Italo Calvino puts magic, the breaking of everyday rules, at the center of his notion of fantasy. Why is magic a feature of fantastic tales? What purpose does it serve?
"Fantasy," he said, implies “a detachment, a levitation, the acceptance of a different logic based on objects and connections other than those of everyday life or the dominant literary conventions.”
The magic is there, in other words, to let us sever ties with our everyday world and habits and ways of thinking. Cut loose, we can drift in the tale, in a way we otherwise wouldn't.
But for Calvino, this is not escapism in a bad sense--in the sense that we're looking to shrug off responsibility for life, or to deny its reality. Yes, in fantasy you as a reader don't confront “the problem of believing or explaining.” But that's because you come to it expecting this levitation: “the pleasure of fantasy lies in the unraveling of a logic with rules or point of departure or solutions that keep some surprises up their sleeves.”
The impulse behind all this? Intellectual play. Like myth, it lets us recombine the elements in our world, which may entertain or just might clarify what the world is, and what we are within it.
Italo Calvino, “Definitions of Territory: Fantasy,” Le Monde, August 15, 1970; transl. Patrick Creagh, 1986.
Reprinted in: David Sandner, Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader (Praeger, 2004).