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Being in the Nature of an Anniversary: Ruminations on Fantasy

Sunday, August 7th, 2011 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Grey MaidenIf I’m counting right, this marks my fifty-second post on Black Gate, which means this is effectively an anniversary. At any rate, it’s a good point to pause and reflect, I think. Writing here’s been a blast, from my first piece about Howden Smith’s collection of historical adventures Grey Maiden, up through last week’s essay on the origin story of Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange. I’m eager to keep going, too; I feel like I’ve gotten better as a writer and critic from posting on this site, and I feel like I’ve begun to understand certain things about the nature of fantasy. I have to thank John O’Neill for inviting me to join his team, and Claire Cooney for her editing work; both John and Claire are accessible and generous with their time, and make posting here easy and fun. I also want to thank all the other bloggers who make this site, I feel, one of the best places on the web for fantasy fans. And especially I want to thank everyone who’s read and commented on my posts over the past year; I’ve been impressed with the level of responses I’ve seen, on my posts and others’, and fascinated by the conversations that’ve developed.

Lately, I find myself coming back to a question I started out with in one of my early columns. Mostly because I think I may actually have begun to figure out a few answers. In a post I wrote by way of an introduction to myself, I mentioned that I wanted to figure out what it was about fantasy that attracted me as a reader, and as a writer. What did it give me, in all its different forms, that no other kind of writing did? I felt that ‘escapism’ was an insufficient answer to explain the power of fantasy; I’d add that ‘wish fulfillment’ didn’t, and doesn’t, seem to cover it, either.

It’s a question that’s begun to seem especially pressing. On June 1 I started an online fantasy serial, The Fell Gard Codices. It’s been a powerful experience, and aesthetically rewarding. There’s no doubt that it takes up a good chunk of time; and yet it feels, paradoxically, liberating. I’m getting back something I couldn’t have gained in any other way.

Is what I’m gaining as a writer the same as what I get from fantasy as a reader? I think so, yes. But just what is it, in either case?

The Encyclopedia of FantasyFirstly, it might be worth articulating what I mean by ‘fantasy.’ Some critics have linked specific themes or tones with fantasy; John Clute and John Grant’s excellent Encyclopedia of Fantasy, for example, suggested a plot structure and set of accompanying thematic elements which they found to be common in fantasy fiction. My own definition, though, tends to be fairly broad: roughly, a fantasy is any narrative fiction which includes elements that are specifically intended to contradict reality (which is to say that I include in ‘fantasy’ what other people, like Clute and Grant, call ‘the fantastic’). Let’s put aside for the moment questions about whose reality (the author’s or the reader’s), and how one’s culture affects one’s experience of reality — as I say, this is meant as a rough definition — and note only that it’s a formula that tries to distinguish fantasy not only from mimetic literature but also from science fiction. SF, I’d argue, works within reality as it is understood, finding loopholes in scientific laws or imagining settings that might yet come to pass, as opposed to imagining magic that flatly contradicts science, or imagining settings that never were and cannot be.

Fantasy’s a very broad field. It includes not only The Lord of the Rings and heroic fantasy, not only Conan and Elric and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but also things like John Crowley’s Ægypt quartet, or John Cowper Powys’ work (no doubt debateable to some, but it feels like fantasy as far as I’m concerned), or Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, or Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia. All of these are examples of fantasies that are particularly important to me; works that seem extraordinarily accomplished, and whose accomplishments are indissoluble from their fantastic aspects.

Dragons of Autumn TwilightConversely, I think that often when I’m disappointed with a fantasy it’s because it isn’t fantastic enough. I reread the first Dragonlance book not too long ago, and I found myself thinking that it didn’t feel as though it had really created its own reality. I’m not necessarily talking about what is normally called “worldbuilding”; I have in mind more the kind of language the characters used, their attitudes, and the general perspective of the narration. In a general sense, it felt modern; it felt like sensibilities of the ‘real world’ had been brought over unquestioned into the fantasy story.

But what, then, is the point of a story that spits in the eye of reality? One answer immediately suggests itself: it affirms the power of imagination to reshape reality, and offers a critique of reality with an eye towards its re-imagining.

One answer, but not, I think, the one I’m looking for. I’d say that for me the appeal of fantasy has nothing to do with its relationship to reality, but rather in its ability to create its own internal unity that is separate from the reality outside the text. But, again, why? What’s the appeal of that unity? How is it different from the effect of any fiction?

Sara ColeridgeI think I first started to get a hint of what I was looking for when I was putting together the series of posts about Sara Coleridge, the first writer of heroic fantasy. In those posts, I tried to describe the way people had viewed fantasy, and fantasy settings, over the course of (at least) English literary history. What I realised, by the time I was done, was that I had been looking at a series of texts that between them seemed to suggest a tradition. A fantasy tradition. In other words, fantasy gave me a way to define and think about literary history in general.

(And I should note that I do tend to focus on the written word more than any other form. So bear in mind that fantasy for me tends to mean fantasy in literature, as opposed to stage or screen.)

That idea of fantasy as a tradition, a certain angle on history, was a start; although not quite what I was after. Still, it led me to think of fantasy as a way of organising facts. That is, as considering a fantasy story as a way of organising ideas in a way that is at variance from observable reality. If reality’s a way of organising sense-impressions, a way to understand the non-negotiable facts we perceive around us, then fantasy would suggest alternative patterns of organisation, broadening one’s idea of what reality could be. Which means that fantasy could be seen as a way of learning new things about the world and about people, about what is outside the ways of organising experience that seem natural to us.

That sounds wonderful; but again didn’t seem to entirely match my reaction to fantasy, which is more purely internal. I’d found a potential use of fantasy, I felt, but not the one I was looking for. Instead, I came to think that it would be more accurate to say that fantasy suggests to me some way or ways by which I can articulate (as a writer) or imagine (as a reader) something I could not realise by limiting myself to observable reality.

Syntactic StructuresNoam Chomsky once noted that you can express something grammatically that makes no sense practically: “colourless green ideas sleep furiously,” for example. As a linguist, Chomsky considered the sentence as an error, a way to be wrong in words. A language is more than the sum of its grammar, was his point, and you need to know more than grammar to speak a language. But I feel that one could also view the sentence as an attempt to describe something beyond conventional understanding; as a fantasy, or a myth.

It is true that you can easily reinterpret words of the sentence in such a way as to make it coherent. “Colourless green ideas” might mean an uninvolving environmentalist plan, for example. But that’s a trick that relies on simply changing the meaning of words; I feel that fantasy does something deeper. It changes context, keeping the meaning of words the same while still presenting sentences that would otherwise be nonsensical, or simply wrong. Imagine a fantasy world in which wizards used ideas as warbeasts, like hounds or horses; imagine a wizard moving through her dreams, overseeing her hosts of wrathful ideas; imagine that she is accompanied by her own shadow, her unconscious mind that sees things differently from her conscious self but whose perceptions are also present to her; imagine that among the ideas are a particularly ferocious group, fighting among themselves as she sleeps; and imagine that they are invisible to her conscious mind, but to her unconscious self are green. So what would the wizard find? “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.”

To some extent that example involves changing the definition of “ideas” to “fantasy warbeast.” But if the story continued, and we saw the ideas acting just as ideas are supposed to — by being communicated from person to person, being critiqued, and so forth — then we’d have a fantasy that used all the elements of Chomsky’s sentence in exactly the way he intended, but in which it all made sense. The idea, leaping from person to person, snarling as it ravages long-held beliefs and guts previously unexamined verities, becomes a literalised metaphor. It doesn’t have anything to do with the world we live in. But the wizard and her ideological warbeasts are elements of a narrative, metaphors that have coherence of their own.

Looked at fantastically, all errors can be metaphors. Looked at literally, all metaphors are errors.

H.P. LovecraftA fantasy is something that makes sense according to linguistic and narrative conventions, but which doesn’t agree with observable reality. It’s something that creates its own context, and finds meaning in what looks like an error. What would H.P. Lovecraft do with Chomsky’s sentence? I don’t know; but in the seeming nonsensicality, I’d bet he could find a story.

Fantasy, then, has more to do with language than reality. It’s a way of thinking about language, not as a way of re-creating the world, but as a way of creating meaning. As a way of creating what we often call myth, which I take to be a story (often fantastic) containing some special kind of symbolic resonance; a meaning that cannot be easily explained or summed up. A myth, whether it’s Moby Dick or Middle Earth, doesn’t so much resist interpretation as constantly offer new interpretations the more it’s examined. Fantasy, I think, lends itself to mythopoeia; or, to turn that around, the more mythic a story is, the more it tends toward the condition of fantasy — even in an otherwise mimetic narrative.

Comparative mythologist Max Müller said that “mythology is a disease of language.” When you go to describe a thing or idea in words, the word becomes separate from that thing. The origin of the word then seems to suggest something about the thing it describes. It hints at a story; a myth. Which is all to say that myth, fantasy, could be seen as a particular way of interrogating the gap that exists between a thing and the word for that thing, so as to find some sort of literary or narrative power. Fantasy is a way of constructing symbols. And a way of organising experience in a way that’s beyond the real but also beyond the merely symbolic; a way of fusing the real and the symbol, or at least a way of playing with one to build the other — indeed, playing with both at the same time in order to build both.

The Fellowship of the RingIt’s not just a way of re-ordering one’s perceptions, as I was thinking. It’s a way of reimagining the nature of perception, and reassessing the distance between actual event and the story of that event. It’s a way of representing a certain kind of experience; an internal experience, the experience of thought and language.

Or so it seems to me. In trying to talk about my experience of fantasy, I want to be clear that I’m not at all trying to say what fantasy is ‘for,’ or what it means. I’m just trying to explain my own personal reaction to it, a reaction that seems a little more explicable to me now than it was.

From a critical perspective, it seems to me that the use of fantasy in a story is justified by the story itself. A fantasy story uses fantasy as a way of expanding themes, a way of addressing what cannot be addressed in any other way. I think that this may not be planned by the author, or easily explained by a critic, but a good fantasy story will do this, will feel right, just by nature of being a good story that has fantasy in it.

I also feel that the the use of fantasy has specific effects, which is what I’ve been wondering about; and what I may, perhaps, have worked out to my own satisfaction. By turning away from mimesis, the fantasy finds its own relationship between word and ideal, between the real and symbolic. That is what it is to create or read a fantasy. You could say that by insisting on a personal relationship with reality, it encourages solipsism; but then you could just as easily say that it encourages a more sophisticated understanding of the self and other than that of subject and object.

At any rate, I think this is a good start toward answering the answering the question of why fantasy seems important to me. It’s something I expect will always be on my mind, since I’m not sure there can really be a single definitive answer. Which is why I’m glad to be posting here, grappling with fantasy as a critic at the same time as I work at it as a reader and a writer. It’s such a broad field, with so many ways into it. Thanks again to John and Claire and everyone else for allowing me a space to think out loud; and thanks to all of you who’ve been reading and responding!

Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His new ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.


  1. Another delightful, thought-provoking post.

    You sent me off to Google John Cowper Powys. I’d seen his name go by as a footnote in biographies of modernist women writers, particularly Frances Josepha Gregg and Dorothy Richardson, but nobody in that world seems to have had much to say about his work. Now that i see a description of his books, he looks like somebody I ought always to have been reading. Where should I start? What’s a good first Powys novel?

    Comment by Sarah Avery - August 8, 2011 1:01 am

  2. Thanks, Sarah!

    I started with A Glastonbury Romance. That’s probably the best and most … Powysian … of his work. It’s long, but if you’re up for that, I’d say that’s the one to go with.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - August 8, 2011 8:44 am

  3. The H.P. Lovecraft story:

    “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously…UNTIL THE STARS ARE RIGHT!”

    Comment by Grace Seybold - August 11, 2011 10:43 pm

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