I’ve heard too many people argue that the best thing about the fantasy genre is ‘escapism’. Fantasy can indeed be an absorbing, relaxing means of forgetting our own problems for a while, but all fiction can do this. Fiction depicts a facet of reality, but even realism is not a perfect clone of our world. All fiction takes us away from our lives while simultaneous reflecting them. However, the argument that escapism is fantasy’s greatest quality is somewhat counter-intuitive.
We’re all very welcome to have preferences for whatever genre we’d like of course, but unfortunately some people completely dismiss fantasy as ‘stories about wizards’, ‘elves and dragons’, or ‘stories for children’. These definitions cover Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in an overly patronising and simplistic fashion, and that’s about it. The trouble is, the concept of ‘escapism’ fuels this perception of fantasy as a flight from the complexity and significance of reality.
Fantasy obviously has fewer superficial connections to reality than realism, but it focuses instead on psychological or emotional truths. Fantasy often follows a ‘quest’ structure, in which the protagonist faces an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, and this enemy symbolises the challenges we face in our own lives that seem insurmountable. However, even the fantasy texts without a strict formula use metaphor to render emotional struggles tangible. Kate Forsyth once claimed that fantasy can portray ‘moral truths too bright and too fierce to gaze upon directly.’
The advantage of the fantasy genre in representing emotional reality is that an entire world can be constructed to support the metaphor, from the implications of its political system to its aesthetic references. Giving readers a translation of emotion into sights, sounds and smells encourages a stronger sense of empathy, as they can react personally to the scenario rather than trying to understand an abstract idea amid the distractions and inconsistencies of our world. For those who relate to the metaphors, there is also a sense of validation. A person may get a tattoo because they feel their journey should have left visible scars; fictional representations of emotional struggles are similarly authenticating.
The concept of magic within a narrative rebalances negotiations of power. Characters with a strong connection to magic are always the most passionate; spiritual or emotional power is usually linked to magical talent. Consider Harry Potter and Voldemort’s strong senses of what is right in the world, despite their opposing approaches. Magic is often the one thing that gives power to an originally disempowered or undervalued protagonist. Fantasy traditionally rewards good behaviour and the villains lose the battle in the end, giving the impression of a sympathetic, just universe. Such narratives can be inherently empowering.
I attribute the surge in fantasy’s popularity in Western culture to a heightened sense of insignificance in our society. Many people have a sense of political disempowerment and futility. The development of the internet has also made us increasingly aware of how many people there are aside from us in the world, all speaking at once and desperate to be heard. It’s entirely understandable that we should seek fiction that reminds us that everyone is capable of changing the world.
While I agree that plenty of fantasy books are not very well-written, I would say there is about the same ratio of bad to good quality fantasy books as there are realist books. The only difference is that publishers are allowing a great deal more fantasy books to be sold due to the current surge of popularity. Btu regardless of the quality of writing, I think it’s great that the market is so open to the genre because its aesthetic possibilities are limitless and it is a comparatively unexplored form.
Like and genre, fantasy has specific strengths and purpose that it performs extremely well. As a writer, I have a strong emotional focus and fantasy is the best possible choice to convey my meaning. But I certainly still haven’t fully explored the possibilities of fantasy or speculative fiction. It’s important to be able to articulate the value of a genre, and there is so much more to fantasy than many people realise.