Isobelle Carmody – author of the highly acclaimed Obernewtyn Chronicles – calls the fantasy genre her “room of requirement”, the place she goes to so she can step back and think. Fantasy is, she says, “a very philosophical medium”.
Ever since I first followed Lucy through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia – probably even before then, when I was laughing at the antics of talking bears like Paddington and Teddy Robinson – I’ve been gripped by the fantasy genre.
I can still remember the sinking feeling I experienced on being told that I was now a sufficiently competent reader to be able to progress to adult books. I stared gloomily at the rows of titles in the adult section of the library wondering whether there was anything for me in the apparently mundane tales like Sense and Sensibility. It would be a while before I made the acquaintance of writers like Tolkein and – oh joy – Angela Carter and reconnected to my first love, fantasy.
Yearning for the magical
And it seems I’m not the only one who is unwilling to abandon my long love affair with magic. When JK Rowling burst onto the scene in the late 1990s, we witnessed a mass coming out of the closet of people – adults – who apparently still yearned for the magical. The world that exists just out of sight of our own if only we knew how to get there. Who could’ve predicted that an entire children’s series would be published with adult covers so that commuters on the tube could devour them without feeling embarrassed?
These days, every time I log into Netflix it seems there is a new fantasy series hitting our screens. And, even when the liberal smattering of sex and violence leaves its adult audience in absolutely no doubt that it’s targeted at them, nevertheless we find ourselves entering the same realm of the imagination that enthralled us as children and teenagers.
Stepping inside a metaphor
So, why the perennial fascination with fantasy worlds? I’ve been asking myself that since finishing the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University and finding myself writing my debut novel – a fantasy. The reason for this is not – as some have suggested – because I don’t think there’s enough interesting stuff to write about in the real world. Far from it. But, in the same way that allegory allows us to explore ideas and concepts one step removed from them, so fantasy offers a level of freedom for writers that is intoxicating. It is like stepping inside a giant metaphor.
Are the characters in fantasy any less ‘real’ than those in real-life fiction? (I realise that’s an oxymoron by the way!) No.
Are the threats posed by fantasy monsters any less terrifying than the real-life villains? No.
Fantasy allows us to explore extremes from a safe distance. We are one step removed from the world inhabited by our fantasy characters but facing the same threats and challenges, albeit in different guises. Voldemort’s evil thoughts and deeds may have changed his physical appearance but if we look into the faces of some of our own political and business leaders, maybe we catch the same red gleam.
Journey into darkness
For me, the winding paths of fantasy allow me to take a metaphorical journey into darkness – the darkness of our current world and our inner worlds – and back out again. Although I live in the real world with all of its callousness, cruelty and challenge, I remain hopeful that many of us can discover if not a happy ending then at least the peace that comes with resolution. The heroine at the end of her journey.
Isobelle Carmody also said “we find the tools that suit our hands”. As a writer, I know that I naturally reach for the Fork of Fantasy rather than the Rake of Realism! Maybe one day I’ll find myself drawn to write a gritty contemporary drama but for now I’m happy donning my cape and traipsing off through the portal to see what’s waiting for me there. I hope you’ll enjoy coming there with me.
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