A Brief Defense of Fantasy Literature

At the conclusion of Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese ghost stories, Kwaidan, he introduces the mystical land of Horai, a sort of never-never land famous in Japanese folklore. As a twentieth-century writer, he takes a suitably pragmatic view of such fables:

“But that the people who wrote down those legends ever saw Horai, even in a mirage, is not believable.  For really there are no enchanted fruits which leave the eater forever satisfied—nor any magical grass which revives the dead—nor any fountain of fairy water—nor any bowls which never lack rice—nor any cups which never lack wine.  It is not true that sorrow and death never enter Horai; neither is it true that there is not any winter” (Dover, 116). 

In short, no one truly believed in a ‘Horai,’ a fantastic kingdom full of magic and beauty. Winter and death were ever-present realities, which not even the most diverting—or disturbing—story could entirely dispel. So why tell stories of Horai, of a land beyond sickness and death? Why, for that matter, tell stories of supernatural beings, monsters, and heroes in the first place? This is the charge often leveled at fantasy literature of all stripes, which is dismissed as “escapist” or infantile in nature.  For Hearn, a British-American who found a lost world of incredible beauty in Japan (and her stories), the answer is clear:

“This atmosphere [of the old stories] is not of our human period: it is enormously old, so old that I feel afraid when I try to think how old it is; and it is not a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. It is not made of air at all, but of ghost—the substance of quintillions and quintillions of generations souls blended into one immense translucency—souls of people who thought in ways never resembling our ways. Whatever mortal man inhales that atmosphere, he takes into his blood the thrilling of these spirits; and they change the senses within him—reshaping his notions of Space and Time—so that he can see only as they used to see, and feel only as they used to feel, and think only as they used to think” (Dover, 117).

Horai never existed, no more than did Avalon or Camelot; yet in another sense they never died, and live on as a metaphor of our deepest human desires. When Hearn speaks of “quintillions and quintillions of generations souls blended into one immense translucency,” he refers to the generations of storytellers behind each tale, each of whom added some detail, large or small, to the fabric of the story. When we read stories set in a fabled Horai, we breathe a different air—an air that has never existed on earth, but is piped straight from the atmosphere of myth and legend. These worlds allow us to transcend time and see the dragons of old, whether or not they truly existed. In short, Horai is real because we carry it in our hearts and spend our entire lives looking for it.  Of course, the only road to Horai is the one found in books, and works of fantasy in particular, which offer the surest road to discovery. They make the old metaphors sing again, whether in the form of Hobbits, magicians, and dragons (and to stretch the concept of fantasy a bit further, starfighters and droids). 

Naturally, by evoking our mythical past we risk falling prey to a crippling nostalgia, writing about heroic knights simply to walk in their footsteps. For this reason, the fantasy writer has an enormous responsibility, as suggested by Hearn himself: to write so the reader can “see only as they used to see, and feel only as they used to feel, and think only as they used to think.”  In other words, fantasy should evoke the feeling of lost worlds and the people who populated them, rather than a mass of anachronistic detail. It’s probably not important whether or not someone used such and such a sword in the first Crusade, or what kind of rules this or that wizard uses to conjure a spell. We can leave such arguments to the academics (and they exist outside the university as well!). Rather, the fantasy writer should explore what it means to be human in many times and lands. The modern world glides over people and places and sells us easy platitudes about our ancestral past. It is the job of literature—and particularly, fantasy—to dispel these myths, and make us see through the eyes of a Druid, as well as a Roman soldier sent to the very outskirts of empire. The past, in fantasy, should always feel like the here and now—without making it seem like a clumsy production of Shakespeare. 

Fantasy can at once show us the common bonds of humanity, while at the same time stressing the essential, human differences between people and cultures. Hearn loved immersing himself in the ‘Horai’ of Japanese art because of its very difference; it spoke of old, essential things in a language he had to struggle to understand. If anything, fantasy literature stresses the importance of patience and translation: we can’t arrive in a distant land expecting to find the familiar landscape of home. It must be explored in slow, careful steps before we hear its music. This demands that the reader of fantasy be above all an eager tourist, and the writer, both native and guide. 

Yet these forgotten worlds don’t need to be spun from whole cloth. All of literature is variations on a theme, like the swaying branches of a stout oak. Middle Earth spins new metaphors from old, translating the age-old poetry of Beowulf and the Prose Edda. A good writer, like Hearn, needs to find the country (or literature) that speaks to him or her, and capture its music in a foreign tongue. Yet the author must forge a new translation without making it seem all too easy (or all too familiar). If we read the same book over and over again, the adventure pales and the story fades out of memory. As in any adventure, taboos must be broken and all thought of safety a distant memory. Perhaps the path will wander recklessly towards the cliffs of obscurity, but if we follow the poetry of fantasy—rather than its conventions—we might recover the shores of our distant Horai.

[Passages from Hearn quoted from Kwaidan, Dover Books, 2006]