The Philosophy of Fantasy

Circe_by_Wright_Barker_(1889)

                                  Painting by Wright Barker, Circe, 1889

”To define is to limit,” Oscar Wilde claims in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Although a remark that holds great truth and wisdom, I’ll make an attempt to delineate what’s this beast called fantasy. Because if we want to dig into something and come to grips with how it functions and operates, then first we need to understand what it is that we’re talking about.

Fantasy is a genre with its own form and symbols. The term ”fantasy” that sets it apart from other genres refers to phenomena, situations, places and beings that haven’t come to existence and cannot exist in reality.

The roots of the imaginary explanation of the world are as ancient as humanity itself. The primitive man, prey to an alien and terrifying world that at times seemed chaotic and cruel and to the ”monstrous” aspect of the universe, had to  hold on to something in order to understand not only his surroundings but his own identity and his relation to the natural environment around him.

The first attempt to fit the world into some semblance of a structure was mythology. The tribe, sitting around the campfire, listened with ecstasy to the storyteller, whose purpose was to placate the fear of the members of the tribe and offer some kind of meaning to life and the natural world.

The philosophic basis of the fantastic revolves around the clash between the rational and the irrational, between the logical and the absurd. The unnatural invades the natural, and the world is destroyed and recreated, because imagination itself provides the writer with endless possibilities as well as the freedom to express them.

Mythology, by nature, and most of the fantastic moves within an undefined frame of space and time. This lack of a particular space and time is what renders the genre applicable and relevant to all people and to any age.

The structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov maintains the idea that the fantastic arises when characters and readers are confronted with issues and questions regarding reality. Man, experiencing the terrible gulf between night and day, between birth and death, finds recourse in conceiving another reality that borrows elements from the one in which he lives. This new reality undermines the existing one, flouts the laws that govern nature and the universe, confutes man’s knowledge and proves the limitations by which man is fettered.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character says to Horatio, ”There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” These ”undreamt of” things are exactly those who give voice and flesh to the fantastic.

Through the fantastic man strives to confront and surpass the finite of human life, experience and knowledge. It’s a form of rebellion where man tries to break free from his own limitations.

The burning issue in the literature of fantasy is precisely the showdown between the finite aspect of human existence and a vast, infinite world that perplexes, challenges and overwhelms us. Fantasy works borrow elements from reality and transform them, building worlds that differ, either slightly or vastly, from our own. These worlds essentially reinvent our own and, by undermining the knowledge we already have in our possession, prove once more the finite of human life that we refuse to accept and against which we display a mighty resistance.

Animals that feel, think and talk like humans, humans who morph into animals, islands that appear and disappear at will, worlds separated by veils, magic that alters the very fabric of space and time, fairies, elves, dragons, vampires, werewolves and a bevy of other supernatural creatures who coexist with humans, imaginary lands one can travel to through invisible portals, realms beneath lakes or seas, worlds that spring to life through the pages of a book, spells that master the forces of nature, potions that make people fall in love, swords that slay immortal creatures, songs that put people to sleep and sorcery that violates the boundaries between life and death are only a short sample of the fantastic.

In the literature of fantasy borders collapse; everything’s compatible and possible, no matter how illogical it might seem. The principal question that permeates and governs the fantastic is ”what if?” That’s the thought that propels all writers of the fantastic. It’s a thought that allows imagination to blend into reality, that allows the natural and the unnatural to engage into an endless wooing, that allows the rational and the irrational to marry.

It’s through this ”romance” that we satisfy our deepest desire: to come in contact, even for a fleeting moment, with that we have dared conceive of only in a flight of our wildest dreams. The fantastic helps us read and view reality from another perspective, refracted but not distorted. After all, it’s no coincidence that it frequently flourishes and makes its strongest comeback during times of historical effervescence and upheaval. Those are the times when the primeval monsters wake up from their hibernation to find their way into the pages of literature. The fantastic, after all, is nothing but a reflection of our times, an image of a sociopolitical reality observed through a concave mirror.

 

 

 

 

 

18 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Fantasy

  1. That’s a compelling description and a powerful perspective.

    I think this basis of being rooted in unreality is why I have trouble with people trying to blend fantasy and sci-fi. The latter is rooted in the basis that everything is, in principle, explainable through scientific principles, no matter how much like magic some hi tech might look.

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    • Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the fact that you’re sharing your thoughts.

      I feel I have no ”authority” to speak about science fiction because I neither read it nor write it. However, don’t both fantasy and science fiction fall under the speculative fiction umbrella? Science fiction, after all, deals with imaginative concepts. Yes, supposedly those concepts and ideas have a grounding in actual science, but still they, too, ask the question (like fantasy) what if?

      I believe that’s the common link between fantasy and science fiction. Given that common link, I don’t think it’s that impossible for sci-fi and fantasy to blend. Both genres speculate. Now how successfully that is done, I believe that has to do with the writer’s skills.

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  2. As you say, Lilaia, both SF and fantasy ask “what ifs” beyond the scope of the mundane. It seems to me that SF approaches the fantastic elements by assuming they are in principle susceptible to scientific explanation, while fantasy doesn’t. If that distinction holds up, then it’s hard to do both at the same time — though examples like Zelazny’s *Lord of Light* somehow manage to pull it off. But it *is* certainly possible to combine SF with story elements typically associated with magic — as in Schmitz’s *The Witches of Karres* or Duane’s Young Wizards. There’s a lot of fruitful material for study here.

    I’m not sure whether we can make definitive assumptions about what early mythologizers were trying to do. The storyteller at the campfire may have been offering a just-so explanation, or telling a tongue-in-cheek tall tale, or just spinning a good yarn. I’m wary of stating with assurance that they were *always* doing this or that, as it may appear from our later and (higher?) vantage point.

    “building worlds that differ, either slightly or vastly, from our own” — At this point I think it’s instructive to lay beside Todorov’s comments J.R.R. Tolkien’s notion of “sub-creation” and his observations in “On Fairy-Stories.” (Definitely a blog post waiting to be written *there* . . . :))

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    • I haven’t read Tolkien at all. I’ll make sure to have a look at “On Fairy-Stories.” Thanks for bringing it up.

      Of course we cannot make definitive assumptions. That’s why I didn’t care to associate the word ”always” when I mentioned mythology. However, the purpose of mythology is to offer to the members of a group a sense of belonging, interpret and share religious experiences, impart heroic/moral behaviour, record historical truths/events, explain natural phenomena and interpret the world and man’s place within it.

      So, yes, the storyteller might have been spinning a hyperbolic yarn, but the study of mythology has proven that we cannot dismiss myths as fanciful tales. They carry fragments of truth and help preserve knowledge that would have been lost otherwise.

      If we think, for instance, the myth of Persephone and Hades, we can see that the ancient Greeks found a clever way to interpret the change of seasons by creating a tale of maternal love, romantic love and death.

      Or if we think about the story of Pywll, Prince of Dyved from the ”Mabinogion”, we will see that Rhiannon, whom the prince romances, is a reincarnation of the the goddess of sovereignty who, in taking to her a spouse, ordains him legitimate king of the territory which she personifies.

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  3. A wonderful article on the genre of fantasy, Lilaia. It explains the howS and whyS of the genre.

    Not long ago, I read a book by an elite sci-fi writer (ironically whose name I’m unable to recollect now). It was a non-fiction expounding what makes sci-fi and fantasy fall under the same family, which shouldn’t be confused with them being identical twins. Just as mentioned by Botanist too.
    The book provided me an insight on how both these genres can, mistakenly, be easily mixed, and before you know what you’re referring as your sci-fi piece, can easily be fantastic.

    Having said that, the “what-ifs”, as you said, remain the spine of spinning a tale in any of these genres. Thanks for sharing.🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate your comment, Aditi. I think the ”what if” is the basis for all storytelling, be it fantasy or not. It’s just that in speculative fiction, like fantasy, it is elevated on a whole new level.

      True, there are fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy but there are similarities as well. However, I feel I’m more ”entitled” to speak about and ponder on the fantasy genre because it’s a genre I’ve read extensively and on which I’ve dedicated a considerable part of my own writing.

      Sci-fi is not a genre that appeals to me, so I’ll let those enamoured of it to talk about it.

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      • Absolutely! “What if” is in the root of storytelling.

        On a different note, have you tried (reading or writu) sci-fi and then realized that it’s not something you find fascinating, or it just never appealed to you?

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      • The only sci-fi novel I’ve read is Shelley’s ”Frankenstein”, and I loved it because of the deep exploration of its themes which still remain relevant to us. I’ve nothing against the genre. It’s just that the whole concept of scientific explanations and futuristic settings don’t appeal to me as a reader. But, of course, that’s not to say that the sci-fi genre hasn’t given us some great literature.

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      • Ah! Okay.
        Yes, not everything is for everybody. Every genre has its audience. And it’s for the best that we read what we enjoy and what appeals to us, rather than being pushed around genres, for any reasons.
        I myself have read just one sci-fi novel till date. Need to read some more to decide if I’m up for the genre.

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  4. Pingback: The Philosophy of Fantasy, Guest Post by Lilaia Moreli – Author's Canvas

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