Thursday, June 7, 2018

Fantasy Is Not About Magic


If you talk to new fantasists or read articles aimed at them, they're all obsessed with magical "systems" and sets of rules to make those systems logical. Which is understandable. A lot of fantasy writers come out of gaming and fantasy gaming requires lots and lots of magic to make it work. Magic, furthermore, that is logical enough to be operated by throwing sets of dice. So they think that that's what fantasy is all abou

But let me be straightforward here: Fantasy is Not About Magic. If it were, then Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy would not be considered fantasy. Nor Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint. And I could go on.

So what is the beating heart of fantasy, its sine qua non, its irreducible necessity?


I realized this when I was preparing a lesson plan for a writers conference recently and thinking about Mendlesohn's First Law: Any sufficiently immersive fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction. Which means that the more systematized, the more rationalized, the more game-able the fantasy, the less it's going to deliver on the traditional payoffs for fantasy.

"So how do you like my castle?"

"Well, Mr. Disney, the plumbing is just wonderful. And the fireworks are so well timed!"

Which is when I picked up W. H. Auden's A Certain World and found the following passage:

The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-decption.

Isn't that marvelous? Isn't that a perfect description of what it feels like to read good fantasy? If we accept that fantasy is about enchantment it explains so much: How a novel completely lacking in magic can still be undeniably fantasy. How a novel crammed to the gills with magic can still fail to register as fantastic.

The duty of a fantasist, then, is not to come up with systems of magic. It is to enchant.

Just as simple as that.

Above: The Northern Lights. Image taken from Absolute Iceland. You can find their website with tour info and more photos here.



Henry Farrell said...

I'm fonder still of the similar definition that some guy or another offered two decades ago.

''Having written Stations of the Tide, a fantasy-flavored science fiction novel, followed by The Iron Dragon's Daughter, a science fiction-flavored fantasy novel, I was forced to think about what the difference was. I concluded that a science fiction novel occurs in a universe which is ultimately knowable. Human beings don't have the information and may not have a large enough intellect to understand the basic nature of reality, but it is knowable. In a fantasy novel, at the very heart, it is unknowable. There's mystery at the heart, and that mystery is essentially religious. In Stations of the Tide, they go through these mysterious events, continually coming up with explanation on explanation of how things work. In The Iron Dragon's Daughter, every time Jane comes up with a new explanation, it totally contradicts all the other explanations that came before! Also, they're all obviously true, and the essential nature of the universe is ultimately, desperately proved to be unknowable.''

DanP said...

Last thing I read of yours was "Starlight Express" and it *utterly* enchanted me. Although that one's still, I suppose, science fiction...

Sandy said...

Dang it, Michael, when are you going to collect some or all of your posts on writing written over the years into a book on writing? It would be a big seller and a great read.