“Fantasy is the most intelligent, precise, and accurate means of arriving at the truth.”
—S. P. Somtow
Thirty-five years ago, I was on television in front of a live studio audience when the interviewer turned to me and asked without preamble, “So tell me, Mr. Donaldson. What is fantasy?”
At that time, fortunately, I had an answer. Now I have several. For the purposes of this essay, however, my subject is “epic fantasy.” So I’ll forego some of my favorite answers (e.g., fantasy is humankind’s best survival tool) and stick to those that are most immediately germane.
But first I should acknowledge two of my “first principles,” my basic beliefs about fantasy. One is that we all lead made-up lives. When I say that, however, I’m not referring to the simultaneously obvious and unquantifiable fact that perception creates reality. Rather I’m referring to the internal mechanism by which we identify and refine our relationships with reality. In the privacy of our own minds, we are all inveterate storytellers. Indeed, this is one of the defining characteristics of our form of sentience. At any time of the day or night, we review what has happened to us and adjust our narration of it, perhaps for greater clarity, perhaps for self-justification, perhaps to deflect blame or attract credit, perhaps to better comprehend what other people have done, perhaps simply to understand ourselves better. Or we try to foresee what will happen to us, perhaps to brace ourselves for disasters, perhaps to prepare for opportunities, perhaps to marshal our excuses or rehearse our arguments, perhaps to maneuver our way toward the achievement of our desires. We ache for what we should have said or done. We plan what we intend to say or do. And it’s all storytelling, as fundamental to who we are as being bipedal or as having a startle reflex are.
Of course, we don’t think of it as storytelling. We think of it as, well, thinking. But it’s all fiction: it’s all made up. We can’t change the past or know the future. We can only fantasize about them. In that sense, who we are is determined in the most fundamental way by how we fantasize and what we fantasize about.
From this follows the second of my principles: all external storytelling is fantasy. All offered narratives that announce themselves as fiction are fantasy. They’re all made up. They all require an exercise of imagination, both from the storyteller and from the storyteller’s audience. They all depend absolutely on how and why they’re told.
The argument can be made, of course, that every offered narrative is fantasy, whether or not it claims to be fiction (perception creates reality). But that discussion is superfluous to my purposes here.
Nevertheless, having stated my beliefs, I must admit that it’s useful to distinguish between different kinds or styles of imaginary narratives. And when it comes to making distinctions, the most overt difference between so-called realistic, so-called mimetic, so-called literature, and so-called fantasy is pretty clear. Fantasy offers magic and monsters; “serious” literature does not. Therefore some among us conclude that fantasy is for children while “serious” literature is for adults.
Then why do I put “serious” in quotation marks? Because it’s perfectly obvious that even the most serious realistic literature is not more serious than the most serious fantasy. Is The Ambassadors more serious than Paradise Lost? Is The Sound and the Fury more serious than The Faerie Queene? Clearly not. In fact, it would be impossible for any intentions to be more serious than John Milton’s or Edmund Spenser’s (or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s). Yet Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene, like Idylls of the King, include magic and monsters—and even the most jaded reader would admit that those works were not written for children.
And what’s wrong with magic and monsters anyway? Why are they considered relevant only as forms of escapism, as immature wish-fulfillment? As metaphors—as a form of language—they are as human as dreaming. Indeed, they are as necessary as dreaming. They express important aspects of every identity. We can’t know who we are or what we’re made of if we don’t take them into account. And if it’s true, as Carl Sagan argues in The Dragons of Eden (Ballantine, 1977), that they—that dreaming itself, with its attendant magicks and monsters—arise from the most primitive structures of the brain, they are also the most universal aspect of our lives. They are what we—the great mass of humankind—have most in common. As individuals, we’re isolated by languages, cultures, races, geographies, and histories as well as by the inescapable prisons of our own skulls, but we all share the substances of our dreams. Sleeping, we all have experiences that are shaped by what we might as well call magic because they have no linear or rational reasons for happening. Sleeping, we all encounter terrors that have no better name than monsters.
Perhaps that explains why all the oldest and most enduring forms of literature include metaphors of magic and monsters among their tools of expression. If we take it as given (I do) that the underlying purpose of literature is to shed light on the essential conundrums of being human (“Why are we here?” “What is the meaning of life?” “If it’s all meaningless, why do we care about anything?” “Why are we all so dissatisfied?” “Is there a God?” “Can there be a God?” “What is our relationship—if any—with the world in which we live?”), fantasy is the literature of the irrational, the transcendent, the spiritual. It is the literature that dares to confront those facets of being human that seem at odds—sometimes wildly at odds—with our mundane waking lives. And it’s vital. The people who created The Mahabharata and The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf knew this. Spenser and Milton knew this in more self-conscious ways. Tennyson knew it and grieved. Today, apparently, only writers of fantasy know it: writers who require metaphors of magic and monsters in order to articulate their insights into what being human means.
Of course, nothing I’m saying here is original. Others have expressed it before me. Others, no doubt, will express it after me. However, the ways in which I strive to confront the necessity of fantasy are my own.
In my best-known work, the ten volumes of the three Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I offered fantasy as a kind of psychodrama, as “a form of fiction in which the internal crises or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they were external individuals or events.” (I’m quoting from my occasional paper, “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World,” Kent State University Libraries, 1986; you can find a full copy at <www.stephenrdonaldson.com/EpicFantasy.pdf>.) In these novels,
the characters meet themselves—or parts of themselves, their own needs/problems/exigencies—as actors on the stage of the story, and so the internal struggle to deal with those needs/problems/exigencies is played out as an external struggle in the action of the story. The villain of the piece, Lord Foul, is a personified evil whose importance hinges explicitly on the fact that he is a part of Thomas Covenant. On some level, Covenant despises himself for his leprosy—so in the fantasy he meets that Despite from the outside; he meets Lord Foul and wrestles with him as an external enemy.
The danger of this approach, of course, is that it can degenerate into purely mechanistic allegory. I avoid that pitfall by treating each of my personifications as a separate, “stand-alone” character; each with a distinct backstory, personality, and motivations; each with driving needs and losses, strengths and weaknesses, passions and antipathies. I call it “giving my characters dignity,” which is essential to any good drama.
Nevertheless, critics who sneer at fantasy take a personification like Lord Foul as proof that fantasy is simple-minded escapism. Any fiction that presents evil as something out there rather than something in here defies what we all know to be true about human nature. But such criticism misses the point. In the Chronicles as in many other examples of contemporary fantasy, “the entire out there, with all its levels and complexities and dimensions, is an externalization—for dramatic purposes—of what is in here.” (Again, that’s from “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World.”) It isn’t escapism because none of the characters escape from themselves. Nor can either the writer or the reader. The real journey is inward as it is in every enduring work of literature.
Well, that’s me. That’s how my mind works. But other probing uses of the tools of fantasy—the language of magic and monsters—are both common and fruitful. One equally valid, equally ambitious, and yet dramatically different example is Steven Erikson’s ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen.
Here the vast array of characters—and by “vast,” I mean several orders of magnitude larger than any cast in the Chronicles—effectively precludes the kind of psychodrama I’ve ascribed to my own work. No writer, no imagined reality, and certainly no reader can accommodate that many externalized inner quests. Erikson’s efforts “to confront those aspects of being human that seem at odds—sometimes wildly at odds—with our mundane waking lives” take an entirely different form.
One facet of his work is his rigorous determination to defy expectations, both of received notions of fantasy and of familiar conceptions of storytelling itself, to unsettle his readers’ preconceptions as much as he can. An example of the way he challenges received notions of fantasy is Karsa Orlong, a character who seems in every way to embody the stock fantasy barbarian, a trope made stereotypical by Robert E. Howard. Yet throughout his long role in the story, Karsa thinks and acts in ways that subvert his apparent template, Conan. He is that strange creature, an intelligent, thoughtful, visionary, and even self-sacrificing killing machine. Similarly, the Crippled God, who initially conforms in every respect to stereotypical personifications of evil, turns out to be the victim of powers and purposes outside his control.
As for Erikson’s rejection of familiar conceptions of storytelling—well, there are so many examples that I’m hard-pressed to pick only a few. Courageous, loyal, kind, and likable characters meet futile—even appalling—ends. Victimized playthings become messianic. Powerful and generally well-meaning figures behave like beasts. And yet others turn out to be exactly what the reader wants—indeed, needs—them to be. They do more than conform to familiar stereotypes: they offer resolution to the profound stresses that the story has generated.
But perhaps the most striking of Erikson’s rejections is the open-endedness of his design. Malazan tells one story, but it also launches many others—and partially continues even more. Indeed, he thumbs his nose at one of our most comforting assumptions about the nature of story: that a story has a beginning, middle, and end, complete in themselves. In this respect, Erikson’s opus is like life: its backstory is just as important and complex as its present, and its future possibilities are just as bewildering.
However, Erikson doesn’t stop there. He also uses his array of magic and monsters, his vast cast, and his open-ended design to comment directly on the world in which his readers live. Explicitly, he blurs the distinctions between so-called “fantasy” and so-called “reality.” I’ll content myself with just one example: his scathing and compassionate commentary on how the US economy runs. Of course, he doesn’t call it “the US economy”: he calls it Letheras. But Letheras is a nation in which greed has been elevated to the status of a sovereign moral principle. The references are unmistakable.
Through his rejections, Erikson tests our notions of what it means to be human. He challenges us to reexamine how we think about ourselves, our world, and each other; to reexamine the stories we tell ourselves, the means by which we create our own realities. He encourages us to expand our minds and our hearts to meet those challenges. And he does so in lucid prose as seamless as oil.
I’m a student of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, William Faulkner, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I say this: Erikson is as serious as any of them.
As for “epic” fantasy, the word is used with unfortunate—albeit understandable—imprecision. In today’s marketplace, as in the halls of academia and the organs of literary criticism, the label “epic” is attached to any act of storytelling that goes on for a whole lot of words: perhaps a million in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, closer to three million in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Perhaps for that reason, today “epic” apparently means “too long for anyone to study analytically or review intelligently.”
But at one time the word had a more substantive connotation. Until comparatively recently, a work was only considered “epic” when the scale of meaning was commensurate with the quantity of words. The longest stories could only sustain or justify their length by addressing the highest and most vital themes.
What does being human mean? Who and what are we? What is our relationship with reality, or with each other, or with God, or with our own humanity?
Fortunately, in the long tradition of the epic in English (the only tradition on which I’m qualified to comment), our movement from Beowulf to The Faerie Queene to Paradise Lost to Idylls of the King has been studied in depth by better readers than I. My own views are drawn from theirs and are presented more fully in “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World.” But, the short version:
Using metaphors of magic and monsters, Beowulf describes humankind—in the person of Beowulf himself—as being capable of extravagantly heroic and salvific deeds. He doesn’t require the intervention of gods or other external agencies to save his people: he is the epic theme of his story. In contrast, The Faerie Queene offers a shift in focus from the grand potential of individual humans to the nature of humankind’s relationship with God. The story involves imaginary characters such as Una and the Redcrosse Knight, whose valorous deeds and encounters with error and agony (monsters) are intended to teach its readers how to ward themselves against evil by being in harmony with God. Effective valor, wisdom, and redemption are only attainable through Christ.
As an image of what a human being is—or can be—this is a big step down from Beowulf. But Milton goes further. In Paradise Lost, humankind is little more than the battlefield on which God and Satan wage their war. Piously, Milton encourages his readers to take sides, but he makes no pretense that their choices determine the outcome of the war. The only important question human beings have to answer is, “Are you going to let God save you or not?”
In this context, Tennyson was ahead of his time when he wrote Idylls of the King. As others have observed, the real theme of Tennyson’s epic is that it’s no longer possible to write “serious” epics because actual human beings are too petty, selfish, greedy, unfaithful, and just plain murderous to sustain any kind of grand vision. During the course of Idylls of the King, King Arthur becomes an early exemplar of Jean-Paul Sartre’s later assertion, “Man is a futile passion.” Arthur’s dream of Camelot may be beautiful as well as epic, but it can only fail.
The desolation of King Arthur’s failure, combined with Tennyson’s unconvincing efforts to assert that hope will return someday, reminds me of James E. Miller’s description of modern American mainstream fiction. In Quests Surd and Absurd (University of Chicago Press, 1967), Miller claimed:
that for the first time in our literature, after World War II, the world that dominated our fiction was sick, hostile, or treacherous, and that the recurring stance of the modern fictional hero reflected some mixture of horror, bewilderment, and sardonic humor—or to use the popular term, alienation. The common pattern of action which recurred was the pattern of the quest, the quest absurd in a world gone insane or turned opaque and inexplicable, or become meaningless.... The nightmare world, alienation and nausea, the quest for identity, and the comic doomsday vision—these are the four elements that characterize recent American fiction. (12)
That’s as apt a description of postmodernism as I’ve ever encountered. And it’s easy to understand. We’ve developed the capacity to destroy ourselves a thousand times over. We’ve become self-righteous ourselves and are hated by much of the world because of it. Every day, accumulating culture and future shock erode the ground under our feet. Climate change threatens us all. Elections mean nothing because they change nothing. At home and abroad, we see little or no evidence that who we are and what we care about matter to anyone. How could we feel otherwise than alienated, absurd, and futile?
Seen in this context—the literary context of post-modernism as well as the historical context of the epic as it marks the stages by which humankind’s perception of itself shrinks—contemporary epic fantasy is more than the literature of the irrational, the transcendent, the spiritual. It is the literature of reintegration—explicitly so in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, less directly but equally so in the Malazan Book of the Fallen with its overarching themes of forgiveness and restitution in a reality rife with bloody war.
And is this not the final proof that fantasy is escapism for immature minds? After all, only children believe in both bogeymen and fairness. Isn’t reintegration as a concept—never mind as an aspiration—inherently impossible; as implausible as the notion that any human life can legitimately be viewed as “epic”? (Again quoting myself, “That ... is precisely the attitude Lord Foul takes toward Thomas Covenant.”) Isn’t futility the defining characteristic of life in an absurd world?
No. Demonstrably not. Contemporary fantasy—even in its most cynical, post-modern guises—is the literature of reintegration because it both explores and accepts every dimension of what being human means, every natural language that humankind speaks (I mean both the language of critical intelligence and the language of magic and monsters, which can be seen as the language of religion). It expresses itself in both the language of alienation and the language of affirmation. That alone makes us more fully human, more fully ourselves, than we would be without it. It imagines possibilities for us that may seem incredible until they’ve been experienced.
But there’s more. Because, as Carl Sagan argues, dreaming arises from the most primitive structures of the human brain, magicks and monsters—as metaphors—are the most universal of experiences. One person may be divided from another by language, culture, race, geography, and history, but if they could talk to each other honestly about their dreams, they would find that they share the same tropes: the same fears and powers, the same irrational exhilarations and dreads, the same dissociated loves and woes. Witness the enormous popularity of Japanese anime in American culture.
If modern fantasy and especially epic fantasy serve any function at all (I mean any function that we haven’t already seen beaten to death in our literature), it lies in the ability to dramatize—to demonstrate—reintegration. In a “nightmare world” ruled by “alienation and nausea, the quest for identity, and the comic doomsday vision,” what could be more necessary?
Stephen R. Donaldson lives in New Mexico.