Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre
Book by John H. Timmerman; Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1983
In "Birches," Robert Frost looks upon the ice-bowed branches
of the pliant birch and imagines a boy swinging upon them.
Trusting to his imagination and materials at hand, the boy turns
momentarily from this world to the free swing of the birch bough.
"It's when I'm weary of considerations," writes Frost, "And life is
too much like a pathless wood," that he too finds himself longing
"to get away from earth awhile." Frost immediately qualifies his
longing: May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love....
That affirmation lies at the heart of fantasy literature; the reader
longs to stand apart for a time, not to escape but to rejoin earth's
"pathless wood" with a clearer sense of direction and purpose.
Fantasy is essentially rejuvenative. It permits us a certain
distance from pragmatic affairs and offers us a far clearer insight
This fact may account, in part, for the enormous appeal of
fantasy literature. It does more than simply restructure a reality
which we already know-it also offers a parallel reality which
gives us a renewed awareness of what we already know. There is
an enormous and unquenchable thirst in humankind for
precisely this opportunity for pause. And, as the pace of modern
life inexorably quickens, the fascination for fantasy literature
"A child," J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "may well believe a
report that there are ogres in the next country; many grown-up
persons find it easy to believe of another country." 1 Here is the
invitation fantasy extends to the reader-to recover a belief
which has been beclouded by knowledge, to renew a faith which
has been shattered by fact. We may know there are no ogres in the
next country-we haven't seen them in our travels-yet we may
well believe there are. Like other types of literature, fantasy gives
us the opportunity to become lost for a time in another world so
that we can discover or recover a fresh perspective in this world.
Bruno Bettelheim acknowledges this in his study of fairy tales,
The Uses of Enchantment: "If we hope to live not just from
moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence,
then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find
meaning in our lives. It is well known how many have lost the will
to live, and have stopped trying, because such meaning has
Fantasy is not a new thing under the sun, after all. Its
legitimate forebears include the fairy tale, the Romance, and the
fable. But man's thirst for "otherness" has sharpened in recent
decades. A casual glance at booksellers' lists will disclose the
phenomenal surge in sales figures for fantasy works. 3 More
startling, perhaps, is the fact that these works are not only sold
but read. As fantasy literature has become increasingly popular, more
critical attention has been paid to it. For some years this attention
was professionally coordinated by scholarly organizations such
as The Popular Culture Association of America. Within the last
few years several books on fantasy have been published by major
presses. These books share two common traits.
generally focus on individual authors and individual fantasy
works. Primary attention goes to certain works worthy of that
attention by virtue of their aesthetic merit. This is a worthwhile
and necessary endeavor, but it does little to identify the unique
properties of the genre itself. There is little critical distinction, for
example, between fantasy and its related genres such as science
fiction. Second, but akin to the first, is the common failure to
identify fantasy's place in the tradition of western literature.
What features does fantasy share with all outstanding literature?
Fantasy is not a sideshow at a shady comer of the main
thoroughfare. Although unique, and deserving of individual
identification as a genre, fantasy has a central place in the
western tradition as a whole. It provides new ways of seeing a
thing, and new answers to what is seen; but it deals with enduring