The Best Thing Anybody Ever Said About Fantasy Ever

The other day somebody — in fact, an extremely eminent and excellent fantasy writer whose name I’m dying to drop but won’t (but in effect I just did anyway) — asked me for my favorite quote about fantasy. This request plunged me down a rabbit-hole of Googling and rereading and trying to remember something, anything really, that I read about fantasy in college.

In the end these three quotes were my finalists:

1. C.S. Lewis, from his essay on The Lord of the Rings:

‘But why,’ (some ask), ‘why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?’ Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality…And man as a whole, Man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale?

2. Iris Murdoch — this is attributed to Murdoch, and sounds like her, but I can’t find the source for this quote, which floats around the Internet a lot, so it may apocryphal. But I love it, so here it is:

We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.

3. Ursula K. Le Guin, from The Wave in the Mind:

People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.

That’s what I came up with. Tell me: what did I miss?

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27 Responses to “The Best Thing Anybody Ever Said About Fantasy Ever”

  1. Jaimie says:

    I would probably end up choosing something from said extremely eminent and excellent fantasy writer, because he’s really good for these. If we’re talking about the same person.

  2. I gotta go with Tolkien on this one. While I’m not the biggest fan of his, I understand and see the overwhelming importance of the work. He sums up a perfect defense for fantasy as escapism in the below quote:

    “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
    ― J.R.R. Tolkien

  3. Alyssa says:

    The Ursula K Le Guin quote makes me think of a W. H. Auden poem about how the dragons and monsters didn’t disappear — they just became invisible and thus more dangerous.

    http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/wh-auden/in-the-time-of-war-xii/

  4. Josh says:

    Winter is coming…

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  6. Virginia says:

    “It’s no coincidence that just at this point in our insight into our mysteriousness as human beings struggling towards compassion, we are also moving into an awakened interest in the language of myth and fairy tale. The language of logical arguments, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate. But the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith.” —Madeleine L’Engle

  7. Leverus says:

    @Jaimie not him! different one.

  8. Leverus says:

    @Alyssa Oh my god, that poem is incredible. I’ve never seen it before. I can’t believe Auden wrote a poem with kobolds in it.

  9. Nily4 says:

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.“ – John Rogers

  10. My all-time favorite is a G.K. Chesterton quote, and though I’ve seen it written in several slightly different ways, here’s the first one I found with Google:

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

  11. The Murdoch quote is real; it comes from an interview with Rachel Billington in the Times (London), 25 April 1983. The article was called “Crusading in a Fantasy World”. Terrific interview….

  12. (It’s actually “And the great task in life,” not just “The great…”)

  13. Mason says:

    I was going to chime in with the G.K. Chesterton quote, but Seanachie beat me to it.

  14. Carl V. says:

    I’m not sure that you “missed” anything. These three quotes contain a book or two’s worth of truth. Thanks for sharing them.

  15. Erich Schwarz says:

    All three are excellent quotes.

    Here’s another quote by Neal Stephenson that I think is also good, though it’s not exactly about fantasy:

    “There is a particular science fiction approach to the world, and it has nothing to do with the future. It doesn’t have to be in the future at all … an awareness that things could have been different, that this is one of many possible worlds, that if you came to this world from some other planet, this would be a science fiction world.”

    When I gave a Career Day talk at my former high school, and started with an explanation of how I chose biology as a career, I quoted that.

  16. Jaimie says:

    Goddammit all these quotes about dragons. I have to share this Rilke quote that I adore, even though he’s not explicitly talking about fantasy. He’s talking about embracing possibility, mystery; so it’s practically the same thing. Context.

    “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants our love.”

  17. Adam says:

    George RR Martin’s “On Fantasy” would probably top my list.

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  19. Tom says:

    Moorcock’s old dictum deserves a mention:

    ‘Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.’

  20. Leverus says:

    @Tom that’s genius

  21. Tom says:

    It’s an elegant counterpoint to the Iris Murdoch one in your OP, isn’t it? Both suggest that fantasy literature can transcend itself and become actual, transformative, part of a quest for / escape to the real.

    Michael Moorcock has written some of the best popular criticism of fantasy … as you probably know, so I won’t bang on about it.

    I think that one’s either from, or from the era of his well-known anti-Tolkien polemic, ‘Epic Pooh’.

  22. [...] Grossman tries to locate the best thing anybody ever said about fantasy ever, and comes up with a few options. More great words follow in the [...]

  23. Michael G. says:

    “I write fantasy because it’s there. I have no other excuse for sitting down for several hours a day indulging my imagination. Daydreaming. Thinking up imaginary people, impossible places. Imagination is the golden-eyed monster that never sleeps. It must be fed; it cannot be ignored. Making it tell the same tale over and over again makes it thin and whining; its scales begin to fall off; its fiery breath becomes a trickle of smoke. It is best fed by reality, an odd diet for something nonexistent; there are few details of daily life and its broad range of emotional context that can’t be transformed into food for the imagination. It must be visited constantly, or else it begins to become restless and emit strange bellows at embarrassing moments; ignoring it only makes it grow larger and noisier. Content, it dreams awake, and spins the fabric of tales. There is really nothing to be done with such imagery except to use it: in writing, in art. Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those of us who do have no choice.” -Patricia Mckillip

  24. Griff says:

    My favorite is from Neil Gaiman:
    “There are only two worlds – your world, which is the real world, and other worlds, the fantasy. Worlds like this are worlds of the human imagination: their reality, or lack of reality, is not important. What is important is that they are there. These worlds provide an alternative. Provide an escape. Provide a threat. Provide a dream, and power; provide refuge, and pain. They give your world meaning. They do not exist; and thus they are all that matters.”

  25. Mikhail Koulikov says:

    In one of his Perelandra books, don’t remember which one, Lewis has a single line about the relationship of fantasy to everything else that, I think, puts his writing and so much other similar writing in a needed context.

    “And at that moment, far away on Earth, as he now could not help remembering, men were at war, and white-faced subalterns and freckled corporals who had but lately begun to shave, stood in horrible gaps or crawled forward in deadly darkness, awaking, like him, to the preposterous truth that all did really depend on their actions.”

  26. Klik her says:

    Klik her…

    [...]The Best Thing Anybody Ever Said About Fantasy Ever « Lev Grossman[...]…

  27. 123view says:

    There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.
    http://endersgameroom.com/?p=565

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