During lockdown I’ve been reading even more than usual – and looking back over my Kindle intake for the last 13 weeks, I see that a surprising amount of it is fantasy. I use the term to embrace novels that may be classified also as paranormal, speculative fiction, time travel, alternative history, steampunk or even science fiction.
I was telling a friend this and he looked rather shocked. “You must have been desperate,” he said.
Well yes, I was – desperate for a cracking good read that would take me somewhere other than a world I was rather fond which seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. But not so desperate that I lurched into uncharted jungle. I like fantasy. I’ve always read quite a bit of it anyway. Didn’t he?
He shuddered. “Oh romance!” he said. (Actually he said something rather crisper than that, and I found it funny and shouldn’t have, so I’m not sharing.)
I conscientiously did not take umbrage. (And a lot of it was not at all romantic, anyway.) But it set me thinking.
Why Read Fantasy?
My mother just couldn’t understand it. “But it’s not real,” she said.
I pointed out that neither was Anna Karenina. And I knew she’d wept buckets over that, because she told me so herself. “Yes,’ said my mother unanswerably, “but Anna Karenina might have been lots of people. Nobody was or is ever going to be a Tolkien dwarf.”
Then she shouted up the stairs, “When are you going to do your homework?”
The subtext clearly was terrible waste of time.
Fantasy and Folk Lore
I didn’t agree with her then and I don’t agree with her now. I’ve been a reader of fantasy pretty much all my life. I started off with Lang’s Fairy Books. I found a couple on the bookshelf of an ageing relative and the rest in the public library, God bless it.
There were 12 of them in various colours, the first Blue the last, The Lilac Fairy Book. As well as other journalism, translation, historical monographs and studies, Lang produced an impressive assortment of other stories, including The Arabian Nights
Lang was one of the Renaissance men of late Victorian England – a classicist, an historian, interested in literature, religion and also psychical research and, above all, folk lore.
Taking Fantasy Seriously
Like Francis James Child, out collecting English and Scottish Popular Ballads which he published 1882-1898, or Sir James Frazer who published The Golden Bough in 1890, Lang took folk stories seriously.
I was a straightforward child. I didn’t expect to meet a wicked fairy queen or a duplicitous genie on the bus to school,
But I suspended disbelief for the duration of the story. I knew that something real was happening here.
Fantasy and The Enemy
Folklore and myth is full of powerful enemies – the gods in a bad mood, a witch with a grudge, a vampire feeling thirsty. The Bible gives us the serpent in the Garden, motiveless malice which could have been defied. Only it wasn’t, because mankind (i.e us) was too weak.
But what if mankind was just too afraid? And with justification?
In childhood we dread monsters under the bed. Saying that it is irrational, doesn’t banish the fear. And fear drives – or impedes – action.
Tolkien, who served in France during the First World War, turned the horrors of the devastated battlefield into Mordor. Sauron is the great enemy, with all the characteristics of the mediaeval devil combined with Milton’s Satan. And that is allied to the terrifying ability to sway the cleverest and bravest like the most guileful twenty-first century PR guru.
The reader knows, throughout all three volumes, that this is a war which we may well lose. And if we win, it will be at terrible cost.
By contrast, Terry Pratchett, who also took childhood horrors seriously, endows Susan, Death’s granddaughter, when she is temporarily a governess, with a poker to beat the living daylights out of the bogeyman under the bed.
The violence comforts the children enormously.
Violence is one of the things that fantasy is still allowed to show as Not Always A Bad Thing.
Fantasy and the Rescuer
Incidentally, this wiped out one of the great tropes of romantic fiction for 200 years or more, with the wave of a gender politics wand.
This is true, even in for instance, Georgian and Regency novels, where a wife genuinely had no legal identity and was effectively her husband’s property. Perfect opportunity for Sir Galahad, you might think. But we modern readers still recoil.
But in a fantasy novel, if the author constructs the world carefully, he/she can create room for a rescuer that won’t offend 2020 sensibilities.
I have found some wonderful rescuers over the last three months. A whole legion of them in Patricia Briggs’s werewolf saga, the Mercy Thompson books and the linked series Alpha and Omega. (OK, I binge read her.)
And what surprising things people can do, with a bit of belief, a dash of kindness and a lot of luck.
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley, The Queen’s Wing by Jessica Thorne, The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson (woman versus Autocorrect is just the first battle with that one. You try googling it !) The Unlikely Ones by Mary Brown, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin…
Fantasy in Fire and Hemlock
The story is based on the ballad of Tam Lin. (see the Child Ballads for assorted versions) which in turn is related to Thomas the Rhymer. A parallel world of inexplicable characters of power and strange limitations is there right from the start. The reader travels through as much of a fog as do the characters.
But the sense of something huge, perceived only out of the corner of the eye, is there too.
As in Tolkien. the hero can only win by losing.
The rescuer is not at all a traditional champion. Indeed, at the start of the book, she is a child and shown as both vulnerable and without many resources. But she is courageous and a truth teller and these qualities help her to muddle her way through in the nick of time.
During her childhood and early adolescence he sends her helpful books – and they are heavily weighted towards fantasy. Five Children and It. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Sword in the Stone. And, of course, The Lord of the Rings.
She even builds a whole story, in which she stars as Hero out of Tolkien. She sends it to him. It won’t do. He writes back, “Use your own ideas.”
Someone else’s fantasy is only the start, you see. To make the magic work, you have to find your own.