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.
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