Written by Taylor Kurtz
Fantasy is a genre of larger than life moments and often fantastical creatures, hence the name. It is a huge umbrella that incorporates many sub-fantasy genres, such as urban fantasy, steampunk, and high fantasy. In fact, the fantasy literary genre, combined with science fiction, is worth over half a billion dollars, making it the fourth highest-earning genre. (1) Yet there’s a distinct lack of acknowledgment of the genre’s voice. Anyone who reads fantasy may have been asked about its validity in literature. What’s the point of fantasy? What does it mean or say? Why is that animal talking?
Criticism of the fantasy genre is not new, nor is it likely to go away. Novelists like J. R. R. Tolkien have been defending the genre for nearly a century. It was Ursula K. Le Guin who, in her defense of the genre, said, “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?…if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.” (2) On that front, some progress has been made. Fantasy has entered mainstream media with shows as popular as Game of Thrones (perhaps I should have said “formerly popular” in this case) and The Witcher, rather than being confined to nerdy books and movies. It was the removal of the “nerd” tag that truly helped fantasy become a genre that people will listen to.
Once a genre is listened to, it can be learned from. The acceptance of fantasy into mainstream studies is a likewise major step forward. Here at TCU, we have a class that covers Game of Thrones through a historical lens, allowing us to use our understanding of the fantasy world to learn about our real-world history. Likewise, an inquiring student will find a class called Fable & Fantasy (which accounts for half of my knowledge on this topic). These classes form a hallmark study of the genre at a top-notch (I might be biased) university.
So, what does this mean? Am I just blowing smoke out of my ass like a Picasso dragon? My doctor says no. This rise of the fantasy genre is remarkably similar to that of video games. As with fantasy, videogames were often a nerd (or geek) archetype after a certain age; but, the gaming community has received a massive overhaul in recent years. Kids and adults began to enjoy video games of many different types. The “gamer girl” became just “a girl” as the gender barrier to videogames began to disappear. Now we see wide scale enjoyment of games alongside college classes and even majors. Video Games became an ever-growing success story in the cultural narrative and Fantasy can, too.
While the success of video games is great news for Fantasy as it follows a similar path, it’s not quite there yet. As popular as the genre is, as much of a critical success its movies, books, games, and podcasts have been, as much as it is starting to be used to teach or be taught, it is still a genre whose validity gets questioned. The escapism is a continual sore spot for fantasy critics that may still take time to heal. As a totally trustworthy and not-at-all biased fantasy geek, I find the criticism unwarranted. If fantasy can be used to teach in a classroom, then the argument about its escapism is invalid. We need to move past claiming things as childish or excluding them because they seem more wondrous than our own lives. Denying the genre a voice is pointlessly counter-culture.
Conventionally, I would end with a conclusion summarizing my arguments and the all-important claim of significance. But, conventions be damned (and apologies to all my former English teachers), I just like this way better – I’d rather leave you with Tolkien’s own words on Fantasy, meaning, and escapism:
“Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Fuhrer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery …. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the ‘quisling’ to the resistance of the patriot.” (3)