Fantasy and science fiction are the redheaded stepchildren of literature. Serious Writers write things like Experimental Fiction and Magical Realism and Poetry. (I have a sneaking suspicion that “Magical Realism” means “Fantasy by Serious Writers”. It’s possible that’s also covered under “Experimental Fiction.” But I digress, like a Tolkien-esque landscape description in the middle of a Quest Upon Which Hangs the Fate of Everything.)
Several years ago, my sister and I were walking on a beach at the Outer Banks. My sister is Star Wars. I am The Hobbit. She would like to bullseye womp-rats in a canyon, and I would like to eat breakfast several times a day. We started in on a discussion about the difference between science fiction and fantasy, and we concluded that it’s this: science fiction is about what it means to be human, and fantasy is about what it means to be an individual.
If you think about it, it works. Apply it to any novel, film, or TV show, and the distinction holds. Of course, this necessitates the creation of the sub-categories of “Science Fiction with the Trappings of Fantasy” and vice versa. Star Wars falls neatly into “Fantasy with the Trappings of Science Fiction.” So you have to think outside the police box a little, but it works.
All the great protagonists of fantasy are trying to figure out who they are, what their place is in a large, complicated world in which beauty can be terrible and evil chips subtly (or hammers violently) away at the foundations of goodness and the self. The protagonists of fantasy are exiles, orphans, and misfits. They are homeless travelers and self-exiled wanderers, and they are always on a journey that moves them outward through landscapes that dwarf them, and inward through the myriad darknesses of the soul.
And there are dragons. Dragons are freakin’ awesome.
The trappings are important. It’s unfortunate that they lend themselves so easily to cliche. There are the dragons, of course. And then there are the mandatory Small Somewhat Humanoid Creatures with Sass (see “Dwarves,” “Gurgi,” “Ewoks,” “Hobbits,” etc.–for some reason, it is imperative that these creatures be abnormally hairy, unless they are evil, in which case, see “Gollum”). Then you’ve got the Buxom Wenches, the Magical Artifacts, and the Weapons With Names That Sound Vaguely Like Brands of Drain-Cleaner. (I have grouped “Wenches” with other objects because typically they are treated as such, though the Swords and Artifacts have more personality.) And, of course, there is the Evil Magic-Wielding Dude (related topics: “Annoying Henchmen” and “Poorly-Timed Gloating Over the Hero’s Imminent Demise”). And the titles–ah, the titles! Someday, if I ever have time for novel-length flippancy, I’m planning to rock the literary world with the debut of The Third Book in the Seventh Ring-Cycle of the Mystical Dragon-Lords of Sha-na-na. I’m not writing Books 1 and 2, just 3.
But despite the interminable series and technicolor covers, there is some truly magical stuff out there–magical in the best sense of the word. Because fantasy, at its best, walks a fine and perilous line between reality and imagination, between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Because we are more than flesh and blood, more than fact and statistic, more than the sum of our profane and prosaic parts. If you were born with a functioning imagination, there’s something in you that tugs, that yearns, that strives toward the unimaginable. There’s something in you that dares to hope that in a world of ugliness, violence, ignorance, hatred, and fear, beauty is possible. Love is possible. Magic is possible. Dragons are possible.
The true magic of fantasy is that at its core, it posits that you are possible–that you exist, as a unique, discrete individual. That your struggles and passions and flashes of insight matter. That you, small and weak and insignificant as you may feel, can take a stand against the darkness. And in the end, whether you succeed or fail, your actions matter, whether you’re fighting the dark side of a vast empire, or your own soul-twisting desire to hoard what’s precious.
This is why I write fantasy. I may never publish a single novel. I may always feel a little out of my element around Serious Writers who write about real things like Sex and God and Existentialism. It is possible that the only poetry I ever write will be the end-rhymed and somewhat Dr. Seussian Prophecy of the Dragon-Lords of Sha-na-na (which will be part of the back-cover blurb, and which the Hero will discover in fragments on bits of parchment, and will have to decipher with the aid of large flagons of ale provided by the Buxom Wench before she steals his legendary blade, Dran-o, and the body parts and euphemisms start flying–hey! maybe I can work Sex into this one…but again, I digress, like the long and tragic tale of the history of Dran-o inserted into the middle of the dramatic duel between the Hero and the Bad Evil Dude as the mandatory Small Somewhat Humanoid Creatures look on in dread, the Sass for once scared out of them).
And there I go again, off on another kooky tangent. Because this is also what fantasy is about. Whether it’s cheesy or profound, fantasy is fun. And in a stormtrooper- and orc-infested world, sometimes you just need a little escapism.
And did I mention the dragons? They’re awesome.