LevGrossman

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

What Is Fantasy About?

I’m writing this from Miami, where I have come for the Miami Book Festival. Book touring brings me through Florida periodically, and I always have an excellent time there. But that has never been enough to erase my tragic associations with the Sunshine State, which stem from the time I came here when I was 8 and threw up on my grandmother’s white couch.

You don’t forget a thing like that.

I usually end up talking a lot about fantasy at events like this. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot, too, mostly in a desperate attempt to catch up with all the stuff I find myself saying about it.

Because I cross the border a lot between “literary fiction” and “fantasy” (just assume infinite recursive scare quotes around every word for the rest of this post) I often find myself having to try to explain fantasy to audiences of non-fantasy readers who have unexpectedly found themselves in a room with a dude who is reading to them about people casting spells. Once the reading is over, and they are given leave to speak, they sometimes ask me: what is the deal, yo, with this stuff you write about people casting spells and shit? I mean, my child/niece/sibling/spouse is into this shit, but I don’t get it.

That is a good question. It’s hard to put into words what the deal is with fantasy – to say, in a coherent way, what all this stuff is about.

Science fiction is different. It’s much easier to theorize, or at any rate it’s been much better-theorized. Science fiction has known preoccupations. With technology for example, and our interactions with it — are we becoming the tools of our tools, sort of thing. With contemporary socio-politico-economic trends, which can be exaggerated to form interesting possible futures. With the future itself, and myths of progress. With the Other, and contact with same.

Fantasy, though.

Something is up with fantasy – I feel like the zeitgeist is taking an interest in it. Like the Great Lidless Eye of Sauron, the zeitgeist has turned away from the big science fiction franchises of the 1990s (Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, The X-Files) and swung towards big fantasy franchises instead (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, True Blood, Game of Thrones). [We’re generalizing glibly here, I know there are a lot of counterexamples (cough, Hunger Games, cough), and I do not repeat not want to get in a big wrangle over whether or not Twilight is fantasy — sorry. Just go with it for a bit.]

But what is the Great Eye seeking? What questions does it have that fantasy answers? Or at least asks? Like I said, I get asked this periodically, in public, and it’s a hard question to answer. Probably impossible.

Though one place to start is with longing. It’s something fantasy does especially well. Lewis and Tolkien were virtuosos of longing. They had, after all, lost a world, the world of their Victorian childhoods, which had been erased by the calamities of the 20th century: automobiles, the electrification of cities, the rise of mass media, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. They lived through, if not a singularity, then a pretty serious historical inflection point, and they longed for that pre-inflected world.

(Laura Miller writes about this really compellingly, albeit somewhat differently, in The Magician’s Book, her excellent book about Narnia. She quotes Lewis on his special notion of Joy: “an unsatisfied desire that is itself more desirable than another satisfaction.”)

We too have lived through an inflection point: a great deal of technological and social change. We can lay claim to a certain amount of longing.

Longing for what exactly? A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense – not logical sense, but psychological sense. We’re surrounded by objects that we don’t understand. Like iPods — they’re typical. They’re gorgeous, but they’re also really alienating. You can’t open them. You can’t hack them. You don’t even really know how they work, or how they’re made, or who made them. Their form is abstractly beautiful, but it has nothing to do with their function. We really like them, but it’s somehow not a liking that makes us feel especially good.

The worlds that fantasy depicts are very different from that. They tend to be rural and low-tech. The people in a fantasy world tend to be connected to it — they understand it, they belong in it. People in Narnia don’t long for some other world (except when they long for Aslan’s Land, which I always found unsettling). They’re in sync with it. (iPods and Macs kind of mock us, don’t they, the way they’re always sync-ing with each other but never with us.)

To be sure, fantasy worlds are often animated by weird mysterious forces – like magic – but even those forces on some level come from inside us. They’re not made in China. They express deep human wishes and primal emotions. Likewise the worlds of fantasy are inhabited by demons and monsters, but only because we’re inhabited by monsters, the ones that live in our subconsciouses (subconsci?) Those monsters are grotesque and not-human, and sometimes they even destroy us, but we recognize them instinctively.

This longing for a world to which we’re connected – and not connected Zuckerberg-style, but really connected, like a dryad with its tree – surfaces in a lot of places these days, not just in fantasy. You see it in the whole crafting movement – the Etsy/Makerfaire movement. You see it in the artisanal food movement. And it you see it in fantasy.

Or at least, it surfaces in the fantasy I write. Other people’s fantasy is probably about lots of other stuff, and I shouldn’t go around theorizing about it, except that I occasionally get asked to and, weakly, I give in. That’s the problem with trying to lock fantasy down with theories: you never get it all, and you end up with something that’s sadly reduced. Fantasy doesn’t flourish in theoretical captivity. Still: that’s what I tend to say when people ask me.

Though what I really want to say is, why even ask? I mean come on: Dudes. Casting. Spells. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.


39 comments on “What Is Fantasy About?

  1. Jaimie says:

    My theory is fantasy is a condensed, concentrated form of real life, and as such it allows us to write about psychology really well. Characters don’t have to deal with losing sleep because their baby is sick. There’s a spell for that. They can get on with whatever we want them to get on with. Whether it’s learning something about themselves or just having an adventure.

    I write fantasy because I like stories about rich, powerful people angsting about being rich and powerful. In literary fiction, they call that being whiny and a lot of readers hate it. (See: Woody Allen) But it’s okay in fantasy, and actually my characters can be even more rich and more powerful for even more angsting.

    I guess that’s what you said: it’s about longing. Here, a longing unsatisfied.

  2. Rita says:

    I loved this, Lev. I hadn’t ever thought of it that way.

    I always loved fantasy from a purely psychological and human angle. As a tween girl, I found much more meaning from Meg and Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time than any of the “real world” books floating around (except for Judy Bloom book, she rules, you know).

    Fantasy addresses all the same human issues that so-called literature does, but it does it with a buffer. I liked how you articulated that buffer, Lev, suggesting that the fantasy worlds allow ideas to be more connected in a way where the dots between things are easier to follow than in our real world. But, it also lets us remove some of the scary realities (and monsters) of our world and replace them with maybe more primal realities and monsters but still look at the same things. It’s breaking down human reactions and emotions in a totally different setting than what we experience in our daily lives, so we can really see the fear, the love, the bravery and, yes, the longing.

  3. Sharon says:

    First of all — I love what you said about longing. I really think I first started writing/reading fantasy because of exactly that sense — I grew up in a very small town in Iowa, and I wanted EVERYWHERE — all the places I saw on the news or read about in magazines or books. I felt like everything I wanted just overwhelmed the reality of existing in a limited place.

    I had this discussion with a friend recently, and I didn’t come to any grand conclusions, but I think that one component of fantasy is similar to that of science fiction — to re-imagine the world with a different set of conditions placed on it. If this, then what. And it’s a way to do that without the constraints of being “realistic,” (which is in itself, in my opinion, a questionable term.)

  4. M says:

    i started reading this comic called “Unwritten” (http://tinyurl.com/yhf5pau) and it’s about literally blurring the lines of fantasy and reality, literally.
    It’s pretty awesome, Harry potter parodied sorta.

    Also i think if you grow up with harry potter, the line was never even there in the first place.

  5. Anton Strout says:

    I am very happy to see our fave smooth talking, smoking jacket, tiger headed man chilling out here.

    That is all.

  6. When I read your insight about longing, I said “Ooh!” because it struck a chord of recognition.

    I think Tolkien would have said something about living in a historic era and wishing to return to a mythic era.

    I think Lewis’s sense of longing, however, is informed by the medieval Christian sense of longing for the Kingdom of Heaven (or Aslan’s Country), which he explores in his non-fiction book, “The Discarded Image.” The symbol for this longing that Lewis writes about is the moth drawn to but unconsumed by the flame. Another is the feast that sustains & satisfies but does not quench the hunger for the feast.

    (And, yeah; uh, I always thought longing for Aslan’s Country was kind of creepy, too)

  7. Very interesting article. I’m writing my second ‘modern’ fantasy novel at the moment and some of those same theories have crossed my mind. Actually, my second novel is a sequel to the contemporary fantasy world of my first, but set over 100 years in the future. That automatically gives it a different flavour — the world doesn’t feel as familiar to me due to that science fiction element. It felt like oddly-fitting underwear to begin with, but now I’m enjoying being able to play with both magic and futuristic technology and having the potential to pit the two against one another in some subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) way.

    Longing is definitely, in my opinion, a great word to sum up the heart of a lot of fantasy fiction. Longing for a better, more epic, more heroic life. Longing for a world in which anything is possible. Longing for power over one’s environment to a degree which is not generally possible in our real lives.

    Thanks for the food for thought. I have a feeling I may need a toothpick…

  8. Bombie says:

    It’s a good argument, I think, and one that makes me wonder whether tehre isn’t also an unacknowledged subversive potential inherent in the fantasy novel. Your argument very much accords with Fredric Jameson’s conception of the romance genre, who, however, frames the longing for a utopian (e.g. less industrialized, agrarian past of individualized labor) apst as a form of folk resistance. From this point of view, fantasy would be a collective resistance in addition to the personal feeling of longing it entails.

  9. David Olsen says:

    Apropos of nothing, are you aware that in tonight’s episode of “The Simpsons” (which was a critique on YA fiction in general), there is a snapshot of Selma’s (or is it Patty’s?) fantasy bookshelf, complete with many parody titles, there was one distinct non-parody title? And the name of that one real book was “The Magician King?” Or is this part of the subliminal marketing strategy of FOX?

  10. Alyssa says:

    As a fellow writer of fantasy, I thank you for trying to express some of what drives you to the genre. And I agree: the Longing is a major component.

  11. John S says:

    I’ve only just found your work, Lev, and it’s stunning. It’s made me consider re-looking at my old fantasy writing, and your take here on fantasy’s resurgence just fuels that. And I must say, it tweaked my aging geek to see the picture of the Raksasha and recognize if from the old D&D Monster Manual. (Way back in day, kids. AD&D, straight no chaser.)

  12. M Blockley says:

    I learn so much here.

  13. Heather Head says:

    “What is fantasy?” is really the same question as “What is fiction?”. A thousand possible answers, all of them true: Adventure, escape, an abstraction of real life in order to better understand ourselves, lessons wrapped up in a pleasing package, pure pleasure… longing. As to why fantasy is enjoying an upsurge in popularity compared to many other forms of fiction, I think you’ve touched an important point in your observation regarding the world of Tolkien and Lewis and its similarity to the transitional world we live in.

    As a safe method of exploring the mystery of technology and change, fantasy renders our environment-in-flux less scary, and ourselves more powerful in it.

    Example: An iPhone is an awful lot like a magic artifact in many ways… mysterious, potent, beautiful, potentially dangerous in the wrong hands. By abstracting technology into a magic artifact (or artifacts) in the hands of fictional characters in a fictional and fantastical world, we open so many possibilities. Suddenly we see grandeur, adventure, possibility, power, connection, and so much else that we miss in our everyday lives. We see options for interacting with the mysterious by watching how the characters in our favorite worlds do it. We see them living and dying in a mysterious, ever-changing world, and it gives us courage to live and die in our own mysterious, ever-changing world.

    Another thing to note is that in many cases of truly exceptional fantasy–Lord of the Rings, Lion Witch and Wardrobe, and Harry Potter are prime examples–you see a world that is also undergoing significant (and mysterious) change. The heroes often are otherwise perfectly ordinary characters who find themselves positioned to influence or even control the direction of that change–the kind of power most people don’t feel they have in the real world–and in this way it also functions as a form of wish-fulfillment.

    In the case of your work, it seems to me that there is a recurring edge that says, “The magical world is pretty much the same as the real world. Just with more spells and stuff.” It can be depressing: “Magic world, real world: It’s all crap.” But on the flip side… the gilded shimmer of awe that is burnished onto the magical world rubs off a bit onto the real world. You can say: “Magic world, real world: It’s terrible, yes, but also mysterious and beautiful.”

    Codex is an excellent example of this, because no actual magic happens in it. But as a reader, you’re never quite sure… everything FEELs magical, like you’re on the very edge of uncovering something fantastical and mysterious, whether it’s the girl who rises from her table, unfolding like a beautiful heron, or the boxes of dusty books, one of them hiding a treasure that will change the world…

    And so you come out of that book and you look around and you realize, that EVERYTHING feels that way if you look at it through the right lens. And in that way, our world is really the same as the world of fantasy, if we want it to be.

    And I think most of us do. We want it that way because this world we currently live in, looked at through the eyes of pure science, is pretty fricked up. And if we’re going to live in a fricked up world, we want it to at least be a little bit magical too.

    And it is. But sometimes we need fiction to show us how to see it.

  14. John L says:

    Wanting to have magical power was a constant desire in my childhood. The fantasy worlds where magic was possible were the places I wanted to live in. As a child I didn’t ever ask the question: why?
    As an adult I see the desire for magical powers as the desire for power itself. As a child you don’t feel you have much power over your own life in the general way and don’t feel like a potent force in your world. Individual power and potency are cornerstones of fantasy.
    Of course,while growing older allows us to gain decision making power and much freedom to choose our lives ( please just let me have that last phrase), we also grow more aware of our lack of control in the big world, feel alienated from things like technology, and after a while begin to feel the frailty of our bodies. We come to the realization that personal power and potency in the world are actually illusions. Yet we still would like to have them. Fantasy fiction has an enduring appeal for me as an adult because it connects with those urges. It does this is in a very honest way: by portraying a fictional world that very clearly does not physically exist.

  15. Staldo says:

    By the time I’d been exposed to the Narnia books, with their characters longing for
    Aslan’s Country( Which it turns out is some kind of recursive onion-like place where things become more real versions of themselves repeatedly forever,), I’d already been exposed to the Swedish story of The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren, which is one of the most creepy, sweetly melancholy fantasy books I’ve ever read. This prepared me for the kind of morbid lullabye that Tolkien and Lewis can sometimes become.

  16. Adam says:

    Genre lines are hard to define. People have their own ideas about what constitutes fantasy and science fiction and they’re pretty regimented on these fronts. It’s full of sticky definitions and sticky politics. But, figuring out why a certain genre is popular is next to impossible. In fact, it’s a game that I’m most ways, you’re rigged to lose. But I’ll do my best.

    I was trying to explain to my friend why fantasy really resonates with people nowadays and I arrived at a similar conclusion that you did but my implications were quite different (like I said, defining this stuff is full of sticky definitions and sticky politics). Fantasy begins with wonder. I remember reading the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for the very first time. I was entranced, mesmerized.

    But I think the reason for this is different from what you’ve hypothesized, for lack of a better term. Actually, I think it’s the antithesis. Nowadays (in the last hundred years or so), we’ve essentially been taught to believe that there’s an answer to everything. Everything can be explained in a rational scientific way.

    “Well actually Jonny, the grass is green because it contains a pigment called chlorophyll which aids in a process called photosynthesis,” the teacher said.

    Look at how our education system works. I saw a brilliant video the other day called “Changing Education Paradigms”. Check it out. Basically the main point of it was, that at a very young age, we are all taught that there is one answer to every question and you can find it at the back of your text book. Page 643, right after the place where all creativity shrivels away and dies.

    I think Fantasy offers people a similar thing that religion does. Bear in mind that I am an atheist, a skeptic and a cynic but also one of the biggest fantasy fans you’ll ever see. Fantasy allows us to have faith. Magic works that way because it does and always has. It allows us to feel a sense of mystery and awe. It allows us to wonder again.

    So at the end of my gargantuan and altogether sanctimonious rant, I turned to my friend and said, “So what do you think?”

    He looked at me, laughed, and said, “Stop fucking around, man. People read fantasy because they want to do magic and shit.”

    You know what? I think we’re both right.

  17. Little My says:

    I’ve been reading with interest both the post and comments. Love the insights, particularly @Heather Head. Many people are implying that fantasy is the antithesis/antidote to a scientific, rational way of looking at things. But I think the “sense of mystery and awe” that @Adam mentioned above is exactly what people who pursue knowledge in a scientific way ARE looking for. It’s just that with fantasy we get a much better ratio of fabulous insight or accomplishment to slogging than we might in our un-magical pursuits. I think that there is probably a good majority of fantasy fans that DO view the world in through the eyes of science, and I’d propose that the fantasy is not so much an escape as simply more of the same. Just a heightened version. Even Quentin is a science nerd, right?

  18. Adam says:

    @Little My
    Very true. There are many fantasies which blur the lines between the fantastic and reality. Magic is dealt with in a scientific and rational way and things are explained. But it’s my belief that many fantasies (not all) satisfy some primal need to put faith in something. Whether it’s God, Ember or the Half-Blood Prince, we enjoy things that are mystic and stay that way. I don’t doubt that there are one million popular fantasy novels that are exceptions to this but I think fantasy is unparalleled in this aura of mysticism which is a large reason why it is so popular.

    As I mentioned before, I’m an atheist. I see the world through a scientific, logical lens. It’s just the way I am but it doesn’t mean that I’m entirely 100% consistent in this view all the time. Fantasy satisfies something within me that hungers for the fantastic and the unexplainable. Does that mean that all fantasy is escapism? No, of course not. It just means that the genre fills a certain niche that many people crave.

    The problem with a debate like this is that there is no, all encompassing definition or reason that explains why it is so popular. I outlined my argument which I still believe to be valid and then you came back at me with just as valid exceptions and inconsistencies within my argument. The entire thing is quite ambiguous and impossible to pin down. So while we all have our theories and our beliefs and our biases, the reason for why fantasy is so popular is quite in keeping with the genre itself. Unexplained.

  19. Adam says:

    After reading my response through a second time, I’ve realized the Half-Blood Prince was a laughably poor example considering his identity was revealed later in the book. Oh Potter fans, how could you ever forgive me for such an egregious error?

  20. Lou Cocks says:

    I think the concept of longing for a connection with your world is undoubtedly correct, and would only add that magic is an essential component of that longing–for a connection to a world where magical god-like power is directly available for everyday observation (and doesn’t therefore require religious faith), and, moreover, where it is possible for human or human-like people to be an integral part of that magical reality. It is a longing, in other words, for a world that many of us gave up when we stopped believing in God.

  21. John Granger says:

    Two thoughts, neither of which are my own:

    “George MacDonald used to say that the purpose of fantasy was not to convey a meaning but awake a meaning” (Alan Jacobs, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2011/novdec/ghostwriter.html?paging=off)

    [Paraphrase] Fantasy is not an escape from reality but an escape into reality (Ralph Wood, mentioned in the article reprinted http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/welcome-new-guests-to-hogwartsprofessor/).

    Three questions:

    (1) Why ‘chiasmus’? It resonates with literary alchemy as well as the artistry/meaning of scripture, epic, and the English fantasy tradition, but all of that seems wildly inappropriate here, the home of public atheist. Chiasmus reeks of natural theology and devotional belief, the ‘inside bigger than the outside’ because the ‘meaning is in the middle.’

    (2) Am I wrong in wondering if the third rail in this discussion is Eliade’s thesis that entertainments in a secular culture, especially the suspension of disbelief and poetic faith (self-transcendence) of reading, serve a mythic or religious function. Not unlike sectarian membership, worship/identification in circular stadia of sports teams, and sex, “the mysticism of the materialist, reading is a means of escaping ego at least and at best experiencing a greater reality within. It seems especially rich and important to both evangelical communities and the atheist virtual communes of those who “know better.” Couldn’t the love of fantasy be an aspect of [OMG] the stirring of the divine within us as designed?

    (3) Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Satire seem to be a muddle of the same attempt to bring us to self-reflection, mirrors cocked at different angles to catch aspects of our less real if more imminent reality. I confess to being non-plussed by the academic tone here in distinguishing genre in the absence of thinking about the experience of reading per se across genres and the linking of most in Coleridge’s ideas of transcending self in the Primary and Secondary Imaginations. Anyone else have this discomfiture?

  22. Heather Head says:

    Sniff. I’ve found my tribe.

  23. Lev Grossman says:

    […] it picks up nicely on some of the themes that came up in the comments on the “What is Fantasy About” post last week. The roundtable as a whole is, like, a concatenation of interesting remarks, but […]

  24. RyanTaylor says:

    You had me at the Trampier illustration.

  25. […] Lev Grossman wrote about fantasy on his blog last week, suggesting that fantasy addresses our longing for one thing in particular: A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense – not logical sense, but psychological sense… […]

  26. […] caught my eye this week: first, on his own blog, Grossman has an interesting post trying to get at what Fantasy is about. The second is an interview at Tor.com with Peter Orullian, which is a lot of fun (I think some […]

  27. Rebecca says:

    I was in the middle of reading your books when you posted this. I just found your site. I wish I would have known about your Florida adventures sooner; I live in Jacksonville and perhaps could have joined you. Ah well. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of your blog so far, and I read both The Magicians and The Magician King. I agree with what you’ve said about longing and the monsters inside us, and I adored your post about wanting to be a writer in college. I am currently in the post-graduation-attempting-to-find-a-temp-job-haze. Hope to one day be as successful as you! Thanks for the reading.

  28. […] Lev Grossman on what fantasy is. […]

  29. […] It’s moving. I’ve said elsewhere that what great fantasy does best, for me, is longing. When I read the script, I felt that — […]

  30. […] who’s also the book critic for Time, writes on his site about how fantasy represents longing for a different world or way of life: “Fantasy worlds […]

  31. […] who’s also the book critic for Time, writes on his site about how fantasy represents longing for a different world or way of life: “Fantasy worlds […]

  32. […] dovetails interestingly with some of the comments on last week’s “What is Fantasy About” post. Is it possible that the zeitgeist is looking at fantasy right now simply because fantasy is […]

  33. […] It’s moving. I’ve said elsewhere that what great fantasy does best, for me, is longing. When I read the script, I felt that — […]

  34. […] Lev Grossman on Fantasy Fiction This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged publishing, technology, writing by jonnyskov. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  35. […] me ever since. Fantasy is essentially about longing. You can read about it at length on Lev’s blog post on the matter and I believe he’s spoken of it elsewhere as well (not to say he’s the one to […]

  36. […] Rakshasa’s Servant’, it’s basically a contemporary folk tale, and was inspired by a post on Lev Grossman’s blog which reproduced the image on the right, an image that will be immediately recognisable to anybody […]

  37. […] I reviewed the final novel to Lev Grossman’s trilogy, The Magician’s Land, over at The Barnes and Noble Review. I loved it–it was a perfect departure from reality, which, I really needed at that point, and he does the difficult thing of finishing a trilogy well. Recommended also: reading this post from Grossman on what Fantasy novels are even for.  […]

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