In the last post, I talked about fiction and fantasy. What’s the point?
In particular, I discussed the issue of “escapism” which is so often thrown out slanderously at all of us slummers who prefer our fiction riddled with new and interesting worlds.
I’d like to continue the discussion of what fiction and again, in particular fantasy, have to offer the world. What’s the point?
Let’s look at the author Guy Gavriel Kay for a moment. If you haven’t read Kay, you need to, and I mean all of it. Start with The Summer Tree and just keep reading. Jump to Amazon from the link on the right, and pick some up.
Alright, back to the point. Looking into the text of The Summer Tree, the first book of Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, one will soon find a strength which lives rooted in fiction. There is a pathos woven into the very fabric of what makes a story. This emotional appeal is evident because of one source—characters.
Among other things and people, Kay creates in The Summer Tree a young man in his early twenties named Paul Schafer. Paul sacrifices his own life as penance for another, that is until the god makes him twice born and sends him back. When Paul is about to die, his inner guilt and anguish will not let him rest even at the end, particularly at the end. We, the readers learn why Paul deems such self abuse to be necessary, and one might weep at the torment, just as one might weep for a friend. For that is what Paul has become. That is what all the Pauls of fantasy and of fiction are; they are friends and more; they are friends whose souls have been laid bare with the rain falling on a dark night. The reader is Paul. Paul is the reader and the reader’s best friend—a friend who cannot be comforted for all means of comfort have been stripped away leaving only the tears.
Human beings are moved and swayed by their emotions. Though some might argue this to be weakness, or perhaps more fitting, dangerous, it is no less true. The rhetorical power of emotion is perhaps the most alive in fantasy, and whether its sway will be used for good or ill in a reader’s life and mind is irrelevant beside the mere fact of its existence.
This is, however, not the only strength, rhetorical or otherwise, of fantasy fiction. As Kay stated to Robert Crew from the Toronto Star, “I do want to give you that escapist adventure, I do want you crying with my characters, but I also want you to be brought home to the situation in your own world by the themes I explore within that setting.”
There are themes running through the books of fantasy and through them you can see the author’s fingerprints. Using the escape we talked about before, a fantasy author has the ability to offer his own thoughts, beliefs, or message (perhaps even a subconscious one) to readers in a way that will be more readily received than if said bluntly.
As Wayne Booth argues in The Rhetoric of Fiction, “In short, the author’s judgment is always present, always evident to anyone who knows how to look for it….though the author can to some extent choose his disguises, he can never choose to disappear.” An author’s thoughts, ideas, and beliefs shape a backdrop for all other things to be seen against, but if one looks closely they can discern the picture of the backdrop itself.
Guy Gavriel Kay offers a picture of the sacrificial power contained within friendship in The Summer Tree. This theme is painted in the lives of many individuals throughout the book and trilogy, but it is particularly true in the case of two individuals. First Dave Martyniuk is told early in the story, and not without good reason, that he is, “too quick to renounce friendship.” Much of Dave’s role in the tale is a journey towards disproving this statement and finding what friendship can be in the life of one who holds himself tightly so as not to let the world in. The other individual in whom this theme runs is Kevin Laine, who after walking a winding road in search of something he himself cannot pinpoint, gives up his life to free his friends from an eternal winter that has bound them in defeat.
Friendship worth sacrificing one’s own life and identity for is a theme valuable to hear in a culture drunk on the belief of individualism and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Moreover, when that message is shared through story rather than simply being stated, it has a far better chance to penetrate our busy lives and minds to take root or at least be fully considered.
Change is tough. Viewpoints not matching our own are rejected out of hand when just thrown at us. Story offers a superior way of communication even over simply stated messages.
At the tail end of The Fionavar Tapestry in the final book, The Darkest Road, a reader finds himself at the very edge of the final battle, the battle that will claim victory in all realms of all worlds. Here on what should be the eve of battle the ominous monster Uathach, the captain of the forces of evil, taunts the protagonists and offers a challenge for single combat. Knowing that no man could battle Uathach and live Kimberly advises that he be ignored and wait for the next day’s battle. But the great warrior from the past refutes her argument saying, “How can we not fight him, Seer? How can we claim to carry our swords in the name of Light, if we are cowards when we stand before the Dark? This challenge goes further back than any of us. Further back, even, than I. What are we if we deny the dance?” Diarmuid, the prince of Brennin, took up the challenge and in the end refuses his own life and safety in order to end that of the monster’s.
Themes such as Friendship and Sacrifice may seem simplistic or even altruistic, but they are themes that this day and age is in need of hearing. Tolkien wrote about simplistic themes in his essay stating, “actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things…but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”
Truth can be found in fantasy; something real can finally be illuminated through the lens of the fantastic.
Fiction need not fall into any cookie cutter shape, whether that be in form or subject matter. Wayne Booth offers an argument by Henry James, the author of The Art of Fiction, stating, “the house of fiction has ‘not one window, but a million,’ that there are, in fact, ‘five million’ ways to tell a story, each of them justified if it provides a ‘center’ for the work.” He then goes on to argue, “he explicitly repudiates any effort to say ‘definitely beforehand what sort of an affair the good novel will be.’ For him (James) the only absolute requirement is that ‘it be interesting.’ He will praise a novel like Treasure Island because it succeeds ‘wonderfully in what it attempts’ even though it has little relation to the kind of realism of subject and manner sought in his own tales.”
The point is not that one type of fiction offers a better insight than any other, but that there are a million different ways for an insight to be offered.
Fantasy’s offering finds its strength in the escape—in the removal from the world of every-day-life. In the book Of Other Worlds Walter Hooper has helped to bring together some of C.S. Lewis’s essays and stories. Hooper has placed a conversation which he entitled “Unreal Estates” that was recorded in C.S. Lewis’s rooms in Magdalene College between Lewis and fellow authors Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss a few years before Lewis retired due to his health.
During this conversation Amis poses the question dealing with Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels. His question went like this, “Swift, if he were writing today, would have to take us out to the planets, wouldn’t he? Now that most of our terra incognita is—real estate.” To this Aldiss replied and Lewis agreed, that quite a bit of eighteenth century fiction was “placed in Australia or similar un-real estates.”
In this conversation these authors are hitting on the point that writers of the past that may now be credited with great works of the literary world were actually writing with fantastic elements. “Swift…would have to take us to the planets” in order to offer the same imagination that he infused into his stories generations ago. Going to the planets is the very same idea as the escapism that is so often scoffed at, but this offering holds the strength of a fresh look at themes in a world unknown to the reader.
Richard M. Weaver wrote in The Ethics of Rhetoric, “[Language] can move us toward what is good; it can move us toward what is evil; or it can, in hypothetical third place, fail to move us at all….But any utterance is a major assumption of responsibility.” Weaver is speaking here in the same vein that Guy Gavriel Kay wrote in his quote from The Summer Tree, “There are kinds of action, for good or ill, that lie so far outside the boundaries of normal behaviour that they force us, in acknowledging that they have occurred, to restructure our own understanding of reality.” The action of writing and of reading fantasy fiction falls within this structure for there is power in taking us to the planets. Once freed from the box of what a reader thinks they know about the world they are open to see things in places they had been blind to before.
This is fiction’s offering.
This is fantasy’s offering.
OK, your turn. What are your thoughts? What do fantasy and fiction offer? Why do you read or not read fiction?
Ryan J. Doughan