There are many things I love in life. I love my parents. I love my friends. I love playing online Tetris for free. I love a tall, ice-cold pint of beer. I love that the space bar will pause Youtube, Hulu, and Netflix Instant viewing.
I love all of these things and never have to defend that. But one thing I occasionally do find myself defending is my love of fantasy.
In a way, I get it. Fantasy is, on its surface, a genre packed to the gills with elves, dragons, and wizards — not exactly grown-up fair. How can a story with magic spells and dashing princes compare to the very realistic plays of Tennessee Williams, the written works of Jack Kerouac, or the films of Gus Van Sant? What makes fantasy so great?
In a word: metaphor.
For those not too proud to explore a work of fantasy and not too dense to look beneath its surface, the fantasy genre is a rich addition to the literary, film, and television canon because it explores very real human problems and desires by creating allegories through which to explore them.
Name any fantasy work that has withstood the test of time, and you will find in it a fable full of lessons of all too real applicability.
Michael Ende’s landmark novel, The Neverending Story, which was turned into a decent movie in the ’80s, is about a young boy named Bastian Balthazar Bux, who is neglected by his father and bullied by his schoolmates. He finds a book that transports him into another world called Fantasia, a world that is the embodiment of all the dreams and fantasies of the real world, which is being destroyed by an enemy called the Nothing.
The story is moving and absorbing not due to its host of magical creatures, but because it taps in all of us that longing to be a child again, to be able to lose yourself in worlds of your own creation, before the dark, unimaginative specter of adulthood falls upon us.
This theme of the wonder of a child’s imagination is explored many times over in fantasy, from The Wizard of Oz to The Chronicles of Narnia to Labyrinth.
While passionate, romantic love is a theme explored in virtually every genre imaginable, has there ever been a better representation of the honest, pure love between friends as there was in The Lord of the Rings? The entire sprawling epic that is Tolkien’s masterpiece essentially hangs on a single conceit: that we as an audience accept that Sam will do anything for Frodo.
This is a hard sell for some, because the notion of the power and beauty of platonic love is not a prevalent idea in our culture. Their relationship isn’t romantic so there’s no promise of sex. Frodo is hardly royalty so there’s no allure of vast treasures. Sam is committed to Frodo, with no reward expected, because that’s just the kind of person he is, and who wouldn’t want a friend like Sam? Who wouldn’t want to be a friend like Sam?
Toss in the fact that it’s two lowly hobbits, humble and small in stature, who succeed in saving the world, and you have a classic for the ages. It takes a story about hobbits to make us see the wonder in our fellow man.
This past year, the high fantasy television show Legend of the Seeker came into its own when episodes began appearing that were not necessarily part of the larger plot, but instead focused on characters by throwing them into fantastical situations that mirrored real life problems.
Kahlan, a young woman who was torn between her sense of duty and her love for her companion, Richard, was in one episode magically split into two people, and through this spell we came to learn much about her and how difficult her burden really was.
Another episode featured Cara, a woman who was abducted and brainwashed and turned into a killer. As she attempted to regain her humanity, she was turned into a Baneling (basically a sentient zombie), thus making her metaphorical fight to be a regular person quite literal.
The point is that we could have simply watched biopics of Margaret Thatcher or Patty Hearst, and I’m sure some would be content to do just that, but those projects are limited to the real and mundane. By steeping a story in allegory, you have a much larger canvas on which to paint.
I suppose the fantasy genre will always be overlooked by those who wish to appear highbrow. After all, magic and flights of fancy are a hard sell to the academic.
But for those of us in the know, fantasy has a way of engaging our suspension of disbelief by accessing the emotional truths in stories about hobbits and goblins, and reflecting the realities of our world through a supernatural lens. Like opera and musical theater, which engage our emotions through music rather than realism, fantasy will forever be a step removed from reality, but never so far that we can’t recognize it. And it’s because of that very distance from reality that the genre is able to remark on it so keenly.
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