Monday, December 12, 2011

The Genius of Compelling Fantasy

I think most fantasy fans would agree that fantasy has some link to fairy tales. At least it did when fantasy first started being written. Should it still? Here’s my two cents.

Traditional folktales or “fairy tales” have a kind of power that shouldn’t be lost in fantasy – at least not all of it. The “genius” of a compelling fantasy novel is its ability to evoke that mythic or faerie “dream-world” Novalis wrote about (see my first post, “What is a fairy tale?”). It can do this in varying degrees and however the writer feels the urge, but to do it effectively, it has to draw from the taproot itself. Put another way, it can’t be derivative to achieve its true genius. The writer of a fantasy novel (at least of the kind I’m thinking of) has to be steeped in these imaginative traditions at least enough that they bleed in some way into the tale, like tea leaves darkening water. Otherwise, we are left with the individual writer’s own imagination, such as it is, and we’ve lost the tradition that makes for compelling fantasy.

Any long piece of writing is an almost magical act of communication by symbol and sign, evocation and allusion. In fantasy, of course anything can be imagined—there can’t be any hard-and-fast rules about that. Let the imagination roam free, and let it use any source materials it must. But if the story is going to unfold magically also in the reader’s imagination, something shared has to exist. Allusion has to find something beyond the individual writer’s mind to tap into.

Take Tolkien, for instance. In creating Middle Earth, he managed to convince quite a few people that this place was (almost?) real. He did this, I would suggest, by drawing on the mythology and folktale with which he was very well acquainted. From that deep, subterranean stream, he drew out inspiration for strange things like “gollums” and rings of power. He brought in crystal balls, wizards, ghosts, trolls—even pipe tobacco. All of this he combined into his own brew, with patience and hard work I might add, paying attention to the potent properties of each, as they contributed to what was not only a new story but almost a new genre of story—the fantasy epic.

When fantasy is at its best, to me—and this is just my opinion—it draws on this deep, subterranean stream. The reader recognizes, even without having read (say) Snow White, the envious queen, her vanity and guile, as well as the purity and tragedy of her victim. Less convincing or potent—again just my preference—is the fantasy novel that relies on what we can call derivative fantasy tropes, ones used by many fantasy writers before, perhaps even Tolkien (say, dwarves and elves at odds, or little people who are amazingly tough). Successful fantasy can find the power from the old traditional tales—however used, however innovative that use. Using fantasy tropes or themes runs the risk of mistaking incidental details in the old faerie tale tradition for their real power and promise. Knowing (or at least using) only Tolkien but not (say) Beowulf, the creator of a fantasy story will be unable to go beyond Tolkien’s particular use of traditional tale elements, combined as the tale he told required, and so will be hampered from bringing forward anew the power of those and other elements for the new story he or she wishes to tell.

What do you think? Have you ever been disappointed by a fantasy novel that’s full of well-worn tropes and creatures? Have you ever read fantasy that seems to draw fresh vitality from those same tropes and creatures? How would you explain it?

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