Why Fantasy?

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Classified and shuffled into a ‘genre’, Fantasy is seen as the poor cousin to literary texts, which would make ‘Urban Fantasy,’ a sub genre of the larger, the poor second cousin twice removed. Literature and Fantasy, though, have been mingling as long as stories have been told. In fact, the division between the two is so artificial that it becomes meaningless unless you’re trying to decide what kind of story to read on a cold Saturday night.

More recently, Fantasy has been seeping into the consciousness of Western culture at an exponential rate. I won’t get into a discussion about the Most Popular Characters on Earth – you know who they are, and if you don’t, I wonder what you do with your time. But let’s just examine, for the record, how Charlaine Harris’s sublime Sookie Stackhouse have crawled off of the less-browsed ‘Fantasy’ shelves in your local bookstore to take their rightful place: prominently displayed in the Bestseller shelves as you walk in.

Why Fantasy? And why now? We’re already so available to escapism all the time. So why is it that we have the need to tune into worlds populated with characters who don’t (apparently) exist: vampires, witches, zombies, ghosts?

I would argue that we live a fractured and chaotic existence, so keenly aware of our own imminent danger, and more so with each passing connection – casual tweets about acts of terrorism, environmental disasters, highway pile ups – that we want nothing more than to curl up in a corner and step into the shoes of a character much bigger, more powerful, more eternal than ourselves. Immortal and superhuman characters can enact change where we cannot.

I would go a little further and argue that this is the postmodern condition: we who live in the aftermath of a faded and impossible broken world struggle to get back to worlds that never existed. I would go yet farther still and argue that this is a good thing – that exploring alternative realities does in fact offer viable means of digging ourselves out of a huge mess.

The philosopher Zygmunt Bauman argues that while modernity waged “war against mystery and magic, Postmodernity can be seen as […] a re-enchantment of the world that modernity tried hard to dis-enchant” (Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernism, x).

But leaning on the postmodern only covers why now: why a literal deluge of fantasy-based novels, television series, films?

To put Fantasy back into context with the rest of literary history, I turn to the amazing Michael Chabon:

Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the  pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed. (“The Recipe For Life,” 2)

In books, films and plays – in all of those escapist vehicles that fantasy invades like a wild weed – are worlds that heal our psyches and our spirits.

We need fantasy. By liberating us from the crushing weight of reality, it also helps replenish us, making us better versions of ourselves, more open to faith and the world as it is, more eager to search out and embrace Otherness.


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