Fantasy, by which I mean both fantasy and science fiction, is a very popular form of fiction, largely because it’s so much fun to read. We love to imagine having magical powers, fighting mythical bad guys, or skipping through time and space. But fantasy can sometimes have a reputation for being just fluff or escapist entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with being entertaining, of course, but fantasy’s depth and breadth shouldn’t be overlooked.
Fantasy is a literature of the imagination. All fiction asks the question “what if?” but fantasy extends that question into the beyond: beyond what’s possible; beyond what we can know in real life. Together, fantasy and science fiction are often called speculative fiction, precisely because they speculate about things that can only exist in the imagination. Generally fantasy speculates about things that can’t happen, while science fiction speculates about things that haven’t happened or that haven’t happened yet, but it’s all imagination, and its possibilities are boundless.
Fantasy has been with us since the earliest times, most notably in the form of legends, myths, fairy tales, and folktales. These early fantasies tended to be instructive. Legends provided hero instructions, while myths connected us to our world and customs. Fairy tales and folktales often focused on decision making, right versus wrong, and justice. Modern fantasies continue the tradition of teaching valuable lessons through enjoyable stories.
Today, fantasy lets us look at life with fresh eyes. We tend not to notice what is familiar to us, but by moving out of the ordinary and into the imagination, we’re able to notice and respond to things in new ways. Thus, reading about new worlds or altered versions our own world can bring insights into the world around us. The same goes for people. By looking at humans through the eyes of non-human characters such as aliens, animals, or fay, we gain fresh perspectives on ourselves. Viewing human interactions through imagined cultures, or through interactions with non-human characters, also offers new perspectives.
Not only does fantasy allow us to see the world and people with fresh eyes, it also lets us see them with a bit of distance interposed. When we examine cultural or race relations, sociopolitical situations, or economic issues in realistic and identifiable settings, we bring our existing emotions and perspectives with us. Fantasy lets us take a step back by setting the issues among imaginary races, cultures, or worlds. In moving away from reality, we’re able to examine the same issues with a greater measure of objectivity. This has been used to good effect with students, where an issue is first examined through fantasy, then realistic fiction, then real life, each time bringing the awareness and analysis one step closer to home.
Fantasy also allows us to move backward and forward through time. Thus, while historical fiction lets us experience the past as someone living then might have experienced it, fantasy allows us to transport contemporary people back in time so that we experience history through their modern eyes. It also lets us experience the intangibles of the past by bringing them to life, such as by making ancient gods into living characters, or by capturing the wonder of the industrial revolution through steampunk. And it lets us move into the future, extrapolating from the present to examine cause and effect, as seen in the extremes of dystopians and utopians.
Because fantasy is a literature of the imagination and mind, it provides an excellent vehicle for examining deep philosophical questions. This rich philosophical tradition includes such well known examples as the Wizard of Oz series and the Chronicles of Narnia. As one example, the question of what it means to be human is examined through Oz characters such as the Tin Man, who used to be flesh and blood but is now metal, Tick Tock, who never was human but thinks, and the Princess Lang, who changes her head, and with it her personality, every day.
Imagination, and thus fantasy, is also directly linked to creativity. We tend to think of creativity in terms of the arts, like painting or music, where it is certainly important. However, it is just as critical to science and the intellect. Scientists couldn’t even being to think about particles that can only be predicted mathematically or measured through secondary effects, for example, if they couldn’t already think beyond the limits of the world as experienced through our five senses. Fantasy enhances creativity by stretching our thinking and pushing the boundaries of our minds.
Fantasy literature is important. We need it. We need it to help us find our place in the world and to expand our minds beyond it.
For those interested in more, here is sampling of Fantasy Literature References.