The Value of Fantasy

Often in conversation with people, when they ask me what kind of books I like and I reply fantasy, I see that just concealed twitch of the eyebrow. ‘Fantasy, you mean dragons, wizards, that sort of thing?’ No. Well, yes. Well, both.

As a child, I wasn’t up to date on the latest Jacqueline Wilson, nor had I read any Enid Blyton. My tastes were very much formed by such greats as Tolkein, Rowling and Riddell. However it wasn’t until about age thirteen when I began reading the phenomenal Discworld series by Terry Pratchett that I fully realised the power of fantasy writing, especially for young readers. No other genre (except perhaps its close relative sci-fi) communicates so completely to a young reader the freedom afforded by literature. Suddenly the walls fall away, and you’re standing with a myriad worlds at your feet. Moreover, as silly as it sounds, I gleaned a lot about the adult world from Pratchett’s world. Words like alcoholism, war and grief which at age thirteen all seemed as distant as the moon all took on a renewed, immediate meaning. How silly, that I should experience all this in a world carried on the back of a giant turtle.

Except that truly great works of fantasy hold up a distorted mirror to our own mundane world. The very best fantasy novels aren’t made great by the inclusion of dragons and magic, rather the telling of human stories in such a setting.  A prime example of this the hugely successful ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series by George R R Martin. What makes his books so involving is the characters, their inner thoughts and dealings with others. Political intrigue and character development are blended with a vastly populated world and intricate mythos.  I am hugely grateful to Martin, as Game of Thrones has become so mainstream so as to sensitise people who otherwise wouldn’t watch fantasy to its true potential.

George R R Martin is an example of adult fantasy fiction, but children’s writing is equally important. It’s a somewhat tired example, but Harry Potter is one of the best fantasy books I have read which explains adult themes in terms children can understand. For three years now I have been a babysitter, and I have read the entire Harry Potter series with the girl I babysit, and I will never forget my excitement at reading those first words to her, knowing she was about to enter an entire new world. As our reading went on, I for the first time appreciated the value of books which, when I had first read them, I had just taken for good stories. But there is no ‘just’ to a good story. Watching a nine-year-old grasp such themes as racial discrimination, eugenics and bereavement was truly astonishing. Moreover I witnessed as her appetite for reading grew, the amount she’d read between visits increased. When I received my Christmas card from her, and found written inside “I finished Harry Potter” my immediate response was great sadness, but that was quickly replaced with an odd pride.

Yet still I talk to friends who say they can’t understand how I can get so involved in fantasy writing because ‘how can you relate to it?’ The answer is simple, I relate to them the same way I would relate to any other piece of fiction, by using my imagination. Good writing vaults the gulf of disbelief and speaks right to your hindbrain. Reading about the exploits of Bilbo or Commander Vimes always spoke to me more profoundly than any normal protagonist. The ability to extrapolate beyond the bounds of our normal consciousness, to conceive of something inconceivable is something that distinguishes our species so very intrinsically. This is why I get annoyed when people dismiss fantasy as childish. Perhaps it is childish, but it is also human.  In fact, in the words of the insurmountable Terry Pratchett, ‘Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.’