Fantasy and myth

Will linked us to this piece by James Bowman earlier.  Bowman writes:

I mention this difference between the fantastical as it existed in olden times and today, which some may think a trivial one, because we are or ought to be coming to realize that acknowledged fantasy, of the kind the movies have inherited from science fiction, is a different kind of thing from fantasy that doesn’t know it is fantasy…. But if there is no longer any attempt at imitation of reality but only the aptly-described “magic” of the movies making new realities, then there is no longer any such thing as art as it has been understood for the last three thousand or so years in the West.

Then again, when someone writes of myths they believe in this is usually not considered fantasy is it? Such writing would surely be considered religious texts. Bowman misses a much larger and more important aspect of fantasy which is that it is – at its best – an elaborate allegory. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was not something he believed in, per se, but it was most certainly a vehicle through which he could explore his beliefs. The myths he borrowed from may have been more Pagan than Christian, but the themes Tolkien was exploring were certainly in the Christian tradition. As Michael Weingard notes in his excellent essay on the dearth of Jewish fantasy:

Christianity has a much more vivid memory and even appreciation of the pagan worlds which preceded it than does Judaism. Neither Canaanite nor Egyptian civilizations exercise much fascination for the Jewish imagination, and certainly not as a place of enchantment or escape. In contrast, the Christian imagination found in Lewis and Tolkien often moves, like Beowulf or Sir Gawain, through an older pagan world in which spirits of place and mythical beings are still potent. Nor is this limited to fauns and elves. This anterior world can be dark and frighteningly alien, as Tolkien has Gandalf indicate in The Two Towers. “Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves,” the wizard says, “the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not.” Lewis sounds the same note in Perelandra when, far below the surface of the planet Venus, his protagonist catches an unsettling glimpse of alien creatures, and wonders if there might be “some way to renew the old Pagan practice of propitiating the local gods of unknown places in such fashion that it was no offence to God Himself but only a prudent and courteous apology for trespass.”

Fantasy is, after all, an exploration of our history and of – to put it somewhat crudely – what it means to be human. The fantastical often serves as contrast to our own humanity. The ‘other’ serves as a sort of mirror. Tolkien’s elves are a glimpse at a sort of perfection we humans cannot attain – at least here on Earth (or Middle Earth). The humans in Narnia have a very special role in the determination of events there. Magic is a window (indeed, a house full of windows) into all the ways we could be, or wish to be, but are not and never will be. In a sense, fantasy takes new worlds and false histories and creates little laboratories of experience. It is more inward looking than science fiction, which is by its nature a forward looking genre. It requires that we see beyond the fantastic to get to the deeper meanings.

What it does not require, in any sense, is a belief in the fantastical worlds it creates, either on the part of the writer or the reader. Bowman misunderstands the very nature of fantasy. Tolkien’s exploration of power and loss (of the war-torn, fast-changing world he existed in, the death of the agrarian society and the rise of the machine) could have as easily played out in a non-fantastical piece (though perhaps it would not have been quite so memorable). He did not need to believe in his creation to believe in the meaning behind it, any more than he would need to believe in any other fiction he created – on our own world or in some other.

Bowman writes elsewhere:

What I objected to in our contemporary fantasists — the question of their predecessors was too complicated for me to go into in such a short article — was that they deliberately and as a precondition of their art cut me off from any possibility of belief in the worlds they represent to me because they do not believe in them themselves. And if they don’t believe in them, why should I? And if I can’t believe in them, why should I care about them?

To draw a comparison between the fantasy of our modern world and the fantasy of some ‘olden-days’ is to miss the point of fantasy in the first place. Homer did not write fantasy novels, but the works of Homer, like the folklore and myth of so many cultures, provides the inspiration for much of what fantasists do today. If we believe in our own myths, after all, then they are not really fantasy.

Why should we care about these stories if we cannot be bothered to believe in them? I would say, quite simply, because the truth of a story is not always found merely in its narrative. If Bowman cannot see past the fantastical – something that even Homer surely wanted his readers to do – to see the humanity beneath it, then he is not reading either myth or fantasy in the way it was meant to be read. Nor Homer, for that matter.

Furthermore, we should read because we enjoy a good story. If we cannot enjoy a good story because the author who wrote it did not ‘believe’ it, then we should stop reading fiction altogether. Like perfection, a critic can easily become the enemy of the good.

Fantasy will never be like the ‘olden days’ and nor should it.  At least not in this world.

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4 thoughts on “Fantasy and myth

  1. Bowman wrote:
    “And if they don’t believe in them, why should I? And if I can’t believe in them, why should I care about them?”

    *Sigh.*

    1. There are layers of meaning even in the most incredible tale, Mr. Bowman. Sometimes words have two meanings, to quote Led Zeppelin.

    2. Counter-question: Instead of questioning the validity of having an imagination, why not question the nature of belief as such? Why is belief more sacred than imagination?

    3. And here is the big thing about human language, the proverbial elephant in the room:

    Anyone can say anything they can imagine.

    As you may have noticed, this capacity of language (i.e. storytelling) to say Anything freaks a lot of people (such as Mr. Bowman) out.

    Thus, from time to time, “concerned citizens” and “friends of order” — and secret policemen — will lecture the rest of humanity about which stories and statements are not “proper.”

    I welcome their efforts to try and control the power of language. Because their efforts are essentially futile. The only way to limit the use of our imaginations is to lobotomize everyone.

    Mr. Bowman, will you be the first volunteer to show us, by example, how much happier we’d be after a lobotomy?

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  2. The Bowman essay is pretty awful. Not only does he not seem to get “fantasy”, he is a bit at loggerheads with the whole notion of literature, as with his silly and poorly thought out use of the pejorative “soap opera”. By his lights, Dostoyevsky and Thackeray would also be soap opera.

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