‘Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’ JRR Tolkien6
Twentieth Century Professor of English and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who perhaps more than any other single author has brought alive worlds of Fantasy in his vast Middle Earth sequence of stories, as a child ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’:
‘Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.’7
If we read this as a yearning for Fantasy, (that is, the experience of such, as opposed to the genre – although we will dignify both with the capital in the hope that one will encourage the other) then I do not think he is alone in this, as the huge popularity of Fantasy in books, films and computer games prove. There seems to be an endless appetite for it: The Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, TheTwilight Saga, Avengers Assemble, and no doubt more ‘franchises’ await to hit the big or little screen. Despite a distinctive post-9/11 trend for ‘real life stories’, gritty realism, and tales of hard luck and ‘winning through adversity’ (spawning shelves of ‘misery lit’; or ‘trauma memoir’) the world, it seems, is hungry for Story, especially of the fantastical kind.
Why is it so many seem to ‘desire dragons’, as Tolkien did? What purpose, if any, is there to Fantasy? Is it just make-believe for grown ups, or does it serve a more profound function? This brief excursion into Fantasyland endeavours to explore, if not answer, these questions, and perhaps the very act of asking questions – curiosity, or the quest for knowledge – is at the root of all this ultimately. The desire to know has led humankind from the cave to the moon. Wishing to know what lay over the next hill, and the next, beyond the borders of the familiar, over the sea, over the horizon – following the journey of the sun, our constant companion of consciousness, throughout the day, into the unconscious of night – this has driven humanity on, and fuelled most of its fantasies. The unknown provides a vacuum for the subconscious, for the Shadow, the Id, the other. We populate the night with our own.
And we probe the shadows with a thrill of fear and a desire to know.
Tolkien, in a witty reply to a letter in The Observer (16 January, 1938) signed by someone calling themselves ‘Habit’, requesting more background about ‘the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book’, (The Hobbit, published 21 September1937) responded thus:
‘Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.’8
Despite Tolkien’s claiming not to ‘remember anything about the name and inception of the hero’, he gave a typically conscientious and erudite reply. His letters show the fathomless quality of his learning (his scholar’s mind akin to the Mines of Moria) and provide a plethora of portals to explore – enough for a lifetime, and thus he has not robbed research students of their existence, but thrown a gauntlet down to ‘curious Hobbits’, who are intrigued by the mysterious origins of such wonders, in what smithies were they forged, and whether the alchemical secrets of the wordsmiths trade can be gleaned, used, and passed on.
I must disclose my own interest in this realm of the imagination – with my five-volume epic, The Windsmith Elegy9, I could be categorised as an author of Fantasy, although I prefer the term ‘Mythic Reality’ (for that is how it feels to me – more of which we will discuss later). As a writer of ‘Fantastical Fiction’ (as it once used to called) the genre, as a whole, holds an obvious appeal to me, but more so the mysterious impulse that drives us to write and read it, and beyond that, the act of creation itself.
The central thesis I would like to forward here is that the roots of Fantasy go deeper than sometimes the genre suggest – that there is more to it than mere ‘Sword and Sorcery’, and the endless rehashing of Tolkienesque tropes. What if Fantasy is not merely a form of escapism (although that in itself is not ‘wrong’), but a way of exploring imaginative possibilities?
In the purest expression of Fantasy, something more fundamental is at work. Could Imagination serve as a gateway to other realms, other possibilities – a kind of ‘Quantum TV’ – with different bandwidths showing glimpses of ‘that which does not exist, but could’, and sometimes does, in our imagination?
Many beginner writers who attempt to write Fantasy do not seem to understand the genre. They copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation (as someone who has taught and assessed creative writing since 2003 I can wearily attest to this – although I am occasionally astounded by what my students produce). There is often a gulf between idea and execution, which is frustrating. It feels as though I am receiving a poor signal from a distant land.
The craft provides the Transatlantic cable, but I do not wish to lay it down here – many others have done that. Rather than simply provide a list of techniques, I believe it would be more useful (and better for the writer) to explore the ‘biology’ of Fantasy, and our motives for writing it.
- Where does the impulse to write Fantasy come from?
- What takes place in the act of writing, i.e. the creative process – specifically in the creation of works of Fantasy?
- What benefits are there, if any, for the writer, as well as the reader?
And so I begin this essay with these questions in mind – and a sense of unknowing.
A quester, armed with his question, is a good place to start.
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring, 2013
[Extract from Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer’s Quest, published by Compass Books – contact them and order an advance copy now]