I’ve never been one for straight fiction. Maybe it’s because I was entranced by mythology at a young age; or maybe I veered towards mythology after watching The Flight of Dragons, She-Ra and Lady Lovelylocks as an under-six. As far as my subconscious is concerned, however, it’s a chicken/egg debate, because all I’ve ever wanted to read is fantasy.
Socially, we have a tendency to forget – or to not realise – how much of children’s literature and programming is fantastic, adults assuming that if it’s not for them, then normal rules of genre don’t apply. This holds true to a certain extent, biography, crime fiction and romance not being notable picture-book or Sesame Street themes, but there’s still a strong distinction between different types of story.
Fantasy is not commonly used as a blanket antonym to fiction – at least, not by the knowledgeable. Rather than constituting a be-all, end-all, the term becomes a shorthand substitution for science fiction, speculative fiction, steampunk, horror, high fantasy and other such genres, each valid in its own right, but linked always by inclusion of the otherwordly, mythologic, futuristic, magic, make-believe or other such inventive permutation of reality. This diversity, perhaps, is why adults don’t consider children’s stories in the same light: a talking rabbit isn’t fantasy, but childish.
And yet, how else might such narrative be classified? To recall some favourite children’s books, The Wind in the Willows is fantastic, as are The Jungle Book and Watership Down: contrastingly, Two Weeks With the Queen and Tomorrow, When The War Began are not. Looking at television and film, it’s tricky to find purely fictional examples of children’s entertainment – the younger the audience, the more likely that anthropomorphised animals and good fairies will make an appearance.
Personally, I find this all to the good. Beyond escapism, my love of the fantastic stems from its versatility in conveying ideas. Unlike straight fiction, an imagined setting can bestow impartiality on an audience, even if the politics of a story might, when set on Earth, create instant polarisation. It also causes us to drop our guard, with profound meaning conveyed beneath the veneer of unreality. This is the wonderful paradox of make-believe: that any human elements must be more convincing than in straight fiction, lest the reader reject the scenario entirely. The most superficial elements of fantasy genres are, ironically, the same things which distinguish them: wizards, spaceships, werewolves and parallel worlds. The real meat of any story is the characters.
Which leads to the ultimate question: why do adults so cheerfully expose their children to fantasy, even where – as is the case surprisingly often – they dislike it themselves? Apart from inattention, the most likely answer harks back to mythology and the Brothers Grimm. Put simply: fantastic stories are best suited to conveying complex ideas in a memorable, enjoyable fashion. Entranced by Care Bears, Snow White or the exploits of Herclues, children don’t consciously realise the lessons they take from narrative. This is because good fantasy isn’t obvious: the left hand dazzles, while the right hand teaches. Religious critics of J. K. Rowling roundly failed to comprehend this point – that magic is a vehicle for stories, not the purpose. Bad fantasy (or sci-fi, or steampunk) is worse than bad fiction, because it fails on two levels: without substance, the envisaged world quite literally falls apart.
The oldest stories of humanity are myths: gods and heroes, monsters and magic, quests and curses. These are the templates from which all narrative is built, but which we are often quick to dismiss. Ultimately, all tales are fantasy, in the sense of being invented, and when literary institutions embrace only ‘pure’ fiction as worthwhile, they are, in essence, performing a reverse amputation: cutting off the body to save an arm. Because genre – and the fantastic – constitutes the bulk of narrative, whether filmed or written. Human experience is one thing, but the single most defining characteristic of that experience is the ability to imagine, invent and explore.
Pretending otherwise is the real fiction.