I often hear new converts to the fantasy genre lament a story’s end, or more often, a character’s end. In film, books or on television, they find it hard to process the creator’s decision to send the plot or characters down certain pathways and into situations they are unlikely to escape.
Reading and watching fantasy has been etched into who I am. I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember. I started with fairytales and Disney films, before graduating to young adult and epic fantasy. I’ve largely stuck with the epics, so I feel confident I can analyse this phenomena from a point of somewhat mediocre expertise. At the least, from the perspective of a dedicated fan.
In any case, I’ll do my best…
As odd as it seems, fantasy is a genre that reflects the human condition in a way other fictions can’t. It transposes our values, our conflicts, our beliefs, the things we are willing to accept and those we abhor, onto a world slightly skewed from our own. It takes the familiar picture of our reality, scrunches it into a tight ball, inserts it into a pea-shooter and launches it across the universe, to be unfolded, full a crinkles and creases, and displayed. We like to think it’s not a reflection of who we are and the things we do, but it is stark carbon copy, albeit with swords, bows and bodices holding it together.
A lot of other genre fiction will focus on a particular facet of our world and magnify it, diminishing other aspects until we see only one aspect in the frame.
Fantasy lays them all out in equal measure and at times, with gritty realism. It certainly hasn’t always been so, but if you cut beneath the superficial veil of words in lines, you’ll find moments when an author pares away the glitter and gold to reveal the raw humanity beneath.
Perhaps, for readers and viewers new to the genre, this is awkward and jolting. It drives against the usual fare of happy endings and triumphant heroes. As one friend put it, they don’t want to see realism in fiction because it reminds them of the ugliness of reality, the pain waiting in the world beyond the edge of a hard back cover, beckoning with a crooked finger and ready at a moments notice to heave them back to the ‘real world’.
I tend to see it differently. Realism in fantasy hurts. Of course it does. Especially in epics, when extensive time is spent learning and growing with characters, understanding them, loving them, hating them. When you spend so much time with a person, you become attached, you begin to chart a course for them in your mind, and try to predict how their lives will play out as the story unfolds.
It hurts like a hot knife in the back when the leading man has his head lopped off by a snooty brat of a king. It burns like acid to the eyes when you discover your narrator has been dead all along. Your heart weeps when the author forces you to watch a character you so desperately want to be good, become a deplorable monster who may not ever find his way back from darkness. You witness every cut and stab they suffer along their downward spiral. Or maybe I just read some really morbid shit.
Hey – I see you judging me. Stop that.
The thing about fantasy, and epics, and how they seem to shed characters left and right, killing and raping and maiming, is that they are reflecting how we as humans do that to ourselves, to our fellows. We kill and rape and hurt. We laugh and joke and poke fun. We discriminate and hate and bicker. We also love and live and dream.
Have you ever noticed, when a character dies in an epic, the story goes on? It just keeps rolling, showcasing the aftermath of death. It leaves you thinking: ‘But how can they just go on? How can they keep moving forward?’
It’s because we keep going when death rips a loved one from our arms. We somehow drag ourselves out from the mire of hateful feelings and blank thoughts, and we keep going.
I’m unable to speak for the masses here, but for my own, fantasy isn’t just about magic and heroes. They are around, sure, but they aren’t all of fantasy.
The bones of fantasy exist in what it teaches us, and the hope it gives.
In fantasy, our heroes are golden, pure and infallible. But they fall, they die, they’re discovered to be raging, womanising alcoholics without a moral fibre in their body. This happens in our lives too.
In fantasy, the most unlikely, damaged, faulty characters can rise up and triumph. And sometimes they don’t. But they try nonetheless. This happens in our lives also.
Fantasy, epic fantasy, shows you the ugliness. It holds up the steaming shit of the world and says ‘Here, look at what we are!’
Then it takes you on a journey of hope and resilience, it shows you the power of love and loyalty, friendship and wine. The beauty and the bravery. You can’t appreciate any of those things unless you understand the awfulness threatening to tear them away.
That, my friends, is the force of fantasy. I love it, and love hurts.