In Ursula K Le Guin’s collection of essays, The Language of the Night, she has this brilliant piece called Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? In it, as only Le Guin can, she articulates with eloquence the power of the fantastical and how, as she puts it, all stories are true, even if they aren’t real. In it, also, is a quote which sparked the four-part Science Fantasy series I’m currently writing about a girl who finds herself the neurological host of a giant, extra-dimensional dragon. Le Guin, with her typical genius, pontificates that ‘they [by which she means adults] are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom’.
The trouble is, that I don’t think this chronic fear of the fantastical is confined to Americans. I think it’s an epidemic amongst our writers and critics as well. It’s certainly something that our literary academics shy away from. How many modern fantasy novels end up on the reading lists in English Literature degrees? How many universities have a module devoted to science fiction and fantasy? When, if ever, do the fantasy books of the modern era end up being invited into that strange and elusive club, the canon? Not many.
Yes, alright, fantasy and science fiction aren’t the only genres, perhaps. Crime doesn’t often make it in there either, or thrillers. Fine. This is true. But it’s also very rare to see fantasy books advertised on billboards at my local train station. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fantasy book on a billboard in the underground in London. Fantasy books don’t often make it onto the shelves of places like WH Smiths. Unless they’re Harry Potter or one of Philip Pullman’s fabulously inventive stories. But in such cases, these stories are considered to have transcended the genre of fantasy. They are sold not by genre, but by the name of their authors. They are loved not for their fantastical elements, but for something less definable. Fantasy is often seen as frivolous escapism, something that only children and ‘weird people’ would be interested in reading. It isn’t for the serious person, or the academic, or the writer. Not a serious writer, anyway. And when the flustered fantasy defender, in a last-bid attempt to convince a contemptuous conversationalist of the merits of their beloved genre, resorts to: ‘But what about Tolkein? What about Beowulf? What about the Iliad and the Odyssey?” Then our adversary might shift uncomfortably in their seat and respond with, ‘yeah, but they’re more than fantasy, aren’t they? They’re classics.’
And herein lies the issue. A long, long time ago, when Beowulf slew the swamp-monster Grendel, and Sir Gawain fought a supernatural green knight, we knew something that we’ve forgotten today. We knew, as Le Guin said, that these stories were true. Perhaps the locals had never seen a dragon, but they knew that they existed. Perhaps they had never been bothered by a swamp monster, or bespelled by a witch, but they knew these things were true.
Because something doesn’t have to be real, to be true. And human beings are very good at making unreal things and filling them with so many stories that they have no choice but to become true.
I’ll elaborate: it all boils down to this question really, which I once got asked by a very aggressive person on a train who was determined to make me into the kind of writer that they would want to read. It appeared to be quite a narrow existence and I was resisting as best I could.
Why they said, do you write pointless escapist stuff with all this [insert expletive here] going on in the world?
For the sake of the reader, said aggressive person was referring to recent votes and recent presidents and recent political scandals with which they disagreed and by which they were horrified. My own opinions aside, I tried to explain that I wrote this ‘stupid stuff’ because of all that, that my fantasy wasn’t escapism and, I hoped, it wasn’t stupid.
So, Why Do I Write Such Stupid Escapist Stuff in a Time of Political Turmoil?
It boils down to what I think fantasy stories really are. Have you ever read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness? Have you ever watched a beautiful film called I Kill Giants? In both these stories, something fantastical happens in the world of the mundane, when the protagonists struggle to face the reality of their lives; that they are losing someone they love.
I mention both of these stories because I relate, whole-heartedly to them, though not through the same trauma. I am currently very lucky in that I have had very limited contact with that creature called Grief. I will, someday; and I’m sure said Grief-Monster will make his or her way into my stories and sit there like a great, fat, black toad for a while. It’ll be necessary at that point. No, my reality at the age of these two protagonists, around twelve or thirteen, was loneliness.
I was such a lonely child.
I had a few friends. I had one very good friend who stuck by me from the age of eleven, but we were thrown together more through circumstance and were very, very different. I had another friend that I’d known since the age of five, but we’d gone to different schools and I barely saw her anymore. Most people at school weren’t bothered by my presence. A few made my existence a misery. If I was to sum up my school days in one sentence, I think it would be:
A helpless frustration with how little power and excitement I had in my life.
I was not only lonely, I was bored. Bored, bored, bored. I felt I was capable of greater things that putting commas back into sentences and deciding how pathetic King John was on a scale of one to ten. So I invented another place to be. I invented worlds in which I rode dragons, tamed griffins, overcame enemies, fought monsters and was Queen of some realm whose name kept changing whenever I thought of something better. It was a world I could tend in the quiet of my own mind. Something I had control over while I fended off bullies and tried to understand the nonsensical mechanics of making friends. It was a world that, despite the magic and the danger and the upside-down-ness, made way more sense than the one I was forced to be in on a daily basis.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only child who felt that way. I’m sure there are adults who still feel that way. But the fantasy wasn’t something I invented to escape, it was something I invented to understand.
All stories are true, says Le Guin. Especially, I argue, the ones that aren’t real.
What else is a dragon but a manifestation of all the things humans fear about themselves? Their greed (like our greed), their fire (in how many creation stories do the gods give man fire? Or does man steal fire?), their endless lives (in direct contrast to our own, very short ones). Dragons can fly, something that human beings have only achieved relatively recently in their history, but I’m sure our ancestors would have stared longingly at the birds above them and wished they could do that.
Perhaps we aren’t only afraid of dragons because we are afraid of freedom. Perhaps we are afraid of them because we fear the dragons in ourselves. Perhaps witches scare us because they have power over health and happiness. Perhaps the wizard in his tower reminds us of our fathers and grandfathers. Perhaps that enchanted forest, those wild caves, these giant spiders, haunt us in ways that go far deeper than fear. Perhaps we recognise our own complicated nature in them.
Some of our best fantasies, after all, are about internal turmoil. Let’s take Tolkein. Everybody loves Tolkein. Half of modern fantasy writers try to write Tolkein, so he’s a good example.
His story, Lord of the Rings, is about that age-old struggle between light and dark: the light of Frodo versus the dark of Gollum; the light of Galadriel versus the dark of Shelob, the light of Gandalf versus the dark of the Balrog. Now, here’s a thought for you: what if this was not a land we were talking about, not an actual country, but the landscape inside someone’s head, where the lights and darks where, in fact, part of a single person? What if Middle Earth is a metaphor for mental ill-health? What if Sauron is the kind of death one brings upon oneself? Tolkein wrote his epic fantasy trilogy between 1937 and 1949, in between which raged a terrible and terrifying war that took the lives of a truly horrifying number of people and saw the invention of some of the most horrific weapons known to man. Mustard Gas. The Atomic Bomb. If that isn’t the darkness of Sauron, what is?
In the end, all fantasy is about the truest parts of human nature. Some writers, no doubt, do it better than others. But, regardless of the monsters and the magic and the witches, all fantasies are, essentially, about people. They are about people learning to love, or fighting oppression, or escaping persecution, or seeking adventure. They are about affecting change. The worlds we invent in these fantasies might not be real places we can sail to and map. They might not be places we can feel and see and touch. But they are places with meaning. They are landscapes we tread every day in our darkest moments; when we regret, our minds are full of goblins. When we fear, the shadows become giant spiders. When we are angry, we feel we can breathe fire. When all else fails, we might wish we had magic powers. Fantasy stories do not take us away from human experience, they are the ultimate example of human experience.
So why do I write them in a time of political turmoil? Because if my protagonist can learn to love a dragon, whose mind is so alien as to be utterly unreadable; if my world can unite against a giant, extra-dimensional monster-made-of-thought; if my characters can find some level of strength in a land whose wheels are turning against them, then perhaps my readers can begin to have compassion for each other in spite of their differences. Perhaps, when all we see is dragons in Westminster, or goblins in glass offices, my stories will teach people how to speak dragon or speak goblin, how to reason with creatures we fear. Perhaps fantasy is not so much about fighting the dragon, nowadays, as learning his language. Perhaps it’s about time we stopped seeing enemies all around us and started to confront the darkness in ourselves. Perhaps there is a dragon curled up inside all of us, sleeping and sleeping until the fire in us burns so hot that he bursts free and wreaks destruction.
Whenever I turn on the news nowadays, it certainly seems that people are angry. A lot of internal dragons have woken up and they are formidable fighters. They use their teeth and their claws and their fire. Their fury is enough to level mountains and, sometimes, they don’t care who those mountains might fall on. I write about dragons to try and tame the dragons in all of us. I invent worlds that reflect upon our own. I write about magicians and sorcerers and magic systems because the magicians and sorcerers and systems in my own world can learn a thing or two by reading. If only they’d consent to try.
If we step into other worlds, we learn so much more about our own.
By the way, if you haven’t read Ursula K Le Guin, or Patrick Ness, I suggest you do something about that. There’s also a beautiful book by Kelly Barnhill called The Girl Who Drank The Moon that explains what I just explained using a magnificent story, and says it far more eloquently than I just did. Get hold of it. Every household needs a copy.