I used to know a responsible person who had a brilliant method of evading responsibility. Whenever you asked him anything, he would say, “What you’re really asking is two things here.” And an exhaustive discussion of his quibble would ensue and, in the end, the matter would merit more thought (but, naturally, no action). He was a kind of genius, if being useless is a category of genius.
For all I know, he’s still alive, but his ghost is hovering over my keyboard tonight, because when I started thinking about realism I realized that, not only is it more than one thing, but you can’t talk about it without talking about reality, which is also more than one thing. My trains of thought tend to derail like this. I start by talking about the distinction between strong and weak verbs, and then I talk about something else first to give a context to that, and pretty soon I’m crawling through the back of my closet trying to sort all my shoelaces in matching piles and my kids are screaming at each other trying to figure out which tranquilizer to load in the dartgun.
Still: you can’t get around it. If you believe in external reality, something which exists independent of our thoughts about it, that’s one thing. Our thoughts about it: that’s another. One reality is an unthinkably vast range of data almost all of which we will never have occasion to assimilate into knowledge. The other is a tiny little bite-size version, most of which is wrong, but which has the advantage of fitting into our heads. We call that reality, but it’s really only an abstraction of the real world, a working model based on very incomplete information. We need that model and we need to believe (on faith more than anything else) that it has some sort of reliable correspondence to the real world. When it fails (as it often does) we fiddle with the code a little, reboot it and carry on. Because we have to.
Or we could refrain from doing that. We could settle before the rising tide and command it to recede, go to war with the Ocean because we are angry with Neptune, strike the sun if it insulted us. The trouble with that approach is that it is nuts. It displays an inelasticity of mind that is not consonant with survival. Those people didn’t last long enough to reach the fourth paragraph; if nothing else, they choked on the dangling prepositions in the third. We will miss them, but we will find a way to go on somehow.
There are at least two types of realism, too. C.S. Lewis sorts them out (in An Experiment in Criticism) as Realism of Content and Realism of Presentation.
A fiction is realistic in content when it is probable or “true to life.” … There is no disbelief to be suspended. We never doubt that this is just what might happen.
Realism of Presentation is more obviously relevant to fantasy.
We may cite as examples the dragon “sniffing along the stone” in Beowulf;…the pinnacles in Gawaine that looked as if they were “pared out of paper”; … the fairy bakers in Huon rubbing the paste off their fingers [etc.]
Lewis doesn’t say so, but it seems to me that the trick to realism of presentation is enlisting the reader’s model of reality in the service of the story’s fantasy. People who have never seen a dragon may still be struck by the vivid detail of the dragon sniffing; they’ve seen dogs or other animals doing that. People who’ve never seen fairy bakers but who have made cookies (or seen others do it) will be impressed by the detail of rubbing paste off the fingers. Maybe it never happened, but our model of reality (ever adaptable, unless we are nuts) adapts itself so that we can say, “Okay, but that’s how it would have happened.” Fantasy coopts the familiar in the service of envisioning the unfamiliar, the real in the service of the unreal.
Problems inevitably arise. For one thing, no one’s model of reality really agrees perfectly with anyone else’s, so that the detail which is exactly right for one reader will totally repel another. I’m thinking of Fritz Leiber’s use of the word “smog” to describe the combination of mist and smoke in Lankhmar. Ursula Le Guin (in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” I think) criticized it strongly as breaking the mood. But to me it seems the perfect word. It doesn’t matter if it was coined in modern Los Angeles, not medieval London. Leiber has no (known) readers in medieval London and Lankhmar is not medieval London: all the better if the reader gets the occasional reminder of that. But Le Guin is not wrong, even if I am right: it all depends on what works for the reader.
In extreme cases, people have assimilated certain imaginary figures so strongly to their model of reality that they feel justified in critiquing new fantasy on the basis of their pre-existing impressions. “Elves don’t act like that! Unicorns don’t eat turnips! Dragons don’t have dorsal plates, they have spikes–everyone knows that!” I sort of feel that these readers aren’t playing the game right, but I’ve played it that way myself.
The familiar (either pre-experienced or pre-imagined) can be used as the dominant theme in a fantasy, lulling the reader with its comfort and lack of challenge. Or it can be a way for the storyteller to sneak something unfamiliar into the reader’s embrace. (“And then we’ll get him!”) But I don’t think fantasy can really succeed without some mix of the familiar and the strange. If everything’s all familiar, the reader will drift off into wordwooze (another great Leiber coinage). The mind won’t fully engage with the material because it doesn’t need to: it’s heard all that before. If the material is all strange, the events described will have no point of contact with the reader’s emotions. Either way, there will be a loss of impact.
So fantasists are like Wallace Stevens’ “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”
Here’s hoping you enjoy both the familiar old year and the strange new one tonight at their moment of mixing.