Friday, October 22, 2010

What Is the Value of Fantasy?

The genre of fantasy is often looked down upon by scholars and everyday readers. Even people that read fantasy seem to be ashamed of the fact. When I worked at a book store, I would ask people in the fantasy section if they needed help, to which they would reply they were just ‘passing through’ the fantasy section to get to another section. There is no need for such negative feelings to exist around fantasy. Sure, there are bad fantasy writers, but there are terrible writers in every genre. In order to prove that fantasy is valuable literature, we must look at why it is useful to literary scholars as well as to an everyday reader.

Fantasy is often dismissed as escapist literature, providing nothing to its readers other than the escape. This is a huge misconception, and overlooks everything that fantasy does. Fantasy allows its readers to reflect upon their own reality in a way they might not otherwise do. When a novel presents a reader with a fantasy world, it is a world where the traditions and dogma of our own society do not fit in. Therefore, the world can take something from our world, such as religion, and apply it to this new fantasy world. When presented with it, at first glance it is not anything like the religion of our world, but when practices from this fantasy world mirror ones from our reality’s history, we can see how ridiculous they are now that they are disconnected from the way we traditionally think of them.

Literary critics are often quick to dismiss this literature. If they took the time to really look at it, though, it could fit into several schools of criticism. For example, Sheri S. Tepper’s “True Game” trilogy is perfect for the school of Formalism. Formalism looks for Defamiliarization as a means to determine the quality of a text. Defamiliarization, for those being introduced to this term for the first time, is when something we encounter in everyday life is taken outside its normal context, or described in a way that reintroduces it to those reading the text. Fantasy does this time and time again in multiple ways, reinventing worlds, history, magic, etc. In “True Game” we see a perfect example of this concept when Peter (the main character) stumbles upon what is thought to be the stronghold of magicians. What it turns out to be is a research facility full of scientists. Upon hearing the word scientist, peter believes it is “sign-tist” and in doing so defamiliarizes the reader by presenting a common thing to the reader through the characters eyes. In showing us this facility through characters that are ignorant to the culture of science, it allows us to view it differently.

The institutions that are ‘credible’ and oftentimes unquestioned begin to lose some of their prestige when looked at through the eyes of someone not brought up with the respect that they command from our culture. Science is often unquestioned and seems to be the contemporary equivalent to the medieval church. We dare not question what scientists tell us, just as medieval people did not question the word of God’s priests. By attaining the viewpoint of these characters we can discredit it and bring it back down to a human level.

The fact a simple thing such as this can spark us to question society and institutions that we often consider to be untouchable shows the value of fantasy, and the lessons it contains is not only accessible to academics, but to anyone who wants to take the time to read the books and contemplate what they are telling us. If this was a pure science fiction novel it would not be able to give the outsider view that we get when a character from a fantasy world is exposed to these Earthly elements of science fiction.

The story also calls authority and social hierarchy into question which might interest a wide variety of people (such as Marxist critics). Peter understands that pawns have been deemed expendable by gamesmen because they do not have the ‘talents’ that on Earth caused Didir (the mother of all gamesmen) to be banished from the planet and labeled a monster. In this fantasy world she is revered, but on her own home world she was thought of as some kind of force of evil. It forces us to think twice about our own beliefs and how we view those who are different from our social norms. This is especially true in America where often times we view middle eastern nations as places of terrorists, like the ‘monsters’ in Tepper’s book are viewed by these scientists; unfairly judged without any evidence.

This particular fantasy text brings up questions about society and the established way of thinking and calls readers to challenge authority and these sometimes outdated notions of what is acceptable and normal in culture. This is something authors first did in the renaissance, and many of those authors are now taught and studied in high school and college. Scholarly journals are completely dedicated to renaissance literature and how brilliant the authors were. Writers are doing this today, within the fantasy genre. If we dismiss this literature as escapist and worthless we are missing out on important messages. The outdated notion that fantasy is on the lowest rung of literature must be overthrown, just as Tepper calls us to overthrow misconceptions and contemporary false idols. Perhaps like the ‘signtists’ on Peter’s world, scholars and readers in our world are relying on false authority to tell them what is appropriate to read and study. Question to validity of the old thoughts of fantasy and it will become clear that there is plenty of valuable literature waiting to be studied.

Fantasy allows us, by giving us a new reality void of the stigma and taboos of our own world, to question things that should be questioned but are not. In a world where we let unfair stereotypes and ancient notions control the way we treat others, it is good to have a literature like fantasy which questions the validity of things such as racial tension and stereotypes. Peter wonders if it is fair to look down upon pawns, because that is the way society has always been. Is it ok to look down upon fantasy, just because that’s the way it has always been? Absolutely not, it is time to embrace the lessons fantasy can teach us, and stop believing that it is merely escapist literature.

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