The Great Travelling Guest Blog Fantasy Round Table

Welcome to the first round of the Travelling Guest Blog Fantasy Round Table!
Six contributors, so far, all writers, so far, have somehow coagulated, and we’re planning  a round of blog posts on aspects of Fantasy, in the genre and bookshop sense.

The contributors (so far) are Theresa Crater, Andrea Host, Sylvia Kelso, Carole McDonnell, Warren Rochelle and Deborah J. Ross. The plan is for one person to host all the posts for one month and one topic, and for this month, the topic is “One Step Sideways: what’s Fantasy FOR?”  I am sharing this here on my blog, but the Host-blog for this month, is that of my friend, Sylvia Kelso here.

Next month will be another host and another topic, language in fantasy. In the meantime, here’s a rich series of new variations on responses to this question about Fantasy (mostly high fantasy at this point). I had great fun reading them all, and I hope you will too.

Comments can be made at the end of each post.  —————-

Sylvia Kelso

One Step Sideways: What’s Fantasy FOR?I once had an academic at my local University tell me that  Sheri S.  Tepper’s Beauty couldn’t go on an English course, “because there’s fairies in it.” I was too gob-smacked to produce the obvious  retort: “There are fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Huccome it’s on an English course?”

However narrow-minded, this is a common view of what’s now called high fantasy. Meaning, fantasy set in a secondary pre-industrial world, and very possibly, “there’s fairies in it.” Ever since the novel made realism king in fiction, anything such has been scorned as light-weight, make-believe, fit for children, and, most damning of all, “escapist.”

It’s very tempting to retort, almost with Douglas Adams, “Reality is a crutch for those who can’t handle fantasy” (he actually said, science fiction.) An on-site observation from a librarian, passed along by my friend Lois Bujold, rather suggests that readers fall into two groups. Group A can’t handle anything outside “reality.”  Group B, on the other hand, according to the librarian, wants “total departure from the known world.”

Such departure would actually lead to unintelligibility – a frequent problem for SF and F writers trying to depict some form of The Alien. So SF and Fantasy – and horror – are in fact border-straddling genres. They deal with the unknown, the unreal, the unexperienced, but only up to a point where those things can be understood.

I tend to call all three genres non-realist fiction. They often present realist settings, but they also slot in so many non-real elements. FTL travel. A space diaspora of “humans.” Non-human races and beings, from Laurell Hamilton’s Bloody Bones to Tolkien’s Elvenkind. Ghosts. Monsters. Demons. Non-realist fiction, or the genres of Elsewhere, as I  like to say.

And if readers do include a group wanting Elsewhere, we have one answer to the question, What’s Fantasy (and SF etc) FOR? It’s for people who want something else in their heads than another bunch of people just like those next door. Who want events unlimited by the constraints of the nightly news and what’s called “consensual reality.” Who are hooked on that old SF cliché, the sensawunda. The moment when the reader’s eye looks from Here into Elsewhere. To a different, infinitely desirable world.

A lot of that draws a writer as well. World-building isn’t a common term in realist fiction, but it’s a prized ability in the Elsewhere genres. And for an Elsewhere writer, building a world is a definite pleasure, if of a more arduous kind than ordinary narrative can provide.

So Fantasy is FOR, at one level, that carefully avoided word in literary criticism, Pleasure. Pleasure that can begin with a lamp-post in the snow beyond the back of a wardrobe, and go all the way through a sensawunda experience to that rarest reaction of all. More than pleasure. More than desire. Sometimes, it can be awe.

That emotion is linked to the word “numinous.” Which here indicates a piece of writing, or an image, or an event, that gives the reader an almost spiritual reaction. You hardly ever get it in realism.  But in fantasy, like Frodo on the hill of Cerin  Amroth, sometimes the reader can walk with gods.

All this doesn’t cut much ice with people who want their literature/fiction to “matter.” To put over a serious message, or make a political statement, as well as to produce writing of force and power. And this is where such people err worst over fantasy (less than SF, which has always had aspirations to the “serious writing” label.”) Because fantasy can and does carry messages, can and does think about its own present world and its problems, but also can and does dislocate the ruts of consensual reality to bring the reader that one step sideways. To see, to imagine, a different, perhaps a made-new world.

Which is why “there’s fairies in it” stunned me as a rejection of Beauty, because if ever a novel grappled with the real world, right here in the present, dislocated that present and painted its future alternatives in the most ferocious colours, and shouted, “message!” and, “serious!” from its first genre change, it’s Beauty.

The same can’t be said, of course, of every novel shelved under the label “Fantasy.” But look more closely, and in some way, every one of those Elsewhere texts will be engaged with, thinking about, drawing on the world from which it springs.  In the deepest sense, Fantasy isn’t escapist. It’s right here with us, “under the sun” as Tolkien put it.  If it moves us away from this world, it’s only to bring us back to it with a different, a clearer understanding. To my mind, that dislocation and rediscovery, as much as the pleasure of difference, are what Fantasy’s FOR.

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Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies.

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Theresa Crater

One Step Sideways: What’s Fantasy FOR?

When Virginia Woolf was inventing modernism, she complained in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” that realistic novelists (here Mr. Bennett) missed the essential part of a character (in this case Mrs. Brown). Yes, they describe what Mrs. Brown wears, her broach and where she bought it, where she lives, that she can afford to go to the theatre, the politics in the neighborhood, etc. But Mr. Bennett misses his character, Woolf complains, because he misses her consciousness. That is the project of the modernists, to capture “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.”

But Woolf goes on to say “There are no Mrs. Browns in Utopia.” And that’s the trouble with modernism.

Realism held a mirror up to life. Modernism captured the ordinary mind. And both missed a vital part of life:  fantasy. I’d prefer to say myth, because fantasy is built on myth, and myth used to be the very stuff of storytelling. That is before the 19th century held realism up as the way to write and before the 20th century did the same for modernism.

Fantasy captures the possibilities of consciousness. It affirms that this ordinary world we live in is far from ordinary. That it is in fact magical and wondrous, full of amazing possibilities. It challenges the arbitrator of sanity, of normality, of limitations, to a run for his money.

Myth connects us to the land, to our earth, by showing us that it is alive and full of creatures we might not see with our ordinary eyes. That highway should not cut through that fairy mound because you know what happens when you piss off the fae. There are people on the coasts of the British Isles and probably their former colonies who will tell you if you win their trust that their family is part selkie. All these stories renew our relationship to Mother Nature. With the environment endangered, so many species dying, the weather getting more severe by the year, our very survival depends on a renewed respect and partnership with the earth.

Myth connects us to the possibilities of consciousness—that we can move beyond the ordinary and perhaps not be crazy after all. Especially if we can still function in the real world at the same time. Eastern religions enjoyed popularity because they brought to the West a renewed idea of enlightenment. Older western religions and mythologies taught that humans were capable of doing magic. Now quantum physics shows us that human perception affects matter. All existence exists in a state of possibility, uncertainty, until a perception takes place and fixes a certain, specific reality. Fantasy helps us grapple with what science is beginning to suspect. Perhaps the brain is a quantum instrument. Thought is more magical than we knew. Or maybe Merlin knew all along.

So renew your relationship with that imaginary friend you had as a child. Just hang a cell phone connection off your ear so those Muggles will think you’re talking to someone in this world rather than another one.

Fantasy helps us dream again, and to solve our problems in this century, we must be able to dream.

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Theresa Crater has published two contemporary fantasies, Beneath the Hallowed Hill & Under the Stone Paw and several short stories, most recently “White Moon” in Riding the Moon and “Bringing the Waters” in The Aether Age:  Helios. She’s also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver. Born in North Carolina, she now lives in Colorado with her Egyptologist partner and their two cats. Visit her website at http://theresacrater.com

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Andrea Hosth

One Step Sideways: What’s fantasy FOR?

Fantasy, for me, is straightforward fun, awe and delight.  Like many others, I’m in it for the giddy dance of wonder, heart-stopping strangeness, numinous dusks, and the hidden, dreadful unknown.  Danger, adventure, romance, high stakes, epic magery, and most particularly Girls Doing Stuff.  I’m all for that.

I also have a particular interest in exploring notions of right and wrong in fantasy worlds.  My books teem with honourable stoics, though their definition of honour might vary from person to person.  I find fantasy worlds provide a particularly useful vehicle for exploring conflicts between personal code of ethics, and the struggle between cleaving to that code, or a social code of honour, or an impersonal law.

But the third and perhaps main attraction for me as a writer – the challenge and strength of the genre – are moments of dissonance.  To create a world which is like but unlike our own, to hold up a mirror and allow the viewer to experience that small, sudden shock where expectation runs askew.  Or to start with a place which seems completely different, and yet recognise in its problems our own.

High Fantasy’s capacity to step outside our own world as a way to examine it is difficult to replicate anywhere except perhaps far future SF.  It allows a writer to take on vast subjects – such as the issues of race, colonialism, and cycles of hate in Medair – without tying that exploration to any current group or set of events.

To build a world also gives a writer an unmatched opportunity to examine her own preconceptions.  Why do so many fantasy worlds offer a similar attitude toward sexuality?  [Especially when this was not always the case in our own world’s cultures.]  Why are women relegated to chattel even when they possess vast magics?  What set of stereotypes have been ingrained where technological advancement appears to be somehow linked to a spectrum on a skin colour chart?  Those preconceptions can then be flipped on to the reader, playing into lazy expectations of “how the world is”.  It is more than interesting to position among those expectations of what is ‘normal’ something which in our world is usually hotly contested.

Fantasy is sometimes described as “what could never be”, as opposed to science fiction’s “what could be”.  But for all which is dismissed as impossible in the genre, it is an excellent tool for shining a light on “what is”.

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Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia.  She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.  See: www.andreakhost.com

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Carole McDonnell

One Step Sideways: What’s Fantasy FOR?

For me, writing and reading Fantasy serves many purposes and has many pleasures.

For one, it enables mental exploration in a systematic way. It’s like playing “what if” games and preserving that game for posterity. We play with the rules of a world and the ramifications and all aspects of the rules of that imagined world. By changing one small thing we develop a new premise. In fantasy, the premises are many and not ruled by the spatial, genetic, scientific laws of Earth.  One can play with languages, communication styles, moral codes, human talents, human genetics, and the races of the world. One can, in short, be not only a scholar, a historian, a climatologist, a worldbuilder, and a creator of religions…but one can be a God, creating one’s own world.

Another purpose of fantasy is emotional. Fantasy comes from the heart. I tend to like romantic fantasy. Love involves heroes, heroines, codes of love, codes of honor and belongingness. All these aspects of love are present in the modern western world but fantasists prefer to explore love in other realms. The emotional aspect of fantasy deals with family, class, and caste. In this way, fantasy is not only a great way to affirm one’s culture and one’s racial history, but to examine the nature of family relationships and bonds.

I said earlier that in fantasy, the fantasy writer can play what if games based on changes to the scientific laws of Earth. But this isn’t entirely true. There is fantasy that is spiritual. Religious fantasy often attempts to show the cosmological worldview of that religion’s adherent. For instance, the writings of Frank Peretti often aim to  show the Christian idea about unseen evil spiritual agencies in the world. Oftentimes, these doctrinal worldviews are joined to the other concerns of the religious author.  For instance, while CS Lewis’s Narnia series is about the basics of Christianity, his Perelandra series joins his Christian worldview with his ideas about “information and the media” Other Christian writers such as PD James, and Madeleine L’Engle join the Christian worldview with their concerns about the environment or Quantum Science. As for me, a Christian writer, I tend to think “fantasy” is closer to what the real world looks like. There are, of course, spiritual writers of different faiths because all believers in things spiritual don’t share the same exact beliefs about what rules/forces guide or affect the Earth. There are also writers, such as India’s Ashok Banker, who use the myths and legends of their country’s spirituality as the basis of their fiction.

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Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildeside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower.
http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/

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Warren Rochelle

What’s fantasy FOR—for me, personally?

The easy answer, the cliché, is escape, which is true enough—but that’s not enough of an answer. True, it was one of Tolkien’s answers: the escape from the gritty, grey reality of the world, although Tolkien didn’t see escape—or escapist fiction—as remotely disparaging. This was not the role of fiction, fantasy or otherwise.  But I always thought “On Fairy Stories” was speaking to the reader of fantasy, and not so much to the writer. Tolkien, I believe, wanted his readers to identify with his characters and their struggles, as they confronted and contended with evil, whether or on a cosmic or a personal scale. This identification encourages readers in their own struggles—as the hero goes on his or her quest, so does the reader. This reminds the reader that such struggles are not something unique but something shared with humankind, something that connects us all. This is one thing truly that fantasy is for, and if this is escape, it’s not quite the same as what the term escapist fiction implies: avoiding reality and responsibility, running away and hiding in some imagined world.

But, I don’t think this is the intended question. Granted, a writer is usually a reader but this question seems directed at my writerly self. Fantasy, for the writer does allow for the act of subcreation (thanks again to Tolkien). Writing in and of itself, whether the created text is fantasy or not, allows me to construct and explore realities and to examine the possibilities of realities. This does lead to fantasy—although given that all imagined stories are constructed realities, I don’t feel as if I have gotten at the question yet.

Perhaps I should approach this question in a different way: the fantasies themselves that I imagine and create.  What are they for; what do they do? What are they about? The list of subject matter and themes is one familiar to anyone who has read (and/or written) a fair amount of the genre: fairies, witches, werewolves, magical creatures, myth, quests, good and evil, transformations, the awakening of power, and abilities and knowledge, latent and unsuspected.  I write about light and dark, of places and things and people in and out of the shadow, and the places between the dark and the light where most of us live. But I suspect most fantasy writers have written about such things.

I write about love.  I am interested in love and its possibilities and its permutations. One permutation that is of especial interest to me is the love between men. I hesitated, briefly, to include this, as, yes, I examine and consider other permutations or variations of human love: men and women, parents and children, friends. But as a gay man I especially want to write the stories of my own context. But never mind that; I digress.

I am interested in love as power—a power than enables, that can create and destroy—as perhaps the most powerful and the most dangerous force in the  universe—and the force that is the most essential, the most creative, the most transformative. I am interested in love and myth. And this brings me, tangentially, to another of Tolkien’s four reasons: recovery, in particular truths that have gone astray. The example that I have used in my classes is that fantasy can teach its readers to marvel at the color green again. But here, it is love itself and its power and risks and adventure, that I think we need to recover, reuse. We need to re-see and remember love, and as Tolkien says, fantasy helps us to “see things as we are (or were) meant to see them.” Fantasy helps us to tell the truth.

Fantasy allows me to do this through story. I write to tell stories about these things. I write to explore the power of myth, of narrative, of metaphor, in a way that only fantasy (and sometimes science fiction—but science fiction is, to paraphrase Le Guin, the modern province of the ancient kingdom of fantasy) permits.  The story has to come first, and fantasy is story. Through fantasy, I can explore—and so do, I hope, my readers—realities that can only be described through magic, through myth, through metaphor. Stories are, as Le Guin says, a basic tool for human understanding. Fantasy is for helping us to remember and understand what it means to be human.

Fantasy is for telling the truth.

And so it is for me.

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Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections.
http://warrenrochelle.com
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Deborah J. Ross

One Step Sideways: What’s Fantasy FOR?

What is any fiction for? The earliest recorded stories were, after all, fantasy — The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Akkadian Legend of Etana, The Odyssey and The Iliad, — bold, imaginative tales all. Fiction as the literal representation of “real life” is a fairly modern affectation, whereas tales of imagination — whether they involve the fantastical or not — have endured for millennia. I will allow that in the most ancient literary traditions, “fantasy” as we understand it today did not exist. It’s a dicey thing to lump together creation stories and other sacred texts, some of which still hold significance today as religious literature, with myths and legends of bygone cultures, not to mention ghost stories and tall tales.

So I think the question the becomes Why do we as humans tell stories? Whether we are published authors or not, we do it all the time, and most of us love reading or listening to stories as well. Children play by making up stories, and we’re always telling ourselves the stories of our lives in order to make sense of them. Fiction, “story-ness,” has the quality of organizing events into an emotional shape. In this way, stories are different from essays or vignettes or diaries, although these can provide fascinating reading and a wealth of insights. In a sense, all stories are fantasy, whether they include specifically supernatural elements or not. They rely upon a sort of emotional telepathy; that is, the story elements — character, plot, setting, dialog — evoke an experience in the mind of the reader. Because we humans are not passive in how we read or listen to stories, we experience them with and through our imaginations. We bring our own histories, our dreams and fears and aspirations, our interests and antipathies, to that experience. Fantasy by its very nature includes more of the “life of the imagination and spirit” than does narrowly “realistic” description.

Think of how figures of speech work and how powerful they are at communicating ideas. We say, “sky high” or “dog tired,” “as dead as a doornail,” “as stubborn as a mule.” “The woman or man of my dreams” might be literally true, but more often expresses a hope and a yearning yet to be experienced. Here the comparisons are limited to a single image or two, a few words. A fantasy story is like an extended metaphor. This is not to say that every element represents some deep psychological phenomenon. Good fantasy — that is, a whopping good tale that also works on the level of symbol and archetype — expands and enriches the world of the reader. The difference between “ordinary” “realistic” fiction and fantasy is that the former can take you on a walk around a city, and the latter can take you on a walk around the city of your secret dreams. The former can teach us about the world we live in every day, but fantasy can teach us about our selves, the full range of what it means to be alive and human.

Inherent in any fantasy tale is the whispered promise that things don’t have the be the way they have always been. That from the moment you open the cover, something will change. It may be the relief of an afternoon’s boredom, but it may be something much more. It may be the moment of realizing that you are not alone, that you are not the only one who has ever wished for a particular adventure or a magical companion.

“May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out,” Galadriel says to Frodo as she gives him the light of Eärendil’s star. That is also what fantasy is for.

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Deborah Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with JAYDIUM and NORTHLIGHT, and short stories in ASIMOV’S, F & SF, REALMS OF FANTASY and STAR WARS: TALES FROM JABBA’S PALACE. Now under her birth name, Ross, she is continuing the” Darkover” series of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as original work, including the fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD. She is a member of Book View Cafe. She has lived in France, worked for a cardiologist, studied Hebrew, yoga and kung fu, and am active in the local Jewish and Quaker communities.
http://deborahjross.blogspot.com/

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Round 2:

The second round can be found here: http://www.andreakhost.com/2012/04/travelling-fantasy-round-table-part-2.html and here: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=378889258815796.  Make comments at either link or through the Comments section on my home page.

 The third round, religion and fantasy, religion in fantasy, can be found here: http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/2012/05/religions-in-fantasy.html  and here: http://www.facebook.com/notes/warren-rochelle/traveling-fantasy-blog-round-3-religion-and-fantasy-religion-in-fantasy/406168416087880.  Make comments at either link or through the Comments section on my home page.

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