A Fantastic Question
Family members, friends, and colleagues have all asked me why I read fantasy. I’ve given different answers in different contexts at different times to the persistent question, “Why read fantasy literature?” This post is a distillation of my current defense of fantasy.
But let me say I shouldn’t need to defend myself. The question stems either from ignorance or arrogance. Ignorance suggests fantasy is solely for children not ready for “real literature”. Arrogance says genre fiction of any kind is unworthy of an intelligent person who should read only Shakespeare, Dante, Proust, or Joyce.
I also wondered what it is about fantasy literature other writers and readers enjoy and find worthwhile.
So I asked Twitter.
I got several insightful and inspiring responses which helped me define the “3 Es” outlined below. With my gratitude to the contributors, you’ll find excerpts from their comments throughout the text of this post. Their names link back to their blogs or Twitter profiles. They’re interesting, talented people and worth checking out.
This post may also have a practical use. In the future, I can say to enquirers, “I wrote an answer on my blog. Perhaps you might care to read it”. You might wish to suggest the same.
Reading for Education, Entertainment, and Escape
To answer the question, “Why read fantasy literature?” we must ask, “Why read literature at all?”
While some may consider only the great works of world literature edifying enough to be worthy of their time, no-one can deny that all literature is fantastical to an extent. Neither Hamlet, nor Beatrice; neither Swann, nor Bloom, ever existed. And what creations in literature could be more fantastical than Dante’s inferno or Prospero’s magical island?
So why do we read fantasy fiction? The consensus seems to be that here are three fundamental reasons:
Reading fantasy is an exercise of guided imagination by which we experience places, cultures and lives we might otherwise never visit or know.
The entertainment value of fiction needs no description; the pleasure of engagement provided by a good book is second to none.
Life is hard, sometimes cruel, and always tiring. It’s a futile struggle against entropy. Faced with existential horror on one hand, and the mundane struggles of the day-to-day on the other, fiction offers an escape route from time itself; often to a world organized much more to our liking than the laws of Nature allow.
So let’s go a little deeper into each of these core reasons to read (and write) fantasy.
Fantasy Literature and Education: Algorithms of the Soul
Bear with me. We’re going to talk about algorithms. But no understanding of mathematics is needed to get this, so relax.
An algorithm is a problem-solving system based on a series of binary “if this, then that” triggers which guide the user to the most economical solution.
Computers use algorithms, and online stores use them to decide which products to show you. Professional Rubik’s cube solvers and chess players approach the complexities of their tasks with the help of algorithms.
It’s more-or-less how brains work, too. Not surprising, as the concept of the algorithm and the devices which use it are human inventions. True, brains are more complex than any artificial intelligence yet produced. But as consciousness and its creations become more aligned, it’s as reasonable to describe brains in terms of computers as the other way round.
Even before birth, the brain (a super-cluster of neurons and the seat of the fraction of the nervous system which is “conscious”) reacts to electro-chemical stimulation received via the senses. It stores information in much the same way as a microchip. The brain has evolved inbuilt “software” which organizes, compares, groups and links information to build models of reality. Most of this activity remains unconscious. I mean we don’t know what we’re doing most of the time and may have little part in the decisions we make.
Although brains evolved, rather than being designed like computers, they have a purpose. A human brain’s primary role is to guide and protect the whole organism until it can transfer its all-important store of genes to a new generation. Everything else, including consciousness, is a by-product of this function.
There’s another discussion to have about the possibility of that limitation changing for modern humans as cultural and social developments override the fundamental biology which drives behavior. But it’s beyond this discussion of fantasy literature.
While many fantasy books illuminate reality, I tend to view that as a bonus. What I get from fantasy that I often can’t get elsewhere is the uncharted territory, the excitement of exploring.
M H Johnsen writer
So why are we talking about brains and algorithms? What has all this to do with answering the question, “Why read fantasy literature?”
Fantastical storytelling is as old as humanity itself. Any aspect of human behavior which appears instinctual is likely an evolved, transmissible trait. You won’t find a “storytelling gene” in your DNA. But the complex expression of genes which make us human also produces our faculties of fantasy and storytelling. It’s a function of survival. It enables us to test dangerous ideas without putting ourselves at risk.
Beyond alternate realities, #fantasy #literature is an incredible way to know just how far human imagination can stretch. I’m just as fascinated by the otherworldly appeal of a fantasy novel, as I am by the mind that created it!
Several reliable, peer-reviewed studies show that people who read fantasy fiction are better problem-solvers, more empathetic, more creative, and more adaptable than those who don’t. Reading fantasy equips you to respond to real life.
Fantasy literature offers opportunities for us to “try out” a range of alternative algorithms and imagined futures from the comfort of our armchairs. And while the risks in a typical fantasy novel may be those of being stabbed in battle, burned to a crisp by a dragon, or falling foul of a Dark Lord, such tropes can teach us important lessons about ourselves.
I think fantasy helps us deconstruct the reality we know, giving it a spin that makes the invisible more obvious. A well thought-out symbolism is sometimes more powerful than a well-depicted reality.
Sarah Zama writer
Fantasy borrows from traditional storytelling, folklore, and mythology. That’s not coincidental. Modern fantasy literature is the direct descendent of the world’s mythological traditions. It taps into the deep roots of the psyche. It explores the hidden algorithms of the soul, and even has the power to rewrite them.
Why read fantasy literature? We read any literature, fantasy or not, because we are hard-wired for story. Our delight in storytelling as a species is in our brains. It’s the faculty of storytelling which enables us to be conscious, reflective beings at all.
Fantasy Literature: Becoming a Better Person
Imagination, whether in daydreams or in the guided fantasy of fiction, has a powerful emotional purpose.
Wish-fulfilment fantasies are a natural force in human life. We spend huge chunks of our lives day-dreaming. Re-running past events, we’ll rewrite the script so we responded better, said something smarter, or overcame the obstacle with more aplomb than we managed at the time.
We need to experience strong emotions. Writers strive to evoke such emotions in their readers. Those who do will be successful almost regardless of the quality of their writing or the originality of the plot. A core motive for reading fantasy is to be swept away by a tsunami of strong feeling.
Fantasy literature presents us with electrifying emotional experiences lacking in our humdrum lives. It ramps up the charge until we spark and glitter and roar with a brilliance and intensity impossible in the absurd downward slide toward death which makes up the average human biography.
I think fantasy just plugs into your dream headspace. I like witchy, supernatural stuff myself where people slip between worlds.
Helen Slavin writer
In the timelessness of imagination we experience overpowering love driven by destiny, rather than a muddle of sexual impulses, friendship and convenience; we charge ourselves with heroic deeds rather than the drab responsibilities of keeping house and paying bills; we experience the adoration of crowds rather than insecurity and hope as we vie for position among our peers; we become significant in a world full of meaning rather than facing the stark absurdity of existing at all.
It’s All the Same to Your Brain
The brain doesn’t distinguish much between “consensus reality” and the inner life of the imagination. The techniques of psychotherapy, religion, magic, and theater all rely on this. While we may doubt the truth of the doctrines which underpin them, it’s the fantasy they deploy which gives these disciplines their overwhelming hold on those who practice them.
But fantasy has enormous power to transform. Reading fantasy literature may make us love better, try harder, be more heroic, and find significance in our lives and relationships. All experiences, real or imagined, take place in your brain. And all focus, amplify, reflect, and release, emotion.
So, in terms of education, why do we read fantasy literature?
- It allows us to experiment with possibilities otherwise beyond our reach.
- It boosts creativity and problem-solving skills.
- It gives us powerful emotional experiences vital for mental and physical health.
Reading fantasy literature supports these vital foundations of education and development. It doesn’t matter if the reader knows of these facts or not. The evidence is in from sociological, psychological, and neuroscientific investigations: reading fantasy is good for you. It makes you a happier, healthier, better-adjusted and creative person.
If that’s not a sufficient reason for you, don’t worry. There’s more.
Fantasy Literature: A Powerful Aesthetic Choice
If Shakespeare were writing today, booksellers would categorized his plays as “Fantasy”, “Historical”, and “Romantic Comedy”. He might even have produced plays in the popular “Crime” genre.
Shakespeare wrote within strict genre boundaries with an eye to pleasing his audience. He borrowed plots from near-contemporaries no less than the Classics, mythology, and folklore. His writing continues to inspire countless artworks in other media, including painting, sculpture, music, dance, film, and animation.
Besides the enduring appeal of his most popular plays and a handful of sonnets, it’s this wider cultural influence which sets him apart from other authors in the canon of English literature.
The Bard drank from the wells of history, folklore, and classical mythology. So does modern fantasy literature. Shakespeare’s works, varied as they are, create a unified and recognizable aesthetic which inspires endeavor in all the arts. But fantasy literature’s influence is even broader than Shakespeare’s. It inspires not only music, opera, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, and film, but also fashion, jewelry, role-playing, board-games, and computer games.
There’s a widespread subculture surrounding fantasy literature. I’m sure this happens with fantasy and not with other genres such as romance, mystery, crime, or literary fiction because, as with Shakespeare, modern fantasy literature taps into the deep wells of cultural memory through its links with mythology, folklore, and ancient traditions of storytelling.
Fantasy Literature: Mythic Mirror and Land of Dreams
We’ve mentioned both mythology and folklore as sources of inspiration and influence on modern fantasy literature. There’s a large body of academic literature devoted to the study of these influences and it’s added to all the time. Some fantasy stories draw on the myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. Others look to the Orient. Still others prefer local traditions of folklore and fairy tales to the monumental structures of classical mythologies.
The latter is tangible in the output of the self-styled “mythic arts community”. The mythic arts community is a modern movement in literature, music, and the visual arts modeled on 19th century aesthetic movements; its heroes being the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, and the Romantic poets.
To the skeptical I’d argue the genre’s creative potency and widespread cultural influence as reasons to investigate fantasy literature before dismissing it out-of-hand as childish or unworthy. Modern fantasy is the inheritor of the medieval and classical traditions of storytelling, and the natural offspring of the most ancient and honored traditions of western literature.
It’s no coincidence that the progenitor of the modern form, J. R. R. Tolkien, was a professor of Classics and ancient languages and a devotee of the fairy tale. It’s from his famous and oft-quoted essay “On Fairy Stories” that this post, in part, takes its title:
I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.
For those needing a more “authoritative” cultural justification to read about wizards, witches, dragons, and elves this should be a sufficient answer to the question, “Why read fantasy literature?”
But you don’t need such a justification. As the fabulous Scottish writer and storyteller, Lari Don, pointed out in her answer to my Twitter enquiry:
I read and write fantasy because it can be a truthful and useful way to examine real world problems and issues. Also, magic spells and dragon duels are FUN!
Fantasy Literature: Fun and Frolics
What do people have against fun?
Goodness knows fun and frolics are the redeeming features of living. Fun also serves to release negative emotions, manage anxiety, and help social bonding. Most comedy stems from the guilty relief we feel when bad things happen to someone else. We like best those with whom we can laugh and who share our “sense of humor”.
But fun isn’t only about laughing.
It’s about delighting in vicarious success, enjoying the liberties of the creative imagination, and “dreaming awake”. For those able to take “flights of fancy” and “suspend disbelief”, fantasy literature offers myriad opportunities to experience a rich, satisfying, and enjoyable diversion as a pleasure in itself, besides any more intellectual justification.
Humor and imaginative playfulness have always been part of the storytelling tradition. While many stories have social, psychological, and cultural functions, they don’t need them. Hundreds of traditional tales are only elaborate jokes which conclude not with a moral, but with a punch-line.
In the traditional canon, self-referential tales in which the storyteller starts out by refusing to tell a story, but offers a story as an explanation, exist throughout the world. The “story within a story”, as best exemplified in the Thousand Nights and One Night, is another rich tradition. And that’s before we mention the vast body of tales comprising the world’s traditions of “tricksters” and “fools”.
This tradition of playfulness continues in modern fantasy literature. The lighter-hearted tendency of storytelling to be self-referential has led to an amusing and instructive sub-genre of “deconstructed fantasy”.
As the Dutch writer, Marianne Wytsma, wrote in her response to my request on social media:
I love its potential for creativity/originality. Theoretically fantasy authors have full freedom/control over all aspects of the story/world. Even the ingrained archetypical fantasy world/plot/characters add to this: so much fantasy has deconstructed its own discourse brilliantly. Some classics I’m thinking of are The Princess Bride, Terry Pratchett & Neverending Story
For me, fun alone is a sufficient answer to the question, “Why read fantasy literature?”
When I worked in theater and television I was never shy of describing myself as an “entertainer” rather than an “artist”. Certain friends, keen to be taken seriously as artists, took this as self-deprecation. That may say more about their insecurities and prejudices than it does about my former profession. There’s nothing inferior about making people laugh, diverting their attention from the struggles of existence, and repeating a familiar and well-loved formula.
Fantasy Literature and Escapism
The most common dismissal of fantasy literature is that it’s “mere escapism”. We’ve already seen that modern fantasy literature is far too rich and complex to describe it as “merely” anything. But why is “escapism” leveled as an accusation?
All prisoners wish to escape, do they not? And I assure you, there’s no getting away from the fact that none of us chose to be here and we’re all imprisoned to a greater or lesser extent by time and circumstance. Life is beautiful but, ye gods, it can be hard.
Why should we not, from time-to-time, seek respite from the suffocating restrictions of our mundane lives, break out from the prison of conventional reality, and soar on the wings of imagination? Why should we not escape?
I can testify from personal experience and the experience of several friends, that fantasy literature, along with its forerunners in myth and fairy tale, often offer life-saving escape routes for those, especially children, who find themselves in situations of insufferable neglect or abuse.
Those who accuse readers of fantasy literature of “mere escapism” do little but expose their own lack of empathy. But empathy, as we have already said, is a quality much enhanced in those who read fantasy.
Why Read Fantasy Literature?
In short, then, we read fantasy literature for education, entertainment, and escape. The “3 Es”. These reasons seem to me more than sufficient justification and explanation. Other than that, I’ve run out of arguments. But tell me, before you go, why do you read or write fantasy literature? I would sincerely love to know!
If you’ve enjoyed this post or if you haven’t, I would love to read your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments.
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Image credits: The headline image is by ShaynArt, licensed for non-commercial use by Wallpaperswide. All book cover images are copyright of their respective owners and are used here in full compliance with the Fair Use Agreement of international copyright law (2016). All other images belong to Austin Hackney or are in the Public Domain and licensed by the Creative Commons.