Fantasy As Literature

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I have frequently found myself in the company of people who claim to have “grown out” of the fantasy genre. Their reasons, invariably, center around a misconception that all fantasy is the same. While I am always astounded at such a broad generalization, I understand why it is that some people may make this judgement.

Most people inducted into the fantasy genre count a narrow selection of books on their reading list. Certain to be included are: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Rowling’s Harry Potter; and either: Brook’s Sword of Shannara or Jordan’s A Wheel Of Time. Now, I am not going to go into great depth on the recurring themes of these books, but I will concede that they share a pervasive similitude that could lead you to indiscriminate assessments on the genre as a whole.

But you’d be wrong.

To paint all fantasy novels as a struggle of rag-tag heroes against an oppressive external threat to a backdrop of meaningless conflict is to say that all television shows are variations on a theme of good guys thwarting bad guys with a standard arsenal of law enforcement resources. This may be true of the various (and marginally differentiated) crime shows, but what about medical dramas, comedies, soap operas, legal dramedies, science fiction dramas, documentaries, talk shows, etc? Just as television shows like Breaking Bad, House, and the Walking Dead are all recent examples of the many television shows that stand apart from the ubiquitous police procedurals I described above, so are many fantasy novels remarkable in their departure from the standard format of epic fantasy.

To illustrate my point I will share with you my review of a fantasy book that I recommend to everybody: A Wizard of Earthsea.

AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd)

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A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is the first book in the Earthsea Cycle series by Ursula Le Guin. It is written in the format of a bildungsroman, otherwise known as a “coming of age story”. The reason I recommend this novel is because it epitomizes my firm belief that the best fantasy stories are not necessarily the ones with the flashiest magic or the most complex world building; rather, they are the books that teach us something.

Unlike other coming of age stories, the lesson in A Wizard of Earthsea is not didactic, but rather cathartic. The focus of the story begins when Ged, the protagonist, indulges his youthful pride and summons something beyond his control that nearly results in his death. Throughout his life he continues to – very literally – be haunted by this spirit that pursues him. It is only when Ged learns to accept his mistakes that he is able to confront his fears and defeat the shadow – not with fire and lightning, but by accepting that the spirit was always a part of him.

This novel demonstrates the personal side of literature that is sometimes lost in the grandeur of the events an author chooses as the focus of his or her fantasy story. Ged’s struggle is an allegory for confronting our fears and gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves, something that is all-too important in our current world of instant gratification and superficial attachments. It is also an example of the use of fantastic devices as a valid literary tool, in the same way Shakespeare used faerie craft in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Pearl Poet used the supernatural in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Most importantly for the purpose of this review, it establishes that not all fantasy is about a struggle against a personification of evil.

(This is reblogged from my other blog, https://hesicad.wordpress.com/).

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