“It seems as though there needs to be a monster in a story for you to like it.”
I remember being told this a few years ago, and at the time I felt the need to deny it. Because there are, in fact, many stories that I enjoy that don’t have monsters or creatures or magic in them. I like a lot of realistic fiction just fine, but when I think about the stories that I love, the ones that I, as a writer, want to emulate and would die of joy if I was even just compared to, they’re always fantasy stories.
I love fantasy stories. I love myths, legends, and fairy tales. I love Victorian Gothic novels, like Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Shelley’s Frankenstein. I love the classic works of fantasy, like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. I love fantasy novels, short works of fantasy, fantasy films, fantasy television, fantasy comics, fantasy video games. I love Star Wars, Star Trek, Disney films, Marvel, DC, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – whatever medium fantasy comes in, I love it.
And the strange thing about fantasy is that it seems to get a bit of a bad name. Not from everybody, of course – some people have more tolerance for it than others, but there are still some that will scoff at my fantasy obsession and think of it as lowly, unintelligent, a waste of time when I could be indulging in more realistic works. But the more time I spend exploring fantasy, the more I disagree.
Fantasy, as we all know, is a genre dependant on imagination. The only limits to fantasy are how far one can extend their mind. But, at the same time, fantasy doesn’t just come from nothing. A lot of fantasy stories are dependant upon the context of culture and mythology to inform them – and there’s no limit to the mythologies that they can borrow from. They can borrow from Norse mythology, Greek mythology, middle eastern mythology, Arthurian legends, pagan superstition, the Bible – they can sift through all of this, choose what suits their needs and they can make these things exist alongside one another. For this, I would argue that fantasy is actually a highly intelligent genre, continuing to teach people about ancient beliefs and mythologies.
Or, they can choose to ignore all of this background (which is also a perfectly valid choice) and they can instead choose to defamiliarize the world in which they live – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a very good example of this, taking the Victorian society of Lewis Carroll and turning it into something insane, something just barely recognizable, and therefore, satirizing it. It forces the reader to look at the things around them from a different angle. Something as mundane and constant as the lessons upper class Victorian girls were forced to repeat suddenly become ridiculous and not very useful when placed in the context of the fantastical world known as Wonderland.
And then there’s the ways in which fantasy writers place their own experiences into their work. Tolkien, for example, spent a lot of Lord of the Rings reflecting on his experiences living through World War Two. J.K. Rowling used Harry Potter as a vehicle to come to terms with her mother’s death. And only recently, Howard Ashman, one of the writers to have worked prominently on Disney’s original 1991 Beauty and the Beast, was in the news because it was revealed that he saw the Beast’s curse as a metaphor for AIDs. All of these examples are real, human issues – so big that it’s very difficult to actually put them into words, but nonetheless, they found a way to properly convey them through fantasy, and in my opinion, it doesn’t take anything away that these issues are being vocalized through hobbits, wizards, and beasts.
Fantasy forces people to open their minds and put aside their biases. Think about Harry Potter’s Professor Lupin – another character who was written as a metaphor for someone suffering from AIDs. Going into the story, one might have their own preconceived notions about someone with AIDs – they might think that they’re dirty, that they’re sick because of their own doing (I feel uncomfortable lingering on this, but you get the idea). They might be too quick to dismiss a character who is introduced, right off the bat, as someone with AIDs. But the thing is, Lupin is not a man with AIDs. Lupin is a werewolf who has been forced to live in near-poverty, shunned by society because of it. And most people don’t have preconceived biases against werewolves, so of course they sympathize for Lupin. And maybe once they find out what his character is intended to be read as a metaphor for, they might reflect on their own opinions about people with AIDs and how they are treated by society.
Fantasy forces people to consider others’ perspectives. If you can easily understand the perspective of a wizard, a hobbit, a prophesied hero – three things that you will never be – then why wouldn’t you be able to understand the perspective of someone of a different gender, or race, or sexual orientation?
Fantasy teaches people about the world around them – not by representing it exactly as it is, but by discussing its issues in a context where you’re mind is free, where you aren’t grounded by reality. Fantasy makes you think that anything could be possible – maybe not dragons and sorcerers, but at least bravery and standing up for what’s right. Fantasy is an open genre, one that you can take anything to. Fantasy is not just one thing.