Lou Anders, the editorial director at Pyr Books, was recently intrigued by a quote from Tom Purdom:

“Nobody ever became a wizard because they read fantasy. But plenty of people have become physicists and biologists because they read science fiction.”

Through his blog, Anders more or less agreed with the statement, but also posed a question of his readers:

Now, the reason this tickles me is the plug for SF, not the (very funny) dig at F (which I also love). But, as I already have very clear ideas on the purpose of SF, and I happen to love F too, I’ve been contemplating recently what it is that fantasy does – beyond the entertainment/intellectual value that all literature bequeaths – that is unique to its form.

Being an avid fan of fantasy, this got me thinking. What made me look even closer to the heart of the matter was the falling out I had with fantasy (of the epic variety, in particular) I had earlier this year. Part of the drive and appeal of Fantasy was lost to me, and at the time I thought long and hard about why I felt that way. Lou’s question hits close to the heart of the matter.

In my opinion, the thing that the Fantasy genre brings most to the world, outside of pure escapist literature, is an unerring ability to help readers understand that the world is never exactly what they think it is. As a reader, Fantasy has constantly helped me rediscover the wonder in the world and caused a deep-seated desire to approach the world with open eyes, open arms and an open mind. If Fantasy literature is anything, it is diverse – opening the readers eyes to the possibility that anything is possible. If there is anything that is sorely lacking in today’s culture, it is a sense of discovery and wonder, a sense of imagination and a willingness to find those things that are good and magical in our world.

As a young reader I was heavily into Science Fiction and would not give Fantasy a second look. I was certain that it was for pansies, those too afraid to grasp the real world as it was and would, inevitably, be (hey, all those tools that Tom Swift used seem frighteningly realistic, at the time). Fantasy was nothing but Unicorns, Princesses and little Faeries dancing around the cotton patch. Right?

It wasn’t until I was 11, when, for whatever reason, I decided to read The Hobbit, that I fully began to grasp the Fantasy genre and what it brought to the table. Never before had I been whisked away so fully to another realm, never before had I seen so many possibilities laid before me. Tolkien took me on a ride and opened my eyes to the idea that there is more out there than I ever could have comprehended.

Fantasy, to me, is about opening minds, about shattering preconceptions and instilling an undying curiousity in the reader. How many readers, enraptured by the idea of patrolling the forest, have gone on to become park rangers or ecologists? How many readers, driven by the fight of good versus evil, have gone on to become Police officers? How many readers, drawn in by fantasy’s different people and cultures, have gone on to be sociologists or anthropologists? Are these careers any less valuable to our society than physicists and biologists?

A reoccurring theme in Fantasy is that of a young boy (or girl), living mostly in squalor (kitchen scullion, farm boy, hobbit, etc…) who perseveres through hardships well beyond their conceived abilities and eventually triumphing against a force (whether physical or mental) that many other more traditionally powerful allies could not. Dismissing Fantasy as escapist literature, of having no value to society outside of entertaining us, is disrespectful to all of those who, in our real world, have persevered against similar odds.

Fantasy teaches us to believe in ourselves, to believe in our world and to believe that beyond all else, if you try hard enough you will succeed. And if that drive to succeed, that willingness to fight the good fight, isn’t as valuable to our world as any physicist, then I’m living in the wrong one. Lucky for me, there are hundreds of others waiting for me in the pages of every book.

  • Zoe February 19, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Lucky for us all :)

  • Doug Knipe [SciFiGuy] February 19, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I agree with all of your rationale for fantasy but might simplify it even further by saying that SF is about the human condition while fantasy is about people. Fantasy has always been more character driven often making it more approachable then the “big idea”.

  • Mike February 20, 2009 at 11:10 am

    That’s pretty close to what G.K. Chesterton said:

    “Fairy tales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.”

  • aidan February 20, 2009 at 11:57 am


    It’s funny you mention that quote. It’s actually the quote that opens the novel I’m currently writing!

  • Jeff February 25, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Its odd you posted this right as I finished reading GG Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic…he gives a quote at the end that is dead on in my mind.
    “Fantasy is – at its best – the purest access to storeytelling that we have. It universalizes a tale, it evokes wonder and timeless narrative power, it touches upon inner journeys, it illuminates our collective and individual pasts, throws a focusing beam on the present day and presages the dangers and promises of the future.”
    I obviously can’t say it any better – but at its heart, I believe fantasy creates a world all of us can imagine our own role in, rather than most other fiction where we either feel a part of a particular world, or disconnected to the story, based upon our own lives and location.

  • aidan February 25, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Leave it to Kay to say it better than I ever could. Perfect quote, Jeff.

  • Blake Charlton December 3, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    WTH,Tom Purdom? “Nobody ever became a wizard because they read fantasy.” Bitch please, I’m becoming an MD because I read fantasy. Stick that in your warp drive.

  • Laura Hartness December 3, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Wow– thank you so much for your thoughts on this. I completely agree. You’ve enunciated ideas that I’ve never been able to put into words. I personally believe that we are all a part of a great Story, with each of us taking on a particular role in that Epic. We identify with fantasy because it echoes the very themes we are living. I wish my parents understood that when they became leery of Harry Potter and fairy godmothers. THANK YOU!

  • Liobhan December 6, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    To the extent that fantasy expresses values and ideas, reading fantasy, studying it, can yield as much as study in any coherent system, whether it be religion, philosophy, the natural sciences, or mathematics.

    A successful fantasy touches deep structures in our brains, just as other successful ideas do, so the notion that one can read, for example, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, and remained untouched is as much of a “fantasy” as to say that one can read the Bible, or Newton’s Principia Mathematica, or the Analects of Confucius, and not have the ideas contained in those works affect your mind in years to come. That’s not the way we work.

    We are social creatures, denizens of communities, and our every interaction affects those around us, just as they impact our own lives. I’m sure that there are lives that have been as deeply changed after attending a “Con” or reading a particular book, as there are people whose hearts have been changed through a visit to Mecca, or Lourdes, or attending MIT.