chance to defend itself. Fantasy has, debatably, the most range of any genre. Pretty much any story can become a fantasy story. Acacia, for all it’s focus on war and magic, is largely a political thriller through the lens of social inequity, and A Song of Ice and Fire is much the same in this regard. 

    Fantasy romance is quickly becoming the dominant form of that genre, while recent television proves that speculative detective stories are viable (one of the unfortunately less viable, Awake, even drew in my mother, who holds no hate for speculative fiction but insists that it’s not for her. You tuned in every week Mom! Sorry, back to the point.) I think it could be argued that speculative fiction vs. non-speculative fiction is a distinction more similar to fiction vs. non-fiction than to romance vs. “literary fiction”. It’s strange to think that there are so many people who cut out that wide a swath of stories.

    Fantasy allows us the chance to comment on our world, as well as to peer beyond it. The first defense of fantasy is allegory, but that’s a flawed argument because it assumes that what makes fantasy valid is the real, not the fantasic. I think the reason you still see this defense is that it highlights the ways that distance can help provide perspective on the issues facing us, but that’s not the full value of fantasy. I would argue that the value of fiction, in general is that it allows us to imagine worlds beyond our own. Fiction is the first and most advanced form of interactive learning. It provides exercises in empathy and critical thinking. Most of the things that make us human are tied up in our conceptions of language, symbolic thinking, and hypothetical reasoning and creative problem solving. Fiction allows us to do those things, is in many ways the natural sum of those essentially human traits. Speculative fiction is simply taking that creative impulse that makes fiction fiction and expanding it to the world the characters are living in. Therefore fantasy is merely the subset of speculative fiction that is willing to take the bold step of not necessarily explaining the physics of this new world or not doing so in accordance with our understanding of physics.

    John Green once said that “Nerds[…] are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff. Nerds are allowed to love stuff. Like, jump-up-and-down-in-your-chair, can’t-control-yourself LOVE it. When people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is, “You like stuff.” That’s not a good insult at all! Like, “You’re too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness.” I think this has a lot to do with fantasy and why people who read fantasy are often considered to be nerds, or geeks, or whatever term you have defined to mean what we all clearly mean by those terms. Somehow realism and pragmatism have convinced us that its shameful to dream of something bigger or better, at least past a point, but fantasy readers are allowed to be unironically enthused about the freedom that fiction gives us. When people turn up their nose at fantasy it seems like they turn up their nose at the unashamed use of the imagination at the heart of all fiction, and I think that’s what makes it so confusing for me and possibly other fans of the genre. 

    I actually had the good fortune to take a course with David Durham and some of the most interesting anecdotes he had in the early portion of the class were about how he and the writers he knew had come back, and it did seem to generally be a coming back, to fantasy. And though I fought to get into that class (thank you, David), it was shocking to me that many of the students had a lack of interest in the genre. In fact, on one occasion when a discussion of a book was initiated (in a one at a time clockwise fashion), it barely took ten minutes for someone to start their remarks “I generally don’t like fantasy but…” I sat there and wondered what these people, many of them extremely talented writers, were doing here as an entire table and a half (of four) consecutively started their remarks the same way before one student broke the trend.

    I think Acacia is an excellent example of how fantasy can be meaningful. I have only finished the first book (sorry, David) but, the political intrigue and the questions of how to ethically achieve the dream of universal security and happiness were the most fascinating parts of the story. While I’ve debated some of the politics of the book with others, both in the context of their world and ours, I think the fact that I had those conversations is evidence of the power of fantasy. Having taken a class with David before reading the book I’m even more aware than I might have otherwise been of the way that we confuse learning to read critically with learning literary criticism. 

    For me, not everyone has to enjoy fantasy, but it’s my belief that that’s a matter of degree. We all indulge in the fantastic from time to time, the only questions are how much and how unashamedly.

  4. Self Aware Nerd Post author

    I completely with that quote about the word “Nerd” just being a (somewhat) derogatory label for someone who is enthusiastic, though the stigma seems to have lessened in recent years. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are so often called niche genres, but that that argument holds little weight when the some of the most successful shows on television are ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ and the most commercially successful movie of last year had Marvel Comics in the opening credits.

    I tend to agree with your view of (some, not all) fantasy being a type of speculative fiction that does not explain the science or have the science springing from modern technology. If you took airplanes and firearms back to the time of the Sumerians, the most logical explanation would be magic or gods and not science or technology. I see no reason why we are any different, aside from a greater understanding of the universe and some better technology.

    1. nightwing17

      I have grown understanding of the fact that it will still take time for fantasy to be a truly mainstream genre but what shocks me is people who watch The Walking Dead saying that they don’t watch fantasy or have no interest in it.

      I’m sure that there are exceptions to that definition but for the most part it seems to me that it’s when there’s a different set of rules or a set of rules in addition to those we know now that don’t require understanding of why they work if we can believe how they work.

      The best exception I can think of is a story that would be alternate history but did not diverge from our history recently enough to fall under that genre (fantasy without magic).

      1. Self Aware Nerd Post author

        Well, just about any work of fiction is a work of fantasy, it is just the extent of the fantasy that differs. I have met horror fans (they like monsters and such) who look down fantasy as lesser, as if a vampire isn’t a creature of fantasy. It is quite ridiculous.

  5. boundandgaggedbooks

    Wow. You just summed up my major, college thesis, and pet peeve in one fell swoop. As a told a creative writing professor who dismissed my work entirely because it was fantasy: yes, there are elves and interplanetary politics, and reincarnated revenge-seekers in my work, but that is not the point. A character’s pointy ears don’t detract from the loss of a child or the horror of war or the nature of human suffering and endurance. I love fantasy. It’s what exposed me to politics, social justice, inequality, trauma, and moral ambiguity, long before I was exposed to “real literature.” Even fantasy aimed at children still near-universally features genocide, diaspora, loss of a parent or friend, and the journey to find one’s self and one’s place in the world. The Illiad is still the best treatise on war and PTSD I’ve read (even after studying both) and the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana had far more to teach me about gender dynamics than any work on gender theory.

    1. Self Aware Nerd Post author

      A creative writing professor dismissing an entire of genre of literature? Sounds splendid. Fantasy seems to be able to include more mature themes because it can’t “actually” happen. One of the strongest elements of Harry Potter was racism, but the element (some overzealous) parents complain about is the promotion of witchcraft (a preposterous notion).


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