I was thinking that perhaps I was getting too worked up over the whole ‘cliched fantasy’ thing on Fictionpress.net. Perhaps most fantasy is actually like that, and meant to be read by people who like the plotline “Amanda Rose, a seemingly normal 15-year-old, wakes up one morning and finds out that she’s really the Princess of the world of Nedelia, and her name is Mytharillia, and she has to fight the dark enchantress Heldigga.” Perhaps, simply because it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book where someone from Earth goes to another world (I tend to avoid them on purpose), I’m missing fantasy’s point.
And then I read “On Fairy-Stories” this morning, and realized that no, I don’t think I am. Because even if that’s what fantasy is, that isn’t what it has to be, or even necessarily what it should be.
“By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.”
Fantasy can say things about the Primary World (as Tolkien calls it) without preaching; that can be safely left up to pamphlets and fables. It can make beautiful things and present them as ends in themselves without having to use them for the sake of a tired story. And it can, as Tolkien says, “gratify primordial human desires” without lapsing into the shallow satisfaction of someone’s personal longing to be the center of a world.
With such beauty, such breadth and depth and height, I can’t understand why someone would want to waste her time writing such a story and passing it off as fantasy. Such stories are fine as fun wish-fulfillment. But as fantasy?
“But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”
Sometimes I see the taming and muting and clichizing (if it’s not a word, it is now) of fantasy as an attempt to tame that strangeness, that peril, that beauty. I’m not even talking here about the fears that parents sometimes have, that fantasy will make their children satanic or schizophrenic; that’s a different topic. But some budding fantasy writers follow the well-worn track, I think, not only because others are doing it and thus they think this is the way it should be done, but because they have seen what fantasy can do- in Tolkien, in Dunsany, in Martin, in Hobb, and in others- and they’re frightened that someone might ask them to do that.
Robin Hobb, in Meditations on Middle-Earth, says that Tolkien set a bar for her by writing The Lord of the Rings. She doesn’t believe she’ll ever surmount it, but she keeps trying.
Maybe these fantasy writers don’t want to try. Following the path of the princess keeps them safe. If they went off it they might jump and fail, and they aren’t ready to deal with that yet.
“We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp.”
Somewhat aside from my main point, but I wanted to include it. Things are so simple in some fantasies (and this endures in the published ones, as well as in ones on Fp.net). This is Black, and this is White; this is Dark, and this is Light. Evil is ugly, Orc, wrong, uncomplicated. Good is beautiful, Elf, right- and also uncomplicated. There is no beautiful evil, no perilous sidhe, no hero who does not triumph.
But there are some older stories where that is so, even some modern fantasies where that is so. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t allow unmitigated triumph; it concludes with sorrow and great joy, both, all tangled and mixed together. Even The Hobbit somewhat ends that way; certainly not all the characters survive, the way a reader might expect them to. And some writers, like Kay and Martin, achieve that, so that even the characters you scorn are perfectly understandable, and can fall in dark glory.
I’ve heard people argue that fantasy’s place is to be morally clearer and sharper than our own world. I think that’s a falsehood. Our own world, though we know on one level of our minds that it’s complicated, gets simplified into Us and Them, Black and White, Wrong and Right. I think that fantasy’s place could also legitimately be to explore complexity and nuance of character and morality, and to do it so beautifully that the reader has no choice but to think about it.
“The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd.”
If something becomes “ordinary” in fantasy, or if the writer feels she has to draw very strongly on real life- say, in the form of a teenage girl from our world with angst, which is real to her- then I think there are legitimate grounds for abandoning it. Making trees and streams, centaurs and dragons, seem real to your reader is one thing. Arguing that fantasy has to take everything from the real world in order to be any good, or cross over with it, is simply stupid. Do what Tolkien did; cast yourself full-formed into another world, without apology, without having to take religions or customs from our own world and dump them in, without having to introduce people from Earth showing up and going through mechanical motions.
I suppose it comes down to five words:
Go out and make stuff.