Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bring Fantasy Back to the Classroom

Many English teachers face the widespread misconception that if a work of fiction is enjoyable, it cannot be good, or, conversely, if it is good, it cannot be enjoyable. Critics of fantasy, for example, would likely argue that better reading materials are available for students to read. The inclusion of materials other than the “classics” into the curriculum, however, should not depend only on “literary worth” but also on what benefits the adolescent reader gets from the reading experience.

Typically when teachers consider using fantasy novels in the classroom, they do not envision it being used at the secondary level as it is typically dismissed as “childish” and unworthy of serious literary criticism; in fact it is questioned how a novel about dragons and magic can convey any of the same themes and ideas as Shakespeare or Dickens. Fantasy tends to be ignored by teachers, parents, and administrators who feel that certain classics from the typical literary canon should be read. When students are prepared for the Eleventh Grade NYS Regents ELA, the canon of works that will help them in the critical lens portion of the exam range from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course we are not forgetting any of the great Shakespearean works such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, or Julius Caesar. Each of these works is indeed a masterpiece about tragedy, triumph, and the inner conflict of humanity. However, the genre of fantasy can address these deep human issues as well as many others such as the impossibility of certainty, the complexity of action, and the coexistence of good and evil.

It is helpful to come to a definitive definition of fantasy as a genre of literature in order to understand why it is so beneficial. This is no easy feat in and of itself. Many authors and critics have developed various definitions of the term but a common thread in them all is that fantasy must include an element that is removed from reality. Fantasy is often characterized by a departure from the accepted rules by which individuals perceive the world around them; it represents that which is impossible (unexplained) and outside the parameters of our known reality. For the sake of argument we will be looking at the most comprehensive and inclusive definition. It comes from the classic reference text in order to best provide the broadest sense of this misunderstood genre. From the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, by editors John Clute and John Grant, sets the definition for fantasy as we know it. “A self coherent narrative that when set in this world tells a story that is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, while it is impossible in itself, stories set there may be possible in its terms”. Clute and Grant go on to further define subgenres and types of fantasy showing that the genre is more complex than misconceptions allow. In a nutshell, fantasy is any departure from reality and within can contain many elements ranging from other worlds to supernatural powers to fantastic creatures.

It is important to note that characteristics of fantasy fiction and its many overlapping sub-genres are the subjects of debate among some critics and writers. Although all fantasy stories are unique, there are some characteristics that are typically common of the genre. Fantasy brings many elements to the table that will help students prepare for the Regents ELA exam. In general, the conflict in fantasy novels is of good vs. evil. Usually, the protagonist and supporting characters set out to conquer this evil, although this is often played out through a series of books, rather than just one. Most fantasy fiction also features great details, with settings, creatures, words and names that are often created by the author. Fantasy novels require their audiences to read carefully, for their settings and characters are not familiar in everyday life. In recent times, the term 'fantasy', when regarded as part of an individual genre, generally brings to mind tales of dragons and castles and knights in shining armor - but in truth, the genre as a whole encompasses so much more. Some examples of sub-genres are: romance, fairy tales, alternative history, dark fantasy, epic fantasy, and high fantasy to name a few.

Fantasy literature allows the reader to consider and speculate about central and sometimes painfully realistic themes, in a way that is more palatable than in realistic fiction. One thing is certain: there is something timeless about stories that pit motivating heroes who face long odds against dynamic villains. The fantastic nature of the characters and the setting provides readers with emotional distance that gives them room to consider sensitive and important ideas more objectively than any other genre. An irony about fantasy is that despite the fanciful characters, strange imaginary worlds, and bizarre situations encountered, it has the power to help us better understand reality. Who wouldn't want something so powerful to be included in curriculums?

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