In my attempt to get to 56 books this month, I have picked up some books that I left undone earlier this year. One of them is Ursula K Le Guin's The Language of the Night. I didn't put it down because I was bored with it; on the contrary, I had to think about what I had read already, before I could go on. The Language of the Night has so many essays about why fantasy is good to read! Every essay I read, I find myself thinking through, nodding my head, agreeing! It's like having a course of study on fantasy and what makes it work, and why we need it. This is such an invaluable book, not the least because Le Guin herself (as most of us know) writes fantasy and science fiction, so she lives and breathes what she is telling us. She has thought a great deal about fantasy, and science fiction, and her essays are clear and direct - she doesn't hesitate to say why a book doesn't work, or that many writers write for money or to the marketplace, and not for the dream one has in one's head.
The essay I read today, 'From Elfland to Poughkeepsie', is one that every reader of fantasy should read. This essay explains why fantasy can be brilliant, and why there is so much drivel in the fantasy world, and what the difference is.
One point to keep in mind is that Elfland is a true fantasy world; Poughkeepsie is a place that exists in the real world, and stands for safe fantasy. This is not to say that all elves are true fantasy, and no fantasy can be set in the modern world! Far from it. What Le Guin means is that Elfland is fully imagined by Lord Dunsany; when we read his books, we know the world in the story exists, even if it is only in his mind. Poughkeepsie, unless one writes about it in a powerful way, remains the same in the story as it is for you and me to see in the real world. We don't see anything differently, in ordinary fantasy - in fantasy written to make money, to tell a story, with anything but true imagination.
Think about that for a moment. Think about some of our greatest writers, and what they created - Shakespeare, Milton, Tolkien, Hemingway, Austen, (put in the name of a writer you love, here). We see the world through their eyes, through their imagination. We know the world a little more clearly because they wrote. We understand ourselves better, and the world. They wrote, each of them, in their own voices, and by doing that, they somehow give us the world back. Le Guin is saying this applies to fantasy, and to science fiction, but particularly to fantasy because it's base is archetypes.
"Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe." Doesn't that give you a little chill? Because it's true.
"Real fantasy writing 'is exact, clear, powerful.....Nothing in it is fake or blurred; it is all seen, heard, felt."
Now, can you think of any examples of fantasy books that you can pick up, read, and then instantly forget in a few week's time? Can you remember the characters' names, what happens, a month after reading the book? Did the characters come alive, so that later, you find stray thoughts of them occurring long after the book is done? I have to say that reading this essay made what I like and don't like about fantasy make sense to me. I think she's right. Real fantasy is clear, it can be seen, felt, tasted, experienced. That is what makes it so dangerous. It's real, and yet it's not. How many of us have wanted, desperately at one time or another, for Middle Earth to be real? A place we could go to! I know I did!!
Good fantasy is written in a style that is the author's own. I would argue that this applies to all acts of writing, painting, dancing, anything that involves creating. When we have learned to let what is inside of us out, we are changed, and so is the world. Le Guin says: "We learn to hear and speak, as children, primarily by imitation. The artist is merely the one who goes on learning after he grows up. If he is a good learner, he will finally learn the hardest thing: how to see his own world, how to speak in his own words." The best fantasy books are like any work of art: they are created from the artist, and not a copy of what someone else has done before.
"A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you." Yes, those are her italics! I love this quote. Why will fantasy change us? Because we meet the dragon, and the dragon is us. Because we encounter what lies beneath, the shadows and shapes that linger and lurk, the archetypes that we all respond to, and the author - if it's good fantasy - shows us a new way to understand the archetype, what we have to do to survive an encounter with an archetype. Not all fiction has this gift; this is what fantasy has to offer.
So what do you think, Gentle Reader? Is there a fantasy world you particularly love, that you wish was real? Is there a fantasy author, or fantasy books, that have particularly moved you, that resonated with you? What do you think good fantasy is? Do you like it?
I have always wanted to go to Middle-Earth. The spirit world of Charles de Lint is fascinating. And Alice in Wonderland always scared me and I could hardly wait for Alice to get home again! It's late, I'll think up a list of fantasy authors that I think are worth considering as good, who are a little bit dangerous to read. Angela Carter, anyone?