Started and finished in 24 hours after the editor asked me for a piece about the appeal of fantasy.
A PASSAGE TO NEVERLAND
by Stephen Lord
I have never believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. I do, however, believe stories give us the strength to get through everyday life in one piece. This is the closest thing I have to a manifesto and I hope it's the only one I'll ever need.
I am not alone in my conviction. Stephen King, one of few popular writers ever to achieve both mass appeal and a degree of critical respect in his own lifetime, once remarked “...those lovely figures who dance in the smoke have saved my life from time to time.” They've saved mine once or twice too, by giving me something to believe in and aspire to when I found the 'real' world either lacking or disappointing.
Human beings are storytellers by nature. This ability stems from the need to imagine a meaning, or at least a sense of purpose. Such a unique power, gift and curse in equal measure, is either a quirk of evolution or proof that God (who or whatever it may be) has a very strange sense of humour!
Nowhere do we put this dubious talent to better use than in the realms of the fantastique. I use the French word as an umbrella term for all flavours of fantasy, science fiction and horror because, unlike many overzealous editors, publishers, librarians, book sellers or readers, I see no need to divide them into separate categories. They each involve building worlds that are shadows or reflections of one we recognise and they each depend on a willing suspension of disbelief for their narrative conceits to work. Are the “scientific romances” of Jules Verne or HG Wells so far removed from the (albeit allegorical) escapism of CS Lewis' Narnia or JRR Tolkein's Middle Earth that they don't require a similar leap of imagination? Not at all, because every story, whatever its genre, begins in the same place. Neil Gaiman, in his Books of Magic series, explains:
“There are only two worlds- your world, which is the real world, and the other worlds, the fantasy. Worlds like this are worlds of the human imagination: their reality, or lack of reality, is not important. What is important is that they are there. These worlds provide an alternative. Provide an escape. Provide a threat. Provide a dream, and power; provide refuge, and pain. They give your world meaning. They do not exist; and thus they are all that matters. Do you understand?”
Gaiman speaks these words through Titania, queen of Faerie. Habitual rationalists and that particular species of adult who thinks grown-up has to be a synonym for boring, insist our adventures in this enchanted land are mere trifles to be outgrown and discarded with the coming of age, like the childish things St Paul boasts about putting away. They couldn't be more wrong. Regular visits to the realm we know as Neverland, Eden, Faerie or Make-Believe are not indulgences but necessities to keep us going, keep us dreaming and keep us sane.
Having said all that, I often find the overly derivative approach to modern fantasy a little too escapist. Tolkein's faux-medieval Middle Earth was an idyllic response to the horrors of war. It found a place in the hearts of the peace and love generation and the many writers who followed its architect's example, but very little of it resonated with me. I prefer the sort of book whose dream, nightmare or parallel world exists alongside our own. The temporary and imperfect marriage of the mundane and the miraculous gives the players a point of reference, just as the process of slaying the dragon, completing the quest or rescuing the princess shows them they have abilities and resources they never imagined. Knowledge of these newfound skills gives them confidence to confront and resolve any problems in their everyday lives when they step back through the mirror and have to resume the dreary business of being. That is a true hero's journey, with lessons and self-discoveries aplenty.
After scaring many critics, and even more readers, silly with six volumes of visionary and visceral horror stories (The Books of Blood), Clive Barker's fiction took an unexpected but very welcome turn toward the fantastique. In novels like Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show and Imajica , he maps worlds beneath, between and beyond the one we have been conditioned to accept as real. He opens the eyes and minds of his characters and readers and, in doing so, rails against the arbitrarily-imposed conventions of genre.
“I do not consider myself to be a horror writer, any more than I consider myself a fantasy writer or a science fiction writer. I am a writer who works in my imagination. The only difference in the world of literature, it seems to me, is between the guy who writes out of a perceived reality and the guy who creates one for himself.”
Champions of “quality”, capital L literature should note that this single and simple distinction makes no claims of superiority. The “perceived reality” of the realistic human drama, complete with examinations of and insights into the condition of its cast, is no more or less significant than an epic, life and death struggle on the alien shores of an invented world. Indeed, themes are universal no matter which universe their parent stories occur in.
The final, and perhaps most important, function of the fantastique is to reimagine and reinvent tales we've told each other since we first learned how to share them. If, as singer/songwriter Tori Amos suggests, “mythology is just history that we've forgotten”, I can think of no better way to refresh my memory.
Beginning with The Autumn Castle in 2003, Australia's Kim Wilkins set off on her own trek through the dreamscape of European folklore. The three book Europa Suite (whose other volumes are Giants of the Frost and Rosa and the Veil of Gold) may draw its inspiration from sources as old as storytelling itself, yet it is fresher and more exciting than many of its contemporaries. Wilkins makes superb use of established devices- like the quest and the dream voyage from one reality to another- as catalysts for innovative and unforgettable stories. Her intertwining of the real world with the mythical and legendary is powerful and seamless, lingering in the memory long after each adventure ends.
Whether it means a temporary return to the innocence of childhood, a welcome reprieve from the demands of the daily drudge or an overdue escape to a realm whose rules make more sense to us than those of the world we're fated to live in, the lure of the fantastique is immeasurable and inestimable. As GK Chesterton puts it: “Fairy tales are more than true - not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
(Stephen Lord lives in Adelaide, where he divides his time between daydreaming and writing moderately supernatural crime fiction. He has not yet learned to fly, but has so far managed to avoid growing up.)
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