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Why We Love Fantasy

Sunday, July 29, 2007

And no, I’m not talking about this kind of fantasy (although obviously I like that too — but that’s for another post); I’m talking swords and elves and dwarves and dragons, magic and demons and witches and champions. With the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter books and various other movies/television/books/comics being so successful right now, I would have to say that all things fantastical are currently more popular than they have ever been. These imaginary realms are no longer just the purview of pale, acne-ridden, nerdy teenagers hiding in their basements playing Rifts — it’s now [gasp!] socially acceptable to admit that you thought it was pretty cool when Legolas took down that Oliphant, or to dress up like Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan for Hallowe’en.

But, as with everything else here on The Culturatti we must ask — why?

dragonA couple of reasons I can think of. First, its concepts are very easy to wrap one’s head around. There are good guys and bad guys. The good guys are pure, virtuous, strong and always win in the end. The bad guys are twisted, gross, evil things that want to destroy everything usually just for the sake of destroying everything. Its dialectic, for the most part, is blatantly simplistic. For those of the Christian tradition (for of course, all this stems from medieval folklore and fables, from the Bible to the Brothers Grimm) it is simply a metaphor for the eternal battle between God and Satan. For those not particularly religious, we were still brought up on all the same stories and in the same literary tradition, and so we’ve been socialized to accept those types of good values — strong, honest, self-sacrificing — as virtuous.

If, back in say, 1357, one wanted to be a knight, one simply took up the training and became a knight and went out to rid the world of evil, because that’s how the world was. Today, there isn’t as cut-and-dry an option. One might join the army or become a police officer, but then you experience certain things and come to realize the world isn’t so black and white, that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ do not actually exist as actual cosmic forces in the universe, that everything is simply a matter of subjective morality, and then I don’t imagine those occupations remain as satisfying as it might have been to be member of Arthur’s court.

Hence the way that fantasy first made its way into the pop-cultural landscape — roll-playing; and I say ‘pop-cultural’ very specifically; obviously The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia have been around for over 50 years, and fairy tales centuries before that, but before the 1970s they very much stayed within the literary landscape. Then along came the sublimely named Gary Gygax and his brilliant invention Dungeons & Dragons, which introduced the world to Dungeon Masters, character classes and polyhedral dice.

Pop Quiz -- which one's the D12?

Now, with D&D, there was the chance to emulate those days of yore from the comfort of your easy-chair. You could get together with a group of like-minded friends and create any sort of persona you wanted, be it knight, elf, wizard, thief etc. and live those fantasies through your imagination. It was the perfect outlet for millions of people who felt something lacking in their normal, ho-hum, everyday lives — people who craved the opportunity to live in a world which had more meaningful and interesting conflicts and culture.

With the advent of video gaming, the role-playing experience was altered; now you didn’t need friends or dice to role-play — all the nuts and bolts of the process were taken care of for you, and you merely sat back and enjoyed the ride. These games — known simply as RPGs — could never replace D&D though, because they are solitary experiences and so still lacking in the social aspect that makes D&D so fun, but they are definitely a major component of the fantasy family (I talk about them at length here). Now, of course, with the advent of MMORPGs, we are finally seeing the social aspect of D&D being integrated with video gaming, and it’s no wonder that these games have millions of subscribers. I have to admit that I think this concept is phenomenal, but I’m staying away from it at all costs, as I have no doubt I would become addicted to them.

I recently read Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Not a great book per say, but its underlying message really got to me. The basic story is that this guy discovers a fantastical world beneath London, helps to save it from the bad guy who wants to take it over, and then gets returned to the real London so he can continue his life. Pretty simple. However, once he gets back, he realizes just how mundane and rote his position in the corporate world is (which I go into in more detail here), and he just can’t go on doing something completely meaningless after what he had experienced in London Below, and he goes searching for a way back.

And that’s the other main function of fantasy — escapism (obviously). I don’t blame people who spend 6 hours a day playing World of Warcraft — why wouldn’t you want to do that after you spend all day at work making money for other people, where nothing ever changes? There are large groups of people who get dressed up as elves and wizards and have giant picnics — good on them. These are the kinds of personalities and stories which have meaning for them in this large, unforgiving and meaningless world of ours. And now more and more people are not afraid to declare it.

Finally, who am I kidding — I can’t ignore the fantasy element of fantasy as well. Absolutely beautiful, isn’t it?

Illustration Credit: Victoria Frances

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah P permalink
    Monday, July 30, 2007 10:11 am


  2. James17930 permalink
    Monday, July 30, 2007 10:17 am


  3. Friday, April 10, 2009 9:22 pm

    BTW — R.I.P. Andy Hallet.

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