Stories, particularly myths, legends, and fantasy, are how we as humans examine, explore, and ultimately explain the human condition.
The editors of the book Fantasy offer a profound take on the merit of fantasy literature (and by extension, all fantasy art.) They state that fantasy authors create new worlds in order to rid their readers of preconceptions and prejudices that are found in day-to-day life. By removing these biases, moral standards and truths can be examined in new, fresh, ways, and hopefully, lessons can be learned that would otherwise be out of reach.
In his article “Children and Fairy Stories,” JRR Tolkien argues for the validity of fantasy as a genre in literature. Fantasy in this and most cases includes everything from ancient myths and legends, to folklore, to the classic fairy tales, to Tolkien’s own The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.
Tolkien makes the point that “the goal of fantasy is to lead the reader to a keener understanding of himself and his world.” The idea being that in the fictional work can be found deeper truths about the world around us. So by reading the story, we can better understand ourselves and our world.
RG Collingwood demands almost the same exact thing of art in general in his aesthetics. He claims that the artist proper works with the world from beginning to end to help the world see what he (the artist) sees; to help them find out things about themselves through the art.
He says that the artist, instead of being “the great man who imposes upon the world the task of understanding him, will be a humbler person, imposing upon himself the task of understanding his world, and thus enabling it to understand itself.”
My personal hope is always that people viewing my work in the context of the new fresh combination of technique and media will perhaps gain some insight into themselves or their world. (I’ll get into my technique a little more in detail in some later blog posts, so stay tuned!)
So, where does fantasy come from? What is its history? (Other than a long history of British writers defending it.) The short answer to this question is ‘human imagination.’
However, I am a little more concerned with its historical origins and how it has developed across time. For as long as there have been humans, presumably those humans have always strived to explain themselves and their world.
There are records as far back as 2000 B.C. of fantastical stories in Ancient Egypt, including one that is essentially the story of Cinderella. The myths and legends of Ancient Greece are, if not actually common knowledge, certainly not lost to the ages.
What is most fascinating to me is that across all borders of time and geography, humanity continuously comes up with essentially the same mythological and magical stories. If we keep writing this story, the very fact of its repetition begs us to ask why? What value does it hold to us? To ALL of us; all humans everywhere and at every time. There must be something worthwhile in there.
The description of “the story of an uninitiated young hero who must voluntarily battle and outwit forces much greater than himself in order to return home” can be applied to everything from Gilgamesh to Odysseus to Harry Potter to Luke Skywalker.
With only a little bit of a stretch, that description could even apply to everyday people in their everyday lives. Often in everyday life we encounter and must overcome forces greater than ourselves in order to simply survive the day and get back home. My own entrepreneurial journey certainly fits this bill. Many relationships fit this bill. We are continuously going out there into dangerous unknown territory (either literally or psychologically/metaphysically) and back again to safety.
Fairy tales, the ancestor and cousin of modern fantasy literature (and quite often the inspiration), are often the same story again as the even more ancient myths, though perhaps slightly less fantastical. Often it is not a literal dragon that the Princess must fight, but everyday evil people, and metaphorical dragons. In some cases, she must face the slightly less commonplace evil magical Queen or Jabberwocky. In this way, Fairytales can usually be seen as a step closer to reality.
Magic is always involved in Fairy tales, but with that exception, the tales could take place in our own world, as opposed to in Middle Earth or in galaxies far far away. Even those that end up in Wonderland usually begin and end here in our world.
The best aspect about fantasy stories of all sorts is that they parallel real life. I suspect that this is why they are so popular, and why since the dawn of time, humans have been compelled to tell such stories. This is what makes them so valuable.
Whether the evil in the story takes the form of dragons, evil queens, or simply nasty step-sisters, there is evil present, just as there is in the real world. And by watching the heroes of our stories bravely face and conquer their dragons and evils, we are instilled with the inner strength and courage to conquer our own "dragons."
As G.K. Chesterton famously stated, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
By seeing metaphorical versions of our own challenges successfully overcome, we begin to believe that we too can face our own metaphorical dragons. If Alice can face a Jabberwocky, we can stand up to the bully on the playground, or the coworker taking advantage of us. We too can believe in “impossible” things. And there is magic and value in that, you can be sure.
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