Why Fantasy?

As a rabbi, one might argue that my proper purview in life is things like God, Torah, Israel, Justice and other matters commonly held to be Serious Business. Why then, you might ask, am I devoting my time to something so frivolous as writing a fantasy novel for teens?

Inkedstraw-man_LII’m glad you asked, Mr. Rhetorical Straw Man! Here’s the deal: Throughout its illustrious history, the Fantasy genre has often been maligned as a form of escapism. Those who read fantasy, the argument goes, are unable to deal with reality and so escape into an imaginary world where they don’t have to deal with their problems. This argument is problematic for several reasons – first, and rather ironically, it paints reality itself in a really negative light. If reality were genuinely so bad that people had to resort to fantasy novels to escape from it, then it seems as if that would be a serious indictment of reality, not fantasy. Second, because fantasy fiction doesn’t really hold up as an effective means of escape – no matter how much I enjoy re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the 100th time, my problems are still going to be there when I put down the book. Third, and most importantly, the “fantasy as escape” argument tends to ignore the many ways in which fiction and reality interact with each other.

No work of fantasy, however creative, can ever separate itself completely from all connection with the lived reality of the author or the reader. While J. R. R. Tolkien may have celebrated fantasy as a form of “sub-creation,” a way in which human beings can emulate their Creator by giving birth to worlds of their own, he did not mean by this that the new worlds we create can ever be completely devoid of reference to our own world. Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable for the reader is the way it often has of taking some idea or issue from the world we live in and re-examining it through a different lens. The Lord of the Rings evokes the despair and heroism Tolkien witnessed serving in the trenches during World War I. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time deals with issues of authoritarianism and the hazards of conformity that were supremely relevant when the book was published in 1962. Ursula K. Le Guinn deconstructs the patriarchal assumptions of most medieval fantasy in the later Wizard of Earthsea books, and thereby holds a mirror up to patriarchy in our own time. None of these classics of fantasy fiction make much sense when viewed in terms of “escapism” because each of them wrestles with the very real issues important to their authors in ways comparable to more “realistic” fiction.”

But the real importance of fantasy fiction comes into light not when we examine the impact reality has on fantasy, but that which fantasy has on reality. The notion of “reality” is a tricky one – it seems to presume something fixed and unchanging, an underlying substrate we can point to as the “real” as distinguished from the merely “imaginary.” But the nature of humanity is such that we tend to reshape our reality in accordance with the values and concepts that inform our lives. Technology, systems of government, economic relations, politics, art – all of these are means that humans employ to change the “given” reality around them into a form in keeping with their desires and preconceptions. In other words, the nature of the human imagination is such that the imaginary is constantly spilling over into the real and remaking it in its image.

Given this fundamental fact of human life, what we spend our time imagining may be just about the most important thing for us to consider. The realm of the imagination prefigures and ultimately determines the forms which can be assumed by the world around us, and so if we are to have any hope of changing this world for the better, it becomes vitally necessary to do the work of imagining what that world would be like and how it could be brought about. This is precisely the work that fantasy fiction is ideally suited for. Fantasy (along with its twin sibling, science fiction), is the conceptual test ground for the world we are in the process of constructing, and what that world is like will be ultimately determined by what we find it possible to imagine and what will remain literally “unimaginable.”

Furthermore, imagination is one of the ways in which we can reach out and grasp the ineffable, whether that is understood in terms of the theological/metaphysical underpinnings of reality or the barely-understood mysteries of our own identities. Growing up as a closeted transgender girl, for a great deal of my life my own truest self was something that existed solely in the realm of my own imagination. This wasn’t about escapism – on the contrary, my imagination was for me a place where I could hold those truths which were for me so true that at least for the time being there was no way they could find themselves into the unimaginable world in which I found myself. Fantasy can be an incredibly powerful way for queer and otherwise marginalized youth to connect to and explore their identity when the world around them gives no other space in which to do so. It can also be a tremendous way of forming contacts and relationships with other “dreamers,” thereby creating the social networks that will become the basis for bringing their dreams to life later on.

59 thoughts on “Why Fantasy?

  1. Fantasy: Because the world we live in is too depressing to read about, we invent one that allows us to test the metaphorical limits of our imagination.

    • I agree and do not agree. World can be depressing, this is true, but at least we built our own little world with family, friends and / or partner and ourself. This little word can be enriched with lot of creativity with fantasy with our own dreams and so we are able to create our real little happy world, although we know that the big world around is still depressing. But we are more able to influence the world around positive, when our own little world is positive and happy. And most important when we sell are happy. Fantasy completely apart from real world as a parallele world is dangerous in my eyes, at least if you feel that this world has the same importance or even more impotance than your real world.

  2. I was reading this post, I kept thinking to myself, “This person gets it.” I write horror, and while a lot of horror is just meant to terrify, like fantasy and science fiction it can be used to explore the world around us and give us a chance to see the better. Though usually horror gives us a darker look at our own world, and tells us without saying it to do better. Still, speculative fiction in general asks us to take a look at our real broken world through the lens of a fake broken world and practice tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” Thanks for writing the post.

    Also, a writer who is not only Jewish, but a rabbi and part of the LGBT community? As a writer, a Jew, the son of two rabbis, and a member of the LGBT community, it’s so cool to run into someone like that, even if it’s only on the Internet.

    • Nice to meet you too, Rami. Always nice to run into a fellow queer Jew who’s into speculative fiction – there are a lot of us out there, I think!

      • Wish I knew more of them. When I come across Jewish writers, it’s usually in the context of writing about their religion. In fact, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s in grad school to study Jewish literature, and we talked about how my horror stories counted as Jewish literature, but were a very weird and unique brand of it.

  3. I never really considered sci-fi to be fantasy’s “twin-sibling”, like while the two have a lot of fantastical elements I’ve always considered the two to be distinct. But then again, they both have a habit of being metaphorical to our society and contain concepts beyond our current understandings. Sci-fi just has a science-based lens and fantasy lands more on the unexplainable/magical side of the spectrum.

    • I agree. Sometimes science fiction and fantasy come together (I’m thinking Avatar) but much of fantasy goes well beyond a speculative vision of the future. There’s a place and an audience for hard core fantasy but I prefer the work of authors like Ray Bradbury who make you think: “This really could happen”.

  4. For me fantasy was always a way to dream and to forget reality. This article is really gorgeous. Deep and interesting views.The worth of fantasy increase enorme and the possibility of connections with other dreamers is also a thing to ponder!

  5. I’ll read anything, because it lets me crawl into somebody else’s world for a little while. I don’t mind fantasy, but I love science fiction. It has inspired lots of inventions.

  6. That’s great stuff. I haven’t spent much time inside the fantasy / sci-fi books, but I will say Slaughterhouse Five is one of my all time favorites. Amazing how this genre can really drive a point home. Good luck to you!

  7. Am I the only one in this wide world who does not read fantasy and sci-fi. Im sorry for the shock , but I have tried reading it and found it interesting enough to go back ! May be I am abnormal or may be I just like to be normal (be in reality kind)
    Anyways, lovely reading your views on imagination world.

  8. I agree with your views and have myself used science fiction as an exploratory ground for possible ideas to solve problems of the real world in unusual ways.
    Having experienced terrorism as an academic before real alienation, I recently published a book for teens/YA, for what I believe, might be a similar reason as yours.
    As a self-motivated educator, I preferred to let the reader figure out what their solution to a problem might be. How are you presenting your views?
    Looking forward to reading your perspective! Best wishes for your exploration.

  9. Becoming a mother is the most mysterious thing a woman can do. Growing a child inside is more surreal than it is scientific. It begins with a fantasy and that fantasy is actually less believable than Santa Claus. It isn’t until you can feel life moving inside that it becomes believable and I don’t mean that fears for the baby’s survival go away but that this is life itself swelling me up, making her feel stumpy and heavy because she is carrying not just a child but the live giving water and blood that sustain her.
    And then the fantasy of childbirth especially for a first child. How will this happen that this occupier of her belly will make her way out of this tiny little opening. How will she expand that much and how will everything contract again. Maybe she will read all the books and be prepared but the fantasy doesn’t go away. There has to be faith that life itself will know its way through her. And the miracle happens. It comes true.
    Most woman get to hold a healthy baby after she made her way out into the beginning of consciousness. But the miracle doesn’t stop there. A woman becomes food for that baby. Milk pours from her breasts brought on by the baby’s sucking reflex and she grows while love grows and the journey to imperfection begins.
    Imperfection then holds its own mysteries. The part we play in the stories we occupy and how the stories shape who we think we are and the tragedy is we can forget the mystery. We forget the wonder of the seeing eyes of a child. We become so cluttered by the stories that we forget who we are until we try to find ourselves again.
    It six days before Christmas. My daughter just texted me to ask me for her brother’s bank details. She wants to send him a few bob and I am thinking, inspired by your writing that is not a few bob at all. That is love. She wishes him well, to the extent that she would deprive herself. She is an artist and so is sharing the little she has got. Love. Mystery.
    Thank you for standing up for fantasy and imagination.

  10. Fantasy is an escape from the dreary chains of Normandy. It is one of the first genre of writing just because we humans need something to believe in… We’re creatures of hope and fantasy symbolizes our hope for a better tomorrow. It’s one of the only genres that can be used in any combination and the result will be enthralling to read. Thank you for penning down what every writer thinks of, but cannot put into words.

  11. Interesting, I am currently writing my dissertation on Victorian Fantasy the views of today have changed since then obviously. Like this post though wish there were more pictures as I found it hard to get through i’m a very visual person haha. Also I love fantasy it’s amazing same with si-fi. I particularly love how even though an author can steer the direction in which I see the images I still see them my own way this is just why I love books in general I guess the freedom to see and follow a story. I wouldn’t call fantasy my escape though books in general and video games do that for me.

  12. A lot of readers here will admit they read fantasy to escape reality—but good fantasy, in my opinion, is grounded in it. Reframing our world is sometimes the best way to introduce a discussion about it.

    I thoroughly loved this article. Thanks for sharing.

  13. thanks for the article, you jailbreaked the point, for me real world looks like fantasy, but in the fantasy world it looks like the real thing. the faculty of mind must know when and distinguish how otherwise the mind will miss a lot and life’s become dry without fantasy its boring everything is just ordinary and bland.

    • hmm, that’s indeed something to think about. The real world alienates itself into something unreal, forcing us to adapt…reality seams to be unreal. Our imagination, however, paints our dreams. And it can indeed become true! Exciting, and no question…the dreams must come tru.

  14. Michelle, I think you could have written a wonderful “Longread” on this topic; thank you for for sharing! I was saying to myself before trying to blog–why bother? Then it occurred to me that most of what I really learned I learned through stories…not text books. (And I have a BS in Education so Im all for schooling, don’t get me wrong!) But STORY has a power all its own. And all that you said about Fiction and Fantasy reflecting and influencing reality–and how we respond to reality..is all so true!! And of course you mentioned Tolkien right off the bat. ( My older brother and his “nerdy’ friends were all reading Tolkien back in the ’70’s when hardly anyone of “influence” cared about The Lord of the Rings…now Tolkien is almost the new Shakespeare in literature…and then there is CS Lewis, too, another literary giant and great advocate for fantasy. Ahhh…where would we be without our stories…And what kind of childhood would our grandchildren have without it?

  15. Good article… been into fantasy and Sci-fi all my life. And will most probably be for what’s left of it. Robin Hobb is one of my favourites.

  16. I love that you wrote this and put the thought into it. While fantasy does well on the book stores, it is still looked down on at times. I’ve experienced people say my reading time means less than theirs as I read fantasies and sci-fis, rather than things like true stories or historical fictions. To create a believable fantasy world you need to add elements of reality and “rules”. It is no less, and no less beautiful, than any other genre and I’m proud to be a reader and a writer for it. Great post!

  17. I love the way you have so eloquently described the saving qualities of imagination, i agree and found great comfort and solace in mind and in stories growing up. But have recently realised that there are people who cannot imagine, they do not have the ability to ‘escape’ into words as we do, they only see what is there, not what can be. So i feel very lucky to have an imagination and to get such enjoyment from the arrangement of words and the thoughts and pictures they may conjure up… #aphantasia

  18. I write random fiction stories. From the most dramatic thing, to the simple minded stories. And for long, I needed the fantasy escape from reality. And as I was reading this, it all made so much sense to me why I have always been caught up in fiction. This is brilliant!

  19. I am a passionate reader of fantasy books, and I don’t think we love fantasy because we want to escape reality, because as you say, fantasy worlds still has a connection to reality. Is immerging yourself in a reality different than yours, sometimes even more attractive, that’s true, and immerge yourself in the life of characters that are more or less similar to you. I think that people who read fantasy are no different from people who just love to read in general, we just tend to be more of dreamers and to live sometimes in our own fantasy world (even outside books). We are daydreamers.

  20. I absolutely loved reading this, it brought out my feelings about certain things in a perfect way that I never could have expressed. And as far as escapism is concerned, I think when it comes to fantasy, it’s not really escapism so much as broadening one’s mind and opening up to new things (which are not really all that new to begin with but the feeling sure is nice) and then coming back to our own problems with a new and perhaps a better perspective. However that’s just how I see fantasy and it might not be what everyone thinks. About fantasy being twin sibling of science fiction, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, they are both in their own way, very distinct genres. They each have their own thing going but on the other hand, these two do mix rather well when done correctly. There’s no end to such fiction and no end to it’s readers. So, perhaps, in that, you do have a point and yet, a part of me disagrees with that particular point. Oh, well.

    • I also believe that things are created in the imagination that can be brought into the real world and enrich it. In principle, all the beautiful and positive ideas and experiences from the imagination are to be checked how and whether they can be lived.

  21. Fantasy stories are also full of archetypes and symbolism, sometimes put in consciously or subconsciously. Such archetypes and symbols resonate with us, and help us make sense of reality. We all have our own dragons to slay.

  22. Pingback: Conversations with Rabbi Leiah Moser | Rami Ungar The Writer

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