In one sense, every story that is made up, or imaginary, is a fantasy, and a hundred years ago, if a writer were discussing fantasy, he would have used the term fantasy that way.
Today, when discussing fantasy as a literary genre, we more often are discussing a branch of literature that offers some strangeness as a primary draw, such as a strangeness in the setting for the story (such as imaginary places or magic systems), or perhaps in the characters that inhabit our own world—vampires and supermen.
Some people consider science fiction to be a subset of fantasy, though it can be quite different. Science fiction is most often a literature that deals with speculation about the future, and to some degree might even be predictive of the future in a way that fantasy is not.
The editor Donald A. Wollheim once suggested that bookstores create a section called “Wonder literature” that would include stories meant to arouse a powerful sense of wonder. Science fiction and fantasy would thus be sold together under his model. I rather prefer this. You see, we tend to categorize books nowadays by the primary emotions that they elicit—humor, romance, horror, thrillers, and so on. Wonder literature makes sense, though there are those who recognize that horror is often closely aligned to fantasy. After all, the strange is often terrifying as well as wondrous.
Some of the big players in the fantasy genre include people like Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Most of the bestselling books of all time are fantasies—things like Harry Potter, Twilight, or the The Alchemist.
In fact, I’m going to make a prediction: eight of the ten top-grossing films this year will be fantasy or science fiction. I’m pretty safe in making that bet: it’s been true every year for the past 20 years.
Yet many folks don’t recognize how important fantasy is in our lives.
I grew to love fantasy as a child, sitting on my mother’s knee, as she told me bedtime stories like “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Hansel and Gretel.” I don’t think that I recognized that animated stories—cartoons like Bugs Bunny or movies like Peter Pan—were roughly the equivalent of those bedtime stories.
Yet fantasy permeates society and my love for it blossomed as a child—from bedtime stories to cartoon, from cartoons to comics and fables and myth, from myth to more contemporary fantasies in the form of novels.
So what is fantasy for? What good is it?
Quite simply, fantasy is what we as storytellers use to hold the attention of our audience as we prepare to tell them something important.
Whenever something strange is introduced in a story, it grabs the attention of the audience. Whether we speak of a haunted house, or bring out a ghost, or have a character sucked back in time as we introduce a strange conflict, that grabs the reader’s attention, but quite often the story carries lessons that are of more value than mere entertainment.
In Homer’s The Odyssey, we learn about the need for courage to face the future, but we also learn about the duties that soldiers owe to brothers, and the ethics of how one should entertain strangers in our own homes, and so on.
In the same way, fantasy today carries lessons for life. I have a theory about fantasy. I suspect that the human brain is incapable of storing most of the information that we need to know in order to really understand the world. So very often, ancient history gets stored under the guise of fable.
Let me see if I can explain it more clearly. Take an incident from your own family history, something far in the past, and try to examine what you really know about it. The truth is, you probably don’t know anything—just the fable.
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