Why fantasy is important.

More Than Wizards And Dragons
By Trevor Green

Image from theonering.net
Fantasy has long been a part of every society. For centuries, people across the world have told stories of wondrous events, larger than life people, gods, heroes, and villains. Those with the imagination to dream filled their family and friends' hearts and minds with tales of the Sun Gods or the Goddess of War, of malevolent beings that rotted the crops, and even the grim apparition of Death given human form. There are many reasons that our ancestors created stories from nothingness: fear of the unknown, confusion at a tragedy, a desire to understand the mysteries of a vast, unknowable world. “...there was a time when all literature was fantasy. How could it be otherwise, when a bad corn crop or a sudden epidemic among the new lambs could only have been caused by the anger of some god, or the spiteful sorcery of the people in the next village, eight miles over the hill, who were all demons, as everyone knew?” (Beagle). At what point did the telling of fantastic stories change from a response to fear, and become a way to improve lives? What are the characteristics of fantasy as a genre, and why is it important to our society and our children?

With such matters of fear and terror propelling invention forward, it comes as no surprise that fantasy was rooted into our collective minds, from the dawn of time. From stories told with crude language around a fire, to the latest best-selling door-stop of a novel from Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, The Way of Kings) or Pat Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicles), fantasy has become a major genre in its own right, and continues to grow.

How did the genre of fantasy come about? This is an interesting question, and one not easily answered. Through the ages, men and women have written works that touch on fantasy, or even embrace it fully, but simply happen to have been published before the term “fantasy” was coined. Writers such as the Greek poet Homer scratched out masterpieces of mythology that dealt heavily in other-worldly or divine matters, with strange creatures, and powerful men who defied gods. William Shakespeare wrote of witches and satyrs, ghosts and demons. Edgar Allen Poe penned dark works of the supernatural, filled with horror and the unknown. Hundreds of others dove head first into the stranger side of fiction, building their craft over decades, and across audiences.

Eventually fantasy began to take form, separating itself from its origins to become its own genre. There are many characteristics that define fantasy, nearly as many as there are books in the genre. However, fantasy is usually set in a defined world, written with the intent of being fictitious. Primarily seen as a form of entertainment, fantasy can include wizards, sorceresses, rangers, dragons, elves, and dwarves, like The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. However, many successful fantasy novels include none of the above, such as the masterful The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, whose work consists entirely of human characters battling twisted creatures and evil men. W.H. Auden's essay on The Lord of the Rings states, “Many quest tales are set in a dreamland, that is to say, in no definite place or time. This has the advantage of allowing the use of all the wealth of dream imagery, monsters, magical transformations and translations, which are absent from our waking life” (Zimbardo and Isaacs). From this we see that fantasy cannot be defined by conventional means, having the whole canvas of the human mind to paint upon.

Modern fantasy has been described as “escapist literature”, and with good reason. While quality fantasy does incorporate elements and ideals from our world, its primary goal is to take the reader away, filling their head with the fantastic, whether the end goal be a sense of wonder, spine-crawling fear, unease in a lonely bedroom at night, triumph of the human spirit, love for mankind, or any of the myriad emotions such books can draw from the hearts of its readers.

At some point in its long, ambiguous history, someone had to introduce the world to what could be called the very first official fantasy novel. Widely considered by many people to be the grandfather of modern fantasy, that person was JRR Tolkien. Born in 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an enthusiastic student of linguistics, and also a professor at the University of Oxford (Doughan). A contemporary of C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), and George McDonald (The Princess and the Goblin), Tolkien was already surrounded by the burgeoning field of fantasy before it was called such. One day while grading papers, he wrote a simple but fateful sentence, his reason or inspiration for doing so a mystery: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” Years later, The Lord of the Rings was born, and over the decades, its popularity swelled without the media hype we have come to expect today, gathering speed by word of mouth and rolling into the juggernaut of literature that it is now (Zimbardo and Isaacs).

The Lord of the Rings proved to be a cultural revolution, proving once and for all, that fantasy had the guts to stand up to its larger, beefier literary opponents. The tale of an unlikely hero, a humble hobbit, rising to do great good, impeded by foul creatures and treacherous men, but most importantly, battling valiantly against his own heart's selfish desires spoke to its readers. “The game of The Lord of the Rings is miraculously designed to be played and won by anyone who takes part, but the reader who doesn't see the significance of its urgent bearing on humanity will always be a loser” (Zimbardo and Isaacs). The story of Frodo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, Samwise Gamgee, and the evil lord Sauron brought a definitive flavor to the new genre, setting the stage for many works to come.

As the years went on, new contenders waded into the field of fantasy. Authors such as Terry Brooks with his Sword of Shannara series continued where Tolkien left off, furthering the cause of fantasy. Books began to grow off the shelves, each work employing a working formula that has proven able to stand the test of time. Fantasy began to develop sub-genres as more and more writers explored all the recesses of its possibilities.

Robert Jordan helped perfect the Epic Fantasy, working off of Tolkien's travel-log style questing, translating age-old themes into modern day words. With his incredible talent for bringing characters and conflict to life, he created a world many a reader has lost themselves within. The New York Times, speaking of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, states that he has “...come to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal.” Terry Goodkind and George R. R. Martin took fantasy to its dark side, with gritty pages filled with violence and tragedy. Young Adult fantasy such as The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander emerged, followed later by the likes of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, and Fablehaven, written by Brandon Mull, catering to a growing fan base of young readers, eager to devour anything to take their minds off the drudgery of school and social awkwardness, while at the same time growing their love for the written word. Urban Fantasy invaded our world with stories of magic breaking through into our streets, entangling young boys and girls in problems beyond their depth. In a recent post on Tor Fiction's website, Emily Asher-Perrin relates a bit of what made Harry Potter (a young-adult Urban Fantasy series) so special to her:

“While J.K. Rowling’s seven book saga was created for all generations to enjoy, there was something about growing up with the series that will forever define my generation. We are a group of people who believe in the impossible, in the power of love’s ability to protect and create, in silly things like jelly beans that taste like dirt and earwax, in bravery wrought through friendship and the need for a few basic spells to ease our way through daily life. (What? Chocolate and tea are homemade spells of a sort.) I can’t say whether Harry gave this to us, but I know that he was a part of it all, a uniting factor that allowed children and teens all over the world to lock eyes, smile and know that we weren’t so different after all”.

The genre has grown immensely, adding to itself, encapsulating mystery, thriller, horror, romance, suspense, and many other genres. No longer is fantasy relegated to a small, shadowy shelf set in the back of the local Barnes and Noble.

“It should come as no surprise then, that heroic fantasy fiction has had a slow, inexorable rise in both popularity and critical recognition. For several years, best selling lists have been dominated by epic fantasies by writers such as Tad Williams and Katharine Kerr. The US Realms of Fantasy magazine has claimed that 'fantasy outsells SF [science fiction] by a factor of three to one' while Tolkien's epic heroic fantasy The Lord of the Rings was recently chosen as the most popular and influential book ever published, by readers in three separate continents” (Forsyth).

Now, miles down the road from its humble origins, fantasy can have many qualities and components. There will always be the common tropes and clich├ęs: the farm boy destined for something greater, the venerable wizard, a brilliant young girl, the evil overlord bent on destruction and chaos. Not always are things so cut and dried however. Dark plots, antiheroes, and morally gray protagonists color fantasy, giving it depth and texture. Universal themes run deeply in fantasy, pumped into the pages from the author's own heart, telling tales of the small conquering the mighty, courage and faith winning the day, sweat, blood, and tears barely justifying the victory. While the characters and settings may change, the fundamental purpose of fantasy stays the same: stories about humanity, and all that entails.

In her essay, Fantasy: why is the genre so popular?, Rowena Daniells quotes Kate Forsyth (The Chain of Charm), who states:

“Fantasy fiction does not deny or diminish the existence of sorrow and pain, as so many people seem to think. The possibility of failure is absolutely necessary for the “piercing sense of joy” one feels when victory is finally and with difficulty won. Like a candle-flame, fantasy casts a shadow at the same time that it illuminates. Yet it is the illumination that is important. Fairy-tales all offer the hope that a happy ending is possible and we need to believe this. Fantasy denies ultimate despair. It holds out the hope for a better world, and signposts the way”.

What can the average reader gain from reading fantasy, and more importantly, what can young minds benefit from this? She continues:

“For the very best fantasy enlightens as well as beguiles, passing on the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors, mapping the boundaries of behaviour, and challenging our preconceptions of what is right and true”.

These qualities can have a profoundly positive affect on a person's mind, imprinting young and old readers alike with a sense of wonder and desire to not only see good done, but to be the ones who do it.

Fantasy has grown as a genre, filling bookshelves, filling minds, and expanding imaginations. Fantasy books have spawned numerous movies, guide books, television shows, trading card games, video games, and much more. Much of today's popular media is brought about by the intrepid few who dared the critic's ire and wrote The Lord of the Ringsand The Chronicles of Narnia.

It hasn't always been a smooth road. Fantasy as a whole has come under attack from many sources, and for many reasons. Religious fanatics condemning magic as unholy, professors and educators calling it down as worthless, and men and women who simply cannot suspend their sense of disbelief calling it childish have sought to belittle its authors and readership. Even some fans of fantasy themselves rail against the beast it has become, calling newly released books by the derogatory term, “extruded fantasy product”, believing the archetypal stories to be squeezed-out drivel. Such criticisms can be the most hurtful, for they misunderstand the whole reason for fantasy's existence, to the accuser's loss. Fantasy is not intended to push the envelope, or walk the edge of what is socially acceptable, but to reinforce stories of goodness, and encourage imitation of such in real life. Once again, Kate Forsyth has a solid point, in fantasy's favor: “When it was published, one critic dismissed Tolkien's mammoth and scholarly work as a 'don's whimsy'. Yet is has never been out of print, has spawned countless imitations, and is now an industry in itself, ranging from scholarly critical appraisals to pictorial guides to the habits of hobbits. There is graffiti in university toilets that reads 'Frodo lives'; and you can buy car-stickers that say: 'Tolkien Is Hobbit-Forming'. Very few people have ever read James Joyce; most have read Tolkien.”

So why would anyone read about elves and dwarves, magic and dragons? Each fan might have a different answer, each passionate and thoughtful. For some it might be the magic, a wondrous and ethereal power that can do amazing things, or a dreaded black hole of fear and control, depending on its use. For others it may be the long standing theme of good versus evil, where anyone, no matter how insignificant or poor, may stand up to evil and all its powers, if only given the chance. Kate Forsyth quotes Stephen Donaldson on the subject of why fantasy is relevant in today's world:

"One of the oldest and most enduring forms of literature in all languages is fantasy. We need metaphors of magic and monsters to understand the human condition. It's only in modern times that we have suddenly decided this narrative language isn't serious, that it's for children; grown-ups don't believe these things... We've reached the point in our sophistication of our self-perceptions when it no longer seems possible to make epic statements about the meaning of life. You get laughed at for doing it, and epics ceased to be written. But in order for us to have this type of heroism, beauty, glory, magic and power we have to get away from real life” (Forsyth).

Peter Orullian, author of the newly released epic fantasy novel from Tor Fiction The Unremembered adds this, “There are many reasons I love to both read and write fantasy fiction. But high among them is the opportunity to treat Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Few fiction genres can do it so well”. The hero's journey is the quintessential story of the departure, initiation, and return of a hero, usually following the path of personal growth and development of character (Bronzite). Such stories empower us as human beings, bolstering our hearts and minds to reach for the unattainable. It may simply be a book clutched in the hands of a fourteen year-old girl or boy, but one day, that young person will wake up to find themselves a grown adult, ready to face the challenging world, armed with the heartfelt truths and goodness of the stories from their youth.

It is clear that fantasy is here to stay. Going forward, readers will continue to discover not only strange new worlds inhabited by fantastic beings and creatures, but also discover a bit of themselves within every book they read. After all, fiction and non-fiction alike have had one purpose from the beginning of time: to explore ourselves.

Works Cited

Asher-Perrin, Emily. Growing Up Potter, Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beagle, Peter S. The Secret History of Fantasy, 2010

Bronzite, Dan. The Hero's Journey - Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth

Daniells, Rowena Corey. Fantasy: Why Is the Genre So Popular?

Doughan, David. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biographical Sketch, 2002

Forsyth, Kate. Altair Magazine, Issue 2, 1998

Orullian, Peter. Personal Interview, June 19, 2011

Sanderson, Brandon. Goodbye Mr. Jordan, September 19, 2007

Zimbardo, Rose A. and Neil Isaacs. Understanding The Lord of the Rings, 2004

Works Consulted

Schwartz, Evan I. Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story,2009

Jordan, Robert and Theresa Patterson. The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time,1997

Jordan, Robert. The Eye of the World, 1990


  1. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Wow! I hope you plan on submitting this essay to an industry publication. It's outstanding! I've never understood fantasy nor would even call myself a fan. However, I highly respect the genre and the classic authors who define and contribute to fantasy.

    I dare say you have swayed me to take a much closer look!

  2. Gonna translate this to portuguese and present your essay to brazilians! We are too needed to reflect on how fantasy is important to society!

  3. Loved your article I posted it on my Facebook page.

    I'm a fantasy artist so it was a lovely read!