An ignorant take on fantasy - by Bill Kirton

There are more things in heaven and earth...
My first ever guest blog was a response to an invitation to contribute to a site aimed at writers and readers of fantasy and historical fiction. OK, I’ve written a historical novel, a historical short story and some kids’ stories about a fairy, but I know precious little about fantasy. I did once write a rather nasty erotic fantasy at the request of the editor of an online magazine. It was based on a conversation I had with a friend who, to my surprise, revealed that, for her, pain was an essential part of sexual pleasure. It seems that it makes the gentler bits even more gentle. In other words, it’s the equivalent of banging your head against a wall in order to feel good when you stop doing it.

I wasn’t sure how any of this qualified me to say anything relevant about the fantasy genre, especially since I have no belief in anything supernatural, so I looked around my immediate surroundings for a potential fantastical subject. I imagined that, first of all, I’d have to suspend my normal beliefs and perceptions and that they’d be replaced by others which I’d have to invent. Fantasy no doubt frees you but it simultaneously creates other restraints arising from its settings and conventions. Anyway, this was the result:

My feet are up on the desk and I have the keyboard on my lap. So what if, instead of being aware of ‘me’ in my head, ‘me’ was over there in my feet? How would that alter my perception of the world? Well, for a start, I’d see less of it – no, not because I’d be inside a shoe most of the time, but because my viewpoint would be so low down. On the other hand, I’d be nearer the earth and could hear and feel its rhythms more intensely.

Wait a minute though. I said ‘see’ and ‘hear’. So do my eyes and ears have to be down there too? If so, it means relocating all my main features around my ankles, which leaves me (and everyone else in this brave new world) with a head which now is basically a bone globe with skin and hair stretched over it. Well, at least that would overcome the problem of not being able to put names to faces.

But no, of course, the sense organs would all be left where they are and the brain could still process their information if it was tucked between some metatarsals. And, since the feet are the things which support my physical self and the brain is the basis of my abstract self, I have a convenient parallel which I can exploit to pretend that I’m saying something significant. So this particular distortion of reality begins to open some interesting possibilities. The cutting of toenails could be seen as a lobotomy, bunions could be the outward manifestations of existential angst, and an entire race of creatures thus constituted might be wiped out by a plague of athlete’s foot.

Waiting for the dark
By now you’ll have either stopped reading or realised that I know even less about the subject than I claimed at the start. The truth is that I’m trying too hard. I know really that all I have to do is free the various objects about me and let them be what they want. The paper knife on the desk will shine and glow when I leave this evening and, as the darkness creeps in, it’ll be picked up by the small creature which left it there early this morning. He, she or it will look from the desk’s plateau across the void to the model boats sitting on the little table, bucking and rocking under the cliffs of books. The carved wooden eagle perched among the flowers outside the window will stretch its wings and carry the creature and its sword to the bottom of the garden, where the granite wall will open and show the fires flickering up from its depths onto the undersides of the clouds. And then there’ll be the songs and voices, the cries of prisoners, the gropings of blind, lost sisters, the unearthly growling of the ebony dogs.

And suddenly, I get a sort of intimation of the strength of fantasy. When I draw back from my imaginings, what am I left with? Predictability. Everything around me has a function, a specific, defined purpose. Even me. And it makes no concessions to the magic that makes the grasses and flowers outside appear each spring. The clouds aren’t billowing sails of aerial galleons but mere water vapour. The faint tick of the clock is simply an inevitable, mechanical fact, whereas I now know that, at night, it will separate itself from the clock, become the pulse of something, supply the rhythm of a creature’s advance.

I said I have no beliefs in the supernatural. This isn’t that, it’s natural. We carry all these race memories, dreams, imaginings; we can release people and things from their restricted functions. Maybe fantasy is simply a means of relaxing our grip on experience, a way to deny chronology and inevitability. Maybe it’s just a less uptight reality.

(By the way, the fact that this appeared just a day after Debbie's post on a similar theme is purely coincidental. Unless...)


Mari Biella said…
A beautiful insight into the power and meaning of fantasy. Fantasy perhaps owes much of its strength to the way in which it allows us to look beyond accepted reality – to see not simply what is, but what might be. I think it’s similar to dreaming: it’s not real in the accepted sense, but it’s somehow true.
Lynne Garner said…
Who is to say fantasy is just about wooden eagles stretching their wings. It's also the scary thing living under the bed when we were kids. It's dreaming of being on a sun soaked beach with a cool drink in hand. Anything that takes us out of the here and now, the real world. For me that's fantasy.
Bill Kirton said…
As usual, I've been a bit lax with my definitions. I agree, Lynne, that fantasy can be anything that is 'other', but my remit was to write about fantasy as a literary genre.
And Mari, I like the distinction you make between 'real' and 'true'.
So thought-provoking. I love fantasy, having no trouble at all with believing any number of impossible things before breakfast. And I like Mari's distinction between real and true. When Richard Dawkins can bring himself to believe that fairy tales are a pernicious influence on the minds of the young, he and others like him, seem to have lost an element of perception that would easily have been understood and accepted by a great many other cultures over time and place - the ease with which something can be understood as being not necessarily real, but containing an element of important truth. In fact it's when fictional fantasy loses that essential truth that it doesn't work.
Nick Green said…
Of course, most of what is called Fantasy isn't really that fantastical at all. For the truly surreal and outlandish, you're better off turning to magic realism. What I think of as archetypal fantasy (Tolkien etc) tends to be rooted in worlds where everything works pretty much the same as in this one, only with more robes and swords and a touch of magic in place of modern technology. (But then, Tolkien call his work Romance rather than fantasy. Today he'd be sued under the Trades Descriptions Act.)
Lydia Bennet said…
Thought provoking post Bill, some great comments too, we are all in the fantasy business one way or another I suppose! It's all about the 'what if' which is the basis of stories.
Can I mention (again, I know, I know) China Mieville's work, where nothing works like it does in this world? Probably why I love his work so much. It does strange things to your brain. But I know a lot of people don't like it, perhaps for that very reason. You spend a lot of time thinking 'hold on a minute ...' but I find it totally involving, once you decide that practically nothing will work as it does in this world!

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