I know quite a few people, and a significant percentage of those people would say they like to read. Far fewer would say they like to read the fantasy genre, unless they happen to be under age 25. As a fantasy fan who is–ahem–somewhat older than 25, I thought I’d give you a list of reasons why fantasy still appeals to me.
1.) Imagination, Imagination, Imagination: More than any other genre, fantasy lets authors and readers explore new and different possibilities in their fiction. There is freedom in fantasy, freedom to present your ideas in diverse ways. Fantasy is the most open genre, a broad, blank palette for the imagination to roam free.
Consider J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth. The enormity of this world that he built from nothing is mind-boggling. He inserted a creation story (The Silmarillion), before inventing an entire, workable, conjugatable language (Elvish), as well as producing a massive, epic war between Big Good and Big Evil, in which (spoiler) Big Good eventually prevails, but not without the bittersweet tang of loss and hard struggle. There’s a reason why Tolkien’s work is a classic fantasy and stands in the annals of highly respected fantasy works. Though there are a multitude of fantasies that have followed Tolkien, many with provocative, imaginative worlds that are just as epic and enveloping (Martin’s Westeros, Rowling’s Hogwarts, even Collins’s 13 Districts as examples), Tolkien set an enormous precedent.
2.) Learning: Fantasy is often somewhat demanding reading, in the sense that you have to learn and integrate information about a whole new world and how it works. You have to focus and pick up on little details, logging new information into your memory. I suspect that this labor is one reason some readers dislike fantasy. They feel like they are “wasting time” learning something “useless” that has nothing to do with “the real world.”
Hey, I’d argue that putting your brain through its paces to learn something new is always beneficial, on many levels. Reading fantasy helps you with abstract thinking, with making connections between the specific and the general, and with understanding a bigger picture in the structure of the world. Fantasy worlds are coherent, and often have a lot to say about how our “real world” and human nature work.
I did not grow up reading Harry Potter, but I caught up quickly in college when a friend recommended it to me. I devoured those books, reading each one (all 900 pages in some) in a day. I remember reading this portion of The Chamber of Secrets:
“Good, aren’t they?” said Malfoy smoothly. “But perhaps the Gryffindor team will be able to raise some gold and get new brooms, too. You could raffle off those Cleansweep Fives; I expect a museum would bid for them.”
The Slytherin team howled with laughter.
“At least no one on the Gryffindor team had to buy their way in,” said Hermione sharply. “They got in on pure talent.”
The smug look on Malfoy’s face flickered.
“No one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood,” he spat.
Harry knew at once that Malfoy had something really bad because there was an instant uproar at his words. Flint had to dive in front of Malfoy to stop Fred and George jumping on him.
Bullying is a problem as old as Cain and Abel, but in our mad, mad world of horrific headlines every few days and social media rants, it seems that we as a society have highlighted its effects (and well we should). Rowling is only one author among many who take their pen onto a platform and use it tie parallels between current events and fantasy worlds. While “Mudblood” was (originally) a made-up term, meant in Harry Potter’s magic made-up world to be a foul, offensive term, there are plenty of words we could insert into these sentences that would place us right back in this “real” world, and the connection hits home.
Do you get angry when you read novels? How about happy? Sappy (*raises hand*)? Sad? That’s the connection that authors strive to make with readers, and it can happen even in fantasy, “worlds-different” though it may be. 😉
3.) MAGIC! Among the fantasy haters I’ve spoken with, magic seems to be the number one reason they dislike the genre. They don’t want to read about something that “isn’t real.” (The author/editor homunculus in my head is usually having conniptions at this point in the conversation as I think, All fiction is a form of fantasy! But we’ll just leave my homunculus in my head where she belongs). Magic has been part of the human consciousness for much longer than science or rationalism. Magic systems in fantasy, while not “real,” have internal consistency and coherence, and often stand in symbolically for other real world concepts like power, dominion, or privilege.
Tamara Shoemaker’s Guardian of the Vale trilogy follows the course of a teenage girl, Alayne Worth, who wields four elements (air, fire, earth, and water) in a world where all other Elementals only wield one. Such magic acts as a lodestone for power-seekers across this fantasy world, and as the books play out, political systems clash beneath greedy world-leaders. Alayne Worth, in the center of the chaos, is faced with options that are really no options at all. Which side to choose? And what if neither side is the “right” one?
The magic system in the books is relatable, because while it presents fun and consistent little twists about how to “wield” one of the elements, the system stands as a representation of power, who has it, and what it does to people.
Can you think of any similar themes in society today? I can. 😉 Magic in story form has meaning, even if it isn’t “real.” Also, guys … it’s fun.
4.) Maps: While quite a few people may not have the cartographic obsession that I have, I know many who still enjoy a visual aid to go with their novel of choice. Fantasy books are often published with maps of made-up worlds at their fronts, and I spend far too much time tracing my gaze over every mountain, tree, border, and river on those maps, placing myself in that world before I immerse myself in the words that describe it. While maps differ from book to book–some detail as small an area as a single castle and grounds, others a city, still others a nation or nations–I revel in looking at all of them.
Here are three examples below: The first one is from my recently released River Running. While the focus of River Running is on Coalhaven (a tiny dot on the map), the rest of the series will explore other places nearby: Belle Breezes and the Akwa Islands, for example.
This second map is from Tamara Shoemaker’s Heart of a Dragon trilogy. Look at the topography! Mountains, sand flat, trees, countries, rivers… so easy to lose oneself (ironically, as we’re looking at a map) in this world!
And here’s a map of Emily June Street’s fantasy world, Lethemia of her Tales of Blood & Light series, drawn by Street and the inimitable Jeremy Jensen.
Notice how each map has its own character that gives hints about the tone of the book!
Okay, enough about my fantasy obsession. Do you enjoy fantasy books for some of the same reasons listed here? Or are there other reasons that I haven’t thought of? What are they? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
Meanwhile, I’m off to Eastland of the Shannara series.