As a young woman I became absorbed in romantic literature for a time; and by literature I mean Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, whose writing I found delightful – full of passion and manners I hoped one day to emulate. I read Catherine Gaskin, and adored the historical detail and plots in which the heroine always found her partner in unexpected men, who rarely appeared at first to be the sort who could love. I tried to read more popular works, by Nicholas Sparks or Diana Gabaldon, but they lacked something for me; perhaps it was detail or uncertainty or passion in some way, but they never found a place in my reading world.
From a young age I also enjoyed books of fantasy and magic. I probably began with C. S. Lewis. The Narnia series were a delight to be read and reread, with the characters forming a place in heart and mind which offered hope of bravery, courage and companionship. I found Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books and fell into that world too; and from it to her science fiction, a trail I have continued to follow ever since. My reading has ranged widely over the years, and my shelves groan under the weight of my varied decisions. I have developed an affection for non-fiction as an adult my younger self would be surprised by, autobiography and memoir feature, but my preference is for science, and the history of discovery. In that world I have found so much which has delighted and expanded my understanding of the world. The Map That Changed The World and The Disappearing Spoon are standouts, which have each served to deepen my knowledge and thinking about the world and its history. Nonetheless, when I require reading to relax with or escape with or deny the world with, I turn to fantasy.
For many years I regarded this preference as a guilty pleasure. I felt that in loving fantasy I was displaying my childishness or a weakness of some kind. In some company admitting a love of fantasy seemed like a laughing matter – ‘How could you?’ kind of thing. In feeling this way I bought into the belief that fantasy is escapist, simplistic, a kind of denial of reality. I have been asked why I like this genre, in tones which support the view that in reading it I reveal an aspect of my personality which opens itself to criticism or mockery. Like sneaking chocolate after a long week, I continued to read fantasy whenever I could spare the time for long series [as they often are] which would absorb me for days, or even weeks at a time. Because of this, they often became my holidays reads of choice – a kind of reward for the hard, real work of life. I now have one room which houses bookshelves of fantasy and science fiction only. Brushing my eyes across the spines refreshes me, reminding me of the hours of pleasure I have found lost in other worlds. Lately I have been giving thought to my long standing acceptance of the ‘escapist’ view, and finally I have come to realise that this is not why I prefer fantasy to romance. My affection runs much deeper.
Now in my middle years I have turned away from romantic fiction almost entirely; I will read young adult romance, but primarily so I can offer reading advice to students. I had thought that perhaps I had become too cynical for romance; long married, I wondered if I no longer found the notion of discovering ‘true’ love worth bothering about. However, I have at last understood that it is my very lack of cynicism which leads me away. It is not that love is not a worthy subject, or that finding love is not one of the most human of needs, what bothers me about romance is the selfishness of it. As a genre it depends on its audiences obsession with the idea that love is about destiny, or fate. That happiness can be found in the arms of another, and it focuses on an individuals search or discovery of this ‘truth’. Now I will often pick up Georgette Heyer for a quick read which satisfies the need to escape for a while; I love her attention to historical detail and can be swept up in the predictability of her plots, however this reading does not nourish me the way fantasy does and for a long time I have wondered why this is so. Today, as I finish Terry Brooks Heritage of Shannara series I believe I have come to an understanding.
It is true that fantasy removes the reader from the ‘real’ world, to one frequently inhabited by mythical creatures, magic and identifiable evil. These worlds are underpinned by a connection to a life force which can be manipulated for good, or evil, and in which these forces fight for control. Fantasy writers refer to worlds in which ‘technology’ does not exist, where swords and hunting and horses and more primitive living conditions dominate. Even the cities described seem to have emerged from the middle ages, where people cook over fires and water must be heated and poured into baths. Implements and weapons are forged by hand, people make do and work together – it is into this concept that my thoughts have delved. What I have come to understand is that my love of fantasy is rooted in this collegial, collaborativeness which lies at the heart of all fantasy I have read. I am a person who believes in the collective. I trust people to find ways through troubles and find solutions; I have spent my life as a teacher trying to demonstrate the importance of such collaboration. So, in spite of the settings in imagined worlds, in spite of the prevalence of magic [which often turns out to be using inner strength and attributes, or a representative metaphor of this power], in spite of fantastical creatures or ‘primitive’ worlds, what fantasy offers is an inherent faith in humanities capacity to overcome hardship, the machinations of ‘evil’ and the uncertainty which assails us all to achieve positive outcomes. The difference in fantasy is that this is never the role of a single individual. Only by working together, by accepting compromise, by making hard choices, by defeating the doubts about ability, capacity or strength can darkness be defeated.
While it is true that darkness is always defeated, it is natural and human for narrative to suggest that positive outcomes are more likely than negative ones. Who wants to read stories in which darkness overwhelms light? We struggle constantly to ensure that light will shine into the darkest corners; we war over it, argue over it, debate it endlessly. Why? Because the majority seek, or at least believe, that right will overcome might. We may not always agree about who or what is right, but fantasy solves that dilemma by making the sides obvious. Still, at its heart lies the confident belief that if we work together, if we overcome the voice of doubt and criticism we all carry within, if we allow others to help us when we are down, if we trust we can win. In this message lies my love of the genre. Of course not all of it is well written, not all of it is worth the time or trouble taken to read it – but isn’t this true of all fiction? The fact remains, that in fantasy I feel nourished by the underlying value system which believes that only together can we find our way. For me this message supplies hope that we may lose our way, we may question but ultimately we can succeed. This is a voice and message I long to hear.