“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.