The Genius of Compelling Fantasy

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

Beowulf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve probably all been there: You start reading a fantasy novel, and it just doesn’t feel fresh. The world, the beings, the story arc seem cliché. The tropes are too familiar. It’s almost enough to make you lose interest in the genre. Until, that is, you pick up another novel and … somehow it is fresh. The same beings, maybe, similar plot, but this one intrigues and delights you.

What’s the difference? Is it just good vs. mediocre writing? A question of style? No doubt it could be either of these. But I think another possibility is worth looking at: source material.

I think we can all agree that fantasy has its roots in old folk tales, epics, fairy tales, ghost stories, myths. These traditional tales have a kind of raw power; the ability to evoke a strong, even visceral response; and a staying power that’s hard to beat.

Fantasy novels are, of course, novels, not tales or epic poems or myths. They rely on the modern conventions of novelistic literature. Yet the “genius” of a compelling fantasy novel remains its ability to evoke that mythic or faerie “dream-world” Novalis wrote about, that raw power of the traditional tale. It can do this in varying degrees and however the writer feels the urge, but to do it effectively, it has to draw from the taproot itself. Put another way, it can’t be derivative to achieve its true genius. The writer of a fantasy novel has to be steeped in these ancient imaginative traditions to the point that they bleed in some way into the tale, like tea leaves darkening water. Otherwise, we are left with the individual writer’s idiosyncratic imagination, such as it is, and we’ve lost the tradition that makes for compelling fantasy.

Any long piece of writing is an almost magical act of communication by symbol and sign, evocation and allusion. In fantasy, of course anything can be imagined—there can’t be any hard-and-fast rules about that. Let the imagination roam free, and let it use any source materials it must. But if the story is going to unfold magically also in the reader’s imagination, something shared has to exist. Allusion has to find something beyond the individual writer’s mind to tap into.

Intuitively or by design, the fantasy genre acknowledges this need for a tradition, for recognized conventions. But there are two ways to get at it. Tolkien, in creating Middle Earth, drew on a body of mythology and folklore he was intimately acquainted with. From that deep stream, he drew out inspiration and things of power: gollums and rings, crystal balls, wizards, ghosts, trolls–even pipe tobacco. He combined all these and more into his own brew, with patience and hard work I might add, paying attention to the potent properties of each, as they contributed to what was not only a new story but almost a new genre of story–the fantasy epic.

Compelling fantasy draws on this deep, subterranean stream: its genius lies here. No other genre draws on the traditional stories quite like this. In fantasy, as nowhere else, the reader recognizes, even without having read (say) Snow White, the envious queen, her vanity and guile, as well as the purity and tragedy of her victim. Less convincing or potent is the fantasy novel that relies on derivative fantasy tropes, ones used by countless fantasy writers before, perhaps even Tolkien (say, dwarves and elves at odds, or little people who are amazingly tough). These tropes belong to a genre, not its source. They fall outside the stream.

Compelling fantasy taps into the power of the old traditional tales—however used, however innovative that use. Relying on fantasy tropes or themes runs the risk of mistaking incidental details in the old folk tale tradition for their real power and promise. Knowing (or at least using) only (say) Tolkien but not (say) Beowulf, the creator of a fantasy novel will be unable to go beyond Tolkien’s particular use of traditional tale elements, combined as the tale he told required, and so will be hampered from bringing forward anew the power of those and other elements for the new story he or she wishes to tell.

These tales are the bloodline and promise of fantasy, what makes it worth reading and worth writing. These old tales, wherever they may come from, they are its genius, its inspiration and essential life.


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