Thursday, December 23, 2010

Everything in Our World Is Subjective (Middle-Earth Is Another Story)

Steph Ward explains:

Everyone believes in different things. Some people may say that they believe that eating meat is wrong because it is cruel to animals, and some people may say that they believe ghosts exist because they saw one. Who is the average individual to question the beliefs of others? The concept of fantasy is very fluid and difficult to pin down when one takes into account how truly subjective it is. Depending on the beliefs of an individual a work of fantasy can easily be considered to be a work of speculative fiction. A majority of fantasy is completely subjective, based upon the personal beliefs of the individual, there are some exceptions to this subjectivity, depending on the way that the novel is set up. A novel that takes place in our world is much more difficult to classify as fantasy than a novel that is set in another world.

A belief can come from anywhere. Some sources of beliefs that may affect what we see as fantasy may come from places like our own experiences, our culture or our religion. Since so many fantasy novelists pull ideas from religions (whether it is Paganism, Christianity or otherwise) it only seems natural that beliefs in religion may alter our perception of what fantasy is. Take the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: this novel gives you an eschatological tale in which the AntiChrist has been born and will bring about the end of the world. The concepts of the Apocalypse, angels, demons and the AntiChrist are things that are very real to many groups of people because of their beliefs. So the classification of this novel becomes subjective. One’s religious beliefs may dictate that this is not fantasy at all, merely a speculation, a possible course of events about something that will inevitably occur. On the other side of the coin, if you are an atheist and do not believe in anything religious then this book becomes a work of complete fantasy, as you have no beliefs to ground it. Therefore, whether you consider this book to be fantasy or not is a completely subjective thing. There is no way to do it without disagreement from some groups.

Good Omens is particularly subjective because it deals directly with religion, something that people already have extreme beliefs about. The debate of “Is this fantasy?” does not always have to be this heated. It is hard to find an individual who does not believe that The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantasy novel. This is not to say that it is not a subjective belief. Certainly, some may claim that Middle-Earth does exist but these beliefs seem much less rational to us than the claim that angels exist. Why is this? This occurs because The Hobbit does not take place in our world. This novel takes place in another world entirely, one that the author admittedly made up. It is much easier, and much more rational, to have subjective beliefs in our world than it is to have subjective beliefs about another world. In Middle-Earth, we have only what we are told by Tolkien to form our beliefs on. In Good Omens, which takes place on our Earth, we have all of our personal experience and beliefs about our world to take into account before we can make a decision.

Much of Good Omens is supported by other tangible things, things that we already know exist. The novel makes mention of the Bible, of the Satanist and Christian faiths, of Nostradamus and other prophecy makers, things that we know actually exist or existed. On top of that it adds things that could exist, things that many people do believe exist such as angels and demons. The novel also takes place in our world. We have enough information, from our own life experiences and from those things the novel makes reference to that we know exist to be able to make a subjective judgment on the things that could exist. When Gaiman and Pratchett say, “Many phenomena--wars, plagues, sudden audits--have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of man...” (15), it is easy for me to make a subjective call on whether this statement is fantasy or not. That is because it is based in my world and I have experience with all of those evil things listed. I may have been told by the Bible, or by my parents or a hundred other outside sources that Satan causes evil in the world. Since I already know this it is very easy for me to subjectively say that this is not fantasy at all, this novel is actually taking a set of beliefs from outside sources and building a story out of them. However, if I had been raised to believe that neither God nor Satan exist and that the Apocalypse is a bunch of bologna I would say that this is a fantastical concept that is imaginary only. But, if we look at The Hobbit, which takes place in another world, the classification of the novel is much simpler because we have no influence from outside sources. When Tolkien explains that hobbits are “a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort...” (2), I do not have to decide whether a hobbit is a fantastical creature or not because this novel does not take place in the world that I live in. I cannot have a rational, subjective belief about a world that I have no experience of. Good Omens references things that I know, and a world that I am familiar with, so I can make a subjective judgment based on my beliefs about the world as to whether I think this novel is fantastic or speculative. The Hobbit does not allow me to do such things. I have been told that Tolkien created Middle-Earth. This is not my world, so this is fantasy.

Whether something is fantasy or not depends on our beliefs. Our beliefs depend on our experiences and influences from our world. A novel that takes place in our world is open to much debate as to whether or not it is fantasy. That is because people have such varying beliefs on our world. Any novels that take place in our world can never definitively be called fantasy, or anything else. There will always be debate because the human experience and beliefs vary so greatly. However, if a novel does not take place in our world it is much easier to simply slap a fantasy label on it and be done with the whole ordeal.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fantasy Is Ambiguous

Alexe Brode explains why:

The question of "what is fantasy" is really hard to define. First, it is relatively ambiguous, meaning it has many meanings. Secondly, there are so many genres in the world, how does fantasy not fall under something else? These are just many questions that need to be answered to better understand what fantasy is in all actuality.

The word fantasy can mean anything from a mental image, imagination, a visionary idea, to even an illusion or hallucination. Fantasy is so ambiguous it is hard to come to one definition. If one was to sit down and conquer this definition it would take years. This is one genre that could fit really any type of book one reads. For example, take the definition of a mental image; reading anything can give a person a mental image if the use of figures of speech is used properly. I could read something a five-year-old wrote and probably get some sort of mental image from it.

Fiction, science fiction, horror, children's literature, each and every one of these can fall under fantasy because most if not all can lead you into a separate world where everything written in the book comes true. Would these be considered sub-genres? Or is there really a major difference between fantasy and these? Fantasy seems to deal more with dragons and magic, as the above do not. Is this the difference? Then one looks at "Snow White" or "Cinderella"--are they considered fantasy or is that children’s literature still?

In all actuality, coming up with an answer about what is fantasy is relatively hard. I guess it depends on the reader or mainly on what others think. The reader could just make up their own classification for what is fantasy, or just stick to what the editor says the genre is. Fantasy is such a broad and ambiguous term that the answer will be just as broad and ambiguous.

My idea of fantasy is one that just transports you completely into a separate world where you can't really distinguish between reality and fiction. The Jhereg book did this to me. I want more after reading the first, even more after the second, and I'm dying after the third. Now I just wish the world was like the book so I could be an assassin and not deal with school and such and just get paid to kill people. It's like an escape into a better life it seems, somewhere that someone feels safe because they know they can’t get hurt but they enjoy all of the action.

Fantasy is ambiguous. It can't be defined into a set definition. It can be one genre or many as far as we know. It is hard to tell fantasy apart from other genres because it all contains the same content and there isn't a special ingredient that separates them. So the question of "what is fantasy?" seems to still be left unanswered, because in all reality anything can be fantasy if you set your mind to it.

Defining Fantasy--and Science Fiction

Samantha Brethel breaks it down:

The fantasy genre is very interesting because of the discrepancies people have in assigning the criteria a book must have to be considered a work of fantasy literature. However, after discussing it in class, I have come to the conclusion that for a novel to be considered fantasy, it must have a few of the following elements: some form(s) of supernatural elements or mythological creatures; have a character-driven plot; and incorporate some sort of journey or mission. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit incorporates these elements fully, making his novel one of the most famous fantasy books. And the entire Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is also a series that fully incorporates the elements necessary to make a novel belong to the fantasy genre, and to really keep this genre separate from science fiction, where the lines become blurred.

The plot of The Hobbit is indeed character driven; the dwarves and Bilbo go on a journey to the Lonely Mountain to take back their treasure that was stolen from them by the dragon Smaug. The entire novel consists of their journey getting to Smaug's lair, and then the battle to get back their gold. You follow the fourteen of them, and occasionally Gandalf the wizard and a few others, until they do actually defeat Smaug.

The same is true of The Magician's Nephew, the first (though written next-to-last) in the Narnia series. The two main characters are Digory and Polly, the children who first enter the world that is to be Narnia long before Lucy, Edward and their siblings go through the wardrobe. The readers follow the kids as they go into Charn and Narnia and meet Jadis, the soon to be White Witch, and Aslan the Lion. We follow them between our world and the other worlds until they finally get back to their world and get the apple to cure Digory's mother. The story ends with a nice little conclusion about how the children grow up and live happy lives.

Both novels incorporate a number of supernatural elements and made-up creatures, something all fantasy novels must have. Tolkien's story has not only dwarves and a wizard, but goblins, giant spiders, hobbits, wood elves, river elves, a Necromancer, a super-powerful giant man, a dragon, and a strange hobbit-hybrid creature named Gollum. Each one of these creatures has its own history and own culture; hobbits are specifically creatures of comfort who eat several times a day and never do anything exciting. That is their own specific culture, which is very different from that of, say, a dwarf, who lives underground and tunnels for treasure and loves adventures. The wizard Gandalf is a good wizard, and later on in the series you meet another wizard who is evil. Not every creature of every race is the same in every story, and the same is true of the creatures within this specific story. Bilbo breaks the barriers of hobbit normality by going off on the adventure with the dwarves.

The creatures invented with Lewis's story also are specific to his creation. While witches were not invented by Lewis, he invents her powers to make her unique to his story. Aslan, the talking Lion who creates the land of Narnia is also tailored to specifically meet the needs of this story. Of course Lewis didn't invent lions, but he did create this specific lion. In later stories in the Chronicles, other magical creatures are introduced (though most of them are talking animals).

Science fiction and fantasy are two separate genres, but often it is hard to differentiate between the two. I think Tolkien and Lewis help to make that distinction very clear; if there is an absence of technology (i.e. something invented by man, or seemingly futuristic) it belongs to the fantasy genre. If it's in a more futuristic setting or incorporates technology like spaceships, aliens, or otherworldly inventions, it definitely falls into the science fiction category. Other novels that incorporate some of the same things found in Middle-Earth and Narnia can be considered fantasy because of the absence of science-fiction elements.

Both of these fantasy stories have their main characters going on journeys to get something and get back home, and their treks through the magical lands with the fantasy creatures are what drives the plot. We read these stories to see what will happen to the characters and their friends on their journeys; will they make it back alive? Will they accept that there are magical worlds and mythological creatures that can help them on their ways? These very elements justify these novels as belonging in the fantasy genre. They aren't science fiction, nonfiction, romance novels, or coming of age (though The Magician's Nephew might fall into that last category). Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lewis's The Magician's Nephew both embody these characteristics and define the genre that is fantasy literature.

The Bildungsroman: Kristian Everett

The Bildungsroman in fantasy fiction

Bildungsroman, a genre of literature focused on coming of age experiences, is not specific to the fantasy genre; however, fantasy fiction authors utilize this subgenre throughout their work, frequently using it to define the morals and expectations of their own society. The Bildungsroman has been used successfully throughout the genre, arguably producing its most successful works: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore, The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, The True Game by Sherri S. Tepper, and countless others. Despite its frequent usage and repeated messages, this subgenre of fantasy has remained popular; it continues to represent several of the best selling fantasy books, affecting generations of young readers. The Bildungsroman will remain a popular and important subgenre, its ability to affect readers both young and old supporting its continuation.

The Bildungsroman can be understood as a very basic concept, one capable of adaptation and reinvention as society changes. Similar to gender roles, the Bildungsroman is a product of the society it’s written in, changing the values and morals it passes on to fit that society. This ability of the Bildungsroman can be seen in a comparison between The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Tolkien was writing from a time period of stricter values, values leaning more closely to the right. His times affected his writing, as reflected in both the world itself and the characters he created. The men are men, the women are women. Characters like Aragorn, Arwen, and the majority of the fellowship of the ring all uphold strict gender and societal values. Unlike Jackson’s movie adaptation, Tolkien does not use Arwen to save Frodo from the Ringwraiths. Tolkien relies on a male character, an elf prince named Glorfindel, to aid Frodo and lead the party towards Rivendell. Aragorn, another strong male character, directly confronts the riders, fighting them off on Weathertop. In comparison, J.K. Rowling plays with gender roles, as well as the values she wants to instill through her writing. Instead of the rigid, predictable characters of Tolkien, Rowling manipulates traditional roles. Hermione is a stronger female character than many portrayed in The Lord of the Rings. While she still comprises several traditional female characteristics (compassion, emotion, and harassment of the male characters), Hermione rescues Harry and Ron several times. She is the most intelligent of the three, utilizing her knowledge and logic to rescue Harry and Ron from danger. In addition to Hermione, Rowling redefines the role of the wizened wizard. Whereas Gandalf, throughout much of Tolkien’s series, is seemingly all knowing and powerful, Dumbledore displays the ability of older generations to make errors and contain faults. Rowling seemingly attempts to create an older, wizened character that is ultimately human. Although both authors utilize the Bildungsroman, they do so in differing ways, passing on different values and morals. The values and morals they pass on directly reflect those of that author’s society and times.

Although the Bildungsroman is utilized by authors to pass morals and values onto youth, its affect on readers differs depending on the age group reading it. The morals and values impressed on youth through the Bildungsroman will have little impact on older audiences. After a certain age, readers have a set of morals instilled in them, values unlikely to change due to a single book or series. In the case of older audiences, the Bildungsroman serves to revisit youth and experience those issues once more through the lens of adulthood. Like the Pensieve in Harry Potter, Bildungsroman literature allows us to revisit previous experiences and memories. This allows older readers to bring greater understanding to their lives.

The Bildungsroman, while focusing on youth, can span several ages. Harry Potter spans ages eleven to the late teens. The Lord of the Rings focuses on a character several decades old; however, in the eyes of that character’s society, he is still a youth. Xanth focuses on a character in his early twenties. The exact age does not matter; in fact, age itself does not matter. In Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, the vampire Louis, despite his over 100 year lifespan, is forced to undergo the transformation associated with Bildungsroman literature. Over the course of the book, Louis must adapt and change. He is forced to accept the change he has undergone, what he has become. By the end of the book, Louis can be seen to have matured into an adult vampire. This has nothing to do with age. Instead, the transformation is emotional, it’s psychological. This is a key example of what Bildungsroman is really about. Instead of aging, it’s about growing up and being accepted as an adult by one’s own society. The key issue of the Bildungsroman in fantasy fiction is whether that character is considered an adult in the eyes of their society. The main objective of the Bildungsroman, as it pertains to the character, is to force experiences onto the character, forcing them to undergo changes which result in their achieving adulthood –not a specific age– in the eyes of their society.

The importance of the Bildungsroman can be understood in its ability to impact society; it influences several generations at once, despite being targeted towards youth. The impact it has on all generations allows it a sway over society comparable to any classic literature. Books such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings exemplify this potential impact. We can see this potential effect by analyzing the social impact these two series have had. While both series have remained immensely popular, what sets them apart is the impact they had on the youth. Students who previously disdained books began to pick them up. While it can be argued that Harry Potter did not create a generation of readers, as it has previously been claimed, it still affected youth in a positive way. The values and morals found in Harry Potter affected how these children viewed what was right and wrong. It influenced their outlook on the world, as well as how they viewed themselves in relation to that world.

How we understand Bildungsroman can change as the author varies. The emotional and psychological maturation of the main character is what’s key to Bildungsroman, not the age of the character or how many years pass. While the characters tend to be young, they can be any age from eleven to two-hundred. Bildungsroman is an important subgenre of literature because it allows authors impact youth in a positive way. It allows authors to shape and mold them with positive morals and values, values dictated by society. It is also important because it impacts readers outside of its target audience. Older readers are able to reexperience portions of their lives. They are able to revisit important events which shaped who they are today, reminding them of who they are and how they got there. Ultimately, the Bildungsroman is and will continue to be an important facet in literature, especially as a subgenre in fantasy. Its impact on a wide audience allows it to adapt with each generation, keeping its message relevant and understandable.

What Is with the Vampires?!

Christy Hewitt
ENGL 299
Critical Essay, Option #4

Alright, I’m going to say it, I am a Twilight Fan. Though I do not take any shame in being a fan of sparkling vampires I understand that many people are probably rolling their eyes. Authors write books for people to read them, they write books to attract a fan base. Stephanie Meyer is one of these authors (even though some people wouldn’t even call her an author), and she has also paved the way for authors that just so happen to write about vampires.

A fan base is defined as “the regular supporters and enthusiasts of a team, musician or musical group, entertainer, or other celebrity.” I have been a fan of vampires since 1997 when Buffy the Vampire Slayer came onto television. Anything and everything that has to do with vampires I am usually tuned right in.

I first heard about Twilight in the summer of 2008, I saw a name on the Internet, Edward Cullen and I wanted to learn more about it, so I googled him and got his Wikipedia page. I immediately thought, “It’s a vampire series, perfect,” so I ordered the first two books and started reading them. Within the first three chapters I was already in love (probably because I’m a girl). I finished the four book series by the end of summer and eagerly awaited the arrival of the first movie. While I do credit myself for many people reading this series I only think I expanded the fan base a little. By the end of 2008 Twilight was a name everyone knew. They knew about the sexy vampires and the love story and even though there were plenty of people who wanted nothing to do with it, there were plenty more that wanted every piece of this series as I did.

The fans were growing and growing and soon the name “Twi-hards” was coined. This name was given to us and we embraced it. We stood in line at midnight to buy Breaking Dawn, we stood in light at midnight when the first movie was released and we bought every trinket imaginable that could relate to this series. I convinced as many friends as I could to read the books and they jumped on the bandwagon as well.

The question that has haunted me for the past two years (and I’m sure others) is why vampires, why now? They have been around in history and entertainment forever, literally, they don’t die. All of a sudden in the past 2-3 years they have become one of the most admired things in TV, movies, books, even music. Along with Twilight came the surge of TV shows like True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries (both based on a book series). Movies like 30 Days of Night, Underworld, Daybreakers, and even Wolfman became extremely successful. Other book series like House of Night, Vampire Academy, and even spoof novels on vampires are popular. I’ve been trying to come up with a reason why all of these things are so popular now and the only thing that makes sense is that it is the new pop culture phenomenon. With the rising popularity of fantasy fiction, vampires have jumped on its coattails and helped progress the genre as well. At first it was The Hobbit and Chronicles of Narnia, then it was Harry Potter, now it’s vampires, specifically Twilight. There have been thousands of fantasy novels made in the past ten years but only a couple have caught the eye of the public.

Honestly, I think half of it has to do with gender. Ninety-nine percent of the fans of these vampire series are women and even if men are fans it’s not like they would tell people that. There are very few females out there who don’t watch, read, or enjoy at least one of these vampire series. Another thing that helps is the extremely good-looking men cast to play these vampires. These actors are being chased around the mall because women genuinely want the men to bite them. The stories that accompany these novels are well written (even though some people believe they aren’t), and they are portrayed in film and TV very well. The suspense factor keeps us on the edge of our seats. With all of that said it seems as if the entertainment industry is the one to thank for the progression of this new obsession. We love vampires, we have made that clear, so what do they do? They push out as many vampire series as they can and the public just eats it up. The make sure the series has a cast of good looking actors that brood very well, they make sure the stories will keep an audience on edge, and they made sure we want to come back for more.

Something else that I am sure Hollywood knows it that people watch most of these series because they want to escape the norm, to get away from everyday life and dive into something completely unnatural. These vampire series allow them to do this. Twilight lets its fans jump into the world of supernatural vampires.

Fans also want something to continue following. Whether you are a fan of a music artist, a celebrity, or a book series the most important thing that a fan needs is material and that is what Twilight gave. The fans aren’t obsessed with this book just because of the love story. There is a really cool supernatural element that captures the attention of each of its readers. They escape into this world of vampires and as soon as they come out of it, five more vampire series are at their fingertips.

Stephanie Meyer created a phenomenon whether people like to say it or not. How did she do it? She simply wrote a love story about a vampire and a human. There have been plenty of these types of stories in the past, like one of the originals, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air I was certain that there wouldn’t be anything like it, but then Twilight came along I was taken back by the material and story that accompanied this author.

So what if Stephanie Meyer was influenced by Joss Whedon and the Buffy universe, who takes the ultimate prize? In my book that’s easy, Buffy…hands down. Buffy the Vampire Slayer lasted for seven seasons on the air and help the audiences attention during that whole time, maybe a disappoint season here or there. All Stephanie Meyer did was take what she knew about vampires and created a world around it proving these facts true or false. Joss Whedon created a world, in which vampires existed, and they were evil, and there was one girl who could stop them. A girl that both fell in love with vampires and killed them on a daily basis, which got me thinking…maybe this is where some women fell for the idea of vampires. Maybe back in 1997 the entertainment industry caught wind of this vampire phenomenon and they’ve been shoving it in our face since then. The fact that there are very few stories told in which a girl is the heroine may have influenced Joss Whedon to make this kick ass character. Buffy has a take no prisoners mentality and a confidence that most women should have and there just so happened to be vampires involved in her world. The vampires were really the icing on top of a great concept for a show (I mean really, has anyone seen the musical episode)! Stephanie Meyer may have developed a huge hit and she may have changed the face of the entertainment business when it comes to stories about vampires but lets be honest, Joss Whedon will always be king of vampire stories in my book.

Vampire novels are so successful today because Hollywood wanted them to be successful. They started off with Twilight and have moved on to other series. These series allow fans to escape into a world that is unnatural and that is what they keep coming back for. Joss Whedon and Stephanie Meyer created a stories that skyrocketed vampires into the forefront of today’s pop culture and whether people like it or not, vampires don’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

Web Authoring Projects: ENGL 299, Fall 2010

Christine has created the blog Fantasy at Its Finest, where she comments on fantasy fiction and on the progress of her project of creating facebook pages for various characters from it.

Lizzie Reid has created the blog Narnia Booklet to share her illustrated interpretations of The Chronicles of Narnia.

Tiffany Wood has created an online hyperboard for serious discussions of fantasy fiction called Fantasmic.

Erica Yunghans has created Dragons Afoot, a blog devoted to tracing the evolution of dragons in fantasy fiction.

[Update 1 (12:21 am): Plus, you can download a song Eli Lowry composed (by himself) and performed (with others), based on lyrics from The Hobbit!]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Creating Borders in Fantasy

With any genre, the question that comes to mind right away is one of borders. Where does one genre end, and another genre begin? No genre has as much controversy surrounding its borders as fantasy. There are numerous works that can be seen as fantasy, but could also be seen as Sci-fi or Horror, or even a detective story. However, in the case of fantasy, I think it is actually a needless argument.

The word fantasy has been corrupted through usage for thousands of years. If you look at the origins of the word Fantasy, it comes from the greek phantasia which means imaginary visions or perceptions. This is the basic definition I will be using for fantasy, as I find it eliminates many of the arguments about what is and isn't fantasy.

Science fiction is a genre that likes to be held separate from fantasy, especially by critics. It is often seen as being of greater value, despite the fact that it becomes dated so quickly. There are two things that make science fiction just another form of fantasy to me. Firstly, to quote Arthur C Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For example, does it matter if it's magical healing pixie dust, or advanced medical nanite dust? Not really. In science fiction, technology serves the same purposes in a plot that magic does in any kind of fantasy. Additionally, the science used in Sci-fi is not usually real, or even possible by the technology of the era in which it is written. At that point, the plot is relying on something imaginary to function.

That right there is what makes it possible to classify a broad range of works as fantasy. I believe that for any kind of fantasy, the main criteria is that it relies on something that does not, and more importantly, to the best of our knowledge could not exist in our world. Through this system, it is easy to classify other things as fantasy as well.

For example, horror that is not of the psycho-killer du jour variety is pretty clearly fantasy when using this criteria. Dracula for example relies on the existence of a creature that eats people's blood to live much longer than humans. The same criteria of relying on imaginary things can be applied to the wolfman, and everything written by H.P. Lovecraft.

Lastly, and most unpleasantly, there are the godawful supernatural romances. These things sadly rely on magical creatures like vampires and werewolves to push their poorly written, often somewhat pornographic narratives ahead. It almost makes me regret making the fantasy categorization so broad, as it includes a lot of godawful rubbish. Examples of this style of fantasy include the Twilight series and the Anita Blake series.

Fortunately, this classification system does have a redeeming feature, and it is that it brings in the classic epics and romances, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh or the romances of Chretien De Troyes. These works are considered classics, and are taught heavily at many academic levels. The ancient epics nearly always feature magic and gods, with few exceptions, while the romances feature evil witches and wizards and love potions. These epics and romances are actually the foundation for what most people refer to when they think of fantasy.

The idea of classifying things is so prevalent in modern society, especially with things like books. Part of this came about as a result of the publishing industry trying to make it easier for people to find books they like in a bookstore. However, this systemic categorization by publishers has left a great deal of things poorly sorted, and does a great disservice to the name of fantasy. It is by looking back in time that we are able to see that many of the distinctions we create are just that--created. When the wisdom of the ancients is consulted, it becomes clear that any attempt to divide fantasy up into smaller categories like science fiction and horror and romance are just that--fantasy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

How Have Tolkien and Lewis Affected Today's Society?

Here's C. Dunn's overview:

To begin with, Tolkien and Lewis, writers of The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia respectively, did influence some well-known and not-so-well-known stories, almost all of which are of the fantasy genre. One example of Tolkien's influence is Dennis L. McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy which "was intended to be a direct sequel to The Lord of the Rings but had to be altered" [1]. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling "mirrors some themes from ideas from The Lord of the Rings" [1]. A couple of examples of Lewis's influence include A Series of Unfortunate Events (Daniel Handler) and even the Harry Potter series. In addition to works of prose, there were also the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Last Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Video games based on The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have also been made. While the video game based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has only been made based on the movie, The Lord of the Rings has had video games based not only on the film adaptations, but also the novels--and even games just based in the world of Middle-Earth. These games weren't the only ones based on The Lord of the Rings. It had a much greater influence on games in today’s culture. Because of its influence on fantasy, the late Gary Gygax was driven to create one of the most prominent role-playing games of the '90s: Dungeons & Dragons. This game was based on Tolkien's concepts of elves, dwarves, humans, and even hobbits (even though Gygax called them Halflings, they have very similar characteristics to those of the hobbit race). Dungeons & Dragons is still in production today, on their 4th edition of the game (which many avid Dungeons & Dragons players have come to shun). Dungeons & Dragons, in turn, had a large influence on the most popular MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) of today, World of Warcraft. The great Dungeon Master, Gary Gygax, passed away on March 4, 2008 at the age of 69. On March 25, 2008, Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, released patch 2.4.0 of the game, which was dedicated in memoriam to Gygax with this paragraph from the patch notes:

Blizzard Entertainment would like to dedicate the patch in memory of Gary Gygax. His work on D&D was an inspiration to us in many ways and helped spark our passion for creating games of our own. As avid D&D players and fellow game developers, we were all saddened by the news of his passing; we feel we've lost a true adventuring companion. Thanks for everything and farewell, Gary. You will be missed. [2]

So, if it weren't for Tolkien's influence on Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons would likely not have been made, or at least been very different, and if Dungeons & Dragons hadn't been made, then World of Warcraft could very well have been excluded from the history of games as well. It should also be noted that, while Dungeons & Dragons has been and still is a game with a large fan base, World of Warcraft, as of October 2010, has 12 million subscribers.

Several music bands have been influenced by Tolkien, ranging from one or two songs to the whole band's theme. Some examples of this include such songs as "Elvenpath" (by power metal band Nightwish) and a few songs by the rock band Led Zeppelin. Examples of a greater influence by Tolkien in music include: "Gorgoroth take their name from an area of Mordor, Burzum take their name from the Black Speech of Mordor, and Amon Amarth take their name after an alternative name for Mount Doom" [1].

To summarize what I've explained here, if it weren't for Lewis and Tolkien's stories, Harry Potter and other stories who were influenced by Lewis and Tolkien would likely be quite different, if they even still existed; a handful of video games wouldn’t exist; Dungeons & Dragons, if it actually existed, would likely be radically different; World of Warcraft probably wouldn't exist, at least not how it is today. Lewis and Tolkien were very influential writers on not only the works of fantasy literature today but games that have over 10 million people playing.

[1] Works Inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien. Wikipedia. 10-15-2010.
[2] World of Warcraft Patch Notes 2.4.3. Blizzard Entertainment, 7-15-2008. 10-15-2010.

What Is Fantasy Good For?

Kayleigh Witkowski answers:

Throughout my literary education I never read Fantasy until this class in college. The subject always seemed non-essential to me, since it was not important enough to be taught in the classroom. Teachers always regarded Fantasy as a genre you read for fun or your own enjoyment. This approach to Fantasy that I learned through my teachers made me think that Fantasy was worthless and held no importance in the literary world. Upon completing the novel The True Game by Sheri Tepper, I have come to disagree with my former teachers. I think fantasy, in particular Tepper's novel, offers many valuable attributes and life lessons that would be perfect for an English classroom.

Within the English education major, you read a countless number of books in hopes to integrate them within your own classroom someday. I was aware of some of the more publicized versions of fantasy for adolescents such as The Giver and Harry Potter; however, many other fantasy novels, including Tepper's, were foreign to me. The criteria that many teachers look for when selecting books is on the basis of critical thinking, multiculturalism, morals or life lessons, and literary elements. In the few fantasy fiction books that I have read, I have noticed accounts of all these criteria. So why shouldn't fantasy be used in the classroom?

Tepper's novel The True Game offers its readers a story of morals, identity, and self-discovery through the main character Peter. Peter is on a quest throughout the novel to find his talent within his world. I believe many students will be able to find Peter very relatable and be able to make their own life connections to the story. There are some similarities between Tepper's novel and Rowling's Harry Potter, since both stories revolve around a young man searching for his identity within magical worlds. However, there is a central difference between the two novels in terms of narrative point of view. Within Tepper's novel, Peter tells the story as if he is talking to someone from his own world. This narrative technique causes the reader to construct Peter's world on their own through the dialogue and small hints the characters provide.

Within Tepper's novel Peter lives in another world from ours and is preparing for when he enters "The True Game." Due to the multidimensional setting of the novel, students have room for critical analysis and deconstruction of the two worlds, and comparison to our own. The True Game is a book for the creative imagination that provides the reader with a page-turning experience to discover what Peter's talent is and how his world works. Also, many students probably have not had the exposure to fantasy fiction within school; thus, the immersion of a new genre in their individual literary understanding could be beneficial. I have no doubt that Tepper's writing style and story of Peter will keep students engaged while reading it.

Within fantasy literature the idea of the 'real' is prominent. Presenting this genre to students can help them to speculate what is 'real' in literature as well as develop their own understanding of the issue. This discussion could also sidetrack into the topic of realism within literature and open up to novels such as The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. Fantasy Literature also opens the door to creative thinking/writing within a student, and provides them with great examples of beautiful figurative language and literary techniques. Also, in regards to assessment within a classroom, students could opt for creative or aesthetic responses, such as re-writing the ending or creating a film.

Fantasy fiction does hold many positive attributes to a classroom. Tepper's novel, as well as many others, fit the criteria of a good book to provide to students. There are many activities and learning experiences that can be gained from incorporating Fantasy in the classroom. I think one answer to the question "What is Fantasy good for (if anything)?" is that fantasy would be good for education.

Influences on C.S. Lewis's Perspective

Hannah Morris takes a look:

Perspective. Defined by as "the state of one's ideas, the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaningful interrelationship," perspective is the lens through which individuals view the world. People from across the globe have differing ideas about how the universe works due to contrasting customs, religious beliefs, and geographic locations. It is inevitable that humans will have different perspectives about their environments and that the biases they create will shine through in their everyday lives, especially in their work. This is particularly obvious in the work of authors.

Authors of all kinds are inspired to write based on their own experiences and beliefs. A prime example of this can be seen in The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. This classic piece of literature is one that was heavily influenced by the Christian Bible and Lewis's religious beliefs. This relationship is particularly strong in the second book in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here Lewis constructs a fantasy world, Narnia, based off of the Biblical description of the creation of our world. He also creates characters that symbolize Jesus Christ, Satan, and numerous other Biblical figures. After reading this piece it is undeniable that an author's environment had an immense impact on his work, and how the audience reacted to it.

While the Good Book is never actually mentioned in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, its influence is clear through the character of the almighty Aslan. In the first book of the Chronicles, The Magician's Newphew, we are introduced to this ferocious yet compassionate lion. Similarly to Jesus Christ, Aslan creates his own world and calls it Narnia. This world is intended to be perfect and Lewis even includes a reference to the Tree of Good and Evil. This tree is forbidden and the residents of Narnia are advised not to eat from it. However, much like Adam in the Garden of Eden, a wicked witch indulges in the tree's fruit and therefore Narnia is corrupt. Fast forward a few fictional years and Narnia is entirely under the control of the evil witch. She has transformed this once prosperous land into a frozen dungeon where anxiety runs high, and even the trees are spies. It is here that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins. Aslan has left the area and all of the animals in Narnia are desperate for him to make a glorious return. This is directly related to Jesus' return to earth. According to the Gospel earth had become a wicked place, and the death of God's Son was the only way for humans to be forgiven for their many sins. As The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe continues the connection between the two becomes increasingly obvious, until the great Aslan sacrifices himself in order to save the rest of the animal kingdom. Over and over the reader is bombarded with allusions to the Bible and Lewis' influences become increasingly clear.

In conclusion it is obvious that C. S. Lewis was heavily influenced by his surroundings when penning The Chronicles of Narnia. His Christian beliefs and knowledge of the Bible are evident in the entire series and his references to them are particularly clear in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Reading this piece is comparable to reading the Bible and substituting animals in place of main characters. This shows that authors of all kinds, and especially those from the fantasy genre, are influenced heavily by their environments and perspectives of the world.

On the Existence of Fantasy

Lizzie Reid gets metaphysical:

Why does fantasy fiction exist? What is so enticing as to inspire multitudes of authors and readers alike to turn the genre? More precisely, what is so entertaining about magic, fantastic creatures, and worlds somehow different (and often more miraculous) than our own?

I've always been drawn to fantasy. As a little girl I reveled in stories of mermaids, princesses, fairies, and unicorns (the usual 'girlish' trappings of the genre), but that's not to say I wasn't also completely taken by warriors, dragons, demons, and a prevalence of magical swords. During "pretend" I was definitely a warrior princess who shot sparkling arrows that never missed their mark. I might pin this childhood fascination down with social conditioning. What American child hasn't seen Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin? And then there are all those fairy tales you're fed for bedtime stories. But this is not entirely accurate for everyone, and certainly only one piece of the mystery. After all, it doesn't explain why every culture in existence has its treasured tales of heroes, heroines, beasts, and evil magicians. Not to mention the fact that even now, in my ripe age of 20, I am still captivated by fantasy.

I think its easy to say that the roots of fantasy as a genre are fairy tales, myths, fables, and legends, spanning across all cultures. A perfect example of this would be J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, which draws from ancient tales in Celtic and Norse mythology, both in world-building and character design. Goblins, elves, dragons, dwarves, forests infested with evil, and rings with inherent magical powers. All of these elements were borrowed from earlier tales, reinvented to fit into a grand fantastical world shrouded in mystery. So wherein lies the birthplace of dragons? Or of elves?

Maybe our ancient counterparts knew something us modern humans have lost. Perhaps those pesky Druids killed off every last magical creature they could find, and their only haunting legacy is the imprint they left on the human imagination. More likely the answer lies within the imagination.

Humans are notoriously good at making things up, and we have a tendency to overlay metaphorical meaning onto otherwise mundane objects. With these two skills in hand, and the appetite of our souls, I'm sure that the creation of unicorns is not far off. This is the very basic beginning of an explanation on the origin of the fantastic (in all forms), but that would be a very lengthy, messy thing for a two page blog post.

It's in the nature of the imagination where we can begin answering the "whys" of the genre. A healthy imagination is like a healthy appetite. Growing bodies need nutritious foods, and likewise, growing minds need nourishing information. So, what better sustenance than that of a genre full of stimulating imagery, characters and creatures rich in myth, social and political critique, and above all: immense entertainment. Fantasy is literature, literature is art, and art (though not exhaustively) is the spiritual expression of self and/or humanity in some metaphysical way.

So when asking the question: "Why does fantasy fiction exist?", it's nearly impossible to give a single straight answer. Rather, I think it's important to look at many factors. It's entertaining; it's linked to our past in so many ways, and it's linked directly to our spiritual make-up. Fantasy serves the purpose of filling in voids created by an oppressive mundanity we might face in everyday life (if we allow it to). That is to say, it is not a crutch for people who find their life deathly boring, but a multifaceted tool that can be used for the betterment of our reality. It does serve a purpose, and just like that of literature of the "highest quality" (wherever shall we find it!) fantasy fiction can be an extremely insightful remark on humanity. And it's more enjoyable to read.

Escape, Entertainment, Education

Kristian Everett explains:

Fantasy fiction is often accused of being escapist, containing characters and plot lines which whisk you away to other worlds and societies, drawing attention away from what's "real"; however, while fantasy fiction may indeed be escapist, literature which can provide an escape from the stresses of life should be valued. While academia insults and degrades fantasy fiction, the general public embraces it. We value forms of entertainment which give us ways of coping with our ever more stressful lives. This can be seen not only in fantasy fiction but also in the lucrative businesses of film and video games. We pay for escape, for entertainment, and for relaxation.

Institutions which provide entertainment with an escapist element receive billions of dollars a year. This tremendous profit margin conveys some sense of our value for entertainment. Film and video game industries produce products taking us away from our everyday lives. We go to the movies to watch characters interact in unknown worlds, overcome impossible odds, and find romance; we play video games to become these characters; we read fantasy to do both. In the United States there are a growing number of people on medication for anxiety, stress, and depression. Clearly, our daily lives are taking such a toll on our quality of life that we feel incapable of handling it on our own. Films, video games, and fiction provide an escape that's becoming necessary in order to deal with our lives.

Fantasy series such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Eragon are all examples of the escapism of fantasy affecting larger and larger portions of our population. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the production of these films and most produce an extremely lucrative profit. While we may scoff at fantasy fiction because it doesn't deal with real life, the general public eats up these film adaptations. Film adaptations are nothing more than faster, easier forms of the books, combining our desires for escape and entertainment with the demand for quick satisfaction: why read a book when you can watch the film in a fraction of the time?

Fantasy, however, does not simple serve as an escape for audiences and readers. Tied in with the escapism of the novels are moral ideals, role models, and social conventions. What makes fantasy great is that, while fantasy often entertains through stories of other worlds, strange societies, and complex relationships, it often reflects on portions of our own world and society. These lessons and values are inherent in fantasy fiction, because the authors of fantasy novels reside in the "real" world. These authors can't help but be affected by what's happening around them. Many of the concepts and tropes found in the early fantasy novels of foundational writers like Tolkien and Lewis reflect on real world issues, such as religion and war. Children and adults who go to see The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the theatres are there to be entertained. However, while they're being entertained the characters and the actions those characters take, the decisions they make, and the real world ideas they represent are subconsciously affecting the viewers.

Fantasy fiction is escapist, but this is alright. It's alright because fantasy is not merely escapist. It's a myriad of ideals and concepts, defining and addressing moral and social issues. It gives examples of real world lessons through characters of fantastic proportions. When you read a fantasy book or watch a film adaptation you might be there for the entertainment, to not think about your "real" life, but you're absorbing more than just escapism. You're absorbing values and traditions which other genres are upheld for. What makes other genres "superior" to fantasy can be found in fantasy as well. It's just disguised and absorbed into our conscious without our realizing it. It entertains and it teaches.

"Serious Discussions of Identity? In a Fantasy Novel?!"

Josh Jerome responds to his titular interlocutor:

Detractors of the fantasy genre are quick to call it escapism, indulgent nostalgia, or any number of terms that amount to it being an insubstantial art with little meaning or value. While it's true that some fantasy is utter pulp fiction, there are many works within the genre that tackle real-world issues in ways that only fantasy can. An excellent example of a substantial fantasy novel is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The book is a satirical take on the Apocalypse, with numerous angels and demons all working towards the ultimate battle between Heaven and Hell. The three principal characters--the angel Aziraphale, the demon Crowley, and the Antichrist Adam--are all examples of conflicting identities. According to the Great Plan of which John wrote in Revelations, all three of them are meant to be instrumental in bringing about Armageddon. The only problem is, they happen to like the world, and ending it would just ruin all their days.

The thing about angels and demons is, they were created without free will. Each of them has a job to do in God's Plan, and to contradict it is to go against the very nature of their existence. Of course, over six thousand years living among people, some of that free will starts to rub off. Aziraphale and Crowley reached a working friendship somewhere in history, to the point that one will do the other's job if they happen to be in the neighborhood. The decision to try and avert the Apocalypse is made by Crowley (being easier for him since demons are, by definition, rebels). Crowley then has to persuade Aziraphale to go along with it, pointing out the sheer insipidity of a world in which Heaven wins the Last Battle, but the point that gets him on board isn't a philosophical one. It's the lack of sushi. For an angel to actively attempt to subvert God's order is no small thing--just ask Lucifer. Conversely, Crowley's defiance of Hell's shot at checkmate consigns him to torments that the damned could look at and say "at least I'm not that guy."

Due to a breakdown in communication, the plan to give the new-born Antichrist to Satanist parents fails spectacularly. Because of this, the child is given the name Adam and raised in a pretty vanilla family--he has friends, gets into trouble (like any other boy, just with a bit more style), and ends up with a decidedly human outlook. It's important to note that the main reason Adam rejects his Antichrist tendencies is because of a "what have I done" moment that occurs when he imposes his will on his friends. He later explains to Beelzebub and the Metatron that he's not going to let the world end, since that wouldn't prove anything. He then proceeds to disallow Satan's appearance on Earth. In overcoming his birthright, Adam is able to override the next-best thing to a deity.

By having the main characters overcome their natures through exertion of their free will, Gaiman and Pratchett make a strong point: a person (or even an odd divine being) isn't shunted into certain actions just because "fate" says so.

Though one example is hardly enough to sway the opinions of those that turn up their nose at fantasy fiction, Good Omens is far from the only fantasy novel that deals with substantial issues. The genre, by virtue of being something other than an orgy of verisimilitude, is able to present important issues with just enough contextual baggage to thoroughly examine them.

World and Character Development within Fantasy Fiction

Gabrielle Fletcher considers what good fantasy fiction is:

I remember one Christmas when my younger brother and I were no older than was a time that some important video game was coming out. My brother had been dropping hints to my parents the whole year about it in hopes of it being somewhere under the tree that Christmas. Early Christmas morning he scanned all the colorful presents' shapes looking for one that resembled his game, and there it was wrapped in shining wrapping paper waiting for him. He patiently waited to open the gift with a huge grin of anticipation across his face, clutching the present as if it were the answer to the meaning of his life. When it was his turn he manically ripped it open and then instantly his grin froze in an awkward position. The promising package in his hand was not the game he had been hoping for but one of The Chronicles of Narnia novels. His face dropped in disappointment as he stared at the glossy paperback book. "God damn it, another fantasy book?" he muttered under his breath tossing the book in my direction. Being the bookworm of the family I quickly snatched the rejected present, stashing it with the books my parents had given me. Later that week I finished it and recommended that he read it. "It's probably just like Harry Potter and the rest of those magic books," he responded to me, "and nothing is better than Harry Potter."

The memory of that Christmas and his reaction to Fantasy has always stayed in the back of my mind. Most people I know trash Fantasy comparing it to movie versions of Fantasy books claiming they all must be the same. When reading these books in this genre it was hard not to see the same pattern of theme and storylines. Usually when one thinks of a Fantasy story it has the usual elements of supernatural, magic, romance, heroes overcoming evil, or characters discovering themselves as they are. With all these redundant plot lines, how can you determine what makes a 'good' fantasy fiction story?

It varies with each reader's preferences and what their own personal expectations are for the Fantasy book. While reading some selected works I was able to develop a kind of way to evaluate the novels by comparing the author's fictional world and character development. If the world was unclear to me or characters were weak, I wasn't as intrigued with the books. Without noticing it I was setting up my own personal expectation I usually look for in a good book. Some questions I would ask myself: "Has it been thought out well?" "Are there any connections to reality from this fictional land?" "Can I picture this world?" "Who is this character really?" and "What can I learn from these characters?"

Fictional world development is key to any good fiction story whether it's fantasy or trashy soft-core romance novels; you know the ones that you catch your mom or some older woman secretly engrossed by. A reader can't fully grasp or enjoy a Fantasy novel if the world they are trying to imagine or see isn't fully developed. An author could write about the most realistic characters, draw out epic storylines, or imagine the most brutal battles on paper--but if the world doesn't fit, how can all these elements come together?

In Sheri Tepper's novel King's Blood Four of the True Game trilogy, she successfully paints a new world to readers where characters/players battle in Lands of the True Game. Each player of True Game has a unique power such as healing, shape shifting, necromancy, or magic used for combat. The land is divided by Kings and rulers, each having their own set of special players to fight for them.

The actual landscape of the True Game is vast and spacious marked with canyons, waterways, and lush forests. Tepper uses poetic language to help describe the True Game world and settings. For example, while Peter, the protagonist of the story, finally reaches old Windlow's castle, Tepper shows her knowledge of the land's natural beauty describing just basic nature as "trees loomed like towers, vast as clouds" (61). The trail Peter walks on is "needle-strewn and redolent of resin, sharp and soft in the nostrils. Flowers bloomed in the shade, their secret faces turned down to the mosses" (61-62). Clearly she knows exactly how her world is portrayed, and successfully can draw the reader to her imaginative landscape within the book. While reading the novel you can feel like you're taking a personal tour with Peter as he discovers his own world.

Character development is another important element in the fantasy fiction genre. Usually you see the protagonist discovering their true identity throughout the novel, watching the character grow right before your own eyes. These heroes or villains are able to identify themselves and the world around them, which most of the time is something that all readers can relate to as we try to discover ourselves in life.

In Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens the collaboration was ingenious, being able to successfully developed well-rounded characters. Although Good Omens is considered Fantasy fiction, the story is set up in reality during Armageddon. Two unlikely characters, Crowley, a demon from hell and Aziraphale, the archangel from the garden of Eden, band together to help save humanity. Their relationship, although originally based on a mutual agreement, becomes genuine in the story. As they learn to accept each other as they are, Crowley and Aziraphale also become more human-like and develop a taste for ordinary human life. Crowley, who was created without free will, develops it while on earth describing it as almost something contagious: "you couldn't hang around humans for very long without learning a thing or two" (Gaiman and Pratchett 39).

Pratchett and Gaiman use the angel and the demon not only to satirize but symbolize individual passion for salvation of the human race. Their internal transitions throughout the novel makes them more realistic and relatable than most of the non-fantastical characters in the book even though they are supernatural creatures.

It is up to the reader to decide what makes a good fantasy fiction; it's a matter of opinion and preference. Character and world development could prove a good story for some, and others not. Going back to what my brother said to me that one Christmas--"It's probably just like Harry Potter and the rest of those magic books and nothing is better than Harry Potter"--fantasy may seem tiresome and repetitive to some people. If they allow themselves, they could see that it is the opposite--and there are books better than Harry Potter.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Harper Torch, 2006. Print.

Tepper, Sheri. The True Game. Ace Trade, 1996. Print.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Omens That Are Good

Well, I have to write this “essay” for my Fantasy Fiction course at SUNY Fredonia. My professor has allowed us free range over pretty much any topic and any text that has sparked our interest. *activate demonic voice distortion* MUAH HAH HAH. *deactivate demonic voice distortion* So, I love the book Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (or Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett...) and so should you. I would like to talk about its ranking on the awesomeness chart that I have installed in my brain, but I don’t think I could transfer the files to all of you (and Dr. Simon said that this needs to be “educational” or something). One of the questions brought up when Dr. Simon asked us what we wanted to take away from this class, at the beginning of the year, was whether or not we were really learning anything relevant by studying fantasy fiction.

So, are we really learning anything relevant by studying fantasy fiction? If you’re actually taking the time to read this, my guess is that you just set down some book with a dragon or wizard or demon or quaragathorp, or some other creature flying around some celestial body of planets or stars in a distant galaxy on the cover to read some nerdy dude’s fantasy blog, and I’m not going to have to do too much convincing in order to prove that, well, yes, yes we are. (Greatest thesis statement of my college career thus far--thank you, taxpayers of New York, for allowing me to do this.)

I’ve been starting to really see the connectivity of the world around us, and all the subjects that I’ve been studying, both in and out of the classroom. After reading (if you can actually call such an experience with such a book “reading”) Good Omens, the gears, or cogs, or hamsters, or whatever, of my brain were whirling. I was thinking mostly about the philosophical statement that Gaiman and Pratchett were making that when it comes down to it good and evil either don’t exist, or don’t really matter due to our ability to morally and logically weigh the implications of our actions. This, my friends, is what you would call “relevant.” It is relevant now, it was relevant when this book was published in 1990, it was relevant as soon as man “bit the apple” and will be relevant ‘til the day we blow ourselves up (or don’t blow ourselves up...). These men (you can substitute geniuses, or in the spirit of Pratchett, conjurers) are trying to convey to us the importance of...get ready for it...actually THINKING before we act. Now the irony in that statement due to the indulgences in their immortal characters could be a whole other essay, but I’ll spare you that. What Pratchett and Gaiman are telling us is that no matter what the extenuating circumstances are, no matter what outside influences may be trying to affect you, the only one responsible for your actions is yourself. Crowley just put the guns in the hands of the businessmen; it was their decision to use them that was evil, not Crowley’s outside influence (in fact his influence, that the bullets didn’t kill, would probably be considered good, *BUM bum BUM!*)

There’s also that whole free will thing. Interestingly enough, in Philosophy class the other month, prior to my Fantasy Fiction class’s discussion of Good Omens, we discussed the concept of “free will,” and discovered that in essence it contains two stipulations: a “will,” or a desire, drive, or motivation to do something, and “freedom,” the ability to act upon your will. Constantly throughout the novel central characters, (Crawley, Aziraphale, Adam) are forced to act against their will. None of them truly want the world to end, yet this is a story of the apocalypse, so for the first 360 or so pages, one starts to doubt that there is such a thing as free will; there will always be barriers, roadblocks, limitations, divine beings controlling your employment statuses threatening you with eternal torture, that will impede or exercise control over your willingness to do things. However at the end we are provided with some hope. Gaiman and Pratchett liberate these characters, suspend doom, and look towards a bright future of eating apples. This goes to show that there is such a thing as “free will,” within our grasp; all you have to do is break some rules, do some hard work, and pray that the Son of Satan is truly a sweetheart deep down inside.

Relevance! I hope that you came away with at least something from this brain diarrhea that has been cleverly disguised as a “response paper,” but if you have not yet, then I offer you this: read Good Omens. If you want a copy, send me an e-mail and you can borrow mine, I only ask one favor from you in return: think.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Can Anything Come from Studying Fantasy Fiction?

One of my students who wishes to remain anonymous answers affirmatively:

When studying fantasy, a question of vast importance must be asked: is studying fantasy fiction relevant? And can anything come from studying this specific genre of fiction? Critics and skeptics alike have long questioned the value of fantasy, often doubting its place in education and academic institutions. This question long surrounding the genre can be answered by simply picking up a work of fantasy and falling into the majestic world that awaits you.

As a student who has never studied or read a work of fantasy prior to taking Fantasy Fiction, I can attest to the genre's relevance in academia and society and proudly confirm that one can take away as many life lessons and ideas from a fantasy work as a history textbook or literary landmark. My first fantasy reading experience was reading Tolkien's The Hobbit. From there the class covered fantasy classic after classic, from Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to more relevant staples in the genre like Pullman's The Golden Compass. There is no novel that proves fantasy's relevance more successfully than Piers Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon. Anthony tackles the "coming-of-age" story in a fresh new way by telling his story in a fantasy world, allowing the reader to converge into an unknown place, taking away from Bink's tale entertainment and more importantly a new interpretation of growing up and finding oneself in the journey known as life. Previously, I have only encountered life-altering "coming-of-age" tales from movies, music, and early- to mid-20th century fiction by the likes of Flannery O'Connor and Stefan Zweig.

A Spell for Chameleon in the first novel in Anthony's Xanth series. The novel follows the main character Bink in his quest to find magic and ultimately himself along the way. At the surface, the story is simply an entertaining tale of Bink traveling through the world of Xanth on a quest to find his calling in life. Looking deeper, however, we find that Bink is a character much like you and me, a young person searching for acceptance and growing into the person we were driven to become. This is a lesson useful and relevant to any young person growing up around the world. It delivers life lessons in a unique, distinct way apart from all other genres. A passage that illustrates the novel's purpose and Bink's character can be found in chapter four, when Iris elaborates her feelings to Bink: "Most magic talents aren't worthwhile anyway. What use is it to make a pink spot appear on a wall? It may be magic, but it doesn't accomplish anything. You, with your strength and intelligence, have more to offer than the great majority of citizens" (Anthony 83). This statement by Iris illuminates Bink's moral character and foreshadows that in order for Bink to find his purpose in life he must first believe in himself and find out who he really is.

I can relate to Bink's character on many levels, which is why I felt so drawn in to Anthony's story. Believing in yourself is often difficult when confronted by life's curveballs. Whether it's tackling family misfortunes, the stress of college and upper level education, or a job that just appears too difficult, something circumstances like these prevent me from believing in myself. These factors can cloud the mind, making any situation that much harder. What I got from this passage is that not everything is how it seems; having four degrees hanging from a wall or making six figures a year doesn’t make you successful, it's all about morality and a willingness to succeed.

Growing up, we all encounter obstacles on our path to adulthood and success. The key to life from my experience is happiness. It can be assumed that feeling estranged from the world you live in and the people who surround you is not a feeling of joy or enlightenment. As readers, we must ask ourselves, is Bink's story a matter of finding his power? Or finding the roots of his repressed happiness? The answer is both. Without Bink's desire to find his magical powers, there would be no journey, no encounter with Chameleon, and ultimately no conclusion. But it is our duty as an audience to see through Bink's superficial desires to find Anthony's themes on growing up and finding happiness. I often relate to this question and Bink's quest by asking myself, "Does everything happen for a reason?" and citing the balance between "risk & reward." Towards the end of the novel, Bink comes to realize that changing who he is for the sake of Xanth is not his purpose in life. He soon realizes it is his duty to change Xanth's perspective and accept everyone who calls Xanth their home, no matter their powers or place in society. Anthony writes, "But Bink's real quest, at the end, had been to preserve Chameleon and Trent and himself as they were, and to make Xanth accept them that way" (344). This passage illuminates the novel's purpose and sends a life-altering message to readers that could not be attained be reading magazines or scholarly journals.

In my short 21 years of life, I have come to the conclusion that the key to happiness is to remain true to yourself, your loved ones, and ultimately live life by your own set of rules and morals. This novel and Bink's character embody this philosophy, and a lot can be taken away from Anthony's fantasy saga. Before reading this work, I had discovered and read many "coming-of-age" tales. Some movies that had a positive effect on my mentality regarding growing into myself are Fight Club, Stand By Me, and The Goonies. Literature-wise, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was a novel that had an immediate effect on the lens through which I viewed adolescence, while O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge is a collection of short stories that also changed my perspective the last few years. While these movies and fiction works moved me as a teen, I have constantly been looking for new ways to hear these types of stories. Piers Anthony was able to speak to me through his character Bink, and despite the message stressing the importance of values and morals, Anthony's fantasy world was a refreshing, mind-stimulating take on a classic theme of pop culture. I look forward to reading more from Anthony, and carrying on through the Xanth series.

Work Cited
Anthony, Piers. A Spell for Chameleon. New York: Del Rey, 1987. Print.