The Reality of Fantasy (or the Fantasy of Reality)

What with the Narnia books being made into a movie and the revival of Lord of the Rings, I've pondered if we are living in a fantastical age: we've somehow wormholed our way back to the time of Spenser and Shelley and Shakespeare. But no, I tell myself, this is the age of Reality TV shows. Except once I think about it, the 16th century was kind of the age of Reality TV shows too: all that hard-headed Elizabethean diplomacy rampaging alongside nostalgic romanticism (which is one reason Shakespeare is so multifaceted and bizarre).

In a way, our age is more like the 16th century than the 1970s ever were. I think the burst of mysticism and magick and earth goddess worship and Joseph Campbelling and such in the 1970s wasn't born out of hard-headedness or a desire for reality. Wishful thinking maybe. The culture of the 1970s was much closer to the romantic goop of the 19th century (more late Wordsworth than Austen). Coleridge could have made the transition from romantic goop to realistic fantasy and Keats was no drooping poet in white, despite the maudlin poetry. (He was more stocky-hacking up blood- belligerent poet.) Still, the romantics come off collectively as rather unrealistic. Supporting the French Revolution always strikes me as rather unrealistic. But perhaps that is the benefit of hindsight.

In any case, I think the fantasy of our age is aimed more at realism. I'm not going to say whether that is good or bad. At the root of it all is myth-making, but the interpretation is far more given to rationality. This is, I think, one reason world fantasy is so popular (as opposed to the purely modern fantasy of Paul Beagle or the witty fantasy of Douglas Adams, the fairytales of Nicholas Stuart Gray or the even darker fairytales of Tanith Lee). Rather, the focus is on fully developed worlds, fully developed societies in which the action unwinds not in a narrow stretch of geography (see Cherryh's Rusalka) but takes place in a fully complex arena (see Cherryh's science-fiction series Foreigner).

This brings us to the fantastic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark; Pullman's trilogy; David Eddings, Stephen Donaldson, McCaffrey, McKillip (although McKillip's Riddle-Master series is much more character-focused than place focused); Dune (well, yes, it's sci-fi but the lines sometimes blur and this is one of them); Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son series, J.K. Rowlings and so on.

Unfortunately, all this world fantasy puts me, as a writer, at a disadvantage. My writing ability stops somewhere south of world development, and I have to fill the gap with craft and luck. (The trick is to pick one world and keep adding to it with each story and voila! before you know it, you've got a fully developed world.) I have a very high opinion of those authors who can devise functional worlds where they seem to know the population density, imports and exports and even when the trains run. And I can marvel at (and covet) the popularity.

The popularity stems not, I think, from escapism; at least, reading world fantasy leaves one as prone to escapism as any reading (even reading hoity-toity, important, non-fiction tomes lends itself to escapism). I think it comes down rather to the sense of reality, the idea that the world is a complicated place. Even the grad students I attend classes with are less enamored than grad students used to be of blanket ideologies and assumptions. Maybe they've all been brainwashed by deconstructionalists but I choose to think they are simply more mature. As one grows older, it's a little hard to avoid the fact that the world is a complicated and fascinating place. As always, fiction reflects reality. So we revive Lord of the Rings, and we bring back Star Wars and if they fall short of our expectations, it is only because our expectations have grown. We don't necessarily expect fiction to solve our problems but we do expect it to mirror us successfully, to show us our face, and we select and discard mirrors accordingly.

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