Fantasy? Okay… but why?

Fantasy is just escapism. A bolt-hole for woolly thinkers unable to live in the modern world. That line of thought pops up as regular as dysentery on an unlicensed Nile cruise. It’s usually either journalists, or science fiction readers (or writers) who like stories about Big Machines with no discernible human dimension.

A history lesson: in the pre-modern world, Plato defined two complementary ways of reaching the truth. Logos – from which we get ‘logic’ – was all about viewing the wider world outside of our bodies. Mythos – from which we get ‘mythology’- was the mapping of the inner world inside our head. SF is the fiction of logos. Fantasy is the fiction of mythos. It was an incisive, neatly-balanced philosophy of everything, that worked perfectly well until the Age of Reason.

In our society, logos is given more weight. Wrongly, I believe. There’s a huge and distasteful arrogance to some of the big voices in science that reminds me of Tory MPs in the eighties when they thought Thatcherism was the only game in town, in perpetuity. Or to flip the political coin, of Arthur Scargill, the old leader of the National Union of Miners who led a self-destructive strike that was instrumental in wrecking the labour movement and damaging leftist politics in the UK for a decade (some would say much, much longer). There was the same look of bafflement on Scargill’s face as the strike imploded that you see on some scientists-spokespeople when they try to comprehend why a big chunk of the world doesn’t buy into the scientific agenda. Scargill – pure ego with a Yorkshire accent – couldn’t understand why a significant proportion of the workforce didn’t follow him when he said jump. He knew the principles of the strike were right, but in his arrogance he thought it unnecessary to win the hearts and minds first before he started trying to march people up and down the hill.

Scientists (and I’m using a useless generic term here) are so secure in the tenets of the Age of Reason and basic scientific principles that they can’t understand why many people don’t buy into it. And so they spit and stamp and flounce, like Richard Dawkins does from time to time, and alienate even more people. And in that arrogance, too many are completely derogatory of the power of mythos even today.

Their position, of course, is in complete defiance of history. (In my more cynical moments, I think this is because history can’t be replicated in a lab. But it seems to me that too many of a scientific bent have a tenuous grasp on, shall we say, the ‘lessons’ of history, as opposed to the nuts and bolts of dates and events.)

For most people, mythos is still just as important as logos. They need to map out their inner world more than they need to know about, say, DNA or how quickly, or not, the universe is expanding. They need to understand their dreams, and those terrible motivations that they can’t control. They need to understand what drives politicians to begin a war that few wanted, or why child abusers do what they do, or why people fall in love, and why that love goes. In short, they need to understand about people.

And for me that’s what fantasy does. It deals with hugely affecting symbols and archetypes that still drive our psyche today. I started writing a fantasy sequence about the return of the Celtic gods to our modern world, because I wanted to see if these archetypes could still affect people today in the same way that they affected our ancestors. Because these gods – these archetypes – are the secret language of our unconscious. Images of them, used in the right way, can move us to tears or laughter or sexual arousal in ways our modern minds can’t grasp because they speak directly to the core programming of our system.

If the mail I get from readers is anything to go by, those archetypes still do affect people just as strongly today – infecting dreams, slipping into the day-to-day world by changing behaviour, and therefore affecting logos. Mythos and logos, then, inextricably linked.

I write fantasy, therefore, because I’m interested in people and how they interact with the world around us, not because I want to run away from that world. But I still can’t get through ten pages of The Silmarillion.

7 thoughts on “Fantasy? Okay… but why?”

  1. I just read through all that nodding my head. I read fantasy because it gives me something that books about “real” life just don’t… something to think about that is actually important on a deeper level. Yes there’s normally romance in fantasy, but really, when you look around so much of our actions and thoughts and responses seem to revolove around relationships and love etc that it’s hardly surprising.

    When I tell people I read a lot of fantasy books some looks at me strangely – but then they get the half hour or so in depth rant (sorry explanation) about why its more than fairies prancing round in toadstool rings – although sometimes that’s cool :D. Fantasy can write about deep, spiritual and cultural themes and issues that somehow are more acceptable when set in a different world/time/whatever.

    Maybe I read fantasy – and historic fanstay especially – because I have trouble fitting in to everyday life. Perhaps. But it seems to me that there’s something profound missing from society today, and I think other people notice that as well – not just people who read fantasy or the like – fantasy is just my way of finding what I’m looking for, even when I don’t know what it is myself.

    I gaze through the observation window,
    Into the endless darkness.
    We are so small.

    The stars look just as small up here,
    Though brighter –
    Away from city lights.
    Very far away.

    Space tourism.
    Man has crossed the final frontier,
    Left it in the dust miles back.
    The future is upon us.

    Up here,
    A sense of awe and wonder,
    As our green and blue home,
    Unfolds beneath us.

    We could go to the moon.
    That magical place that captures
    Our imaginations
    With its mystery.

    Why go there?
    Why take away the mystery and allure of space,
    And the moon,
    By going there?

    As we drift,
    Spiralling slowly through the debris field,
    I can’t help but wonder,
    If the wonder is diminished,
    When seen next to a discarded fuel tank.

    The silver moon I stare up at,
    The white-burning stars I walk beneath,
    Are not the lump of rock,
    Or atomic explosions,
    We see out here.

    And the velvet black sky,
    The cloaks our world as it sleeps,
    Is not this endless oblivion,
    Littered with cast off machines,
    Like an inter-stellar scrap heap.

    When will we realise,
    The excitement and awe we feel in life,
    Is in the not knowing,
    The imagining,
    In the dreaming.

    Reality can never live up to our dreams.

  2. Interesting way of looking at it. The whole logos/mythos thing I’d tend to apply more narrowly to specific subtypes which I (just to be difficult) label “Scientistic Fiction” and “Soul Fiction”. Whyfore so picky? Well, on the one hand, I do think you can have SF where the archetypal tropes are waaaaay more important than the technowank (Bester’s The Stars My Destination is far more about Foyle’s Prometheus role than it is about PyrE as a rational hypothesis). On the other, Fantasy is such a huuuuuge and varied field if you don’t limit the term to a set of subgenres (i.e. High/Epic/Urban/Dark) but rather include, say, the two Jeffs, Ford and VanderMeer — so I wouldn’t like to nail it all to a generalisation and say “all Fantasy is about mythos”.

    But the logos/mythos distinction totally maps to my own taxonomy of Scientistic Fiction and Soul Fiction… and you can probably tell where my sympathies lie. :)

  3. Hal, anyone who’s read Vellum will have no doubts about your sympathies. :-) Yes, it is a huge generalisation, but I see it as a place from where I can organise sniper-fire against the small minds who deride anything which isn’t science/logic based. And ‘Soul Fiction’ – I like that!

  4. The funny thing is that given the limits of experience and the mutability of memory, all our knowledge of the world around us is tied into our our own perceptions of it and our belief frameworks anyway. That means that much of the scientific worldview is as much mythos as logos- our own thought frameworks inform our understanding of why things happen on a very fundamental level. I think most people who witness something that breaks up their worldview will try to rationalise it into an explanation that fits with what they believe, much as doctors tend to decide what is wrong with a patient almost immediately and then ignore evidence which contradicts their diagnosis.

    The conflict you are talking about doesn’t only happen between the more and less scientifically inclined either, from Copernicus to homo floresiensis and beyond scientific egos and dogma have repressed new ideas that conflict with the current consensus, often to the great detriment of their own field. In the end I think the enemy here is as much the very human trait of arrogance as anything else.

  5. Yet science should be anti-arrogance. Arrogance comes from an entrenched worldview. How can you have that when history shows the search for knowledge continually leads to new paradigms?

  6. Lovely to find you, courtesy of Emerald City.

    I read and write fantasy novels because I love the freedom of exploring humanity through history without being tied down to specific ‘realtime’ eras/facts. Alas, the Silmarillion defeated me too. I very much like your logos/mythos analogy, and am freqently irritated by the arrogance of those in the spec fic field who don’t feel they’ve achieved anything unless they’ve denigrated the books/sub-genres that please other people. I find it the height of irony that they are so quick to ghettoize within the genre, whilst simultaneously bemoaning the mean types in the Literati field who won’t take spec fic seriously.

    And Arthur Scargill? *shudder* I was living in the UK at the time of miners’ strike. He was a terrible, terrible man. The lives he destroyed with his Messiah-complex machinations are uncounted. Not that I’m doing a carte blanche defence of La Thatcher — she had her moments, no doubt about it. But I’ll never forget the sight of Scargill gloating over the death of the miner killed by other miners with a steel post through his windshield.

  7. Karen, that’s an interesting point about those who ghettoize within the genre. There’s a definite hierarchy around, or a perceived one. It’s like being back at school. One kid picks on another, who tries to find someone smaller and weaker to pick on, and so on.

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