Judi’s watching the 1980s sci-fi series V this week. It’s laughable and painful to watch (actually, “listen to” is a more appropriate term. I’m in the other room, as far from the TV as I can possibly sit). Judi says she’s watching it for the same reasons people stare at auto accidents. It’s repulsive but you just… can’t… look… away. Sorta like Johnny Depp in that Willy Wonka movie.V is like a 1980s gala of clichéd writing, bad hair, and worse acting. The highlight, for me, involved a chase scene on dirt bikes, which are a lot cooler when the bad guys (and the bad guys always wear black helmets with full visors, mind you…) are shooting laser beams at you. It worked so well that a few episodes later, they repeated the scene on horseback. I didn’t watch V in those years. We probably didn’t get that channel anyhow; besides, I was too busy reading fantasy novels.
When I was a youngster I discovered The Hobbit. My dad introduced it to me when he lived in Jackson, California. I must have been 10 years old. I remember long, hot summer days playing with Legos and relaxing in the cool dark living room, while listening to an old recorded performance of the novel. I’m surprised my dad’s parrot didn’t have it memorized as we wore out the record. Bilbo and the trolls; that slimy creep Gollum and his riddles in the dark; Mirkwood forest and the giant spiders; riding the barrels to the men Dale, and of course the battle against dragon Smaug. The adventure captivated me in a way that Huck Finn couldn’t, nor Clyde Robert Bulla’s dozens of books, nor the Hardy Boys. I was hooked. I’d become a fantasy junkie. After The Hobbit, there was:
- Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (of course)
- Piers Anthony’s Xanth series
- Steven R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series (hated that series, for the record)
- Philip José Farmer
- All the short stories and novels by Ray Bradbury
- Dozens of other long-forgotten authors.
I had a deep interest in Greek and Roman mythology. I read Bullfinch’s Mythology, as well as Edith Hamilton’s work, absorbing the stores of “true” myths. I wanted to play a snazzy new game called Dungeons and Dragons but my religious commitment at the time wouldn’t allow me to inhabit a game that would steal my soul and (I heard this at a church youth convention one year) cause me to desire sex with animals and to sleep in a bathtub filled with my own feces.
My question is why. I wasn’t short; didn’t have hairy feet. I knew (even as a 10-year-old) there was no such thing as trolls, or magic rings, or dragons. For years, I told myself I read fantasy literature because I was trying to escape real life and trying to live in an alternate reality (I’m thinking of the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo, which reinforced that thought for years). I don’t believe that’s the reason any more.
Fantasy literature occupies that area between what isn’t, and what could be. One of the first tricks a logician learns is that all deductive reasoning must start from true premises. For example, we can’t conduct a discussion about unicorns, if unicorns don’t exist. So for the purposes of discussion, we treat unicorns as real, living creatures. For our writing, while they’re at it, authors populate their worlds with herds of the single-horned critters, and a posse of arrow-shooting centaurs, and maybe a god or two. Why not? We’ve already suspended our disbelief for one unicorn. Now throw a human into the mix: let’s say he can fling magical spells left and right. A fantasy author intentionally bends the “rules” of the universe to change the logic of the story.
Now, does anyone believe any of this? You don’t even have to have a tenuous grasp on reality to sort out what’s real and what’s pretend. Spider-Man doesn’t usually fly between buildings in New York. But we can pretend awhile, can’t we, without giving our hearts and minds over to the literal existence of Spider-Man?
So, where do we draw the line in the sand? How many people were angry with JK Rowling for publishing those “terrible” Harry Potter books, yet let their kids watch The Wizard of Oz? I’ve heard people say Spidey is okay, because radioactive spiders have scientific plausibility but that Piers Anthony’s looney bin world of Xanth has (with its pointy talking shoe horns, and an eye queue, which is a very intelligent plantlike string of eyes) crossed the boundaries of common Christian decency? How many teenage nights did I spend writing a half-dozen pages of a fantasy story, only to shred it in a later fit of guilt?
How about age? Is Gulliver’s Travels more acceptable than Thomas Covenant’s world? Can the Ringworld series be less good than Journey to the Center of the Earth because it’s a century newer? Is Flowers for Algernon less valuable than The Invisible Man or is Bram Stoker’s Dracula less plausible, thus less dangerous, to the mind than Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire?
My thought is if you are to reject one, you should reject the fanciful wholesale: Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Get rid of Beowulf. It’s got monsters. And Virgil’s Aeneid with its gorgon and minotaur. And of course Homer’s Odyssey should go, with its sirens and witch named Circe, and the cyclops, and that gray-eyed goddess Athena running hither and yon.
When you cross the line, cross it all the way. Either that, or come up with a real reason you don’t like fantasy literature. Despise genre fiction? Fine. Maybe the term witch bothers you? or Sorceress? I’m okay with that too, I suppose, although I think a person misses out on a lot when they start playing the game of semantics. If you can pretend unicorns exist, just for a minute, or time travel, or flying men in tights, maybe your life would be just a little bit richer. Or I might be very lonely in Hell. I guess when I finish this Orson Scott Card series, I’ll have to wait a few years and find out.