by Tod Davies.
It’s true. I love fantasy and science fiction. Not just them, but ‘children’s’ stories, legends, myths, folktales and fairy tales, as well.
But especially fantasy. From the start, from childhood, I loved its works. “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. “The Lord of the Rings.” Narnia. “The Wizard of Oz.” I loved them all.
And yet, I found to my puzzlement, that I didn’t just love any book labeled ‘fantasy’. Some bored me. Some outright repelled.
Why was that? I pondered and then put the question aside. Until I was much older, an adult, really, supposedly ready to put away childish things. Yet there I was, still reading the same books I had loved as a child with every bit as much pleasure now as then. Perhaps more, because it’s true that when you reread a much-loved book at a later stage in your life, it has a whole new tale to tell.
I noticed this. And I remembered what C.S. Lewis was fond of saying: “Some day you will be old enough for fairy tales.” It made me laugh the other day to read some ridiculous literary ‘criticism’ of the books of Terry Pratchett, all too entertaining to be approved of by a rather pompous critic. That critic was obviously not old enough to understand their true meaning.
For the reason Terry Pratchett books are so entertaining is simply because they are bung full of meaning. They are about the real questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What is it best for me to do? And the fact that those questions and their attempted answers are at the heart of the books of Terry Pratchett goes to the heart of why I still love the books of my childhood. And why I seek out the books that are their like. The books of T.H. White. Philip Pullman. Philip K. Dick. Octavia Butler. And most of all, always, those of Ursula K. LeGuin.
Here’s why: These books are about something. Now, you may object, “But surely all books are about something?” And I’ll say, “Well, no. Not all.” For another strange fact I noticed as I aged, though my reading habit continued as voracious as ever, was that the more ‘serious’ a work of contemporary literature was meant to be, the less I found in it. Not always. Of course there are some notable exceptions. But generally, the way of ‘serious literature’ heads out of control down a path of insisting that laws of Good and Evil no longer exist for the intelligent adult. That there are no laws at all, save what we make for ourselves, which is as much as to say there is no law at all. That there is no real meaning in the world. That we are adrift.
Adrift. That’s the main feel I get as I read, conscientiously, my way through ‘serious’ literary novel after ‘serious’ literary novel. Always turning with great relief back to fantasy. Those books, the most hypermodern, seem agreed on one point only: that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ do not exist in any real way. That they’re entirely subjective, with us as subjects. And my, what disappointing subjects we are!
There is an oddly depressed feeling to these works. An immediate defeat. A belief that there is no way that humans can, by pursuing the ‘good’, do better, no way that we may make our world any better than it already is.
Although there is definitely agreement in these novels that what ‘already is’ is nothing very satisfactory. So up pops this odd agreement that the reason fantasy and science fiction have became so popular in the same period as ‘serious’ literary works get dourer and more depressed is because the average reader is desperate to escape such an unsatisfactory reality.
Poppycock. Rubbish. Complete and utter balderdash.
You see the condescension here, I’m sure. The ‘average’ reader. That means anyone who finds the air a little too rarefied up there in Serious Land.
Honestly, that kind of attitude, the one that breathes a world weary sigh, waves a drooping cigarette in the air, and concludes with superior irony that the world is hell, that reminds me of nothing so much as an adolescent boy insisting it’s naïve to believe that love exists—because he’s just terribly afraid that there will be no one ever who will find him easy to love.
That’s the way a lot of modern serious literature strikes me.
It’s perfectly obvious that one of the reasons people read fantasy and science fiction, if not the main reason entirely, is because these books look at our life here in a completely different way. They accept, the best among them, not just that Good and Evil exist, but that they present a challenge that must be met by us as living beings. And that the way we meet that challenge actually forms our world.
The limits to that struggle are clear: those limits of human ability in the face of Death. But while this means life is tragic, it also shows life is filled with meaning. That Aragorn must die in The Lord of the Rings, along with the elfish queen who has chosen to become human for his sake, that Frodo must live alone after the struggle he has been through and the end that he has achieved, these things are tragic, but they are filled with meaning. They convey to us, the reader, that life is not about becoming happy, but about creating that meaning. They comfort us in our inevitable struggles to add to the meaning of the world. And they suggest alternative meanings, they try out different meanings, they reach for utopias, for unknown, perhaps still uncreated, worlds. They restore to us our true place in the universe, which is a universe of meaning, with each and every one of us responsible to the development of, perhaps the creation of, that meaning.
They do not deny that this is our major task as human beings. They affirm it. Terry Pratchett books, the work of Neil Gaiman, these books fairly bristle with meaning, and with the authors’ entire sympathy with characters that, through their adventures, join in the great game of finding meaning. Of creating it.
Not all books do this. Fewer and fewer ‘serious’ American works attempt anything like it, almost as if they’re afraid of looking foolishly naïve (there’s that adolescent boy peeping out, sheepish, again). But fantasy—the fantasy books of the past, many of the present, and, I hope those of the future—do follow this ancient, well-worn, and beautiful path.
For that reason, these are the books I truly love. The books I will continue to love. And the books I delight to discuss with those who love them as much as I.
That is why I love fantasy.