One of the greatest challenges in the field of creativity is that art, by definition, is subjective.
If you train to become a plumber, or a carpenter, or an engineer, you don’t have to wonder about your market.
But what if you create something that nobody needs in a utilitarian sense?
History books are useful. Children’s books are useful.
But what about books full of magic, and strange creatures, and made-up place names? Is there any use for such a book, especially one geared toward adults?
Children’s stories can be all over the map because we know they’re designed to foster creativity. But I often find myself thinking that once you reach, say, high school you need to move on from imaginary ideas to practical ones — mathematics, logic, science.
That was very much the journey for me. As a child I listened to stories of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, along with C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Then during my high school years I began applying myself more seriously to my studies. It was a wonderful period of my life. I studied as often as I could, taking responsibility for my education of the world and its function.
I developed a more practical view of life. I started reading history books, which I still love.
And yet…I continued to write fantasy stories.
Why? What relevance do they have to anything? I won’t say they’re full of lies, but they are made-up. Wouldn’t it be more useful to read a how-to book any day of the week?
I struggle with these ideas now and again. I imagine myself going out to dinner and being asked what I do for a living.
“I, uh…I make up stories. I imagine worlds and people that aren’t real and I write about them.”
“And people buy your stuff?” he asks.
“Well, some people, you know, just like to escape their own lives for a while.”
“Ah,” he says as understanding dawns in his eyes. “So it’s just a coping mechanism, like taking a smoke.”
“Sure,” I answer, defeated.
And then he goes on to tell me how his research is helping to cure cancer.
You could reduce fantasy literature to entertainment. And literature of all kinds should be somewhat entertaining. But if a writer settles for entertainment, if a writer decides that all he or she wishes to do is to amuse the audience and beguile the hours away…isn’t an opportunity lost?
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explores a dystopian world where books are outlawed and systematically burned when discovered. Imagination and independent thought are discouraged in favor of excessive exposure to television and radio.
Does it remind you of the book burnings in Nazi Germany?
There is something dangerous about books in general, and it goes beyond “factual” books. Books by their nature cultivate quiet, independent thought.
Joseph Addison said, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
But that’s an argument in favor of reading, not necessarily in favor of reading fantasy literature.
So I suppose fantasy literature is relevant only to the extent that literature in general is relevant: When it promotes individual thought, when it exercises the mind with fresh and vital ideas, when it stretches the limits of the imagination, when it encourages the reader to view life from another perspective.
And while it is easy to look at a story of dragons and magic and apostrophe-laden names and think, “How does that have anything to do with my life?” there are universal truths that fantasy stories can convey in their own special way.
Whatever its trappings, a good fantasy story will explore themes of love and death and loss and friendship and honor and sacrifice — themes that are meaningful regardless of what age we live in. It is only when a story fails to explore any of these human themes, when it settles for tropes and shallow ideas, that it remains only a means of entertainment.
Fantasy stories, like any other stories, can challenge our thinking and change our lives–and that, in my opinion, is very relevant.