“I hope that teenagers find the real heroic fantasies, like Tolkien’s. I know such fantasies continue to be written. And I hope the publishers and packagers and promoters and sellers of fantasy honor them as such. While fantasy can indeed be mere escapism, wish-fulfillment, indulgence in empty heroics and brainless violence, it isn’t so by definition–and shouldn’t be treated as if it were.”
–Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin opens Cheek by Jowl with a refutation of what she identifies as three myths–in her phrasing, “assumptions”–about the fantasy genre: that the characters are always white, that the setting is always medieval (or medieval-inspired), and that the central conflict is always a simplistic battle between good and evil (4). She closes this introductory section with the quote displayed above, going on to reflect that: “imaginative literature continues to question what heroism is, to examine the roots of power, and to offer moral alternatives,” and she concludes, finally, that “Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are many metaphors beside battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing right do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about these other ways. Could we assume, for a change, that it does so?” (7).
Le Guin cites the appeal of fantasy across age demographics–from the fairy tale to the young adult novel and beyond–as part of its power and uncommon appeal, pointing out that even many books meant for adults become greatly interesting to children, and she insists that the core element of emotional honesty is essential, citing examples of when fantasy fails to accomplish this (22-23). Her perspective on the Harry Potter phenomenon is fascinating; as she puts it, the first time she was told that she “must read” these books about a young boy wizard at a magical school, “I confess I thought they were telling me to read my own A Wizard of Earthsea, which involves a school for wizards, and has been in print since 1969. No such luck!” (26). She points out how the “freshness” of the Harry Potter books is largely attributable to the dismissive attitude taken toward “genre” fiction in recent critical and academic practice. She points out how without understanding the conventions of genre, it is very difficult to judge a work–that is to say, from my own discipline, one must consider its rhetorical situation.
Le Guin insists that Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” is required reading for anyone interested in serious discussion of fantasy, lamenting that many instead read Todorov, noting that “Anyone familiar with the literature he should have read can only admire his perverse ingenuity in getting off the subject” (31). It’s a fascinating criticism, and while I don’t entirely share it, I do concur that Todorov’s fixation on realism and believability may be a misstep in the rhetoric of fantasy. As Tolkien and Le Guin put forth, the magic seems to be in the creation. Despite this, Le Guin is clearly a champion of her own literary genre, and while I do not wish to put aside market-driven genre labels, I also do not wish to be bound by them. Thus, perhaps I can use Tolkien, Todorov, and Le Guin together to all begin drawing lines around this mysterious “theory of fantasy” that remains so elusive for me.
She later confronts the frequent issue of allegory, noting, “But true fantasy is not allegory. Allegory and fantasy may overlap, as with Spenser, who obeys the rational convention of allegory yet keeps considerable freedom of invention” but, she later goes on, “The tendency to explain fantasy by extracting the fantastic from it and replacing it with the comprehensible reduces the radically unreal to the secondhand commonplace” (34-35). To this end, she warns about attempting utilitarian interpretations and judgments of fantasy. She challenges the dismissive notion of “escapism,” stating that the settings of fantasy “do not so much lament, perhaps, as remind” (38). Fantasy defies these easy explanations, she insists, because it stands against the “monstrous homogenization or our world” (40). I would observe that, in today’s market-driven fiction, even what we call fantasy has become more an order at Starbucks than a bracing draught from Lórien; however, this is the result of treating fantasy as product rather than process, as prescriptive rather than exploratory, as market-driven instead of methodological. While Le Guin does not explicitly address this, I have the impression she might agree.
Arising from this work, I find Le Guin on the verge of (but never quite arriving at) interrogating the commodification of content. A story, a work, must generate content that can be converted into something of immediate and direct use, a message that represents the work’s value. Yet, if there is a language and rhetoric to storytelling–and, indeed, to fantasy–is it not worth considering that Le Guin has a point? Is “the message” of the story really what deserves our attention, or is that a reduction beyond forgiving–an act of fantastical appropriation, using our wildest dreams and visions to justify some particular ideological schema? Perhaps the opposite should be true. Perhaps we must stop trying to mine the earth for iron, and instead realize that the living stone has plenty to offer just as it is.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Cheek by Jowl: Talks and Essays on How & Why Fantasy Matters. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct, 2009. Print.