In the discussion following Story for Beginners, I’ve been finding myself wanting to repeat things I said in the introduction to Patrick’s New Magics: An Anthology of Today’s Fantasy (Tor, 2004, ISBN 0-765-30015-X).Since New Magics was being sold into the upper-YA market as well as to the general audience, its introduction struck me as a good opportunity to push various agendas concerning the ways fantasy is taught and read. I’m rather fond of it as an essay in its own right. Here goes:
IntroductionIf you’re interested in New Magics itself, here’s the lineup: Neil Gaiman, Chivalry. Ellen Kushner, Charis. Susan Palwick, Jo’s Hair. Harry Turtledove, Not All Wolves. Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald, Stealing God. Jane Yolen, Mama Gone. Charles de Lint, The Bone Woman. Andy Duncan, Liza and the Crazy Water Man. Sherwood Smith, Mom and Dad at the Home Front. Emma Bull, A Bird That Whistles. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Bones of the Earth. Orson Scott Card, Hatrack River.
It’s hard to come up with a good definition of fantasy literature. It’s easy to come up with a definition that includes fantasy, but most such definitions also take in a lot of other kinds of storytelling. For instance, it has been observed that, in a sense, all fiction is fantasy. This is true, but it isn’t useful.
Here’s another: fantasy is tales of things that never were and never could be. That hardly narrows things down at all. Along with fantasy, it scoops up folktales, fairy tales, allegories, utopias, and loosely imagined historical novels. Admittedly, many of those do have a strong family resemblance to fantasy literature. Unfortunately, the definition also takes in 95% of the dramas ever written, 96% of the political memoirs, 97% of the spy novels, 98% of the real-estate brochures, 99% of the comics, 99.5% of the operas, and a great many bad novels that were supposed to be realistic, only their authors got things wrong.
Another definition says that fantasy is tales of marvels and wonders. This, too, has some truth in it. But the unintended fish caught in that particular net include some religious literature, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”, articles in Popular Mechanics magazines, and travel writers from Marco Polo to Richard Halliburton.
Et cetera and so forth. We could go on this way for a long time, trying one definition after another; and at the end, all we’d know is that no definition of fantasy is perfect. We can skip that. If you already know that a road is a dead end, you don’t have to drive all the way to the end of it. Instead, we can turn around and look at how fantasy works.
***There’s a rule for what makes good fantasy work, and it’s as strange as any riddle ever posed in a fairy tale: In fantasy, you can do anything; and therefore, the one thing you must not do is “just anything.” Why? Because in a story where anything can happen and anything can be true, nothing matters. You have no reason to care what happens. It’s all arbitrary, and arbitrary isn’t interesting.
Say there’s a path through a forest, and a knight comes riding along. You, being the reader, are standing by the side of that path, maybe floating a few feet in the air so you can see better. You’re invisible, as readers always are. And you can hear the hoofbeats of the horse on the path as the knight approaches.
He comes into view. The horse is tall. The knight is also tall, and wears armor. He carries a shield, painted red, that has a shining gold star on it. This is good. You watch the knight to see what will happen next.
But wait! Did I mention that he wears a heavily embroidered surcote over his armor? He does. It’s embroidered all around with a dozen different knightly and heraldic emblems, one for each month in the year; and each symbolizes a different virtue. His horse isn’t just any horse; it’s a noble and fiery steed, with a curving neck, a flowing mane and tail, and an expressive eye that shows an almost human intelligence. The horse’s trappings—that’s the harness, the saddle, and all the bits of draped cloth—are made of fairest samite, richly ornamented, with deeply cut and scalloped edges; and from each pointy bit on the scalloping there hangs a tiny silver bell. Furthermore, it’s a magic horse. And there’s a noble hawk perched on the knight’s shoulder, and it’s a magic hawk. And the knight is magic too; in fact, he’s an elf from the planet Vulcan. And of course the knight’s sword is magic, and has twelve remarkable jewels set in its handle, each with a different magical power—
I’ll bet you’re starting to roll your eyes. Somewhere in there it will have occurred to you that it’s just as easy to type “magic horse” as “horse,” and no more expensive to write “fairest samite” than “rough woolen fabric.” It stopped being a story, and turned into nothing but words. Once you notice that the words are arbitrary, you stop believing and cease to care. This is the curse of the arbitrary, the unconsidered, the too-easily-had: it means nothing.
But say the man who comes riding down the path is just a tall knight on a tall horse. Winter has set in. The afternoon’s already growing dark, and the forest is deep and wild. The knight should be at home, far from here, at the court of Camelot. There it’s warm by the fire, and everyone he loves in this world will be bustling about, laughing and making old jokes, as they get ready for Christmas.
He should be there, but he isn’t, because a year ago an extraordinary thing happened. On Christmas Day, a strange knight—a huge man, green from head to toe, holding a green axe, wearing green armor—rode a green horse straight in through the door of King Arthur’s court at Camelot, and issued a challenge. (A challenge is a fancy way of saying “I dare you.”) The Green Knight dared the knights of the Round Table to come forward and strike him one blow with his own axe. Twelve months and a day later, he’ll return the blow.
Nobody wanted to do it. It was all too weird. But dares mean a lot to knights—it’s one of their rules—so finally King Arthur said he’d accept the challenge. At that point our knight—his name is Gawain, by the way—jumped up and said no, he’d do it. Gawain is one of the greatest knights of the Round Table, not that he’d mention it himself, and it’s only proper that he should be the one to take up the challenge.
The Green Knight gave him the axe and knelt down, baring his neck. Gawain took a deep breath, hefted the axe (it’s heavy), took one huge swing, and wham! He cut the Green Knight’s head clean off. The head went rolling and skittering across the floor like a bowling ball, bumping into the guests’ feet, getting blood all over everything. Then the Green Knight’s body stood up from where it was kneeling, walked over to the head, picked it up by the hair, and got back on the horse, holding his head up like a lantern. The head’s eyes opened. “See you in a year, Gawain,” he said, and rode away.
It’s been almost a year since then, getting close to Christmas. That’s why Gawain is off in the wilderness, looking for the Green Knight’s castle. He knows it wasn’t a fair challenge. He figures he’s going to die. But he’s Sir Gawain, most honorable of knights, and he said he’d do it; so here he is.
This is not a story in which “just anything” can happen. It’s a story in which a very few things can happen, and so far only one of them has been magical. By the time Gawain comes riding down that forest path, the story’s down to a handful of possible outcomes. Gawain may or may not find the castle. The Green Knight may or may not cut off his head. And Gawain may or may not continue to be the most honorable knight in the world, which for him is the really important part.
And how about us, the invisible readers, standing there watching him ride through the forest? It’s time for a test. If I’m right about how fantasy works, you’re going to feel a little bit ticked at me for not telling you how the story comes out. There are a lot of different ways a story can mean something to us. Caring how it comes out is one of them.
(I’m not going to tell you. Sorry about that. It’s a good story. You’ll have to read it for yourself someday.)
And a word here about what we mean when we talk about fantasy meaning something to the reader. What we don’t mean is one of those dumb worksheet study-question systems where the knight symbolizes courage, and the Green Knight’s challenge symbolizes the fine print at the bottom of contracts which you should always remember to read before signing, and the road symbolizes the writer’s subconscious, and the wilderness symbolizes the wilderness only not the one you’re thinking of, and the knight’s horse symbolizes the oppression of the working class. No. When everything in a story means a specific something else, and it means that something-else more than it means itself, what you have is allegory: a kind of writing almost no one does well. Allegory is frequently irritating, and seldom successful.
Fantasy can mean things in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t always have to be black and white, good vs. evil, fate of the world hangs in the balance, et cetera. Sometimes it’s just telling you something about how the world works, or making room in the understood universe for something that wasn’t there before.
And it doesn’t always take place in Europe during the Middle Ages. Check out the stories in this collection. Some of them take place in Appalachia during the Depression, or on the American frontier during the nineteenth century, or in New York City right now. Some are sad, some are funny. You’ll see.
We won’t tell you what to make of them. We know you can do that for yourself. Have a good time doing it.—P&TNH, 2004
It’s a good collection. I’d say the same no matter who edited it.