I agree with J. R. R. Tolkien about many things, but where I disagree with him is when he states the following:
Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can! …I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
While I have some understanding of Tolkien’s appeal, I really do not see that fantasy’s greatest asset is its escapism. Why? Because when I read a fantasy story that allows me to escape entirely, by departing from the realities of human nature, defying all natural laws, and trading on its differences from normal life, I despise it. It doesn’t ring true. It isn’t relatable. Even when I am most exclaiming that I want to escape the drudgery of life, what I really mean is that I want to see some meaning in it, some purpose, some significance that will make it all bearable, something that will make me feel a little more like a hero on his own quest. That is why my opinion is best summed up by Lloyd Alexander:
“Many readers simply can't stomach fantasy. They immediately picture elves with broadswords or mighty-thewed barbarians with battle axes, seeking the bejeweled Coronet of Obeisance ... (But) the best fantasies pull aside the velvet curtain of mere appearance. ... In most instances, fantasy ultimately returns us to our own now re-enchanted world, reminding us that it is neither prosaic nor meaningless, and that how we live and what we do truly matters.”
In contrast to being mere escapism, fantasy has a wakening effect on the mind. Imagination is not, as some people suppose, the enemy of reason. It is the mother of reason, because not all things that exist appear reasonable, and it takes the imagination to understand it all. When a person makes me angry, he does not appear reasonable. But when I can imagine myself in his place, in his particular circumstances with his particular temperament, I can get past my idea of “reasonable” and find an understanding of him that was not apparent through reason alone. And, in doing so, I have reasoned the situation through better than I did before.
Without imagination leading reason, we could not have invented telephones and airplanes and the internet. That is why imagination is such a powerful thing: It reaches us beyond the known and the existent and the possible. And that is why fantasy is also such a powerful thing: It expands our mental borders, and lets us see the potential in possibilities.
"I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life's realities."
"Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong."
"Fantasy, if it's really convincing, can't become dated, for the simple reason that it represents a flight into a dimension that lies beyond the reach of time."
“Can you not see, […] that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is-what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is-what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos. ”
“At the center of every fairy tale lay a truth that gave the story its power.”
“They [Fairy Tales] are talking about real emotions, telling true stories, through the medium of metaphor. People used to understand metaphor better than I think we do now. But these stories are so potent, they refuse to die.”
Some may object to the idea that fantasy does not answer questions directly. But I think that that is the potency of fantasy. You remember the old adage: Give a man a fish, you’ll feed a man for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for life. It is the same way with stories. You can’t lead the reader directly to the answer the way you can lead a donkey with a carrot on a stick. Readers aren’t that stupid.
We may say that the characters in fairytales are ‘good to think with’…[and that] the job of the fairytale is to show that Why? questions cannot be answered except in one way: by telling the stories. The story does not contain the answer, it is the answer.”
If you make the reader ask the same questions you ask, and search for the answers as diligently as your characters do, then the answer that he finds will remain with him forever.
"It's the questions we can't answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he'll look for his own answers."
Because it is powerful, fantasy is a two-edged sword. When the wrong questions are asked, there is no answer that will be right. It is like the question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” If Frodo had asked, “How can I save the world and still make it turn out well for me?” he would have asked the wrong question, and would have arrived at the wrong answer. Fantasy must, therefore, have a kernel of real truth, real nobility, real honor, for it to succeed at the task for which it is best suited. And when it does that, author C. S. Lewis remarks, it will accomplish even more than we expect:
“At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of 'commenting on life,' can add to it.”
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I write YA/adult fantasy & sci-fi that explores fantastic new worlds, with stories that burn through the darkest realities with hope and redemption.
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