Thursday, February 24, 2011

What Makes Fantasy Fiction, “Fantasy”?

We all know what fantasy fiction is, right? It's those books with the swords, and the wizards, and all that other medieval fighting stuff, right?

Sort of. Fantasy literature doesn't have to take place in a medieval setting, although it commonly does. Fantasy literature isn't about setting; it's about physics.

Yes, you heard that correctly. Fantasy literature is about physics. Specifically, fantasy literature is about a strange exception in physics, existing only in literature. Here, normal laws about motion, gravity, as well as conservation of mass and energy are overcome by a more powerful force: magic. Here, magic is real.

Magic is the critical element in fantasy fiction. Yet one should not assume that magic is, as my students sometimes define it, “the ability to do whatever you want.” Magic has its own rules. These may not be the rules of natural law, but magic in any fantasy novel will have clearly defined limits.

Let's take an example of magical law from popular novels. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, the four Pevensie children enter the magical land of Narnia. Unfortunately, they are betrayed by the youngest brother Edmund, who was had been charmed by the White Witch with magical Turkish delight on an earlier visit. After being in the Witch's clutches for some time, Edmund is rescued by the forces of good, led by the g0d-like lion Aslan. Yet even after rescue, Edmund isn't safe. At the end of chapter thirteen the Witch returns to Aslan's camp, claiming, “You know the Magic the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.”

The laws of Narnia must be appeased here or the land will “perish in fire and water.” Yet this law has its own loophole, for after Aslan takes Edmund's place and allows himself to be sacrificed at the ancient Stone Table, the lion returns to life the next day, much to the joy of the two Pevensie girls Lucy and Susan who witnessed the event. Aslan's resurrection also occurs because of these laws. He says to the astonished girls, “She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.” So the same law which constrained Aslan and his forces also provided Aslan with a powerful triumph.

Indeed, the entire book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an attempt to fulfill a magical rule. The four children learn about a prophecy in a cozy scene in chapter eight in the Beavers' house when Mr. Beaver says to them, “Down at Cair Paravel … there are four thrones and it's a saying in Narnian time out of mind that when two sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch's reign but of her life…” The rest of the book is a struggle to make this prophecy come true.

This prophecy does tend to beg the question as how and why a land's revolt against an evil ruler is dependent on the presence of four children from another world, but that's a question that seems to dig at the structure of the book itself, which is about four humans entering a magical land dominated by talking animals. Perhaps in C.S. Lewis's min, humans were the only “creatures” fit or allowed to rule a land. This hints at a certain prejudice of the author, especially since Narnia seems well populated with wise centaurs and intelligent dwarfs. Yet I think this problem can be forgiven when one considers how successful The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is as a novel. Indeed, the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia seem like retreads of this first book. Some are successful in their own right, but none ever quite reaches the height of emotion of the first book.

As you can see, magic is a powerful force in fantasy literature, but it comes with limitations. Exploring the rules of its magic should be an important part of teaching any fantasy novel. While I've discussed C.S. Lewis's book here, this same type of discussion could and should be held for any fantasy you decide to teach. Later blog entries will discuss the magical rules of other fantasy novels. As well, if you have any comments about this idea or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, please make them below.

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