Last weekend, I shared some comments from adults who we asked why they read fantasy. A friend sent me this article by Lev Grossman, author of “The Magicians” and the recently released “The Magician King.”
In the article, Grossman talks about the excitement generated by the release of George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons.”
“The book has brought with it, along with the feverish excitement of fans like myself, a whiff of burning insulation. There’s a cultural short circuit happening somewhere in the system.”
What I believe is creating the stir is the fact that while Mr. Martin’s work is clearly fantasy, it does not adhere to the formulaes of such leaders as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Martin includes a fair helping of blood and sex in his continent of Westeros than the Pevensie children ever saw in Narnia. Something has changed.
Grossman shares his frustration at the perception that fantasy is for children and adults who are in denial that they are adults and seeking some escapism. “I see it all the time. I’ll be at a dinner party, and the person next to me asks me what I do. I’m a novelist, I’ll say, and a little light of hopeful interest kindles in their eyes. What kind of novels do you write? the dinner guest asks. And I reply: fantasy novels. And just like that, the little light of hopeful interest dies away.”This story really resonates with me. Every week at the Berkeley Writers Group, I meet new people and introduce myself as an author of political fiction. Then when I prepare to read my weekly offering, I apologetically explain that I wrote a fantasy novel with my eldest son. All true of course, but I am conscious that I am using it as justification.
Why? Grossman goes on to say: “It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when adults read fantasy with impunity. The classical literature of Greece and Rome is so fantastical that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a god or a witch or a centaur, and chances are the cat will turn out to be somebody’s long-lost son-in-law in transfigured form.”
Right on! Stephen Wenster backs him up by asking where “would Shakespeare have been without fantasy—his spirits, his ghosts and the witches three of Macbeth?”
Apparently fantasy, without being labeled as a genre was prominent throughout literature history: “Where would Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” be without fairies? Where would Shakespeare have been without fantasy—his spirits, his ghosts, and his proto-Orc Caliban, the misshapen villain of “The Tempest”? You can’t have Macbeth without the witches three. Apart from everything else, who would have handled all that crucial exposition of the play’s plot?”
Grossman, who holds a Ph.D in Comparative Literature, acknowledges that around the time of Samuel Johnson. Perhaps they actually began to believe that ghosts and magic really didn’t exist.
Again, Lev Grossman: “A fascination with the here and the now and the real set in. This was the moment when the novel arose in the West, and it was an ideal medium to satisfy that fascination. Novels were about the way we live now. There was no Caliban on Robinson Crusoe’s island, just the eminently human Friday.
“In 1750, Samuel Johnson wrote an influential essay in praise of fiction that was about “life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world.” As far as he was concerned, a good novel “can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles.” Thus admonished, ghosts and witches went off to live in fairy tales and allegories and gothic novels and other disreputable places.”
So history is against us, perhaps because people really did believe in magic and ghosts. But I do believe that the fact that we all accept that there is nothing factual in elves, dwarfs etc. allows us to focus on allowing values to play a prominent role because, as Grossman say: “If anything, it is realist literature that pretends to be real. Fantasy doesn’t pretend.”
Fantasy is one of the few literary genres left where it is still considered okay to explore questions of moral judgment. But that’s not a bad thing. When the powerless and good become empowered and are able to change the destiny of their world, there is something that resonates in a world where so many feel alienated and disenfranchised. When coming-of-age can happen at any age, why would an adult still hoping to leave his/her mark on the world not be attracted to such novels?
As Grossman says: “It’s one of the great human stories” and I suspect this is why fantasy novels will continue to draw a big crowd of adults who want to still believe that we can make a difference in our world.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).