Catching up on my blog topic list (and taking a break from the politics|religion axis), I want to come back to something I promised pauljessup
(of Lotus Lyceum
fame) sometime in ages past. To wit, I have this notion that I can set some pins around the concept of defining the purpose of fantasy. I am confident that the mighty commentariat here on LJ will tear this one apart, but that's kind of the name of the game, innit?
I submit that fantasy is the oldest form of literature. Three of the earliest pieces of narrative which survive for us today are the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh
, and the Odyssey
. All three are filled with tropes, events and settings which are by modern standards inarguably fantastic. While I can't pretend to understand the original cultural setting of any of those three works, I will grant without argument that both storytellers and their audiences in the ancient world were far less likely to distinguish between the imaginary and the merely unknown than we are in our modern Western frame of reference.
However, I don't think this matters for the purposes of this discussion. Much of the power of those books in the modern world is the scope of that selfsame fantastic imagination. The Homeric vision of wily Odysseus wending his way home amid sirens sweetly singing, the porcine transsubstantiations of Circe, the cyclops and his woolly larder, has a compelling persistence that trumps other work of the Classical and pre-Classical era, including even Homer's Iliad
. What is a mere war story when compared to the true adventures of a working-class king, after all?
Now fast forward to the emergence of the novel as a modern form. Don Quixote
(1605) is fantastic, as are many works in the Gothic tradition -- that stream of literature which eventually birthed romance, horror, fantasy and science fiction. (We're all double-cousins in this family.) Wieland
by Charles Brockden Brown (1798) is one of the first novels written in the United States, and it is a dark fantasy. Manuscript Found in Saragossa
(1797-1815) is another favorite of mine, with a textual history as strange as the book itself, and I can reasonably argue that Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew
(1844?) is science fiction, albeit in no wise by authorial intent. Onward to Well at the World's End
by William Morris (1896), The Worm Ouroboros
by E.R. Eddison (1922) and so forth.
All of this before the outbreak of what we think of as fantasy today, in the post-Tolkien tradition. (Not to slight C.S. Lewis, Mervyn Peake or many other fine mid-20th century fantasists.)
So fantasy exists, and persists, from the dawn of literature, at least as seen through a modern lens, and right through to being a best-selling genre in the present day.
Fantasy is a map of the terrain of our subconscious, a doorway into myth. This is true in a meaningful degree of all story-telling, all literature, but fantasy has a special role in being perhaps the least interpolated of our story-telling forms. (If I were Jung at heart, I could go on about archetypes.) There are other agendas at play in the Iliad
, for example, and likewise the works of Herodotus, the satires of Lucan, the plays of Sophocles -- politics and religious messaging and cultural reinforcement that move to the forefront, ahead of the mapping of the dark light within the mind.
Fantasy is phrenology-by-proxy, subsuming and possibly incorporating the (at least nominal) rigors of science fiction, the emotional axes of romance, the time-binding of historicals, the adrenaline of thrillers and so on, in favor of an appeal to the escape of self. Perhaps its closest cousin in the current genre framework is horror, which blends into fantasy through the borderland of dark fantasy.
The purpose of fantasy first and foremost is to be a mirror of the mind, a reflection of the soul, a playing field for the imagination. It is us.