phoenix art credit Sujono Sujono
I couldn’t think of a better way to start Wyrd & Wonder than explaining why Fantasy is
the best the genre that means the most to me. It’s defined my life and shaped who I am as a person (and I’m very, very happy about that). But head’s up, there’s some rough content in this story, so please pay heed to the content warnings.
Trigger warnings: mentions/discussions of spousal abuse, child abuse, and mental illness
There’s this thing I’ve heard – that many Fantasy fans have probably heard at one point or another: ‘Scifi looks forward; Fantasy looks backwards.’
It’s said patronisingly, contemptuously, dismissively; it’s presented as inarguable evidence that Fantasy is somehow lesser. And I could probably have a ton of fun digging into that – I could write an essay about how the concept of magic has been inextricably tied to women in the European and North-American tradition, how the dismissal of Fantasy is, at its core, all tied up with the same misogyny that causes people (even many fantasy fans!) to show the same contempt for the romance genre. Magic = witchcraft = the witch trials, which in their turn were hugely motivated by the male medical profession wanting to get rid of the primarily female traditions of midwives and herbwomen.
Medicine was only acceptable when practised by men. And Fantasy has kind of had the same problem for a while – we’re constantly hearing that women don’t write it at all, or if they do, it’s romantic Fantasy (which doesn’t count, remember). Good Fantasy, respectable Fantasy, is written by men. Straight white cis men, specifically. One such, Terry Pratchett, hit the nail on the head when describing the differences between the cultural views on wizards and witches;
Sorceress? Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs. The fantasy world, in fact, is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise.
Strangely enough, that’s also the case in this world. You don’t have to believe in magic to notice that.
Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts.Terry Pratchett, Why Gandalf Never Married
It’s good reading, Why Gandalf Never Married. I recommend checking it out if you haven’t already.
And this is all without bringing genderqueerness into it. Gods forbid.
It’s not just about deeply ingrained misogyny, though, I don’t think. Magic and the magical are also inherently other, and humans, as a group, don’t tend to like things that are other very much. And then there’s the weird thing about how Fantasy is somehow childish, that a person is somehow weak or pathetic or naive for clinging to it past a certain age. There’s a point in our lives when we’re expected to lay down the magic wands and 20-sided dice and grow up. And growing up, in this context, means (as far as I’ve ever been able to tell) acknowledging that the world is a grim and gritty place where things aren’t fair and wishes don’t come true. It’s the black-and-white Kansas that is reality, not the technicolor Oz, after all. The real world doesn’t have colour.
I think this is why there’s some kind of odd prestige attached to ‘grimdark’ Fantasy. After all, that’s ‘realistic’ Fantasy. It’s Fantasy set in a world that’s as horrible as our own, right? Except… Our world isn’t nearly as fucking bleak as proponents of grimdark, or of growing up, seem to want us to believe. Yes, there’s plenty of horrific things going on in the world every day, but there’s also so much hope and beauty and wonder. To claim there isn’t is just as naive, and maybe even more damaging, than refusing to acknowledge the messed-up stuff.
Anyway. That’s not the essay I wanted to write. Maybe another time.
‘Scifi looks forwards; Fantasy looks backwards.’
I’ll get back to that.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out why I was drawn to Fantasy. I can psychoanalyse myself just fine. It was escapism, pure and simple: my mother had bipolar disorder, and she was (as very few bipolar people are) physically violent. She put my father in hospital on multiple occasions (since she was all of four-feet-five and he was six-three and an ex-rugby player, no one, from the hospital staff to the courts, ever believed him). She once tried to run him over while my siblings and I were in the car. And although she never went after my brother and sister, she was physically abusive towards me from the time I was six, episodes that ranged from dragging me up the stairs by my hair to beating me black and blue with a wooden spoon.
Someday I’ll go back to Ireland, where most of this went down, and track down the court records of the nine custody battles my parents went through. Someday I’ll get the names of the judges who kept awarding custody to my mother, and I’ll call them up and ask what the fuck.
Regardless, it makes it almost embarrassingly easy to see why I fell into Fantasy. Pure escapism, right?
Well, no. I think anyone who sums Fantasy up as escapism is oversimplifying it. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, but escapism isn’t unique to Fantasy – any genre can be escapist; it depends on the tastes of the audience. Some people read historical fiction for escapism; some people read romance. So if escapism is all you want – all baby!Sia wanted – well. I could have gone in any direction. It didn’t need to be Fantasy.
In fact, it wasn’t at first. I remember reading a lot of Jacqueline Wilson books when I was little – Tracy Beaker, The Illustrated Mum, The Bed and Breakfast Star, all featuring heroines in situations with painful similarities to mine. Then there was Anne Fine’s Charm School, where a tomboy unlearns her hatred for femininity while teaching a bunch of ‘girly-girls’ that it’s okay to be feminine and interested in science, or sports, or special effects – a priceless book for a little girl* whose mother despised her for not being the little princess she’d dreamed of having while pregnant.
*I’m not a girl; I’m agender, she/her pronouns. But baby!Sia thought she was a girl.
Those books might not have been escapist, but they were stories about girls very like baby!Sia, with blueprints for how to try and survive. So why the shift to Fantasy?
The truth is, I don’t know. One of my earliest memories is my sixth birthday party, which was unicorn-themed from top to bottom: all of us in unicorn costumes, a unicorn birthday cake, a unicorn-shaped piñata. So clearly, I already belonged to Fantasy then, long before I remember starting to choose stories full of magic to read. I already loved my mermaid dolls and made up games where my friends and I pretended to be vampires or dragons or magical rabbits.
And I didn’t grow out of it.
In fairness, I don’t remember anyone trying to make me: both my parents were happy to see me reading, and I got books even when I didn’t get food. But I can trace a path through my childhood, a shift as I started to read more and more and play outside less. We moved houses every year, and I flashed in and out of different schools too fast to make proper friends. That explains the bookishness, surely – books were friends I could carry with me wherever we moved, worlds I could disappear into when I had to hide from my mother in the garage or behind curtains, dependable comforts when said mother was finally hospitalised and the real world turned upside-down and shook hard.
But why Fantasy?
Because nothing was fixed at the end of The Illustrated Mum. Because Charm School told me it was okay to be myself, but it couldn’t make my mother accept the same. Those books told me I could survive, but they had nothing to offer beyond that – and most of us want to do more than just survive. Even as children.
But Ella Enchanted said that I could be young and isolated and cursed, and still overcome it all by digging my heels in and being brave and smart; that I could have a sanctuary inside my head even when my body was stuck or surrounded by those who wanted to hurt me. Howl’s Moving Castle said I was special even if the people around me didn’t think so, that wicked witches were no match for being stubborn and smart. Spindle’s End said you could have a happy ending even if you didn’t want to be a princess, that it was more important to be good and brave. Northern Lights (also known as Golden Compass outside the UK) said that sometimes mothers were bad, and it had nothing to do with you; that sometimes adults couldn’t or wouldn’t save you, but you could save yourself.
Other stories insisted that the world was not a dark and terrible place, that there was so much more than fear and pain and confusion in it – and that those things could be overcome. Books like d’Lacey’s Fire Within and Funke’s Inkheart promised that there was magic in the real world, too, if you kept your eyes and heart open and believed. I was too young to understand that the Dragonology books were meant as fiction, and took them as proof that dragons were real, out there in the wide world (especially easy to believe since I’m half-Welsh, and everyone knows Wales is full of hidden dragons.) Spellhorn, Silver Crown, Artemis Fowl, Sabine, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher, Rachel Roberts’ Avalon series (with the original, delightfully lurid covers) – all of them insisted that the real world had incredible, beautiful things in it. I just had to find them.
And if I couldn’t? Then I didn’t have to stay – Spellfall, Neverending Story, Gaiman’s Stardust, all promised that other, even more fantastical worlds were right alongside ours. I only had to find the right door, or a horse figurine from Stravaganza, to slip away completely.
(I had, and have, no patience for the Narnia books. They were too cruel, spitting the adventurers back into our world when they weren’t useful any more. I hated Aslan, as that perpetual ‘grown-up’ figure who pretends to be kind while leaving you out in the cold – and yes, I get the irony, seeing as he’s supposed to be a stand-in for Jesus, of all things.)
Fantasy gave me hope, in a way I wasn’t aware of at the time. I don’t like to think about how I might have turned out if I’d had no evidence that there was more than bitterness in the world. I do know I probably wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t had Thirrin Freer Strong-in-the-Arm Lindenshield as a role model, as proof that a 14-year-old could stand against any enemy and win – something that played out very literally when I took my mother to court to force her to give up custody; I turned 14 during the subsequent legal battle. Cry of the Icemark, the book where Thirrin stars, is still very precious to me because of that, and probably always will be.
So…why Fantasy? Because my life was too tangled-up, too weird, and too unbelievable to be real. Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve called me a liar when they hear my backstory, and I don’t blame any of them. The full story is beyond belief, so really, how could contemporary fiction hold my attention? How could I connect with it? Whereas Fantasy was full of kids with beautiful or bizarre backstories, facing trials and tribulations ‘normal’ people couldn’t possibly understand. Fantasy was full of ‘othered’ children who turned out to be special, powerful, indestructible.
For obvious reasons, I needed that.
As I got older, the books I read became more complicated. (The best children’s books don’t talk down to children, but there’s still a reason Middle-Grade fiction and Adult are two different sections of the bookshop.) The stories became more nuanced, the adventures scarier, the stakes and costs higher. But heroes stayed heroes. The villains were still defeated. It might take time, and blood, and real losses, but in the end, all would end well, every time.
A lot of Fantasy is a bit simplistic that way. That’s pure escapism; it’s not a good thing to absorb and try to apply to the real world, which is not so easily divided up into Good and Bad.
There are exceptions, obviously. The whole sub-genre of grimdark, for one. But in general… The thing about Fantasy is that, the heroes, the leads – it’s not just that they defeat evil. It’s not even that they survive evil. It’s about how hard they fight to be good.
Being good is often hard. It’s often complicated. But to speak in sweeping generalities, Fantasy takes the best of humanity and puts it on the page (or the screen, or the gameboard, or any other medium of your choice). Is that ‘best’ often filtered by white, patriarchal, North American/West-European views of ‘goodness’? Definitely. Plenty of Fantasy stories take place within settings that utilise but don’t examine or challenge those same white-patriarchal-NA/WE frameworks, and that’s an issue all on its own. But for all its flaws, those stories still, at heart, revolve around characters that are good, or who are trying to be good.
I think that’s the heart of the genre. Or at least, the part that calls to me so strongly. Besides the sheer wonder and beauty of beings like dragons, and unicorns; besides the pure magic of magic; besides all the things that just make Fantasy so much better than reality. Besides all that.
The stories I read growing up were simplistic. A lot of Fantasy I’ve read as an adult are much more complicated, in the very best of ways, but again, speaking in generalities, Fantasy is about being good and defeating evil.
The real world’s not that simple. But that’s not the point. The point is that Fantasy tells us, shows us, proves to us that evil can be defeated. That heroes exist; that normal people can step up and become heroes. And those are the priceless lessons that Fantasy has to teach us. The lessons – morals, messages, whatever – that we need to internalise. That I needed, and still need, to internalise.
Internalise, and then project outwards.
Because that’s it. It’s not that Fantasy looks backwards. Fantasy looks inwards, sifting through the detritus inside all of us until it finds the best parts – and then it distils those best parts, crystallises them. Fantasy takes all of that and projects it outward again. It says that we can be good. It says the world can be good. It says, we must fight evil where we find it. It says, we can win.
(The best Fantasy says, it will be hard. It says, sometimes you lose. It says, sometimes the cost is high. But it also says, never, ever give up, because no corrupt empire, no tyrant-king, no evil ever lasts forever.)
That’s why Fantasy.