The joys of fantasy and Romance

Patrick Kurp ponders why he doesn’t like fantasy, writing that “[It] feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children.” Maybe: but to my mind, it opens other avenues for looking at the world and goes places realism doesn’t. Good fantasy develops its own codes and limitations; it is different from and reflects our world. In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon says, “Now, games are important. They test us. They teach us comradeship. They’re fun. But cricket, more than any other sport, is, I want to say […] a lesson in civility.” I wouldn’t call fantasy a lesson in civility, but it often imparts, aside from pleasure, lessons in how to lead and organize one’s life. When teaching the LSAT, I often use the journey and confrontation plots in fantasy novels as metaphors. And if fantasy is a cheat, so too is metaphor, which takes one or multiple things and stands them in the place of others, as fantasy does.

It also inevitably returns to confront the ideals and problems of the society that produced it, as Northrop Frye argued in The Secular Scriptures. Romance and fantasy are inextricably linked to the societies that produce them, just as fiction more generally is. The power of fiction and fantasy is their ability to be rooted in those societies while simultaneously being able to transcend them to others. I have no experience in ancient Greece or Rome, but The Iliad and The Aeneid still speak to me. I have never set foot in Middle-earth, but it seems more real to me in some ways than South Ossetia, though I would never argue, obviously, that one is real and the other isn’t.

Still, the question of real and fake gets raised by this question and never satisfactorily answered, as it hasn’t been in literature or philosophy. Patrick writes, “I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another.” To my mind, we’re not slumming it in another world, but sharpening our sense of this one through contrast in a subsidiary world, both part of and separate from ours. Fantasy is where the imagination can run wilder than it can in reality, and it is another configuration of reality in the mind, a separate microworld that breaks off from the main world in the mind of its holder. Think of it as an extension of the multiverse or parallel universe theories, only with fantasy itself as another world that mirrors ours. Those mirrors sometimes distort for effect, and if realism is a standard mirror, fantasy is the one that stretches, contorts, and makes us wonder at what we really think of ourselves. The best fantasy novels have rules of their own, some of which can be bent, and others broken, as they say in The Matrix. See our world in fantasy and fantasy in our world. Umberto Eco writes in Reflections on The Name of the Rose:

And so the Middle Ages have remained, if not profession, my hobby—and a constant temptation: I see the period everywhere, transparently overlaying my daily concerns, which do not look medieval, though they are.

As said by Burlingame in The Sot-Weed Factor, “I grew so enchanted by the great Manchegan [Don Quixote] and his faithful squire as to lose all track of time and was rebuked by Captain Salmon for reporting late to the cook.” At its best, fantasy has this effect, almost as drugs or sex are wont to do. I think there’s a reason why children and teenagers are often drawn to fantasy, as it offers an relatively safe and accessible outlet for young people who feel powerless and constrained, or feel perceived constraint from parents and society. Another world offers solace and meaning, as it offers others symbolism and power. These sensations go far back in cultural time: some aspect of fantasy or fantastical journeys exist in numerous cultures, as Joseph Campbell argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Most of them and us are not Don Quixotes, who asks if we have “[…] read the annals and the histories of the England that treat of the famous exploits of King Arthur […]” The mistaken belief in fantasy as genuine reality is ridiculous, but the belief that we can see aspects of reality in fantasy is not. The prologue to Don Quixote more lays out the case for fantasy, and, more abstractly, literature itself:

Let it be your aim that, by reading your story, the melancholy may be moved to laughter and the cheerful man made merrier still; let the simple not be bored, but may the clever admire your originality; let the grave ones not despise you, but let the prudent praise you.

One could also say, let the adolescent find a way forward and the adult meaning in experience, and let a strong story exist for the literal and subtle metaphors and symbols for the intellectual. Only very good fantasy, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, accomplishes these lofty goals, but only very few works of fiction pass the hundred year test and become that strange beast we call literature.

Defending fantasy and science fiction as literature might be odd given my lament in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters. But I only wrote that post because both cause pain when they fail to live up to literature’s ideals and their own possibility. One of my favorite passages from any book occurs when Tomás and a Martian encounter one another in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken?”

Later, a character says, “If you can’t have the reality, a dream is just as good.” A dream isn’t, but it’s something, and inevitably leads us back toward reality, which leads us back to imagination in an endless circle of blending into different forms and shapes.

Fantasy and its cousin, science fiction, along with their forefather, Romance, are tastes not shared by all. Patrick avoids slamming fantasy to the extent he can given his dislike, and he flees that “ideologically rigid sack of theories.” I’ve tried to give as supple a theory and explanation as I can for the pleasures of fantasy done well, as the genre has long suffered disrespect it shouldn’t. One of the best essays on the subject is still Tolkien’s “On Faerie Stories,” which can be found in the collection The Tolkien Reader. This essay derives and and applies ideas from Tolkien’s work, which is still as complete a defense and analysis of the genre.

EDIT: See an addendum here.

Philip Pullman profile

I mentioned Philip Pullman again as a contract to the execrable fantasy described here; I wrote about Pullman’s wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy here. Now I’ve come across an interview with Pullman. A sample:

“I had been thinking about the central question, which is the innocence and experience business, and the transition which happens in adolescence, for a long time. I’d been teaching children of the same age as Lyra, children who were themselves going through this physical, intellectual and emotional change in their lives. The biggest change we ever go through really.” Once, when I interviewed Pullman in front of a packed house at the National Theatre, he drew a big laugh when he explained what was so special about this age: “Your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family.”

This article, like so many appearing now, is coming about thanks to the movie version of The Golden Compass. Originally I’d planned to watch, until critics panned it; the Seattle Timesreview is typical, saying the movie “has a by-the-numbers feel to it.” In other words, the movie appears to be what the studio sought: a slot machine instead of a story, and by jettisoning the latter is also seems to have lost the former.

Hollywood, The Golden Compass, and artistic corruption

About a month ago I picked up The Golden Compass to read the first chapter for something I was working on. It’s the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which I wrote about a year ago. Rather than stopping at chapter two, as I’d intended to, I accidentally finished the novel in the course of the day. I’m not the who loves His Dark Materials: this month’s Atlantic has an article called “How Hollywood Saved God” (warning: it’s in a walled garden, so if you’re not a subscriber you should buy the magazine) that says Pullman’s books have sold 15 million copies worldwide. Each book of the trilogy probably counts as a sale, and his other books are probably included too, but it’s safe to assume many people have read him. The number will no doubt increase with the release of the first movie.

“How Hollywood Saved God” describes the movie based on The Golden Compass. I’ll probably watch it in December, somewhat reluctantly, just as I saw The Return of the King despite knowing the high probability of disappointment. I was right about The Return of the King, a movie that provides an excellent of example of how more special effects can lead to an inferior result. With The Golden Compass, five years and a lot of wrangling have apparently succeeded in watering down the sharp content of the book. Hollywood as portrayed by this Atlantic story is the McDonald’s of art, seeking to dull strong flavors to make a more standardized product that will appeal to the widest audience, but also destroying what made the original good. Hollywood isn’t the only place with this tendency.

Some of this comes from technological fetishization, and some from the perceived effect of strong statements on financial aspects, leading to the end result:

To an industry intoxicated with sophisticated visual effects, Pullman’s creations were irresistible. In 2003, when describing what sold him on the movie, Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president of production, explained, “It was two words: Iorek Byrnison.” Iorek is an “insanely awesome character,” he added. “He can’t tell a lie,” Emmerich told me recently, “and [Lyra] is an expert liar.”


You can probably guess how things turned out. Given enough time and effort, Hollywood can tweak and polish and recast even the darkest message until it would seem at home in a Fourth of July parade. In the end, the religious meaning of the book was obscured so thoroughly as to be essentially indecipherable. The studio settled on villains that, as Emmerich put it, “feel vaguely kind of like a fascistic, totalitarian dictatorship, Russian/KGB/SS” stew. The movie’s main theme became, in one producer’s summary, “One small child can save the world.” With $180 million at stake, the studio opted to kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul.

Read the article to see how it happens and this for more on The Atlantic regarding movies, art, and commerce.

His Dark Materials

Like so much fantasy, His Dark Materials has more commentary on our world than about its own, just as Paradise Lost is more interested in the world of men than that of God. The fingerprints of Paradise Lost are all over His Dark Materials, and intentionally so, even if one of Pullman’s purposes is the diametric opposite of Milton’s. Pullman has discussed the connections to Paradise Lost in interviews, and a quote from it starts The Subtle Knife.

If Paradise Lost justified the ways of God to Man, then His Dark Materials justifies the ways of Man to Man—or, rather, the fiery spirit and independence of the individual against the poisonous power of authority. It’s more about the relationships of men among each other.

His Dark Materials points toward self-reliance, and the American myth of it informs the books’ championing of the individual against the faceless bureaucracies. The fear of Big Brother is there, although Big Brother is the Church rather than government. It’s anachronistic to cast the Church as a villain—that would’ve been more appropriate five hundred years ago, or at least during the Victorian age, because the major potential oppressors of today are governments, not religions. Still, if Pullman is concerned chiefly with the oppression of a particular individual, his villains work, and when either institution concerns itself with reducing individual liberty, it is as terrible as the other.

Missing all that among the ceaselessly moving plot should be forgiven: The Golden Compass starts fast and never lets up. Not until the middle of The Subtle Knife does the pacing even catch a breath. Lyra, who seems built around the adjective “spunky,” has no one but herself, and like so many Romantic protagonists, begins the story as an orphan. But her parents turn out to be more in the model of the power-crazed and narcissistic ones in Story of My Life or Less Than Zero than the classical model of caring guardians who were forced to abandon her, leading to a joyous reunion. Lyra has to find companions and helpers where she can, and the motley ensemble must take on the mighty, glittering edifice of the dominant social and political structures.Over the course of the flight and then fight Lyra matures. The external plot charts the internal process of growing up: taking on responsibility, dealing with adversity, and a host of other things that, so baldly stated, sound terribly boring. Much better to represent them through a fantastic world filled by marvels and not bound by science as we know it. The external actions are a manifestation of the internal development. In many ways, it parallels the growth of adolescence into adulthood, which is even more explicit in His Dark Materials than most fantastic literature because of Lyra’s age. If the external/internal growth process sounds familiar to regular readers, that’s because it is.

Although featuring children and obviously targeted in part at them, His Dark Materials is a hybrid in the sense that adults can read and enjoy it as well as children, much like The Chronicles of Narnia. The same is true of Harry Potter, although to a lesser extent: His Dark Materials reflects a strong classical education, which allows it to function at deeper levels and with a greater awareness of what has come before. His Dark Materials is stronger than either of those series, both in terms of the writing itself as well as the content; its tone remains strong and serious, even when it is funny, whereas The Chronicles of Narnia at times descends to the level of conventional children’s stories, and Harry Potter never fully leaves that realm.

The ending, like that of Lord of the Rings, is bittersweet: the gains outweigh the losses, but those losses can never be assuaged or made whole; they merely become a burden that can be transmuted to wisdom, but the some aspects of the loss endures despite all efforts to mend them. So it is with the transience of life, and like all the best works of art, His Dark Materials has a lot to say about life—if we are perceptive enough to listen.

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