Meaning in Magic

The UK’s Guardian ran an article recently on contemporary fantasy fiction. “Just because fantasy is everywhere doesn’t mean it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator. We must keep sight of its roots in ancient storytelling and its power to transform.”

I couldn’t agree more. Fantasy has seemed to develop this very negative stereotype of late that it’s just active imagination, fun adventure, with little substance or class. Which is one of the reasons I hesitate to use the term when talking to strangers about my writing, preferring “speculative fiction” — not that I agree with the stereotype, but because others might.

In fact, I find the stereotype insulting and false. Yes, there are some fantasy books with little substance beyond the story (*cough*Twilight*cough*) but there are many — many — that are far more than that. And that’s important.

Fantasy writing is, as Tolkien said, “mythopoeic,” “the creation of myth for the modern era.” It seeks to understand and explore the world by looking at it through the lens of the fantastic, just like in ancient myth. It’s metaphor, using images outside of reality to make it easier to discuss and examine our real world issues. Even the oft-used and oft-criticized Battle of Good and Evil, which too often fails to take into consideration any kind of grey between the black and white, can be just an attempt to put the world into terms that are easier to understand — to form a basis of understanding on which we can build concepts of grey.

And it shouldn’t even be difficult for fantasy to do this. Simply by taking an issue or an argument and placing it in a fantastical, imaginary situation, a writer is forcing the reader to look at it from a new perspective. For example, in Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn (and sequels), the main character is gay and grows up in a kingdom of magic. His exact situation isn’t like any real gay boy’s, of course, but by building this imaginary society around him and showing his conflicts, we as readers are forced to look at the issue from a new perspective. Even if this new perspective doesn’t translate directly to the real world, we’re still forced to step outside of out own minds to see a new side, and it starts to help us think that way more, in the real world.

Stories let us see things from the perspectives of others, and fantasy is (or can be) no different. These modern myths help us see the world differently and can help us try to understand it.

The potential is there. The trick is to find some that’s well-written and does so effectively.

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