Friday, March 9, 2012

On fantasy: a simple history and defence

I find fantasy to be a genre that requires skill to write, acceptance to read and wit to appreciate. In most cases it is far from simple and demands much of the reader's imagination. But this isn't the case for everyone. In fact, opinion is divided.

The fantasy genre has a very long history and fantasy works were always called fantasy. Many of the types of works that are in essence fantasy, or indelibly entwined with fantasy, are categorised as something else entirely. Here is a very short history of fantasy as a genre.
  • Very early ‘science fiction’ – one of the earliest recorded ‘science fiction’ stories was of alien spiders on the moon and was written by an Egyptian, and by that I mean written when the pyramids were in their early years.
  • Children’s stories, fables and cautionary tales have had a very long history of being fantasy based, whether in English or any other language. Monsters, witches, giants, cats in boots, cannibals, lost children in fantastic lands etc. are included and more besides. The works of Aesop and the Grimm Brothers will probably be the first to pop into your mind as these were likely read to you when you were young, that’s how classical these works have become.
  • Need I say much on classics like The Odyssey, The Iliad and Beowulf? Monsters, early mythology, exploration of strange lands, missions, good and evil. The list goes on. There is not much in these stories that isn’t fantastical in nature.
  • Arthurian tales were around as early as the 14th century, authors unknown, but as you know they have survived through various works and alternate writings to this day and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Shakespeare, Marlowe and their contemporaries dealt with fantasy as often as they did with real human issues. Witches again, fairies, the devil, shipwrecks the subsequent exploration of a new land by the stranded, ghosts, fortune-tellers etc.
  • As you can see, horror stories have been deeply entwined with fantasy since the very beginning. Horror comes from the simple idea that the protagonist meets with a grim fate after making a mistake, either intentionally or unintentionally. Many horror stories contain elements of fantasy simply by having the one dealing the protagonist’s fate be supernatural or fantastical in nature.
  • Utopian and dystopian, futuristic literature, some early science fiction (the term ‘science fiction’ became useful as a genre indicator around 1935, after some of the most famous science fiction works were written.) Utopian and dystopian literature became very popular during the industrial revolution as these are the perfect genres for exploring “what if?” questions related to social, political and technological changes. By their nature utopian and dystopian stories required an exploration of either an alternate version of our world, a fantastical society suffering from the perceived problem at hand and possibly even another race of beings who’s society is running parallel to ours. Later works of science fiction continued exploring “what if” questions but with more emphasis the opportunities provided by technology (exploring the bottom of the ocean which is related to exploring a fantastical world), the possibilities of alien encounters and other strange occurrences. As you can see, once again fantasy has become entwined with another genre, this time science fiction.
  • Classical works such as Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard Of Oz, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, took fantasy to a new level of popularity amongst the world’s readership and also set the benchmark for modern fantasy authors. In fact the genre became so popular, Lord of the Rings incredibly so, that hundreds of stories revolving around missions in fantastical lands and struggles between good and evil were written and published. So many that the genre hit its first big descent in popularity.
  • The descent of the genre into the mire of good versus evil and the save the world/s tromp through a strange land continued for too long in the publishing world, and still survives to this day. The over-publication of such works, not always written by talented authors, meant that for an entire generation or two most fantasy repeated old ideas over and over. This was and still is boring, to say the least. It is also the reason why fantasy is often seen as of no real consequence, inadvisable if you wish to write on a serious issue, limited and unworthy of further study or reading. Even I, a rabid fantasy fan, have my doubts about the genre when it is limited in definition by these simple premises and plot devices.
  • Luckily a new wave of fantasy came along that was divorced somewhat from the mission and good versus evil themes, or rather, put them on the back burner for strange situations, new creatures, mythology, quirky anecdotes and more outlandish “what if” questions than you’d ever thought to ask. All while exploring what it is to be human and departing some wisdom of their own through themes, incidents and witty observations. This new breath of the fantasy genre was encouraged by the likes of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Tom Holt, Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher and many others besides.
  • Along with this new breath came another branch of fantasy, written less for readership by all and more by females only. This fantasy is a cross between standard fiction, chic literature and fantasy. The protagonist is more often than not female, set on a mission to save something and does so despite incredible odds. There isn’t much difference to standard fantasy other than when it is combined with romantic chic lit and then I can truly understand why men don’t read them so much. In fact, some of these books labelled as fantasy should really just be romance or erotica because the only fantastical element is that the love interest or protagonist is a vampire, werewolf, dragon, shape-shifter etc. and there in lies the romantic problem that needs to be overcome. They can be enjoyable light reads, full of wit and sarcasm, but they can also be as tiresome as the mission and good versus evil fantasy. Where is the new idea?
  • But there is something to say for the new branch of fantasy written for the female readership. Urban fantasy, steam punk and alternate history would not have become quite so popular quite so fast without the contribution of female oriented fantasy on these subjects. You’ve likely heard of many of those who’ve contributed to expanding the reach of fantasy within the female readership. Here are some names: Kelley Armstrong, Charlaine Harris, Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Nora Roberts, Katie MacAlister, Laurell K Hamilton, Anne Rice and others. 
  • Fantasy now has sub genres, some of which require definitions. Urban fantasy, alternate history, steam punk, horror, supernatural, comic fantasy, dark fantasy, magic realism, mythic, paranormal fantasy, superhero fantasy, sword and sorcery, epic fantasy / high fantasy, low fantasy, prehistoric fantasy, historical fantasy. These not only indicate the different branches of pure fantasy but also the fantasy that is irrevocably entwined with other genres.

Popular opinion of fantasy is divided because of its sometimes less than glorious past and because fantasy isn’t always recognised as such, having been labelled as horror, science fiction, classical or as a children’s fairy tale. It has often been said to be incomprehensible in its complexity while in the next breath it has passed off as overly simplistic. Both could be said to be true, as with all other genres. It all depends on the story written, the current trend and the skill of the author as well as the acceptance of the reader for the ideas posed.

The section of the world readership following fantasy has grown phenomenally since fantasy was categorised as such and its recognition has seen it become popular in film, television, gaming and even radio formats. It has been used to explore a wide variety of social and political issues, document historical details, impart morals and instructions, witty observations on life, delve into what it is to be human, the conscious and unconscious and more such as the impact of new technologies.

And still the scholarly opinion remains mostly closed to fantasy as being a worthy subject of study. Only those works that could be named classical are studied to any degree for themes, societal and political impacts as well as relations between historical events and the topics of fantasy works. There will be a few studies or theses out there but not nearly as many on any other genre except science fiction and horror. Scholars are more prone to judge fantasy works as of lesser quality or worth even when faced with the works of H G Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Hans Christian Anderson. Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Chaucer still hold the majority of attention despite so very many studies having been conducted on their works.

A mark of this division in perception (scholarly versus popular) is that fantasy is usually shelved with science fiction and horror, which I see as rightly so, far enough away from literature or fiction for the genre to still be called cult and not as valuable. What is strange about this is all classical works were in fact popular at some stage, even if they aren’t still. Popular does not always equal lower quality or less worthy of study.

Another mark is that those who see themselves as readers of high literature only almost never delve into the fantasy, science fiction and horror despite reading the classical versions of it and expounding the virtues of such works. Can no one of modern times write well enough? Or is their opinion of fantasy, science fiction and horror too low? Likely the later as there are many great modern writers who can really spin a tale.

I believe these are issues to be addressed. Popular opinion is far in advance of marketing and scholarship in its recognition of great fantasy works as valuable and of substance. And I believe this opinion to be correct. If you believe that I should have at least studied or experienced what I’m speaking about then let me put that argument to rest before it even begins. I did study literature until I achieved Honors (at which point my stint at studying ended as I couldn’t stand the thought of going back to write another 2 theses to get a P.H.D. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll go back, I still haven’t given up on the idea completely.) and my thesis was on futuristic literature, the genre that blends science fiction as we know it and fantasy.

From my experiences I can say this; I shudder to think what the general scholarly opinion of the modern fantasy greats would be. “Study Douglas Adams? Are you serious?“ is the response I’d expect and in fact received when I mentioned the field of study I actually delved into, which was fair closer to studying the cannon. “Science fiction? Are you serious?” was said and a room full of eyes turned to look at me as though I’d just grown a second head. Yes, I was dead serious. And I still see science fiction and fantasy as well and truly worthy of serious study.

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