Is Fantasy the Literature of the Impossible?

As an author of fantasy fiction, and a previously-published one at that, I have come to know a lot of people’s opinions about this genre. Many of my friends and associates absolutely love fantasy, and others find it distasteful or empty. Admittedly, I am susceptible to holding a grudge against some people in the latter category, depending on the rationale behind their rejection. Sometimes, it is hard to argue with their writing off of fantasy. After all, it is a fiction niche that is infamous for its substituting of Dungeons and Dragons style shenanigans for competent storytelling, and its repeated inclusion of plucky young heroes, wizened and world-weary wizards, ale-quaffing barbarians, maniacal dark lords, busty damsels in distress, treasure-hoarding dragons, prophesied Chosen Ones, and magically endowed amulets/swords/scepters.

Now that I have just about used up my adjective quota for the day, and vastly overstepped my monthly cliché allowance, allow me to address one of the more widely accepted ideas about fantasy, one that both its advocates and enemies often affirm.

I catch a lot of people saying that fantasy is a literature of the “impossible,” where things happen day to day that could never transpire in our own mundane world. By being such, the logic goes, it allows authors to paint anything they please on the canvas, where they can rewrite anything from physics to history. But these silly and fanciful things will never leave the page, never bleed over into tangible existence. There is not even the slightest chance we will turn on the news tomorrow to hear that a fighter plane collided with a dragon, sending both to crash near the Air Force Academy. (That would be the day after tomorrow, when the local news gets the bright idea to irritate us with an April Fool’s prank, like this dubious “holiday” wasn’t obnoxious enough to begin with)

At first, the contention seems almost self-evident. Seeing Harry Potter’s wand actually cast its spells without the aid of CGI (and Hermione Granger’s doing the same, but with more expertise), or goblins and boggarts taking over the Spiderwick Estate, does not quite fall into the realm of known human experience. How could you ever take someone seriously if they rode up to your home on a white horse, handing you an ornate medallion and claiming you were the last in an ancient royal bloodline, and urgently needed lest a country you never heard of gets swallowed up in supernatural darkness?

So, how to contest the idea that fantasy pertains to the impossible? Easy. By pointing out that we do not yet know what is “possible” or “impossible”.

Obviously, we are getting a better idea every day as to what is scientifically plausible, mathematics usually draws the lines rather sharply once the terms are specific enough, and we seem to have a pretty good grasp of what are logical impossibilities, like square circles or honest bill collectors. We have learned some of what can or cannot happen in the abstract world of numbers and logic, and become more familiar with the normal workings of the physical world, the one we can detect or measure with our five senses.

However, what about magic, if only in theory? How might griffins be labeled unattainable creatures, and fairies relegated for all eternity to the dreams and storybooks only children are allowed to enjoy?

Perhaps I have overlooked something, but it seems to me that when someone calls fantasy “silly” or “impossible” in and of itself, it is the same attitude that kept Christopher Columbus from admitting that he landed on a continent besides Asia. Despite the assurances of popular mythology, he never set out to prove the Earth was round; that much had been settled by the time of ancient Greece. Columbus thought our world was smaller in diameter than what everyone else believed, and he went to his grave believing he had discovered an Atlantic route to Asia, even forcing the crew of his ship to sign a statement agreeing with him. He had become so intent on finding that particular route that his dropping anchor at a New World never crossed his mind, and as a result the world was a smaller place in Columbus’s eyes, harboring fewer wonders or chances of discovery than it actually did.

If we say that fantasy cannot or should not be taken seriously, as literature or as a line of speculation delivered through fiction, then we are basically saying we can write anything we want, but never fear it turning the real world upside down and informing us that we don’t have all of the answers. That approach arose among scientists when they argued (at first) that the duckbilled platypus could not have been a real animal, but the practical joke of a talented taxidermist. Their reaction is understandable, given the fact that they had never stumbled across such a bizarre animal in all their studies, but that made them no less wrong when the platypus was swimming happily in the rivers of Australia, laying its eggs and paddling with its webbed feet, oblivious to the scientists’ denial.

Accurately describing something as truly impossible tends to be much more difficult than we think. Even when it comes to the hardnosed laws of physics, we aren’t outlining the laws that “must” be followed, the cogs and gears that must mesh in the universe’s clockwork. Rather, we are merely describing what happens when certain conditions and objects are present. Scientific laws are descriptive by nature, not regulatory like human laws against murder or tax evasion. If a professor outlines a scientific principle to her students, even one so plain as gravity or entropy, she is not reading to them the inviolable constants that govern the physical realm. She follows the links in a chain of cause and effect. Mass gives off gravity not because it must, but because gravity is the effect of mass occupying one region of space and time. Of course, there is a good deal of overlap between scientific principle and the laws of logic. “There is a mass occupying space-time in this region, therefore I can expect it to possess gravity.” All the same, that overlap is not complete. If a different outcome happens, like the observed mass repelling rather than attracting, then we are not witnessing the impossible. We merely have insufficient information, too little to realize what is happening differently this time.

And now to finally circle back to my point. When it comes to the magic in fantasy, it usually is not a violation of possibility. It can be a violation of the “laws” of physics, or simply another set of laws and principles tacked onto the ones scientists already know and study, but most of the time there is little or no justification for saying it absolutely cannot occur. There are conceivable universes where objects have the labels of “true names”, whose utterance could give you control of them, thanks to some force outside the laws of physics (a la “Eragon” and “A Wizard of Earthsea”). A world could exist where creatures we call elves or pixies or orcs might exist alongside our own race, either hidden or out in open sight.

In my case, the world I am building for my books is rather restricted, compared to many other novels in fantasy; here, magic is an intrusion from outside forces, forcing itself on the physical world, and with physical consequences that result from the “ripple” the intrusion creates. Magic’s entry into the physical world is therefore largely limited by the so-called laws of nature. It can be stored and flow through crystals or objects, but not the words or ideas people speak. Though some people have magic inside them, and they can control it through concentration and mental conditioning, it will be harnessed through some means outside of the mind, just like any source of energy we can put to use. Even the fantasy creatures will in most cases bow to biology, for they walk, eat, mate, and die in a biosphere.

So fantasy can be speculative, positing worlds and circumstances that lie outside our experiences in interacting with the world as we know it. But in my view, we should dispense with calling fantasy “impossible” by definition, when at its base the genre merely poses questions about what could happen differently, and how it might affect a story that unfolds before the reader. It can place different rules on the world it shows you when you read it, but that does not mean it is impossible, or that literally anything can happen on those pages. If the author is careful, they are just treading out in the map’s blank spaces, where we don’t fully know what can or cannot happen. That is one of the reasons I love fantasy: by going to such uncharted territory, it increases suspense, heightens the drama, and creates for its reader (and even its writer) a picture of the world with colors we never knew we could paint. The word “impossible” is chased to the darker, firmer, sharper corner of existence. And that is where it belongs.

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