I suppose I should try and sketch out a definition of ‘fantasy’1. I admit, I find it very difficult to do this. I don’t associate fantasy so much with subject matter or characterisation or themes. I think fantasy is more a kind of animating spirit, which exhibits a certain playfulness in its dealings with the world.

It’s hard to take a photograph of this spirit: always on the move, slyly insinuating itself into double meanings, a creature of ambiguity and disorder, a lover of things that haven’t yet existed, a will o’ the wisp and a slip of the tongue, creating itself as it goes along, forever trying on disguises and postulating new ways to be, insisting on fresh perspectives from which to confound the assumptions we use to organise our world… If we try to hunt it down, it has already left for a new adventure. Seeking a glimpse of it in its natural habitat, we must be patient and be prepared to camp out in often inhospitable terrain – but perhaps, if we’re lucky, we may find it deep in the linguistic undergrowth, darting between the terms ‘fantastical’, ‘fantasy’, ‘imaginative’?…

The spirit of fantasy doesn’t necessarily inhabit a particular genre exclusively. A writer like Dickens, for example: in some ways, he could be described as a ‘realist’, and yet his prose is capable of the most fantastical excursions. Great Expectations is a wonderful account of (among many other things) social class and its relationship with individual desire, but Miss Haversham has just stepped out of a fairytale. People wouldn’t generally describe Great Expectations as a fantasy novel, but it displays the lightning and fluidity, the heightened metaphoric state, of a fantasy.

I accept of course that my definition of fantasy is skewed and idiosyncratic, not to say spectacularly vague. In my defence, I can only say that I’m not attempting an academic article, these are simply my thoughts about the subject. I appreciate that for many people, ‘fantasy’ refers to a particular genre of writing.

In fact, to a certain extent, I think there’s a problem precisely when fantasy hardens into a genre. This is a problem for both writers and readers. As genres splinter into sub-genres, the ‘hardening’ process intensifies. In order to satisfy the dictates of a genre – the genre which, in theory, allows publishers and critics and readers to establish the nature of a book – certain rules tend to be followed. Ironically, this may actually result in a more rigid deployment of the ‘spirit of fantasy’ that I’m talking about, with the consequence that books become less imaginative, less fluid and light-fingered. A certain international house style develops, an unwittingly corporate enterprise. By accepting the formulae of a genre, we are all of us immediately in danger of suppressing a certain degree of flexibility in our reading and writing. This descent into genre, into too easily adopted codes and styles, may lead to producing work which has the effect of closing minds and encouraging clichés, and into a general literary culture that runs the danger of degenerating into fanaticism, obsession and snobbery.

The spirit of fantasy is open-minded and flexible. It’s at ease with the plasticity of form – as in Ovid, say. It’s playful, in a deep sense of the word – it’s happy to invent whole worlds in which to exercise its powers. Anyone who has watched children running through a forest in the middle of a shopping mall, or building a submarine or an aeroplane out of a cardboard box, will have seen the spirit of fantasy at work.

I’d say that, in one sense, the spirit of fantasy represents a refusal to accept the status quo of what could loosely be called realism, and revolts against any literalist interpretation of the world. I suppose there is a degree of irrationality in this spirit of fantasy – perhaps he or she is related to Edgar Allen Poe’s Imp of the Perverse?

If you’ve read some of this site’s earlier posts – on my preference for writing fantasy, for example [Why I write fantasy | 2] – you will realise that I believe that at the heart of human beings there lies a core not of certainty but of possibility. In my view, realism asserts a kind of certainty – a form of fatality, in fact. This fatality lies in the assertion that there is one world, objectively accessible, which conforms to rigid laws. This conformity is seen as a value in itself – it is ‘the truth’. The ‘real world’, ‘reality’… ‘Things as they are’, ‘the basic facts of life’… ‘Get real!’… Our language is dotted with concepts and idioms referring to this place, this world that is real – hard, actual, undeniable, a place where the cosmic trains run to a mathematical timetable, a place susceptible to our desire for order, and curiously compliant to our analysis.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is often viewed negatively – we speak of “flights of fancy/fantasy”, and urge people we feel are letting themselves “get carried away” to “come back down to earth”. “It’s just a fantasy.” The spirit of fantasy, though, chafes against this urge to accept the common sense view of life. It wishes to bend things out of shape, to offer alternatives, to insist on our powers to change things by looking at them in new ways, to celebrate our condition as uncertain, as not knowing, as not being in control2.

The power of figuration is crucial to the spirit of fantasy – figuration, configuration, re-configuration… In literature, fantasy enjoys being able to construct different planets and societies, new intelligences, and fantasy offers a heightened capacity to manipulate symbols and images.  Metaphors can be viewed as the assertion of a particular bond, the establishment of a relation between objects or states normally kept discreet. But of what use are they? Aren’t they just futile whimsy, the doodles of a playful mind? A solemn, severe, totally literalist interpretation of the world would insist that metaphors are absurd. The literalist might accept similes – might accept the fact that a mushroom looks a bit like an umbrella – but would categorically deny that a mushroom actually is an umbrella. Metaphor displaces the literalist order, and brings together things a literalist would prefer to keep separate2.

I don’t wish to establish a crass, binary opposition between fantasy and realism/reality (as if it were a kind of boxing or wrestling match: FANTASY vs. REALITY [“And in the blue corner, wearing the gold trunks with blue trim”…]). As I’ve mentioned, in some senses, I don’t see reality as an entirely plausible concept or place. I don’t believe reality is an alternative to fantasy. I believe that reality is fantasy.

Nor do I wish to rehearse the same opposition as it can be played out within literature. I see fantasy and realism as intimately inscribed within each other – each depends upon the other. Philosophically, though, I would gently insist that the spirit of fantasy is fundamental to all literature. After all, the worlds of a realist writer and of a fantasy writer are both created worlds. Both worlds are imagined. One world is imagined to be different to some notional actual world; the other world is imagined to be similar.

As I look back over this post, I see the ironies which are, to a certain extent, inherent in my views. All the time, I either use or am tempted to use certain phrases: “Really, if we think about it, then…”, and “In truth…”, and “In fact…”, and “Actually…”: in seeking to create a persuasive argument, I seek to appeal to the conventions of the very world (the ‘real’ world) I am attempting to discredit, or at least to challenge. So, bearing this in mind, perhaps we may move on to the last phase of this post?

Really, if we think about it, then no work of art would be possible without fantasy. To give an example of a single art form: any film, no matter what its conventional style, requires the audience to accept the element of artifice and creation within it – its fantastic base. The audience in the cinema gazes at the silver screen, and creatures of light and sound move across the landscape of an imaginary world. We know it is not ‘real’. We know, or seem to know, that the characters whose fates we follow are actors – they are playing roles, they are “making believe”. And yet, so tremendously affective is the world of cinema, and so deep our desire to enter and remain in it, that we are transported by the story, and can laugh and cry at what we see. The spirit of fantasy works as an animating energy within the audience, not only in the film’s creators.

I realise I’m extending my definition of ‘fantasy’ into a rather nebulous construct, for which I apologise. But what I’m trying to get to is that the spirit of fantasy isn’t an aberration, or a departure from a realist way of looking at the world: it isn’t something we add on, a luxury or a kind of afterthought. It’s fundamental to our humanity. We think fantastic thoughts. We live in a fantastic world.

I hope to return to this subject in a subsequent post.

1 Our lives always seems to come back to definition. “It depends what you mean.” And we depend on what we mean.
Human life consists of three things:
1 | Arriving at a definition of a term, enabling us to act.
2 | Applying a value to a particular definition, inflecting how we will act.
3 | Everything else apart from what I’ve just written in points 1 & 2.

2 I accept of course that the spirit of fantasy has a dark side, and that it can be capable of “negative” as well as “positive” activity. A footnote isn’t the place to discuss this subject, but a common critique of “fantasy” lies precisely in the dangers that arise when a person “retreats into fantasy”, states in which the individual fantasises precisely that they are in control, that others do their bidding, fall for their charms, and so on. And fantasy, in this more alarming form, isn’t at all restricted to individuals: groups of people, cultures, entire states – and perhaps even an entire species – can live out fantasies. For anyone interested, my trilogy of poetry books, When the volts flowed, explores in part a world in which the lives of individuals have been rendered as ghostly, haunting already doomed worlds, by the delusory nature of the societies in which we live.

3 I would like to discuss the nature of metaphor in a separate post.