So OK, I have a question for you. I’ll weigh in myself beyond the cut, because, y’know, I need to say something, or I’ll explode. But I want to hear what you think. So think hard about the answer before you click through, right? Good. OK. Here’s the question: what do you get out of fantasy?
It’s a really complicated question. I’m not sure I have the answer, either. Of course, there is no one answer anyway, so I definitely don’t have it. But there is something going on in fantasy that isn’t going on elsewhere. When posed the question, a few years ago, as to whether or not fantasy writers should have to go through an “apprenticeship” like visual artists do, where they are expected to learn how to realistically depict things before they can begin to portray fantastic things, I said it wasn’t the same, because writing fantasy is a different mindset, with actually different tools, than writing anything else. But what’s happening in there, anyway?
I think there’s something to Tolkien’s idea that fantasies are secondary worlds. Practically, that’s a contrast to Coleridge’s idea of the suspension of disbelief, that one gets rid one one’s own disbelief when one reads something unrealistic. Thing is, that doesn’t really happen. If you’re aware something’s unrealistic, you never stop being aware of that. But when you read, watch, or play a fantasy, you don’t consider it in that way. Instead, you deal with the world before you as though it’s a new one, right? That’s what I do, I think. It’s a secondary world, separate from the one we live in, in which different things can happen (the status of all fiction), but also a place in which rules of reality can be different from our world as well. In that world, the world we see when we read/watch/play a fantasy, things are just different. All fiction creates a kind of new world, but fantasy is the ultimate extension of that – it’s the place in which anything can happen, when the pure power of fiction can manipulate anything, not just the events around people just like us, in a place just like ours. If I’m asked why I value fantasy, the answer is easy: it’s the end result of the impulse toward fiction. Our entire history of imaginative work has led up to what we think of as fantasy.
But that still doesn’t describe what I get out of it. It’s why I think it’s better, but why do I read it, personally? We’ve all enjoyed a movie better than its better-made cousin. So why do we enjoy fantasy more than the other stuff, then? Why are we drawn to this stuff, quality and logically-inevitable status aside?
Here’s a little biographical info for yours truly, coupled with some theories actually advanced by a friend a few years ago. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. I bet you can relate. I didn’t have siblings or friends I saw outside school. After school it was me and the empty yard in front of my house, along with whatever I could fashion out of cardboard, sticks, and my toys. I stole my dad’s mallet for a week a two to play Thor. You know the drill.
This doesn’t sound much different from anyone’s childhood. But if you ask my dad about it (I have), I didn’t play like other kids might. I spent a lot of time standing still, staring into space. Then I would run around, swing sticks, so on. Then I would stand still again. Now, for my dad, I was only playing when I was moving. He told me once I didn’t play when I was a kid.
He was wrong. But he couldn’t see in my head, so how could he know? My general isolation led me to populate things, to create stuff, to try to form moods and worries and feelings in myself. I was shifting into fantasy worlds, simple though they might have been. My time as a kid left me a lifelong love of headspace, of fantasy, of things made entirely of thought, with no earthly substance.
That’s my excuse. Or, at least, it’s my excuse right now. What’s yours? What do you get out of fantasy that you don’t get anywhere else?