Just because fantasy is everywhere doesn’t mean it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator. We must keep sight of its roots in ancient storytelling and its power to transform
There are few things people love more then a well-told tale. We’ve been gathering around the fire (or that 20th-century equivalent, the television set) and telling each other stories for as long as we’ve had language. And to judge by the narratives that have filtered down to us through oral traditions and early written records, fantasy has always been essential to those stories.
Stories from the ancient world are infused with the fantastic, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Myth, legend, folk and fairytales have fired our imaginations for thousands of years. We have used the fantastic to take mundane reality and transform it, sometimes for escapist pleasure, and sometimes to find meaning in a world that can often seem brutal and purposeless.
Every age has reshaped the fantastic. In our era, fantasy has developed from tribal tales to narratives told for vast post-industrial nations. Fantasy has become a staple product of mass entertainment, with book-to-film franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and video games such as World of Warcraft becoming the cultural equivalent of a Starbucks coffee or a Big Mac. As Harry Potter and Twilight have demonstrated, fantasy stories are an ideal mass-media product, with minimum risk and maximum profit.
But the commodification of fantasy does not mean it must all appeal to the lowest common denominator, any more than the presence of Starbucks on every street corner means you can’t find a decent cup elsewhere. As the recent announcement of the David Gemmell Legend award, and the less-than-positive response it engendered shows, contemporary fantasy is seeking to do more than just entertain the masses. While the Gemmell award highlights fantasy novels at their most commercial and generic, and has been accused of doing little more than rewarding publishers for their marketing strategy, contemporary fantasy is becoming more experimental, diverse and exciting.
With the growing profile of distinctive writers such as Neil Gaiman and China Miéville, and the “smuggling” of fantasy into literary fiction by (among others) Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell, the fantastic is making a comeback in mainstream literature. Acclaimed cult writers such as Graham Joyce, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Martin Millar, Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer and many others are taking fantasy in more personalised and distinctive directions. And at the grassroots, short fiction magazines like Weird Tales, Electric Velocipede, Clarkesworld and Fantasy are giving a platform to an emerging generation of writers who are serious about fantasy.
We still love a well-told tale, and our need for the fantastic is not so different from that of our tribal ancestors. We may live longer and in more comfort, we may believe we understand our world better, but at heart, we’re still trying to find meaning in a complex and mysterious universe. JRR Tolkien referred to fantasy writing as mythopoeia, the creation of myth for the modern era. The best of it achieves exactly that, and deserves to be rewarded whether it be a multimillion-selling novel or a short story published in a fanzine. But as fantasy becomes more heavily commodified, it is more important still that we keep sight of what the genre can achieve beyond mass entertainment.