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On Clever Fantasy

And what better way is there to find motivation for blogging than indulging my annoyance against a student in my class with a passive aggressive letter?

A Letter to a Fellow Student

Dear Sir,

I will not deny that you are a much better rhetorician than me, and I also won’t deny that I rather enjoy your clever humor and twists in your contemporary stories. But I do take great issue with your use of such cleverness regarding fantasy.

This afternoon in class, I shared about the remarkable nature of the Peryton—a fantastical creature with the shape of a deer, wings of an eagle, and the shadow of a human. A shadow of a human unless the creature kills a human thereby regaining its own shadow. Ready to approach this story with all sincerity and ready to pursue truth, I asked why a Peryton would have such a shadow. But you asked where I found such a creature. I was confused but answered honestly: on the internet while searching for something completely different. This seemed much more interesting to you, and you latched onto that thought and constructed a rather absurd but amusing story about finding Perytons on the forums of 4chan.

I have no problem with your fine preferences for humor and satire, but would you please keep your absurdist satire out of my genre? Fantasy creates a new world, and to only appreciate the world in tearing it down is to destroy any opportunity for finding truth and meaning in that world. It seems strange to say that absurdity is the only thing which a fantastical world cannot tolerate, but it is true. As soon as you put any doubt into the mind of the reader that the Peryton really exists and has a reason for existence is the moment that the Peryton dies. The one thing fantasy cannot afford to be is clever. To be true, fantasy cannot be clever, and to be clever, fantasy must be a lie.

 

 

Now perhaps there is a place for absurdist and satirical fantasy. For the former, I am considering primarily Alice in Wonderland, and for the later, I am considering Gulliver’s Travels. Personally, I am a fan of neither story, but both are successful and even useful for many readers. Though the great J. R. R. Tolkien excluded these stories by name from the genre of Fairy Story, I think he would have been foolish to deny them some claim to fantasy—if that genre even existed as a distinct thought before his Lord of the Rings epic. Whether it is the Cheshire cat or the Houyhnhnms, some element of fantasy belongs to both stories, and the great Peryton could easily have appeared in either story. So I concede, what you write is indeed fantasy, and for that, it is all the more dangerous to the world of fantasy.

I believe you agree with me that the purpose of stories is both to teach and to delight and that the primary way in which stories teach is through delight. The literary critics of old (or at least the ones worth listening to) discovered the rather clever maxim that stories teach us to love and delight in what we ought. The world of fantasy has a rather unique opportunity to teach proper love for many, very real things. Notably, fantasy teaches the love of Magic– not the crude scientific devices of the magician as Tolkien noted—but the Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time as the giant Lewis described. The Magic that is found in perfect, unjust sacrifices. The Magic found in the story: Kill the dragon, get the girl. The Magic that is the song of Creation, still echoing in the waters of the deep and driving the Grendelkin mad. That Magic that is the wonder of a human wandering in and creating the Faerie world. The Magic that is the love of the Creator and Creation.

Here I shall draw back on Tolkien’s genius because neither my vulgar simplification or pompous verbosity can aid his words: “If there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.” You, my dear sir, are in the good company of Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carol and have dared to laugh at the Magic of fantasy. You have succeeded in being clever, but what have you taught your readers to delight in? They will delight in cleverness. They will delight in seeing through the fantasy world like seeing through a dream. Perhaps, you will argue that your readers will delight in seeing through fantasy to see reality, but I fear that your readers will delight in the act of seeing through and learn to see through everything, even the first principles of reality. You may very well know where the analytical and clever understanding must stop, but I wonder if your readers will know. If your readers laugh at the Peryton, what is to keep them from laughing at the flowers of the field or even at the Cross? Perhaps, there is no basis for my fears, but I think my questions still stand. What do your stories take delight in? Do they teach a love greater than the Magic of Creation?

You, my dear sir, are a basilisk when you write your clever fantasy. As I know you would be appalled at the accusation that you are merely seeing through and killing with your sight, I kindly suggest that you keep your grubby hands and sharp pens out of my genre. Or at least, cease to laugh at the Peryton and agree to meet the noble creature in his own world and on his own terms.

Yours truly,

Gabrielle Massman

10 thoughts on “On Clever Fantasy”

    1. We miss you, by the way! Your posts and blog are marvelous, yet they have disappeared into the dark abyss until now…. 😦

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  1. Loved this, though I don’t think I entirely agree with you when it comes to Carol and Swift. I always thought that they laughed at the lack of magic in reality, and how absurd that reality is without magic. But, I could be wrong. Either way, lots of food for thought here.

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  2. Gabrielle,
    I am currently writing a fantasy, and this letter made me examine my own story. Am I just trying to be clever, or am I giving the reader something to delight in and learn from? Am I presenting a truth, or am I scorning it? I think, happily, that my story is presenting a truth in such a way as to be enjoyable, without making a mockery of it.
    It was interesting that you mentioned the Magic of “kill the dragon, get the girl” because that is the magic I am trying to incorporate into my fantasy. Only, I am putting a twist on it.
    I have a question though: Is putting twists on the truth mocking the truth and damaging the magic, or is it showing one of the many faces of the truth and demonstrating the glory of the magic?
    Thank you so much for your blog. I enjoy practically everything I read.
    ~Bethia

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    1. I know I am late to the party, but I only recently stumbled upon this article. In all honesty you should tell the story you want to tell. Don’t let anyone tell you what is or isn’t allowed in a genre. If you do then your story will lose authenticity. Any perspective is welcome since it will give an experience only you will be able to provide. Write from your heart and listen to your instincts. It will tell a story that is true to yourself.

      To answer your question; Magic is not real. You can do whatever you want with it since it does not exist within the confines of reality. If it did, then it wouldn’t be magic.

      Fantasy is not reality, so anything is possible.

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  3. I’m confused what you mean by “clever fantasy.” Do you mean any fantasy that puts twists on conventional genre tropes? Or just the ones that twist the tropes that you interpret as truth? As for that, how do you decide which tropes have truths and which do not? I’d argue that many tropes are so worn out that readers won’t see truths in them simply because they’ve seen them so many times. A dragon’s just a dragon. A girl’s just a girl. Nothing else. It’s not until someone twists the trope — or at least frames it in a new light — can they shake up the readers’ expectations and get them thinking critically again.

    As a huge fan of irony, twisting, and cleverness, I’d argue that when done correctly this technique shows readers the truth by revealing inconsistencies in their line of thought; patterns of “doublethink” they’d never questioned because that’s simply how things are done. When it comes to religious ideals, I’d say that’s even more important, given how often religious followers forget their initial truths in favor of self-contradicting rules and regulations.

    Audience has to do with it too, of course. A Christian audience might not appreciate irony relating to their faith, and it’s true that some of them might not understand where the cleverness stops and the truth begins. If you’re not attempting to test the faith of children, I’d say you’re right in leaving that sort of thing out of Christian children’s lit. But adults who are truly Christian should not be able to have their faith completely leveled by one fantasy story, and in that case I think cleverness and twisting could be very helpful in pointing out fallacies like the one’s I’ve already mentioned.

    I assume when you say “my genre” you’re talking about Christian fantasy, since that’s what you write. It would be absurd to expect the secular fantasy genre to respectfully discuss a Creation and a Cross which it doesn’t believe in, and which seems extremely ridiculous to it– sometimes with good cause. It’s also a bit absurd to imagine one person owning any genre, but I think I know what you mean.

    I’d love to discuss this more, but (a) we’d need better definitions of “truth,” “cleverness,” and “my genre,” and (b) that might be a bit long for a blog post comments discussion. Maybe we could take it to email if you were so inclined.

    Nice to hear from you again!

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  4. Hi Gabrielle. It’s great to hear from you. 🙂
    This letter is very interesting. I haven’t really thought much about how humor can hurt or help in fiction before now, and I think it is definitely a topic worth mulling over.
    I also think it is awesome that you are out there with other writers, debating these kinds of topics and continuing to grow as an artist. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17 This is exactly the kind of thing we need as writers. 🙂 I think we grow the most when challenged. Even though it can be harder to deal with than the people who share our opinions.
    Thanks for sharing this post!
    God Bless,
    Lindsi

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  5. It’s one of the things that scare me when it comes to creating my own mythical creatures. At the same time I love this line “Or at least, cease to laugh at the Peryton and agree to meet the noble creature in his own world and on his own terms.”

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