The Importance of Epic Fantasy
I recently read an essay by author Stephen R. Donaldson about Epic Fantasy which was quite thought-provoking: Stephen R. Donaldson: Epic Fantasy: Necessary Literature.
A few excerpts from that article, along with some of my own thoughts:
“If we take it as given (I do) that the underlying purpose of literature is to shed light on the essential conundrums of being human (“Why are we here?” “What is the meaning of life?” “If it’s all meaningless, why do we care about anything?” “Why are we all so dissatisfied?” “Is there a God?” “Can there be a God?” “What is our relationship—if any—with the world in which we live?”), fantasy is the literature of the irrational, the transcendent, the spiritual. It is the literature that dares to confront those facets of being human that seem at odds—sometimes wildly at odds—with our mundane waking lives. And it’s vital.“
Couldn’t agree more. This is one of the primary reasons I have always been enthralled with reading fantasy literature. For the same reasons, the important impact Fantasy can have on our youth is one of the main reasons I tend to write Fantasy, more so than anything else.
“Contemporary fantasy—even in its most cynical, post-modern guises—is the literature of reintegration because it both explores and accepts every dimension of what being human means, every natural language that humankind speaks (I mean both the language of critical intelligence and the language of magic and monsters, which can be seen as the language of religion). It expresses itself in both the language of alienation and the language of affirmation. That alone makes us more fully human, more fully ourselves, than we would be without it. It imagines possibilities for us that may seem incredible until they’ve been experienced.”
This passage in particular is important to me. I’m fascinated with religion, spirituality, and faith, and themes centering around those things always bubble to the surface in my writing, intentional or not. Donaldson is right on point. Fantasy allows me as a writer to delve into those concepts deeper, giving perhaps less offense, and possibly even more insight than if I were writing straight fiction. People avoid discussing politics and religion with friends and family at times for a reason. Emotion gets in the way of such debates and prevents logical discussion and thought.
If modern fantasy and especially epic fantasy serve any function at all (I mean any function that we haven’t already seen beaten to death in our literature), it lies in the ability to dramatize—to demonstrate—reintegration. In a “nightmare world” ruled by “alienation and nausea, the quest for identity, and the comic doomsday vision,” what could be more necessary?
Fantasy and genre fiction in general allows us to tell stories that resonate back through our collective conscience. I suppose fiction does that in general, but to me, fantasy allows for deeper immersion. It’s much easier for me as a reader to become absorbed in the story, characters, and setting of a fantasy, than general fiction. Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth analyzes it the best in my mind. At our very core, we share an interconnectedness to other people and the strongest connections tend to be accomplished through our stories. Be it, literature, song lyrics, movies, or television, through Story our bonds as human beings are formed from a very early age. To my mind, fantasy forges the most powerful of those connections.
The success of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films and the surge of popularity for Hero tales over the last decade is a clear indicator that our society is in great need of epic fantasy.