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?
I’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.