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I was going to write about Why Fantasy is Great(TM), but as I was putting together a mental outline of what I wanted to include, I realized that what I really wanted to talk about was why I love fantasy. Though there is a lot of crossover between the two subjects, they’re not really the same thing in the end.

I mean, the list of things that makes fantasy great is pretty clear cut:

Magic — big or small, mystical or systematized, the ability to change the the way the world works with (more or less) the power of your mind

Maps — whole new worlds to explore (whether there’s an actual map or not), including histories, cultures, mythologies and more

Monsters — and unearthly beasts and beings in general, from dragons and goblins to less monstrous beings such as fairies and unicorns

Swords, castles, tall boots and gowns, plus all the regional and period variations that make up the “window dressing” of a good fantasy tale

The timeless beauty of mythic and legendary storytelling; the sense of connection to an ancient body of narrative

Big themes — good vs. evil, dark vs. light, scene-chewing villains (whether they’re morally gray or not) vs. unapologetic heroes saving the world

But as I thought about it, I realized that not every every great fantasy hits every item on that list. Ellen Kushner’s Riverside books, for example, have absolutely no magic or monsters, but they are just as “fantastic” as something like Martha Wells’ Raksura books, where there’s practically nothing but magic and monsters. Likewise, there are whole sub-genres of fantasy that are set in the real, contemporary world and don’t present a new landscape to explore. So what is it about all these essentially non-essential elements that holds them all together into a discrete genre that we just somehow know to call fantasy?

The more I think about, the more I realize that it’s not anything in the texts themselves that marks these stories fantasy, but what they require of me as a reader. When I read a fantasy, I’m asking for more than a good story — I’m asking to engage with a story in a very participatory way. Good stories come in every genre, but only fantasy (and its siblings science fiction and horror) asks you to imagine things that don’t actually exist.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his must-read essay “On Fairy-Stories,” introduces the idea of the fantasy writer as “sub-creator” — someone who crafts “a Secondary World which your mind can enter.” You know the sub-creator is doing a good job when you believe that those things that are impossible in the real world are true within the world of the story.

He also acknowledges that some people are just incapable of making that leap of imagination. (Let’s just take a moment to feel sorry for those people, all right?) What Tolkien doesn’t make explicit is how much sub-creation is a two-person job. While the writer of fantasies certainly does the heavy lifting of invention, without the reader willing and able to make that leap of imagination, the story will never live. When a writer describes, for example, a giant talking tree-person, the reader must apply their own imagination in order to see it fully realized in their own mind. It’s not something they can remember having seen before, or even something they can look up in an encyclopedia.1

Talking trees are really just the surface level of the creative work that a fantasy reader has to take when engaging with a work of fantasy. As every heroic adventurer knows, it’s a lot easier to start a journey than it is to get back home. Once a reader has parsed the various fantastic elements into a cohesive picture of an invented world, they have to turn around and figure out what all that imaginary folderol is saying about the real world. Because, ultimately, every fantasy story is actually about reality.

“We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality,” says Lisa Cron, in her book “Story Genius.” Even fantasy, which is considered (by the uninformed) to be the most escapist of genres, does not escape the onerous task of teaching us how to navigate the world. Arguably, it does it better than realistic fiction, stripping away the crusty patina of reality, layers of preconception and bias that obfuscate the lessons we can learn from stories. Here is a fresh slate, the fantasy writer says, or, in the words of Willow’s High Aldwin, “Forget all you know, or think you know.” And there, in the world the writer and reader have created together, they can explore big truths without being hampered by simple, greasy facts.

Once those big themes have been examined through the narrative lens, it’s up to the reader to bring them home again, which takes a second effort of imagination. What does it mean, for me, that Frodo was unable to throw the Ring into the volcano, or that King Haggard has trapped all the unicorns in the sea, or that Ged’s shadow is chasing him across the oceans of Earthsea? How does all that help me get through one day and the next?

I can’t answer that question quickly, because every story is going to have a different purpose for each reader — that’s true for every genre. But fantasy, because of that extra step of translation from the imaginary into the every day, is even more fluid and open to interpretation.

And that, dear reader, is what I love so much about fantasy. It is more mutable, more subjective, more personal than realistic fiction ever will be for me. Because I’ve had to put more effort into reading it both going in and and coming out. Realistic fiction just doesn’t challenge me enough — it’s fine when I just need to do something brainless for a bit (ergo my too-frequent sitcom watching and re-watching), but when I want to read a story that I’m really interested and engaged in, it has to be fantasy.

Nothing less will satisfy — and if it comes with a side of swords, castles and tall boots, that’s even better!

Read Passing Through the Portal (Why I Love Fantasy, Part 1)

This post was originally published in the Magic & Ink newsletter. Subscribe for more quality fantasy content delivered to your inbox! 

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