Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Identity in Fantasy: Why It’s Common and What It Means

Tiffany Wood explains:

Fantasy fiction is a growing sapling in the forest of literature, but already it has conventions, stereotypes, successes and failures, and all the other defining qualities of a genre. Some of these attributes may be a bit harder to pin down than usual given its relative youth, but the main thing to consider is this: though fantasy is young, it is alive and well and has been developing patterns through which we can begin to understand its purpose and influence (conventions such as world-building, mythical creatures, good vs. evil...). One such pattern I'd like to address is that of identity. It seems as though a lot of fantasy fiction is built around the search for identity, or deals with coming of age. Why is this? Why is identity a common theme in so many fantasy books? I will try to uncover the answer to this question by looking at a stunning specimen of the fantasy genre: King's Blood Four of the True Game series. Sheri Tepper weaves a beautiful tale around Peter, a lost boy with whom we travel through the lands of the True Game in order to find out exactly who he is. Tepper will help us answer why the question of identity works so well in this genre, and what it means for us as readers.

It must first be established that the question of identity is not unique to fantasy, by any means. However, it is true that it plays out especially well in this particular genre, and for good reason. Every human being in the history of time has dealt with the question, "Who am I?" and all its various sub-questions. Thus, writing a novel about it makes for a very relateable story. In fantasy, however, there is the added aspect of the unknown, the new creatures and world and rules that the author chooses to create, so a reader is often just as curious about this world as a young or lost character would be. It makes it especially convenient for the author to introduce readers to this fantastical place through the eyes of a character who is also searching and learning at the same time. The reader and the character can, in a way, grow up together, and both reach maturity by the end of the story.

Sheri Tepper masters this growth with impressive grace in her novel, King's Blood Four. Peter, the main character, almost literally has no identity. For starters, he is what is called a “foundling” (7), another name for a child abandoned at birth, only to be taken in by his school. He has no clue who his parents are, or where he came from. Secondly, he is still young, which means he does not yet know what is his Talent, or natural, inherited gift that defines what kind of player he is and power he has during the True Game. At this stage, he is still an anonymous, inconsequential pawn, worth little. During much of the book he is frustrated and confused that he knows so little about himself, and is anxious for the day when he knows what Talent he has, what power will make his existence mean something. At one point in the novel he is in some amount of danger as men are chasing him, and he cries out in anger and confusion, "What do I look like? Some Wizard Child? [...] I look like what I am. A student. No sign of Talent yet. No sign of a name. No nothing" (26). We feel his struggle with identity, and relate to it. At another point he explains, "Understand, for boys of my age...the most important thing is to know what name, what talent we will have. We search for signs of it, hints, even for auspices.... What did this mean?" (43). We all need to feel some sort of meaning and purpose in life; we need to find out what we are good at. At this point, he knows next to nothing, and it weighs on him heavily.

Peter also has to leave his home after a mix up at his Schooltown in the first chapter, and he does not know much about the surrounding lands or outside world--the world of the True Game. Tepper writes brilliantly in this way, because as readers we are discovering the world at the same time Peter is, through his eyes. Tepper doesn't have to take time out of the narrative to explain to us the rules of this new place. We slowly get fed small tidbits of information as Peter travels deeper into the land, and into himself. The whole book consists of these two journeys, and we are never left behind or out of the loop. In fact, we come to grow even closer to Peter's character as we experience all the same things he does. In this way, Tepper beautifully illustrates the convenience of a coming of age story in fantasy. If Peter were old and experienced, then Tepper would have to backtrack in her explanations of her world, or insert potentially awkward flashbacks or boring chunks of information, for our sake. But since Peter is just as fresh as we are, Tepper can weave our journey and Peter’s into one solid, forward moving, chronological tapestry.* For example, Peter is with his friends in a new place, and they are sharing their thoughts about what might happen, and Peter gets "mocked once more for being na├»ve." His friend then tells him, "Why, it's the way of the Game, lad," and goes on to explain to him (and us) another aspect of the True Game that is important (60). Both we and Peter get a lesson, and we are grateful he is coming of age so that we can learn through him. As readers we don't feel ignorant, like we might if the author had had to explain this just for us, instead of for Peter.

Eventually, Peter finds out that he is the son of one of the most important, powerful women of the Game, nephew to his old, wise teacher, and soon after that what his remarkable Talent is. These things are trivial for us except for how they made him feel. It is coming upon him to make use of his Talent and save the people he loves and avert disaster and he wonders, "While I...what in the name of the seven devils did I want? Nothing. I wanted to do nothing. Nothing at all. Doing things was frightening. Every time I had done anything at all decisive, I had been terrified" (138). This epitomizes the rising action of Peter's self discovery. He finally has what he's been seeking this whole time, and now that he is confronted with it, all he can feel is fear. How many times have we felt the same thing! We come to a point where we must take action, do something with ourselves and face responsibility, and it's terrifying, this fear of failure. But of course, he comes to do what is necessary, and he solemnly tells us, "From that moment on I was no longer a boy. Why should one raise up the dead and remain innocent, but raise up love and fear death? I leave that to you to figure out. I only learned in that moment that it was true" (151). And here is the climax. Peter knows who exactly who he is, what he has to do, and he accepts it. Look how much he has matured, and so have we. At the beginning we felt his confusion, and then we trailed behind him as he wandered and began to learn about himself and the strange land, and now we feel his triumph, his maturity. We are right there with him; we have grown up just as much as he has, and it is a moving moment.

It is not difficult to see the perfect fit of a coming of age story inside of the fantasy genre. The search for identity goes hand in hand with the introduction and development of a new world, and authors like Tepper are taking full advantage. But now we can see that it is more than that--this question of identity is something we all struggle with, and placing this relevant issue within a fantastic context helps us to feel familiar with the author's strange new world. Further, it creates a real connection to the characters in the book because we're right there with them as they discover who they are, and this is a wonderful thing. We become friends; we gain an understanding of each other. This is not only why so many fantasy stories raise the question of identity, but it's often one reason why they are so great.

Note

*In actuality, Peter is older (if not quite grown up) when he is telling his story, but for the purposes of this paper, this fact is of little consequence, because Peter tells the story through his adolescent eyes. He relives it for us as it actually happened, so regardless of his current age in the novel's real time, we are still receiving the young, immature Peter in King's Blood Four and experiencing the events with him as he actually experienced them.

Bibliography

Tepper, Sheri S. The True Game. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1996. Print.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What Is Fantasy Fiction Able to Teach Adults?

Christine Botham answers:

Fantasy fiction isn’t necessarily the most popular genre of novels that adults tend to read. It seems as though people shy away from the idea of fantasy fiction because they automatically relate it to sci-fi or deem it as being more of a children's genre. However this is exactly why I wanted to focus on the question, "What is fantasy fiction able to teach us?" I believe fantasy is important for adults to read every once in a while because it teaches us how to be kids again. It teaches us to appreciate childhood and the innocence that comes along with it. It's important for adults to come back to their feelings of child-like innocence every once in a while to escape the pressures of adulthood. However along with this idea, reverting back to innocence also shows us how as children we make adult-like decisions, maybe unknowingly at the time.

C.S. Lewis is the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, which includes his novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--a perfect example of how a fantasy story can bring a person back to childhood. The main characters in the story are four brothers and sisters who are still all children. The entrance to the magical land of Narnia is found by the youngest of the four, Lucy, while exploring the house her brothers and sisters are staying in. Naturally her brothers and sisters don't believe her about her magical world, but eventually they are all introduced to Narnia after playing a game of hide and go seek. Hide and go seek is one of the most traditional and original games that children play when they are younger and it is almost guaranteed that every child has played this game at least once while growing up, that is until you reach adulthood. Then it seems as though you only get to play such games if and when your children are growing up.

Obviously finding a magical land in a wardrobe isn't reality; however, as children we tend to let our imaginations go wild and in some cases create secret, magical places such as Narnia. Then it seems as though when we get older, we don't have time or our imaginations simply don't focus in the same mysterious ways as we did when we were children. As we get older it seems as though our fantasies change and become almost more realistic because we are so wrapped up in everyday life and responsibilities. This is another reason I feel as though fantasy is important. If our imaginations don't allow us to create these types of magical places when we're adults, we can at least read about them and imagine them as if we were children again.

Most of us as children tended to have at least one, if not multiple stuffed animals while growing up. For many children stuffed animals are like imaginary friends that they talk to, play with and take everywhere. While in Narnia the children are conversing and living amongst animals that talk, walk and live like humans, the faun, the beavers and even the powerful Aslan are all animals that live in the fantasy world of Narnia, but could also be a creation from a child's mind.

Aslan may be the most prominent character in the story, but like most people he has two extreme sides. The one the children initially see is the "good" side. The fact that the most powerful "good" guy is a lion seems almost childish and obviously is very magical and fantastic. However from a child's perspective a good lion could almost be seen as a big house cat. In the story the children hug, play, laugh and are comfortable being close to the lion and almost automatically feel a special closeness to him, the same way you might a pet. It is easy for a child to fall in love with a big, furry, cuddly and kind cat, whereas if Aslan had been an alligator, the children might not have been so comfortable. As adults we rarely get a chance to play with lions, let alone deem them as the hero.

When we are children, often times when playing make believe we imagine ourselves as Kings, Queens, Princes and Princess and living in castles. In Narnia that is the legacy of the children, to become the Kings and Queens and rule the land. "But the next day was more solemn. For then, in the Great Hall of Cair Paravel--Aslan solemnly crowned them and led them to the four thrones amid deafening shouts of, 'Long Live King Peter! Long Live Queen Susan! Long Live King Edmund! Long Live Queen Lucy!'" (Lewis, 193). As adults we are faced with the reality that most of us will not be royalty and so we don't even imagine it. But when reading about it in a fantasy novel, it allows us to picture these scenarios how we used to imagine them.

Whereas fantasy often times allows us to escape back into a childlike existence, it may also allow us to realize that as children we are faced with adversity and that it's not always free and easy. In some situations the novel reverts us back to innocence, but it can also bring on a greater appreciation for adulthood also. When the children enter Narnia they make the decisions to interact and trust the people that they do as well as take on the responsibilities of ruling a kingdom.

Upon Lucy's initial arrival into Narnia she is almost immediately introduced to a faun who calls himself Mr. Tumnus. Although the two characters had never met, they act as though they have been lifelong friends and find no fear or hesitancy in one another. "And so Lucy found herself walking through the wood arm in arm with this strange creature as if they had known one another all their lives" (Lewis, 116). This again goes to show the innocence found in children, but also that Lucy is making the conscious decision to trust a complete stranger which we normally don't do as adults because we are more aware of the risks. So where Lucy is acting as an innocent child it is also scary that she is so quickly able to trust this stranger, which as readers may allow us to greater appreciate adulthood and make more knowledgeable decisions.

Later in the story we are introduced to the Witch who is attempting to take over Narnia. When Lucy's brother Edmund meets the witch, she is originally very kind and loving towards him in attempts to get what she wants from him. Not much later in the story we witness how the witch is in fact evil and cruel, which is typical in a child's story. There always tends to be a "good" guy and a "bad" guy, and in many cases the "bad" guy is an evil witch or king. "It didn't look now as if the Witch intended to make him a King. All the things he had said to make himself believe that she was good and kind and that her side was really the right side sounded to him silly now" (Lewis, 162). This is also a classic tale that is common in children's stories but also shows how a child blinded by bribes is incapable of making the "adult-like" decisions that are necessary in certain situations.

The other side of Aslan can be left up to the readers' interpretation due to the fact that his power and beauty may also bring fear. At first the lion seems very overwhelming to the children and they do not know what to expect.

But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn't know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan's face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn't look at him and went all trembly. (Lewis, 169)

This shows that even though the children's initial feelings of discomfort towards Aslan are extremely prevalent, they make the decision to join his side and trust him.

It is nice to have fantasy fiction as a means of escape from the pressures of adulthood. When nostalgia sets in, it is easy for adults to want to revert back to their childlike innocence, which is where Lewis, along with many other fantasy writers, comes in. However, fantasy also teaches us that not all of our childhood is a "summer vacation." We are constantly being faced with adversity at every age but some may just be more important and stressful as we are older, while some just goes unnoticed as children.

Work Cited

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1951), in The Chronicles of Narnia. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Can Fantasy Stack up to Other Genres?

Zain Syed's answer:

The fantasy genre often is among the top tier of popular culture and conversation. Perhaps the most internationally recognizable film that has ever been made, Star Wars, is a fantasy story. Certainly the most recognizable children's stories of the past century, Harry Potter, are of the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, both the original novels and the newer film adaptations, is immensely popular to people of all ages. Now, the Twilight series has over taken young women and has become a staple in popular culture. Just by looking at these examples alone, it is easy to see that fantasy is exceedingly prominent in terms of popularity. And that isn't the only area in which fantasy overcomes other genres.

One of the most disputed topics of discussion when talking about fantasy is its quality. Most people will side with the idea that fantasy is of a lesser quality than nearly all other genres, simply as a rule. However, this is not the case. Because fantasy is such a broad and appealing genre, more people write fantasy. And, since a great number of people write fantasy, there is a greater chance of there being bad fantasy, if only by rule of probability. Though, admittedly, there are plenty of bad fantasy works, there is just as much good fantasy. And luckily, just like those who write it, good fantasy always outshines the bad.

There is a great breadth of different types of fantasy created by many different fantasy authors, all of whom have their own distinct styles and contributions to the genre. Fantasy authors like J.R.R Tolkien lend to betterment of fantasy and literature as a whole. Tolkien, an English professor and philologist who taught at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious schools in the world, used his incredible knowledge of words and language to create several fully developed languages for The Lord of the Rings. He also made a timeline for all of the many different races and people in Middle-Earth as well as a complete history of the world in The Silmarillion. Tolkien's work proved that fantasy can be taken seriously and gave inspiration to future fantasy writers. H.P. Lovecraft also legitimized fantasy by writing horror and, like Tolkien, stories with darker themes. Writers like Piers Anthony have made the genre more appealing to the public by writing comedic fantasy. With Mark Z. Danielewski’s The House of Leaves and Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, fantasy has implemented ergodic literature, an innovative writing style that breaks the fourth wall. Through writers like these and many more, the genre of fantasy has kept current and progressed along with, and perhaps even farther than, every other genre of literature.

Most important, fantasy does what other genres don't. That is, fantasy gives readers what they want. It doesn’t matter what a reader might want or how obscure their desire is, you can always find what you want in fantasy. This is because fantasy, unlike other genres, or rather, exponentially more so than other genres, gives back to the reader what the reader puts into a fantasy work. Readers always give their own thoughts and criticisms while reading a story, despite the genre, knowingly or not. However, fantasy is the only genre that actively recognizes this, that actively sells itself to the reader. Take relatability for example. A reader might read about a character and identify with certain traits of that character, such as courage or bravery. The character will certainly have other traits, but since the reader doesn't identify with those specific traits, the reader will ignore those attributes that they don't see in themselves. The same rule applies with the setting or plot of a fantasy story. The reader may relate to how the protagonist, say for example, has run away from his home, much like the reader may have gone away from home for an extended period of time. However, the reader will push away everything else that doesn't coincide with them, like, in this fake instance, the fact that the protagonist is a fish and that, in this hypothetical situation, if it doesn't flee from home, it'll be killed by a fisherman.

Fantasy knows this. Because of this, fantasy does match up to other genres. In fact, it surpasses them.

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.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

We're Baa-aack!

Just a quick heads-up to expect lots of response essays from my Fantasy Fiction course in the coming days. I'm conferencing with my awesome students on their next-to-final drafts and am excited about what they've come up with.