Monday, December 20, 2010

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.

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