I recently picked up a book about why manners are important. That may have been the title; I can’t remember now. It was sold in a shopping complex where about the only thing I could afford was a sandwich. Which was all I wanted, fortunately. But I did page through the book. It was exactly what it said, and I could appreciate most of it, even though etiquette was always my sister’s hobby, not mine. But one section gave me pause.
The author evidently loves novels of manners because she likes realistic characters who have to work through their flaws and mature. So far, so good. But she finds the current taste for fantasy disturbing. Imagine, she says, a fourteen-year-old girl who reads fantasy exclusively. Most of the time she reads stupid, caricatured descriptions of people who like to swing swords around. What little good fantasy she reads involves black and white moral dilemmas with characters so elevated that they are unrelatable and teach little about how to live in the real world. (I can only assume the author was thinking of Tolkien.)
I sympathize with some of the author’s complaints. Although I consider fantasy my favorite genre of literature, I actually do not read it very often. I don’t like the stupid characters, either. Especially the warrior elf queens who feel like they were invented to prove that women can be tough. And there are other problems with fantasy stories beyond those that might irritate a Jane Austen fan.
C.S. Lewis complained about people who wrote “science fiction” stories with perfectly ordinary plots—spy-stories, romances, and so forth—which have nothing to distinguish them as fantastic but the unusual setting. There are still a lot of stories like that. Whatever fantastic elements are there feel arbitrary. The wonder and sense of strangeness are missing. If you read fantasy for “otherness,” then the pickings are very slim.
I’m not going to comment on the author’s shallow interpretation of Tolkien except to say that if she thinks Boromir, Denathor, and Saruman fit neatly into black-and-white categories, she hasn’t been reading carefully. And The Silmarillion includes characters even more complex than those in The Lord of the Rings—if complex is what she really wants. (Sometimes I think that what people mean when they object to “black and white” characterization is that they don’t like reading about a world where a clear good and a clear evil exist, even if both are complex. But I would say, with Tolkien, that the real world is like that. Good and evil may be complex, but no one will be talking about shades of gray at the Last Judgment.) As for relatable, I think that in some ways Tolkien’s characters are more relatable than “realistic” ones. Frodo is an Everyman—as is Gollum. Archetypes are relatable precisely because they are archetypes. And archetypes can be complex.
The truth, I think, is less that fantasy characters are not relatable and more that the author could not relate well to fantasy characters. Well—that’s fine. Everyone has a favorite genre. I would rather relate to Frodo, or Faramir, than to Elizabeth Bennett. (In the past, I have even tried to deal with difficult people by trying to imagine them as Gollums, who, if evil, are also pathetic and in need of compassion.) It’s a personal preference. People who like good fantasy (scarce as that is) are not inferior to people who like good novels of manners (and I’m sure there are bad ones). It’s a difference in kind of taste, not necessarily quality.
But I recently re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” and it brought another problem into view. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were the hardest form of literature in which to write. To produce something that attempts to show what reality is really like, while simultaneously rearranging that reality, is extremely difficult. Thus, someone attempting a novel of manners has an immediate advantage over someone attempting a fantasy. In Tolkien’s words:
Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.
To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.
Another potential misunderstanding comes because, over the course of the last century, literature has grown more and more like drama. “Show, don’t tell” is the instruction I was given when I took a creative writing course in college. It works well—for realistic fiction. In fantasy, things don’t work quite the same way. My English professor warned our class, “Showing is not always superior to telling.” She was right. Of course, a fantasy can tell too much, but the point is this—realistic fiction and drama may be able to grow together, but drama and fantasy have no such luck. Even modern fantasy movies, with all their special effects, cannot exactly reproduce the feeling of “otherness” that a good fantasy story creates. I like The Lord of the Rings films, with a few reservations, but I don’t go to them for “otherness.” To fully appreciate the Elves, and Lothlorien in particular, you need the books.
Fantasy is hard to write. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that so many people had learned to write a “competent” short story, that the short story was in danger of dying of competence. Fantasy has no such problem. And your creative writing class may not help you—“show, don’t tell” injunctions only go so far.
If you love novels of manners, then go read them—by all means. Beyond reading a few fantasy classics, most works in the genre aren’t worth your time. But don’t blast the genre. Competent fantasy is harder to write than competent realistic fiction. Keep fourteen-year-olds away from the warrior elf queens, please. But introduce them to the good modern authors of imaginative fiction: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Ray Bradbury. And if they run out, try going back in time to Beowulf. Or The Kalevala. Or The Niebelungenlied.
Jane Austen would be okay, too.