Why We Read Fantasy
When I was about four, my father read The Hobbit to me. Some years later, I read the Narnia series, and eventually The Lord of the Rings at age nine. Some of you will have the same story, being introduced to fantasy at an early age. For others, it will not have begun until late teens, early twenties or maybe even later. Regardless, fantasy has a strong hold in our pop culture and us. The highest grossing movies, games, even theme parks are now built revolving around fantasy books. Why do we care so much to read about something that is not only unreal, but practically flaunts its unreality in our faces? This question followed me through university, until I ended up writing my master’s dissertation trying to find an answer to the question. This blog post is an abbreviated presentation of my findings. Hold on to your hats, because as with anything originating in academia, this is going to get hairy.
There are three main parts to this essay, if you will, each centred on a scholar. Bear with me as we move through them all, as I consider it important to show the foundation of my conclusions. If you do not have the patience for that, you can skip to the last two paragraphs, which holds the conclusion of my writing on this topic.
It may seem like a strange place to start, but we begin with religion and Mircea Eliade. He was a Romanian scholar in the field of comparative religion, who spent his life studying the mythologies and religions of the world. He was able to identify various common denominators that seemed to be present regardless of time and civilisation, and eventually he developed various theories on the behaviour of religious man. A behaviour not determined by culture, but born out of our very understanding of the world and approach to it.
A few of these common denominators have acted as the basis for developing the theology and pantheon of my own world – the concept of the supreme Sky-God, who creates the world but then withdraws from it and is only called upon in times of dire crisis. The notion that upwards is good, hence the strongest god is associated with the sky, whereas downwards is evil, and so the realm of the dead is in the literal underworld, beneath our own world (as found in Norse and Greek mythology, Christianity etc.). What is important in this context, however, is the theory concerning the religious behaviour and understanding of humanity developed by Eliade.
A centrepiece of this theory is the concept of illud tempus, sacred time. Another common trait of the world’s mythologies is the idea of the lost golden age, whether it be the age of gods or the age of heroes. The Garden of Eden is another example of this lost golden age. This was when the gods and ancient heroes undertook their acts and thereby set a precedent for human behaviour. When the world was created, when the great enemy was slain by the gods or the heroes, when peace reigned etc. This was the sacred time, to which all people long to return.
We live in the fallen world with all its weaknesses, what is called profane time. To endow our lives with meaning, to impregnate existence with divine purpose and power, we must return to sacred time. We do this by repeating the acts of the gods, by turning their acts into rituals (baptism and communion for Christianity, for instance). This repetition allows us to enter sacred time, renew the world (the event showing Marduk slaying Tiamat in ancient Babylon was a repetition of the creation myth and necessary for the New Year to begin) and ourselves. We escape profane time, linear time, and enter sacred time, cyclical time. Put a pin in this for now, as we return to it later.
The next person to bring into play is Joseph Campbell. His name may not be familiar to all, but his work is – at least if you’ve seen Star Wars Episode IV, which is modelled on his academic work. Like Eliade, he studied the mythologies of the world in a comparative fashion, but his eye was on investigating the narrative patterns that they share.
This culminated in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, famous for explaining “The Hero’s Journey”. This is a narrative pattern that describes our mythological stories of heroes. It consists of various stages or phases that the story moves through. Not every story will follow every stage without question, but generally what we would consider classic fantasy hits nearly all of these beats. The Lord of the Rings serves as an excellent example.
In the first stage, there is a Call to Adventure (Frodo being told about the nature of the One Ring and is charged by Gandalf to take it to Rivendell), often with Supernatural Aid (Tom Bombadil), a Crossing of the Threshold (crossing the Bruinen to reach the sanctuary of Rivendell), and finally the hero is trapped in the Belly of the Whale (the hero is isolated and passes the final obstacle before the journey can truly begin; here, Frodo withdrawing into the shadow world and almost succumbing to the wound sustained at Weathertop).
In the second stage begins first the Road of Trials (Caradhras, Moria, Mordor) with the Meeting of the Goddess (Galadriel). Afterwards follows Woman as Temptress (despite the name, no woman is necessarily involved, only a temptation; here, Frodo is tempted to keep the ring for himself rather than destroy it). After Atonement of the Father (a final confrontation with a male entity, in this case the encounter with Gollum, Frodo’s shadow side, which destroys the ring) there is Apotheosis (Frodo is freed from the burden of the Ring) and the Ultimate Boon (Sauron is destroyed forever).
In the final stage, we have the Magic Flight, sometimes Rescue From Without (Gandalf and the eagles carry Frodo and Sam out of Mordor), leading to the Crossing of the Return Threshold (Frodo returns to the Shire) as Master of Two Worlds (Frodo leads the simple life of a Hobbit, but at the same time is ennobled and yet troubled by his experiences), culminating in the Freedom to Live (Frodo finally sails across the sea to live out his days in peace in the Undying Lands).
It’s important to note that (justified) criticism can be levelled at this pattern, called the monomyth. By emphasising similarities rather than differences, stories can become somewhat flavourless and bland, or it can be pointed out this focuses on the hero as a man, not as a woman. Our purpose here is only to point at the existence of these patterns, however. Popular fantasy stories hit a lot of the same beats. Even those that often seem to subvert this (e.g. A Song of Ice and Fire that tends to decapitate its heroes) inevitably seem to move in this direction (consider the character arc of Jon Snow and how it fits with the stages above, keeping in mind the caveat that this post is written before the full story is told). When it comes to tales of heroics, mythology seems to feed a very specific need in a very specific way.
Finally, we move to Carl Jung, the Swiss thinker. While his contributions to psychology are rather outdated today, some of his thoughts may nonetheless be useful to draw upon, at least to a small degree and in this context (I mentioned earlier that Gollum is Frodo’s shadow side, i.e. a negative version of Frodo or perhaps rather a representation of Frodo’s darkness; the term shadow side is from Jung). I am here specifically thinking about the concept of archetypes, which in Jungian terms are symbols that are universal to humanity. This is a lot more specific than the abstract comparisons made by Eliade, and it may be less believable. You might almost call it a defining trait of symbols that they hold no meaning unto themselves, only what their cultural origin and development give to them. In some parts of the world, a line crossed asymmetrically by another, shorter line is just a weird cross. 2000 years ago, it was a symbol of execution and Roman brutality in the Mediterranean world. In the western, modern world, it is the symbol of Christianity.
Similarly, no alphabets, not even hieroglyphs make sense to an outsider. Letters are nothing more than symbols with an agreed upon phonetic or semantic meaning, allowing for the preservation and transfer of information. Of course, being a cultural code has not prevented the alphabet from allowing civilisation to rise; I am using it right now to transfer my meaning to you, across space and time.
My point is that regardless of whether symbols can be archetypes with meaning independent of origin or whether symbols only have their meaning when culturally defined, the power of symbols is indisputable. Fantasy, more than any other genre, use symbols and symbolism extensively. The Dark Lord is a title used in several works (Sauron, Voldemort etc.) because the connection with dark forces makes this a shorthand for ‘antagonist’. The heirloom sword connects the hero to the ancient power of a near forgotten past (Aragorn with Elendil’s sword, the Valyrian steel swords in ASOIAF, the sword of Gryffindor etc.). The forest is a habitat for mystical races (usually Elves), foreign to humans, because the forest is the counterpart to the city and human civilisation, what is known. Wizards live in towers, because all the way back to the Tower of Babel or the ziggurats of Babylon, building upwards towards the heavens is symbolic for our quest for knowledge and power.
I think it is obvious that fantasy is, viewed through this particular lens, the equivalent of mythology in modern literature. It uses the same narrative patterns, same symbols. Returning to the question of why fantasy is so popular to read, we return also to Eliade. In a post-modern, often highly secularised society, mythology has lost its place and power. Confronted constantly by the discoveries of science, which forces us to live in linear time, mythology can no longer allow us to return to illud tempus, the sacred (cyclical) time.
Reading, specifically reading fantasy, becomes the ritual to substitute this. By reading fantasy, we once more return to the tales of gods and heroes. We walk once more in that lost age of wonder, magic, and heroics. We escape profane time and the post-modern society that it permeates. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the purpose of fantasy is not to tell us that dragons exist – we already know they do. The purpose of fantasy is to tell us that dragons can be slain. Or said another way, to read about heroes is to become a hero.