Several years ago, I was asked to give a speech on the topic of book-banning, from the viewpoint of a fantasy writer. It’s quite long, so I have carved into four parts to post as part of Banned Books Week. This is the second part of four.
I wrote that story for this speech, because I am a fiction writer, and stories are the way I say things best, though I don’t always know exactly what I was trying to say. In this case, though, I think that what I was trying to say is this:
People are afraid of dragons, and will go to great lengths to shut them out. But it’s always a mistake to do that.
Now, dragons are powerful, dangerous, disruptive and disturbing; they upset the status quo; they carry off princesses and make them do cooking and cleaning (things which, under ordinary circumstances, no princess would ever have to do). Dragons destroy the livelihood of woodcutters and youngest sons, and force them to try things — like rescuing a princess or seeking their fortunes — that they would never have thought of doing on their own. They open up all sorts of new possibilities…but they usually do it by tearing down or destroying the old, safe things. So I don’t really find it surprising that many people are afraid of dragons.
What does surprise me is the lengths to which people will go to shut dragons out of their lives. I see it most often when people ask me:
“Why do you write fantasy?”
I have noticed, over the years, that the only people who ask this question are those who don’t read fantasy any more. And usually, the tone of voice in which they ask means “Fantasy is so…so weird; why would anybody write or read that?” Sometimes, that’s even the next thing they say. “Why do you write fantasy? It’s so strange. It’s so difficult. It’s not real.”
But no fiction is “real” in the way they mean it. Fiction is make-believe. Even the most gritty, realistic novel about the seamy underbelly of life in the drug culture is made up out of the author’s head. All fiction is a colossal game of “let’s pretend” in which the reader and the writer agree that, just for the length of this book, we’ll believe that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are real people, solving real murders, or we’ll believe that Ebeneezer Scrooge is a real businessman seeing real ghosts. Fantasy fiction is just a little more obvious in its make-believe, that’s all.
The true problem, I think, is that fiction is dangerous. All fiction. Even the worst novel makes readers use their imaginations — after all, they can’t actually see how tall the hero is, or just how red the heroine’s little Honda is. At its best, fiction looks at the world and makes people see it in new ways; it challenges their assumptions and attitudes; it makes them sympathize with and understand characters they would never talk to in real life. And fantasy is the oldest and most dangerous kind of fiction we have.
I say that fantasy is the oldest kind of fiction we have, because all cultures have myths and folk tales and fairy tales — all of them, back as far as the records go. And the same archetypes turn up in those tales, over and over — the Trickster, the Dispossessed Hero, the Wicked Uncle or Stepmother, and so on. There are over 300 different versions of “Cinderella” alone. Folk and fairy tales speak to something in all of us; the oldest and best-loved stories, the ones all of us know and recognize instantly, start “Once upon a time…” or “Long ago and far away…” All that modern fantasy novels do is to take the raw material of fairy stories — the deserving younger sons and beautiful princesses, the dark woods and the brilliant palaces, the unicorns and the dragons, the magic and improbable common sense — and remake them into new tales.
I say that fantasy is the “most dangerous” kind of fiction, because fantasy begins by forcing its readers to re-imagine reality. The foundation of fantasy tales is that anything is possible: that odd little shop just down the street might sell you a dragon’s egg or a chemistry set that can make you invisible; there may be elves in your favorite rock band, or talking to you on your computer chat group; the eccentric gentleman who lives upstairs may be a transformed dragon or a powerful wizard; the statue in the park may come to life. You can find the Queen of Faerie teaching at a small college, or a dragon incinerating trash at the town dump. The world may have two moons, or three, or none; wizards and magic may have completely reshaped history or be hiding in the cracks of what we think we know. Or not. Anything is possible.
And if anything is possible in fiction, it’s only a short step to looking at real life and asking awkward questions: “Why can’t the woodcutter marry the princess — or the CEO’s daughter? Why can’t the youngest son take up painting instead of running one of the branches of his father’s business? Why can’t men do more of the housework?”