Fantasy Dragon

What is the “Purpose” of the Fantasy Genre?

by Ed Ireland

I was wondering how to answer the question of the “purpose” of fantasy. I have to admit it had me stumped. For a while. I thought of all the standard answers, the escapism, the escapism…I repeated myself didn’t I? That was all I can ever remember reading when people were asked why they enjoyed reading fantasy.

So I thought to myself, there has to be more. You can escape just as easily in a murder mystery or a steamy romance novel. What was it about fantasy? While I was wondering, my daughter was playing nearby with her Little Pony figures. Her drama began to filter through and I was thinking how cool her little story was progressing. After a bit, I closed my eyes and started imagining the scenes she was creating. That’s when it hit me.

Fantasy certainly does allow you to escape from the daily march of life. Not only does it allow you to escape, but it brings you to some pretty cool places too. Middle Earth, Pern, Earthsea…the list is endless. But then again, murder mysteries bring you to places. Romance novels bring you to places outside of the bedroom occasionally. There had to be more and there is. A huge more.

When reading a murder mystery or romance novel, you understand what the writer is describing. You read “Tom drew his beretta and fired once…” and you instantly imagine what you just read. You’ve seen it an uncounted number of times. You read “Anne gasped when Phil’s pants fell and she saw his…”. You know what they look like too.

But when Tolkien describes a Hobbit, you need to make your brain work a little harder. You need to stretch your imagination. When Anne McCaffrey describes that first dragon, try as you might, you have no reference. You’ve never seen one. You have to imagine. Despite anything HBO does, when you read A Song of Fire and Ice, you need to imagine this world. In other words, you have to sit down and call on your oldest and most trusted friend, imagination. You have to sit and play with your Little Pony or G.I. Joe figures again.

I think that imagination is something we cultivate as children and every time we have to return to it to reference something we’ve never seen, it’s like a return to youth. It’s the one thing above anything else that brings our childhood back as suddenly as if we had never left it. The best part is, none of us realize it. None of us ever see ourselves sitting, book in hand, with that gaze of awe and wonder on our faces. That same look we had when we heard stories about Santa Clause or the witches of Halloween.

It’s there nonetheless. The look is there and in our minds, the pictures are there and they’re moving and you can hear what the characters are saying and if you stop reading and check, your heart may be pounding. Your pulse might be quicker. And no matter if you realize it or even agree with it, you are young again in that moment. You are young because you have your old playmate imagination by your side helping you to see something that doesn’t exist.

Now, not only does fantasy have “purpose,” but it has what I consider to be the best purpose of all. Anything that can bring this tired old body back to the little kid that sat cross-legged and worried about Bilbo Baggins and Conan the Warrior is certainly a great thing to me. Now I’ve answered what the purpose of fantasy is and why I read it. Why everybody should read it. I’m pretty sure there are maybe seven or eight people in the world that never want to see their youth return in any way, shape or form. The rest of you need to pick up a good fantasy book.

As for why I love fantasy, I can only answer that from the writer’s side of the table. A long time ago, I was asked why I wrote fantasy. Why not crime dramas or romance? My answer was fairly simple then and it still holds true these several years since then. I said:

What is best in life?

To crush your enemies…to see them driven before you…to hear the lamentations of their women! Perfect if you are Conan. Not so much if you’re Joe Average trying to get past the daily routines of life. I think that’s why I write, to escape the humdrums of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life and everybody in it. However, to be able to create a completely new world, new races and creatures…and then to thrust them into adventures, that is what is best in life. To be a writer is the closest any human can be to god. Breathing life into a new world and then determining that world’s fate. Choosing their heroes and villains, setting them on a course of discovery and trials and finally bringing their story to an ending…or to the start of the next adventure.

To write is to escape. To bring the thoughts and images that wander through our brains and give them descriptions and therein, life. To enrich them with purpose and direction, to lift them beyond words and into a story and then to share that story with others. Even if only one person reads it, it has served its purpose and the writer his.

What is best in life? To capture your thoughts… To see them written before you… To hear their story told aloud!

To be able to do all that within the boundaries of a world that nobody has ever seen before is truly awe-inspiring. To be able to do that over and over, creating new worlds and new stories, to create new characters and send them on their own course of action is beyond comprehension.

They say that when people talk to the voices in their heads, they are most likely insane. However, those that write what those voices say are authors. It’s a fine line to be sure, but there is one small difference. Writers have no choice but to write everything those voices say. Those voices are telling a story, and once that story takes hold in a writer’s brain, it becomes an obsession, a thing that will not remain quiet or passive. Once a character is developed, that entity will become sentient quickly. One day you’ll find yourself listening to the story they tell you instead of creating a story for them.

I have several characters like that. The character of Vespias Firstlight demands I tell her stories her way now. I gave her so much depth as a character that I am no longer a writer in her novels, but rather a stenographer. Another example is the two main characters of the Free People Trilogy, Hellion and Fire. They call the shots. They tell me what to write.

While finishing their story, my life was in a bad spot and I was angry a lot and very frustrated. It seeped into their world and brought the final book into a very dark area. What I was writing was nothing like I had imagined their story’s ending to be. Almost as if to say “It’s alright”, the characters grew quiet and allowed me to take them on this dark journey. When the book was finished, I hated the ending. But I knew it was the way their story ended.

Then they spoke to me as I toyed with another shot at the ending. They laid a course and the new ending was powerful. They let me keep the dark ending I had created but then added a strange twist to the aftermath. Readers told me they loved the ending! Many of them said they let out a good cry and then fell back into the comfort of the world that brought them so much joy. Hellion and Fire not only saved the book, but made future tales plausible.

Now then, when you hold that kind of power in your fingertips…when you have that much ability…to bring people to tears from a simple paragraph, what’s not to love? As I said, what is best in life is to capture your thoughts, write them and then read back that story, hear it as it weaves its spell…well, you’ve found yourself in the sweetest spot life has to offer and if that’s not something to love, I have no idea what is.

Pick up a good fantasy novel. Relax as you read it and let it transport you into the world, into the mind of the writer. See that world, embrace it and let it stretch your imagination. And when you’re done and the magnificence of what you just experiences hits you, sit down and write a review. The best way to thank an author is to leave a review of their work.