Magic Carpet Ride: Is Fantasy Played Out?
Copyright © 2001 by Chad Underkoffler
In a recent interview with Gary Gygax in the pages of Pyramid Magazinemagazine, Nick LaLone asked if Mr. Gygax thought of "Fantasy as a genre that has been, to say the least, completed."
I disagree with the very question. Strongly.
Indeed, I think that it implies something false about what "fantasy" is. I believe that it's not merely a genre, it's a mode of expression. I prefer "Fantasy" to mean (in a quick definition) "a deliberate departure from reality."
One of my former professors from Penn State-- Kathyrn Hume-- has written a wonderful book on just this subject titled FANTASY AND MIMESIS: RESPONSES TO REALITY IN WESTERN LITERATURE (University Press/Methuen, 1984). [PLUG: Search Abebooks, Booklist, and adlibris for a copy. It's good readin'!]
"I suggest that any major improvement in our ability to handle fantasy critically will not come from ... any sort of exclusive definition, nor from trying to isolate fantasy as a genre or form. The limitations of that paradigm should now be clear. Il faut reculer pour mieux sauter: we need to go back and rethink the original assumptions, those being (1) that the essential impulse behind literature is mimesis; 2) that fantasy is a seperable and peripheral phenomenon; and (3) that, because it is seperable, it is pure and best defined by exclusion.
"I propose a different basic formulation, namely, that literature is the product of two impulses. These are mimesis, felt as the desire to imitate, to describe events, people, situations, and objects with such verisimilitude that others can share your experience; and fantasy, the desire to change givens and alter reality -- out of boredom, play, vision, longing for something lacking, or the need for metaphorical images that will bypass the audience's verbal defences. We need not try to claim a work as fantasy any more than we identify a work as a mimesis. Rather, we have many genres and forms, each with a characteristic blend or range of blends of the two impulses." (p.20)
Now, I *like* that paradigm. It doesn't help describe the difference between the two genres we generally identify as "science fiction" and "fantasy," but it's a nice redefinition of scope.
Personally, in dealing with this division of genres, I use Orson Scott Card's distinction, which appears in HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, pg. 23:
"If you have people do some magic, impossible thing by stroking a talisman or praying to a tree, it's fantasy; if they do the same thing by pressing a button or climbing inside a machine, it's science fiction."
So for me, "little f" fantasy is that class of stories with impossible deeds done by spells, talismans, monsters, and tree-praying, and "big F" Fantasy is one of the two main artistic impulses.
One of the primary "changed givens" in Fantasy is the existence of magic, and those who can wield its power. As I've gotten older, my feelings about magic have veered sharply away from the "magic as alternate/weird physics" view as typified in fictional works such as Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos, Harry Turtledove's The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, Pratt & deCamp's The Incomplete Enchanter, and gaming systems like the standard GURPS magic system. Any magic system that is reliable, replicable, and consistent can be seen as a science.
Today, magic to me is essentially about emotion, wonder, meaning, whimsy, art, poetry, cooking, symbolism, quality, the elusive. I think magic is more Art than Knowledge. Perhaps it's more a Craft than a Science. The rules of magic are at their core are vague and changeable. It's a question of feeling.
Having just reread Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, I'm convinced that Grandma's talent in the kitchen was magical, and when they tried to make it into a science (using cookbooks and new glasses and a clean organized Aristotelian kitchen), they were almost poisoned by the results. I think magic works best in stories like those of Lord Dunsany, "Stevie and the Dark" by Zenna Henderson, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, the witchcraft of Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels, One for the Morning Glory by John Barnes, and The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Roleplaying games systems I've come across that seem to flow in this vein include the GURPS Voodoo System, the magick of Unknown Armies, the magic styles of AEG's 7th Sea, and some of the early White Wolf Mage: The Ascension War materials.
I think the exploration of a difficult to describe and quantify magic -- as in Carlos Casteneda's The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and its sequels, or the search for Quality in Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or the quest for
Faith in Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard -- grants the most personal rewards, in fiction and gaming.
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