-by Grant Smuts
“All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it.”
Usually I talk about the tropes and conventions of fantasy and what there is to love, hate, hate-love and love-hate about them. Today, I want to do something a little different, something a little closer to the heart of a fantasist.
The ideal of “The Sense of Wonder” is something I’ve repeated in each of my posts to date – it’s something I fervently believe in, a thing I feel, and which, perhaps, a lot of people feel when they read and finish a good fantasy book. Everyone has a reason why they read fantasy – and escapism is usually that reason. Now escape means a lot of things to a lot of people. And some forms of escape are better than others, and some are harmful and detrimental.
Usually, when I think ‘escapism’, I see a big leathery tome of a fantasy novel that you have to blow the dust off before opening to get that ‘old-book smell’ that you inhale before you dive into the first chapter.
But there are some in the world who just don’t get that – who don’t get fantasy.
Weird, I know.
But I come into contact with these aberrant creatures frequently, and since I am no longer allowed to go all “Conan the Barbarian” on them, I have to be like Odysseus and either convince or totally bullshit them. (Yes, I know, Odysseus also put out the cyclops’s eye with a burning wooden stake. I’m not allowed to do that either. Bloody red tape.)
But you know, a strange thing sometimes happens. Occasionally, amongst the strange and exotic un-fantastic people, you meet one or two who aren’t totally against it, but who genuinely don’t understand.
As I stare mournfully into my empty cup of coffee at 5am in the morning, feeling too damn lazy to get off my ass and make another cup, my overactive, sleep-deprived mind goes into overdrive, and I think back on a question that was asked of me earlier this week. That question was, quite simply,
After all, there is a world here, filled with troubles and wonders of its own, isn’t there? Why dive into another world entirely? Why bother?
Why start a fantasy magazine? Why write fantasy short stories? Why try to write a fantasy novel? In short, why fantasy,?
Now, maybe I’m going soft in my old age, but the knee-jerk, hair-trigger, sardonic reply that my friends and family hate (and love) me for whensoever a person is foolish enough to ask me ‘why’ anything didn’t come. Instead I actually took a moment to consider the question and the perspective presented to me.
(And in a moment of postmodern awareness, I seriously thought about myself seriously thinking about the question asked, and whether I was just feeling charitable in that particular moment or if it marked a change in my demeanor, and if so, what it meant.
Life is such a goddamn headache, sometimes.)
My fingers hover over the keyboard, a caffeine-induced shiver my only movement for a full minute.
No, it’s not that I can’t think of reasons. On the contrary… I just don’t know where to start.
Well, perhaps the beginning is a good place. Not for all fantasy, mind you.
But for me:
It began in Logres. The Arthurian Legends were my first introduction into the realm of fantasy. I can say it with pride, that Merlin (in each and every one of his forms, in the many versions of the legend) was the first wizard I had been introduced to. King Arthur was the first king, and the Knights of the Round Table were the first group of badass warriors filled with heroism, chivalry and derring-do that I had ever come across. I can’t remember what I had been reading before (probably books on dinosaurs and whatever else 10-year-old boys were interested in back in the 90s). Whatever I had read before it just faded away.
The first book on King Arthur I read was a beautiful, illustrated version, obviously catered towards a younger audience. But it still had the things that made the Arthurian legend famous – the sword in the stone, the strange mystic Merlin, the mighty Knights and their deeds.
The Lady of the Lake. Excalibur and the founding of a kingdom. The treacherous Morgana Le Fay.
Arthur”s Queen Guinevere and her ill-fated romance with Lancelot, the finest knight in the world.
The quest for the Holy Grail, with the memorable and pure Sir Galahad, son of Lancelot, who, in his short life, demonstrated his brilliance by defeating everyone he came across, up to and including his own badass father. The rise and the betrayal of Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son. The final battle on Camlann, where Arthur and Mordred destroyed each other. The return of Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and Arthur being taken to Avalon.
And then came the final promise, a promise to Britain when it was written, but when I read the end, and I felt the heartbreak of seeing Logres fall into ruin, when after reading of the knights of the Round Table and seeing Arthur, Gawain, Lancelot, Percival, and all the rest fall apart or fall, defeated in the final battle, the promise was made as Arthur was borne away to the mystic isle of Avalon, that he would come again. It felt like a promise, not just to Britain, but to me, and to all those who grew to love that world of chivalry and mysticism. Over the years I came to read the many versions of the legend, and the one thing many have in common is that promise of a return, that King Arthur and his Knights would come back in the world’s hour of need, and so there is this inscription upon his tomb in Avalon:
My next venture into the realm of fantasy would be CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, where the Pevensies (and a few others, but most famously the Pevensie children – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) would walk out of England and into Narnia, the land of talking animals and dwarfs, dragons, dryads and giants, and the ruler of it all was a Lion who was not quite a Lion. We can’t really separate the religious undertones from the story in the end, no doubt because CS Lewis was a devout Christian.
But, Judeo-Christian influences aside, the ideal was born of a battle between good and evil, exemplified most clearly in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and it helped define a lot of fantasy novels to come after it. Narnia became a quintessential escape-point for me in my childhood. I fell in love with the land, the concepts and the old-fashioned style CS Lewis employed. The books were children’s fantasy, and they had that innocence to them that is so hard to replicate these days.
Narnia and King Arthur. These were the two fantasies that got me in love with fantasy. It didn’t stop there, of course. I read countless stories from ancient cultures – most Greek and Roman, as those were most accessible to me back then, and I read about Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, Perseus, Theseus, and others.
Then I found Norse mythology and I got introduced to Odin and Thor, to Loki, Fenrir and Jormungandr. They were a very different breed of gods to the extremely familiar Olympians. They felt more earthy, and more visceral, and less childish to my youthful eyes. The also introduced me to the idea of Ragnarok, the doom of the gods. I was enthralled.
I was pulled eastward, then, to Mesopotamia, where I met Gilgamesh (who was an actual historical figure, who got upgraded to legendary badassery and demi-godhood) and Enkidu, and learned that the universe was made by the slaying of the enormous dragon, Tiamat.
I went further east and met Susanoo, Amaterasu and the many, many kami of Japan. Each shaped my love of fantasy in different ways.
It was The Lord of the Rings that got me writing fantasies of my own – Tolkien’s masterpiece showed me that these worlds could be real, and in intense detail, and that High Fantasy could be EPIC. George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, taught me two things. It taught me, that no matter the good things you experience in life you need to prepare for the worst because Winter is Coming, and it taught me, at the ripe old age of 13, that not everything was black and white, and that ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ was relative.
In the years that followed, I came across many other fantasy novels, and each painted the universe a different color for me from the drab and the ordinary. The world I lived in was a dull place, but when I read fantasy, I felt vibrant, energized. I felt that my dreams had a certain shape. Sometimes that shape was a dragon, sometimes a sword, sometimes a knight in armor, sometimes a castle. Out of my books, I felt ordinary. A little lost, too.
So… why fantasy?
Well… why does anyone follow their dreams? Why does anyone want to do anything? Why become a lawyer, or a doctor, or a teacher?
People try to do what they want to do because it brings them peace, and gives them a sense of place. They do it because they feel they can do some good in the world, or for the people they love, or sometimes just for themselves to feel okay with themselves. It’s about happiness, and about strength.
I feel a thrill at a well-written action scene, and even more of one if said scene involves a dragon, or a wizard, or a good old-fashioned duel between swordsmen. I feel a sense of wonder at a description of magic, or of the laws of the world, or of a description of alien skies with suns of a different color.
Ultimately, I can’t give a definitive reason for the genre as a whole. A thousand fantasy fans will give a thousand different answers to the question.
So, why fantasy, for me? Why the stories, the writing, the magazine?
To keep it perfectly simple?
It makes me feel alive.
I’ll end this off with a quote from today’s most famous fantasy writer,
“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.”
-George RR Martin.
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