Reading Fantasy

romantic novelist reading aloudDuring 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.

World building fantasy mirrorWell 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?

Beaulieu River near FawleyMy mother was the first person to ask me “Why read fantasy?” I was deep in The Lord of the Rings at the time. Actually I was weeping over Gimli’s parting from Galadriel in the forest. (I still do.)

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.”

clock showing just after half past 12She went off muttering, “And he was a don! Supposed to be educating people! What was the man thinking of?”

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

The Hero Rescuer has bit of a problem in modern times. Basically he deprives the person he rescues of agency.

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.)

But I already had a well-stocked library of fantasy novels that I read and re-read because they tell me things about the world, relationships and myself. And possibilities. even hope.

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

But probably, for me, the most striking example of fantasy telling the reader the strangeness that humanity experiences and what it can do about it is Diana Wynne Jones’s haunting 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. 

5 golden rings, Lord of the RingsAnd the person she rescues is trying all the time to give her – and himself – the best possible chance.

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.

Sophie Weston Author


16 thoughts on “Reading Fantasy

  1. Liz Fielding

    It’s been more than 40 years since I read Lord of the Rings and I haven’t read much fantasy since. This post has my mouth watering for more. It’s the season for it. As for monsters under the bed – they come in all guises. My daughter was terrified that Mr Tickle, with his long arms, was lying in wait under her bed.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I’m with your daughter every step of the way, Liz. Mr Tickle was definitely not one of the good guys. Just the thought of him still makes me shudder.

  2. John Jackson

    There are SO many really good fantasy writers – even apart from the giants that are Tolkein and Pratchett. You already mentioned Ursula Le Guin. I would add Anna McCaffrey, Roger Zelazny, and of course, Michael Moorcock in a heartbeat.

    Great post! Thank you.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You are so right, John. I loved The Dragons of Pern when I first read them. And Restoree, one of Anne McCaffrey’s stand-alone stories, if I remember rightly, has always held its place on my bookshelf. Which is no mean feat, believe me. So many books, so little shelf space.

  3. lesley2cats

    I’ve read very little fantasy, Lord of the Rings, of course, and you introduced me to Diana Wynne Jones, but not much more. I might have to have another go… There was a Terry Someone, too, who wrote a mix of fantasy and reality, and Alan Garner and Robin Jarvis. So actually I’ve read more than I thought…

    1. Sophie Post author

      So glad you like Diana Wynne Jones, Lesley. She’s one of my all time favourites.

      Was the Terry Something Terry Nation? He was a Dr Who scriptwriter as well and turned a lot of DR Who scripts into novels, I think. He also wrote a thing called Survivors, which was pretty much After the Pandemic. (Rather like the sequel someone wrote to The Day of the Triffids.) Not one to read at the moment, I feel.

      If you read wonderful Alan Garner, did you come across Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising? Fabulous book, allegedly for children.

      Ooo, good, don’t know Robin Jarvis. Have had a look and he’s gone straight onto my TBR list. Thank you.

  4. Louise Allen

    Have read the Lord of the Rings & the Hobbit, but feel no need to ever reread them again. Not a ‘mainstream’ fantasy reader. Love Pratchett. Met Anne MacCaffrey once – invited her to speak at Herts LitFest – fascinating person and very modest, undemanding speaker. (Come to think of it, also invited TP to LitFest & he came & was lovely too)

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh, I wish I’d heard Anne MacCaffrey, Louise. She wrote some cracking books.

  5. Alison Morton

    As a writer of alternative history, I cannot understand why everything scifi and fantasy is so easily dismissed. Well written, it provokes, incites and lets your imagination travel to all kinds of imagined situations, times and characters. ‘What if?’ is one of the biggest questions we can ask of our world and ourselves.
    Perhaps the ‘dismissers’ are scared of making that trip into an alternative reality and possibly facing questions they’d rather keep suppressed.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Interesting thought, Alison. I think you could be right. The moment you step outside the bounds of verifiable fact, I suppose you open the door to whatever comes. It may just include unreason and nightmares. And who knows how hard it would be to kick them out again?

  6. Sue McCormick

    A wonderful post — and you and the comments have mentioned many of my favorite writers of Fantasy.

    I would like to add that “hard” science fiction often includes some fantasy elements. EVERYTHING about true space travel is still very much a matter of imagitnation with it’s own monsters under the bed and its own helpful faries and heros.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Hello Sue. So glad you enjoyed the post. It just touches the surfaces, really.

      I agree with you about science fiction. Philip K DIck, for instance, one of my favourite writers (though never a comfort read) certainly has wild elements that come straight out of fantasy.

      But then I think hard science must be more intensely emotional than the techno-heads sometimes want to admit.

  7. Sandra Mackness

    Such a fascinating post and great comments. Thank you. I have The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern on my TBR list but you’re tempting me with so many other suggestions…

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