Why Fantasy? Why Bother?

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So many people – and Andersen must have known a fair few – seem to believe that fantasy tales, in whatever form – actually any fiction or any idea without immediate tangible utility, or which can’t be parlayed into some sort of marketing scheme – are utterly worthless. It’s a view that’s spread in recent years to the point that it’s no longer possible to pick up a literary section and not find some reader commentary – sometimes even contributor commentary – to the effect that fantasy fiction – often fiction altogether – is bereft continuing value, is moribund or passé – that only statistics, philosophy, facts and talking points matter. With so much in the “real world” to have to cope with and overcome, they say we’ve transcended the need for fiction, and that it’s now best consigned to the literary scrapheap.

They’re rather like the Mathematical Master in Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, scoffing at children who think the Prince’s statue looks like an angel, telling them they’ve never seen an angel. “Ah but we have, in our dreams,” they reply, at which, Wilde tells us, “the Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve of children dreaming.” In so observing, and in defending the general importance of fiction, fantasy in its assorted forms in particular, I am not, like Danu in Donavan’s song Roots of Oak saying “Let me not hear facts, figures and logic/Fain would I hear lore, legends and magic.”

Our everyday lives require immediate access to reliable information, analyzed in a logical manner. We’d be in a fine mess without the “facts, figures and logic” that Danu purports to reject and deplore. But discussion doesn’t end there, for there remains a substantial school of rationalists who insist upon facts, figures and logic being not merely the most important things, but the only things. Consider Richard Dawkins: I don’t mean his hysterical, vituperative war on God, and bigoted insistence that anyone who’s still a believer is hiding behind superstition, ritualism or emotion because he or she is afraid to face the intellectual coldness of his “unassailable” actuality. I’ve no doubt that God will survive quite nicely no matter how much Dawkins and his fanboys hee-haw and howl at the moon.

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I mean a more universal sense of Dawkins’ hubris, epitomizing the arrogance of certain rationalists, so convinced of their intellectual superiority they believe the sole domain where they happen to have expertise – science – is the sole valid way to assess knowledge – any knowledge. Using the scientific method as a bludgeon, insisting it’s the only permissible way of appreciating not just the physical world but of everything else, as well, they cling resolutely to their belief that the history of human intellectual achievement is but a prelude to an understanding the rules and precenpts of how to conduct a scientific inquiry. It’s led them to dismiss the insights offered not only by religion, but by literature, music and art – really by anything they can’t quantify or place in a test tube. Even history or biography, when they wander from dry discussion of dates, places and transactions, and attempt to discuss impact or motivations, are suspect.

To them, the humanities are nothing more than dispensable, disposable window-dressing, and the consciousness and emotions of their fellow human beings mere chemical reactions, byproducts of natural selection, now hobbling the pursuit and dissemination of cold, hard facts. They collect facts and figures like so many seashells – it’s futile to discuss even meaning and motivation, much less consciousness or beauty. I’ve no doubt that Dawkins is sincere when he says that tales of frogs turning into princes have “insidious effect on rationality.” It’s what makes the statement so worrisome. Like the Mathematical Master, Dawkins frowns on any deviation from his parochial definition of  inferred rationality. This is all that there is, kiddies, he tells us: An endless stream of facts and figures strung up like a string of pearls across a random, meaningless, rudderless universe – so shut up and eat your porridge. Can’t take Dawkins and his bleak rationalist “reality?”

No problem at all: Reality TV has replaced religion as the opium of the masses, and you can shut out rationalist “reality” while you virtually share the trials, triumphs and tragedies of your favorite Teen Moms, Dance Moms, Real Housewives and American Idol contestants, at the same time you Keep Up with the Kardashians while Naked and Alone. But both Dawkins and his rationalists, on the one hand, and the reality TV clown car, on the other, miss the point. Like an amusement park funhouse or “dark ride,” reality TV frames a few bogus “surprises” as it meanders on its predetermined track, but it ultimately runs in circles. The figures, facts and logic of the rationalists are tools – essential ones – for all of us to better understand our day to day lives in this world, but there needs to be more to life than the human equivalent of laying an egg or learning to purr.

We need the means to understand ourselves too, and how we relate to the world – in a way that Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura can’t explain before cutting to a station break, and can’t be resolved by Stephen Richards no matter how much he turns us into “Jedis.” It demands deeper, more mysterious, more arcane truths, often expressed symbolically, that can’t be expressed in five or seven bullet points, or crammed into a series of sound bites. It requires a sense of wonder. It requires taking the time to reflect and introspect. It’s what the imagination allows. It’s a different means, method and manner of knowing.

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And it is fantasy, by means of symbol and parable, that can often serve as a mechanism to ponder and express many of these deeper truths. In the immortal words of the late Terry Pratchett, “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.” Perhaps another of Sir Terry’s observations is even more apropos: “Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.18.31 PMIn this house the cat was master and the hen mistress. They always said, “We and the world,” for they thought themselves as being half the world, and much the better half at that. The ugly duckling thought there might be more than one way of thinking, but the hen wouldn’t hear of it. “Can you lay eggs?” she asked “No.” “Then be so good as to hold your tongue” The cat asked, “Can you arch your back, purr, or make sparks?” “No.” “Then keep your opinion to yourself when sensible people are talking.” So the ugly duckling sat in a corner, feeling most despondent. Then he remembered the fresh air and sunlight. Such a desire to go swimming on the water possessed him he couldn’t help telling the hen about it. “What on earth has come over you?” the hen cried. “You haven’t a thing to do, and that’s why you get such silly notions. Lay us an egg, or learn to purr, and you’ll get over it.” – Excerpt from The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen