Why Fantasy?

It has been some time since I have been able to focus on my writing.

On more than one occasion of late, I’ve said the above words with earnest, though in many ways the sentiment isn’t true. In fact, since July, writing seems to be about the only thing I’ve been doing. But of course, when I talk about my writing, I don’t mean dissertations, or study, or literature reviews. For me, writing has always meant fantasy, and only yesterday did I ask myself why. 

It might seem like an odd time to pose such a question, after all these words and all these years. But as I said, recently I’ve been drowning in academic text, and perhaps it took that shift out of my comfort zone to wonder why I find the damn place so appealing in the first place. And since I’ve not been the only one to ask myself “Why fantasy?” since I first whipped out the pen all those moons ago, here are three reasons that just never seemed to stopped me. 

1. It’s childish

Whatever age you first start to dream up a world of knights and dragons, you’ll likely be told you are too old for it. I was 8, but it didn’t stop the eye-rolls, the snickering, or the constant requests to repeat myself. Even now, near two decades later, I have to assure friends I am writing a fantasy novel, not a fantastic novel (though God knows I hope it’s both).

Part of the reason we all place children and fantasy together is because of the historical role of fairy tales. On top of that, some of the original landmark fantasy novels, from Alice in Wonderland to The Hobbit to the Narnia series, were universally adored by children, despite not all being initially pitched at that level. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example, was a favourite among high school students, though even the sternest critic would agree many aspects of the work simply couldn’t be discerned by the average young reader. Thus, the association is as much an accident as it is a statement of truth.

In more recent times, the meteoric rise of “Young Adult” (or YA) literature has fuelled this belief. In the wake of the Harry Potter explosion, publishers started to churn out fantasy and sci-fi series by the dozen, all of them marketed for young readers. This ploy was based in economics, though the evidence now suggests a large portion of YA readers are fully-grown adults. You’re almost statistically as likely to buy The Hunger Games at 13 as you are at 30, driving a very large hole into the theory that it’s only a minority of adults who refuse to put the so-called baby books away. Added to that is the fact that, in reality, YA fantasy makes up only one part of the wider fantasy landscape. The success of Game of Thrones has highlighted a very different side to the genre, one that not even the most liberal parent would let their kids near. And again, Martin’s masterpiece represents only one drop in an ever-expanding ocean of fantasy novels, whose range of themes, style, and complexity could only be ignorantly shoved together. 

Overall, the only real link between children and fantasy novels is that they have an appetite for them. Of course, given the demand for an active imagination, it’s hardly surprising they do. But where that association becomes problematic is in the assertion that people must grow out of fantasy novels, as they do behaviour or clothes. Because in a world whose issues demand increasingly creative solutions, any ultimatum to give up imagination should be treated as dangerous.

2. It’s a waste of talent 

Sadly, this too is a response many fantasy writers will be used to. Oftentimes, the insult is veiled, indirect, or perhaps not even consciously given. It may for example, appear as inoccuous as someone asking you whether you write anything else, a question a romance or thriller writer rarely has to deal with. In this sense, fantasy writers are frequently made justify or apologise for their genre, a phenomenon made all the worse by the negative portrayal of fantasy/sci-fi fans in film and television. Conversely, those who produce more contemporary fiction are treated as true masters of the writing craft, an honour which never seems to trickle down to the legions of equally diligent writers of speculative fiction. 

Broadly, there is little recognition for the varied talents fantasy writers possess. The art of worldbuilding for example, is treated as a haphazard process, a mere few hours with a random name generator and a map. In truth, wonders such as Hogwarts or King’s Landing are often painstakingly designed, with an attention to detail approaching that of real life. At the highest level, such artificial creations are so intricate and so subtle that they begin to resemble something natural, like a machine suddenly drawing breath. The very best worlds-the ones we re-visit time and time again in our minds-can whisk a reader away in a sentence. Sadly, it’s perhaps this same therapeutic transportation which gave rise to the notion that fantasy novels are at best easy reads, at worst some form of escapism. In reality, the fantasy novels we consider simple are often the most complex. Arguably, they have no choice but to be. After all, it’s human nature to point out peculiarities, meaning fantasy novels work best when they present nothing no strangeness at all. Of course, fantasy is the genre strangeness calls home, though not in the way people believe. The Game of Thrones TV series, for example, was widely criticised for its most recent season, where all understanding of troop movements, physics, and military strategy seemed to have been thrown out the window. Unsurprisinly, season 7 was also the first to grow beyond its parent books, the success of which were all but built on a meticulously cohesive world. In a way, it has taken this interrupted page-to-screen translation to highlight just how much a fantasy phenomenon like Game of Thrones depends on the talent of its creator. 

3. It’s not literary

In effect, the above two arguments all boil down to one larger criticism of fantasy, which is that it just doesn’t offer any literary merit. At the nucleus of this argument, we find trashy werewolf romances, romping zombie gore, and the swath of unneeded and frankly unwanted straight-to-Amazon money-makers. Even so, the mobs of literary critics are just as likely to come for Zombie Hard-rock-alypse as they are for the works of Tolkien, Le Guin or Wolfe. Why? In 2017, we could lay the blame on the rise of self-publishing, the never-ending release of derivative YA fantasy, or the power of the Marvel war machine. All of those points would be valid, all of those points would be not. 

In truth, it’s the penchant the fantasy genre has for a traditional tale of adventure which probably works against it. In award circles, focus often centres on intimate, character-driven novels, meaning judges are often wary of the fast-paced, plot-heavy fantasy. Awards may only be a single metric of a novel’s merit, but the absence of fantasy winners reinforces the view that it is the genre, and not the system, which is ultimately at fault. 

Fantasy has, and always will be, a genre of literary worth. As far back as The Lord of the Rings, one of the first mainstream fantasy novels, the genre was offering a very accessible critique of New World industrialisation. Sixty years, of course, has changed the world, but not the genre. Today, fantasy writers are at the heart of our discourse, providing fresh views on politics, gender norms, and sexual orientation. Indeed fantasy, a genre home to countless activists, is often the first to detect the pulse of social change. It also remains the most viable entrypoint for young people into such important conversations. 

In some ways, fantasy is the most literary genre, albeit different to those around it. Contemporary fiction is arguably confined to a set of rules, restricted by the scope of earthly possibility. In an ever-evolving world, it is often pointing the finger at yesterday’s problems. Fantasy, perhaps by accident, is pointing at tomorrow’s. None could argue that The Hunger Games, a dystopian piece a half-decade ago, now cuts eerily close to the bone. That, in summary, is why fantasy is my genre.

Yes, it is odd, abstract, at times even juvenile. But it is also where we find the answers to the questions yet to be posed. So far removed from our world, it might be the last place left for the mind to breathe, to watch, to discover. The last place left we find hope.

So if you can no longer see the wood for the trees, perhaps it is time you walked in stranger forests…