Monday, November 29, 2010

A Different Perspective

Eli explains:

Why do authors choose to write in fantasy, anyways? Why pick a genre that is generally shrugged off by literature professors as they turn their noses to the canon? Talented writers are spending years upon years and sometimes their whole lives wrapped up in imaginary worlds. Are they wasting their time? An even more important question: are we wasting our time when we read fantasy? We could be flipping pages in War and Peace instead, or pondering Wordsworth on a picnic bench by an Adirondack lake, sniffing in the sweet fall air as geese fly in their ardent “V” overhead (no doubt dropping some fragrant gifts from the sky) and honk farewell as they disappear into a hazy dusk. Excuse me, I digress. Why would a fantasy writer waste their time twiddling their thumbs in imaginary worlds when they could have that beautiful scene by the lake? (Maybe because when he was reading poetry by the lake, he realized that there were very intricate carvings in the varnished wood. As he traced these etchings with his forefinger, a faint light seemed to appear deep inside each foreign character. The sound of upset lake water pricked his ears and when he looked up a very large boat was emerging from under the water, with the same carvings all along the stern. A centaur beckoned to him.) We can't precisely address this question without having an interview with the writer himself or herself but can we, and should we, try to pry into the author's choice to write in fantasy? It is hard enough to infer the intention of a single work and much more confusing to find an intent in genre choice. Yet, it is still an interesting endeavor to wonder about the ideas and convictions that give inspiration to fantasy writers. Contemplating this will supply us with insight as readers in the world of fantasy fiction.

Let's take the work of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Good Omens is no run-of-the-mill fantasy book by any means. Located in our modern world, we have angels and demons, men and witches, the natural and the supernatural all stuck in the apocalypse. They supply us with all the humor and entertainment we could ever want in this work of genius. Yet, for some reason these authors chose to deliver their impeccable style in fantasy when they could have easily written in another (more respected) genre. They chose this perspective with a specific intention. When working in fantasy, an author can use non-human characters and unrealistic worlds to say certain things about humanity, society, and our current condition. An angel and a demon can casually observe humanity like no human could. For instance Crowley (the demon) thinks, "It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people" (26). This message runs throughout the book, the erasing of the line between good and evil. There is something quite shocking about these ideas coming from angels and demons who are supposed to define the two different sides of the spectrum. One would expect a modern-day contemporary thinker to say something about the disappearance of good and evil. But a demon destroying these boundaries is preposterous, and effective. Crowley asks Aziraphale, "Well, haven't you ever wondered about it all? You know--your people and my people, Heaven and Hell, good and evil, all that sort of thing? I mean, why?" (360). Rules are broken and angels and demons wonder about the same things that humans do. Pratchett and Gaiman demonstrate the same "ineffable" feelings that humans experience from another view.

Another composer of fantasy, Piers Anthony, has a much different take on the genre. He has created the world of Xanth, with its own type of magic and plenty of flora and fauna to accompany it. In this world, Anthony tells us many things about humanity. The character Bink is a philosophizing exile, who in the end discovers some things about himself and other people. His whole journey is filled with him gaining new knowledge, information that he is not necessarily supposed to have. He is on a quest that leads him to truth. Nonetheless, Anthony makes Bink a very stubborn and dogmatic character. The reader can see the truth before Bink does--his stubbornness is often cumbersome. Isn't this how we view ourselves after coming to a sudden realization and point of change? Bink may represent humans in general with his slow-changing views of how the world works. It takes him so long to see the truth about Trent because he was taught that Trent is evil. Is this much different than our own mundanian human nature? We hold onto our own comfortable views of the world and the older we get the less willing we are to change. Our society is full of Bink-like people. It is easy to see this reality of human dogmatism (and other philosophies) that Anthony presents through his fantastical world. We may look on the ignorance of the Xanthians with harsh judgement. We should turn this judgement on ourselves. Anthony is saying these things in a different approach; through fantasy he delivers his message with greater ease.

The intent of fantasy writers is very similar to the intent of writers in any genre. Literature gives us insight into life and fantasy fiction is not left out of this statement. Writers of this genre may have chosen it because of their fascination with the mystical or they may have been tired with reality that they faced day to day. But fantasy fiction should not be viewed as an escape from our everyday life. We should not just want to escape into alternate realities that entertain us and delay our problems for a while. I do not think that is the reason authors choose fantasy. Their statements on the human condition come naturally and powerfully through this genre and take on a new and distinct perspective. These stories carry the essential component of good art (that ever escaping, shifting, always there, always departing human condition) and can hold their own weight against other forms of literature. Fantasy fiction is an important aspect to lives of many people and that will not change. This brings us to the conclusion...long live fantasy!

Works Cited
Anthony, Piers. A Spell for Chameleon. New York: Del Rey, 1977.
Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. New York: Harper, 2007

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