July/August 2003 -- (Also see: a review of Four Top Fantasy Series ) Fantasy literature—that modern amalgam of chivalric quest, fairy tale, coming-of-age story, and eschatological adventure—is more deeply entrenched in our cultural life than it ever has been. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is flying off the shelves, but it is not alone. J.R.R.
Tolkien's classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is omnipresent in bookstores, its sales buoyed by the success of Peter Jackson's three-part film adaptation. Meanwhile, earlier this year, the tenth tome in Robert Jordan's massive "The Wheel of Time" mega-novel debuted at number one on many bestseller lists.
The essence of what makes fantasy popular is that it takes the reader out of his normal life into an extraordinary, value-laden, and highly spiritual world. The setting is extraordinary: a fictional land populated by magical creatures and peoples. The characters are extraordinary, demonstrating talents ranging from wit to strength to moral fortitude, and often several of these in combination. The stakes (both material and moral) are extraordinary: the world must be saved from the domination of evil, the balance of life and death must be restored, a prince must return to his rightful calling, and so on.
The action is often extraordinary (and not only because it is occasionally magical): it involves wilderness journeys, ordeals, political intrigues, battles, and romance. The language is often extraordinary, aping antique forms of high rhetoric. Fantasy writers invent words, languages, histories, prophesies, spells, and poetry to evoke a sense of myth and legend in an alternate past.
Extraordinary settings and events have a charm of their own, because they provide us with a contrast that can heighten our sense of what is important or is lacking in our normal round. This is the attraction of speculative and horror fiction generally, as well as amusement parks, fairy tales, and comic books.
Modern fantasy stands out from the broader class of speculative fiction most obviously by its typically non-modern settings (a topic to which we will return). But what makes it particularly attractive is the heroic moral drama that is central to fantasy plots. The fantasy genre arose out of several sources, including nineteenth-century fairy tales and early twentieth-century pulp-magazine fantastic adventure stories. But the writers who provided the central pillar of the modern fantasy tradition were Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who shared the development of their mythic fantasies within their 1930s discussion group, the Inklings. The importance of moral drama is clear in their work. Lewis's famous Chronicles of Narnia feature stories about children with moral choices that appear small in the schoolyard but loom large in the magical country of Narnia. And Tolkien's saga centers on the question of what traits of character make a hero and how an ordinary person can rise to the direst of challenges.
The fantasy-adventure tradition—deriving from such writers as Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars) and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian)—has its own heroic elements. Fantasies are usually replete with action: challenges and villains faced, difficulties overcome, questions of character answered. They typically affirm that good will win out and that virtue is its own reward. Robert Jordan, who did his journeyman work writing new sword-and-sorcery tales about Howard's hero, Conan, built his own epic out of the answer to the question: "What would I do if I had to save the world?" To make that story believable and interesting, Jordan creates a detailed metaphysical and historical circumstance that gives a clear and entertaining answer to this question. His novels showcase a wide range of characters who make choices about whom to believe and when to take advice, who must try to do good while uncertain of the ultimate worth of their actions, and who learn about self-discipline, courage, and responsibility during their quests.
Many of the basic traits of fantasy are to be found in Ayn Rand's novels as well. Indeed, Rand's technique of establishing clear moral contrasts among her main characters will ring familiar to a reader of fantasy, as will her evocation of myths such as the tales of Prometheus and Atlantis. But Rand stylized the real world in order to get at key issues for intellectual, moral, and political life, using the allegorical and heroic aspects of her novels to concretize her radical philosophical analysis. It is a shortcoming of most fantasy that it rejects essential aspects of the real and takes as its intellectual background a re-hash of conventional morality and philosophy.
The best fantasy writers approach the world-building that lies behind their stories with great seriousness. The nineteenth-century writer George MacDonald, who was a strong personal influence on Tolkien and Lewis, wrote: "The natural world has its laws, and no man must interfere with them… [but]... man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws. . . . His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible." Thus, the ideal of fantasy is to offer an experience of "What if?" wherein the reader can consider a world in which magic has a real basis, or evil really is personified. But the fantasy writer's model-building often also simplifies, reducing the experiment of "What if?" to a bout of "I wish."
The wishful aspects of fantasy are in truth part of its charm. After all, fantasy stands apart from historical fiction precisely through its rejection of certain depressing aspects of the past: poverty, disease, oppression, and so on. Tolkien's Middle-earth is not the Middle Ages. It is a wonderland decorated with medieval weaponry and elements of Western folklore, such as elves, wizards, and dragons. Indeed, the gap between Middle-earth and real Earth is something Tolkien attempts to account for, as do many of his imitators. A common solution is to end the stories with an elegiac air: the hero has won out, to be sure, but the magic must pass away so that tawdry normalcy (the Fourth Age, to Tolkien) can hold sway in our own day.
We also see the "I wish" of many fantasies in their elision of the real contradiction between the ideals and the effects of conventional morality. Convention extols self-sacrifice and the willingness to serve those in need. It admires people who do their duty despite the consequences. In the real world, this moral ideal presents a serious problem: to live and be happy, one needs to attend to one's own well-being in the end. Rarely can one benefit from blind self-sacrifice.
But in the realm of fantasy, this usually isn't a problem. The hobbit Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings is a moral model: The deadly ring of power twists the souls of all who come near it, but Frodo's simple selflessness and lack of ambition allow him to resist its lure. But then it's not really so self-sacrificial of him: Someone has to bear the ring to the place where it can be destroyed. Otherwise, the whole world will be covered in death and darkness—which is very bad for Bagginses. Similarly, Robert Jordan's hero often recites (without attribution) the Japanese military slogan "death is light as a feather, duty heavier than a mountain." But if he fails to do his pre-destined duty, a godlike force of pure chaos and destruction will inflict a fate worse than death on all times and places. It is a tidy solution: selling traditional ideas of moral nobility by setting them in a fictional land where they make more sense than they do in real life. But it cheapens the value of fantasy heroism and casts doubt on fantasy's ability to address essential aspects of the human condition.
This escape from essential facts applies to spiritual problems as well. Spiritual issues are those that relate to consciousness, or to the relation of consciousness to the world. People yearn for direct mental connection with the underlying principles of reality and call that a spiritual quest for God. Or we wish our thoughts could control the world without effort, or that the act of imagination could, in itself, have efficacy outside our minds.
In fantasy, all this is possible. Gods and demons are often readily at hand, which is not how we find things on Earth. Here, there is no true language, the use of which allows one to change reality. But there is in Harry Potter's spell-books or in Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin's fantasy archipelago, where magicians master the one language that truly names all things. Applying one's intellectual powers in fact requires that one understand problems and reason out solutions. Often this requires patience, creativity, and painstaking logic. But in most fantasies, mental powers can be acquired through meditation or memorizing spells. Often they don't have to be acquired at all. Harry Potter, for example, is famous among wizards for a magical feat he achieved as a baby. Later, as a boy, he finds, to his surprise, that he can talk with snakes. That is not how language acquisition really goes, of course. And while it is fun to see how Harry employs the rules of magic to solve problems and play pranks, one cannot help but wonder whether Harry's relatively easy mastery of his powers casts a pall over the hard work required to engage in science and engineering, the magical disciplines of our world.
Part of the charm of most fantasy is that it portrays a world that makes sense. There is usually a world-destiny or a fateful choice that is known to the characters in a way that is usually far less clear in real life. Here, we do not have wizards like Gandalf to tell us which of our trinkets is really a deadly peril; instead, we take counsel from our principles.
But it is curious and troubling that in virtually all fantasies social life is similarly ordered and predictable. Fantasy politics are usually aristocratic or monarchic. And it is part of the fantasy construction that aristocrats really be aristos, that is, "the best." The hero often turns out, à la Strider in The Lord of the Rings, to be the true prince of a kingdom in waiting. The drama often takes part in or around a palace or castle, and the people of real ability are very often the ones with the birthright to rule. Restoring a just order often involves naming a new king or expanding the kingdom, even in plot lines that essentially turn on the dangers of capricious autocratic rule. Magical emblems and good birth will ensure good government—individual rights and the separation of powers have nothing to do with it. Wars of rebellion against foreign empires are a feature of many fantasies. Wars fought for the ideals of the American revolution are not. This is a pardonable simplification in children's literature, one that emphasizes the moral responsibilities of office. But in writing aimed mostly at adults, it seems more an evasion of a real problem of human nature.
Together, the various dubious traits of fantasy reflect the fact that it represents and gives vent to deep-seated anti-modern attitudes. Plainly, fantasy's popularity attests to the cherished place that traditional morality and the political ideals of feudalism hold in the popular imagination. At its worst, fantasy trades on resentment of the fact that grasping reality and learning skills require effort, and that moral choices require foresight and discernment. Moreover, it presents a sensibility in which technology is often suspect or evil. In doing so it embraces the bromide that modern life is alienated from true human values.
But it is important to recognize that in many of these respects fantasy is an innocent response to the nihilism and naturalism of twentieth-century philosophy and literature. After all, to some extent what fantasy is replacing on the bookshelves and in the theaters is either nihilism—in the form of horror stories and spasmodically violent action-adventures—or the naturalistic accounts of abuse and psychological suffering that often pass for serious literature today. Nihilism and naturalism have infected the culture with a package-deal that considers attempts to wrestle with issues of right and wrong "unrealistic." If modern life is tawdry and ignoble, then it follows that one must turn elsewhere to portray what is essentially admirable and meaningful in life. If the anti-nihilist vision of fantasy is often cloyingly simplistic, or too quick to honor a strong arm and mother wit, well, these are symptoms of the broader culture, too. In the dead end of a culture that cannot square idealism with anything like reality, the road is open for a new philosophical and literary vision, one that treats modernity with moral respect.
Writers in the genre of fantasy seem increasingly conscious of the tensions among its philosophical underpinnings. In recent works, the key elements of modern reality are less the objects of scorn: Jordan's world-saving hero takes the time to found universities, to encourage trade, and to explore technology. The characters of the Harry Potter series live in a modern, bureaucratic Britain. Many writers take care that their fantasy worlds plausibly provide un-traditional roles for women. Perhaps the clearest exemplar of this trend is Philip Pullman's popular recent trilogy of novels, His Dark Materials, which turns religious and ethical tradition on its head. A central theme is the question of original sin: Is reason, the fruit of the tree of knowledge, really the root of evil, as many religions teach? The story, which centers on a pair of children on the cusp of adolescence, turns the loss of childhood innocence and the vindication of human reason into the grail at the end of their quest. In Pullman, the return to reality as we know it, a godless world where we must seek happiness through the use of knowledge, is then not a letdown but a positive achievement.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2003 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.