Thursday, July 19, 2007

The myth of the fantasy genre

Sometimes viewpoints that are dead wrong can provide a starting point for insightful discussions. I feel that way about Christian opponents of the Harry Potter series. They think it's bad to expose children to stories depicting witchcraft in a positive light. Fans respond that Harry Potter is fantasy, and that these books are a healthy tool for stimulating a child's imagination.

"Fantasy" is a funny name for a genre. The word suggests make-believe. All fiction is make-believe, but fantasy deals specifically with events that not only didn't happen, but couldn't happen. We, the readers, allow our minds to enter a universe that we know could never exist. The books tap into some part of our subconscious where rationality has not penetrated, and for a brief period of time we "believe" in magic. The genre is not about exploring possibilities, as science fiction does, but about losing ourselves in impossibilities. As Orson Scott Card puts it in his 1990 book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, "science fiction is about what could be but isn't; fantasy is about what couldn't be" (p. 22).

But that raises a problem. If we designate all supernatural stories as fantasy, as is the common practice, we're implying that there's no such thing as the supernatural. I presume that Card, as a Mormon, would resist that implication. Yet he doesn't appear bothered by it: "As rational people, we know that magic doesn't work and superstitions are meaningless" (p. 22). True, but what about the miracles of the Bible? What about God and the afterlife?

The fantasy genre avoids this dilemma because it rarely deals with religion. Magic may be rooted in pagan belief, but most fantasies do not feature pagan deities. Two important pioneers of the genre--J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis--were devout Christians. (J.K. Rowling is, too, but let that pass.) I once saw someone make the following clueless remark about Harry Potter: "Why do the kids celebrate Christmas if they practice witchcraft?" But that's just the point. The magic in Harry Potter isn't a religion; it is an alternative series of natural laws. It has about as much to do with ancient occult practice as Westerns have to do with the real Old West. And it has about as much to do with Satan worship as armadillos have to do with Swiss cheese.

The fantasy genre, in any case, centers on things that almost everyone agrees are imaginary, like elves and dragons. Religiously rooted supernatural fiction, like The Exorcist, usually ends up in the horror section of a bookstore. People may call it fantasy, but that's not the publishing category. Fantasy, despite its religious origins, is essentially a very secular genre. Individual works like C.S. Lewis's Narnia series may express religious ideas, but mostly through metaphor.

Does a book even need magic to be considered fantasy? The Princess Bride has no obvious magical elements, unless you consider a volcanic swamp populated by ferocious capybaras to be magical. As for Miracle Max, he's an herbalist, not a sorcerer, and he doesn't show up until quite late in the story. Yet everybody thinks of The Princess Bride as a fantasy, largely because it has all the trappings of one.

The matter gets even fuzzier with books that deal with the afterlife, like Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come, which I discussed in a previous post. Wikipedia classifies such novels as "bangsian fantasy," after an author named John Kendrick Bangs. But the thing is, Matheson actually believed in what he wrote. He based his depiction of afterlife on extensive research into near-death experiences and the visions of mystics. To him, and to many readers, his book is surely not "fantasy."

Card hints that the genre designation does have something to do with what people actually believe about the world. For example, are The Iliad and The Odyssey fantasies? No, says Card, because they were written at a time when most people believed in such stuff. What about the Bible or Paradise Lost? Card prudently remarks that even today many people "would be outraged to hear of either being classified as fantasy" (p. 18).

Even science fiction isn't immune to this dilemma. I have heard George Lucas described as a "modern mythmaker." But myths are what a culture actually believes in. People do not go to Star Wars to see a world they believe is real. Rather, Lucas takes the myths of the past and spins them into entertainment which modern audiences accept on a purely symbolic level. In a sense, that's what all fantasy writers do. If we could see what future societies will think of our own, we might be surprised at what they consider our myths and our fantasies.

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