On the subject of fantasy Dr. Suess, an authority on practically everything of any importance, said this: “Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.”
Many of my Creative Writing students would be in complete agreement with the good doctor. Since I’ve been teaching that course they have submitted stories by the hundreds set in imaginary locales peopled – or creatured – by giants, fairies, sprites, trolls, and sundry other odd folk. They’ve created their own laws of physics for their tales, involving going invisible, taking flight, teleporting, spell-casting and such.
And even after having waded through all those sagas – some good; some not so good – I still agree with Dr. Seuss. I always do. On the last day of class every year I send my graduating seniors off into the world with one of his best quotes: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
I’ve gone on record – in the public press, in this blog, at cocktail parties, and from (metaphorical) rooftops that young readers shouldn’t be denied access to fantasies with plots more light than dark; in fact they should be provided with them. Because I have to believe that youngsters reading big fat well-written books has to mean there is at least a bit of hope left for civilization.
I’m talking about the classics in the field, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s hairy-footed hobbit adventures, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and – for my money the best of them all – T.H. White’s grand retelling of the Arthurian legend The Once and Future King. I’ve often wondered if the top echelon of fantasy writers took some sort of secret oath to use initials rather than their first names.
Regarding the plethora of fantasy paperbacks that bulge out of bookshop shelves – with titles like Zugia, Avenger of Troggin or The Lords of Bloodlustia, Book IV – I know nothing. I haven’t ventured into those realms, and don’t intend to.
But I do know that fantasy is in the literary DNA of most serious readers. And writers.
Who didn’t fall into the fantastic clutches of the film version of The Wizard of Oz in their youth? And who – if of a certain age – didn’t, whether they will confess it or not, sit in front of a black and white television set as a small child and clap along with Peter Pan (via Mary Martin) to bring Tinker Bell back to life?
There is something inherently wonderful about reading a story set in a place that doesn’t exist in the real world. Settings which are, as Herman Melville once wrote, “not down in any map; true places never are”.
In the world we actually occupy that often offers only grim reality, a bit of fantasy, a tad of magic, is essential.
So let the kids read some good fantasy. They’ll graduate to other genres, it will keep them off the cell phone and the video game for a while, and a bit of pure magic will transpire.
Lord knows we could do with a bit of magic.