Six impossible things

Letting the Dragons In, Part III

 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 it up into four parts to post as part of Banned Books Week. This is the third of four parts.

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Fantasy is about possibilities; that’s one of the reasons why I write it. I love fantasy, and always have. I grew up on E. Nesbit and Edward Eager, the Narnia chronicles and the Oz books, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. I graduated to Tolkien in high school, and waited impatiently for each new release from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line in the early 70s. 

And I learned that things look different by the light of a dragon’s fire. Ordinary things become extraordinary; common problems change shape and become either unusually interesting or utterly insignificant. People become enormously important, regardless of rank; the hero never hesitates to trade his magic sword or his golden crown for the life of the little thief. You really see things, sometimes for the first time. And you don’t forget them when you close the book. That, of course, is what makes fantasy dangerous.

It’s also what makes fantasy so attractive to many writers. You can make up your own rules in a fantasy…though once you’ve made them up, you have to follow them. And a writer can do absolutely anything in a fantasy that can be done in other kinds of fiction, right along with the fantastic elements. There are fantasy-murder-mysteries, like Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy books; there are fantasy-historicals, like Kara Dalkey’s The Nightingale and my own Snow White and Rose Red; there are fantasy-Westerns, fantasy-Romances, and fantasy-rock-and-role novels. And fantasy comes with built-in metaphors: dragons and elves and magic aren’t really real, in the daylight world we all inhabit, so when authors use them in books, they are nearly always metaphoric or symbolic. 

Sometimes, writers play with this quite consciously. Among my writer friends, one has deliberately used magic as a metaphor for madness, another for drug addiction, a third for the creative spirit. I don’t usually do this kind of thing consciously and deliberately in my own work; it took me years and years to figure out that in most of my novels, magic is a metaphor for power — the power to make things happen your way, which in our world is sometimes the political power, sometimes the power of great wads of money, sometimes the power of charm or talent or skill or intellect. But one of the reasons I’m drawn to write fantasy is that in writing fantasy, I don’t have to think about what metaphors to use.  They’re built in.

But that’s one more thing that makes some people nervous about fantasy:  they don’t understand metaphors. And even metaphorical dragons are dangerous and disruptive, and most grown-up people don’t enjoy being disturbed or shaken out of their comfort zone. Fantasy can sneak up on you and do just that, because it isn’t “real.” 

People are on their guard when they read a modern novel about the extinction of the passenger pigeon — they almost expect to be preached at, and so it’s easier for them to ignore what they don’t want to hear.  But a fantasy tale about wizards killing off all the unicorns for their magic horns doesn’t trip those same warning bells — because killing off unicorns is not something people argue passionately about in the Sunday papers. And so it’s easier, sometimes, to get readers to think in new ways with a fantasy tale. Also, metaphors are more flexible than arguments: what one reader sees as a metaphor for the way species are driven to extinction, another reader will see as the death of creativity, or of intellect, or as a metaphor for science killing off religion. And all of them can be valid and true and life-changing at once, which is very confusing for people who dislike dragons.

The dragons in my opening story are metaphorical, as all dragons are.  Partly, they’re a metaphor for change, which is often disturbing and destructive, but which is also necessary and inevitable. But my dragons have elements of other things in them, as well — creativity and wonder, the unknown “other” who is so often demonized in a futile attempt to shut him out, the power of new ideas, the power of books (you can read the story quite easily as a fable about censorship). My dragons will mean something a little different to everyone who hears that story — but they will always mean something that is powerful and dangerous and yet in some way necessary.

Children seem to understand some of these things about fantasy a lot better than many adults. I’ve gotten a lot of mail from children of various ages, and I’ve come to a couple of fairly obvious conclusions.  One is that, to kids, the real world is often just as inexplicable and non-obvious as the imaginary “weird” places in fantasies. The rules of the real world seem just as arbitrary as the fairy telling the hero not to put the flashy gold saddle on the horse, but to use the dull, ordinary saddle instead. When children read a fantasy, though, they’re on even ground with the grown-ups — adults have to figure out the rules of the fantasy world as they go along, just the same way that kids do. And adults are often a bit out of practice at looking at the world that way.

Furthermore, kids hate being preached at even more than adults do … and they’re better at detecting it and shutting it out. But again, fantasy can slip under that radar — partly because most good fantasy is very strong on story, and partly because kids know that a lot of adults find fantasy confusing, or even disapprove of it. What kid could resist? And most children still have the sense that the real world is a  wondrous and magical place — that sense of wonder that too many adults have lost or, like the king in the story, shut away because they are afraid of dragons.

But you know, you can’t really shut out dragons forever. And so there’s a bit more to that story that I began with. (Which I will post tomorrow, as the last part of this speech.)

3 Comments
  1. I ascribe most of my social awareness to reading (and reading and reading) Dr Seuss. His messages were so sneakily hidden in the bestest and funnest language!

  2. Have you been mugging geologists again? Because this speech *rocks*!

    • Thank you. I confess to being rather proud of it, though I think it works better as an essay than as a speech…at least, with me delivering it.

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