Aditi Krishnakumar: Why We Read Fantasy

Aditi Krishnakumar is the author of The Magicians of Madh, a middle-grade fantasy novel featuring two young magicians, a Celestial Dancer, a few griffons, mad teachers, madder fathers, and sundry other exciting characters you never want to meet in real life. The book will be published in July 2018.

Why do we read fantasy? Long after we’ve stopped believing in fairies and magic and caves full of wonder, what draws us back to a genre that had fallen out of favour with adults until a professor of linguistics invented a powerful ring and a primordial spirit that would stop at nothing to regain it?

There are, after all, so many other books we could read. Books that are useful, books that make us wiser, books that teach us how to save enough to retire at twenty-eight with a sufficiently large bank balance to put in a bid on the Mona Lisa. We do read these books, economics and science, history and philosophy, poetry, drama, mystery, romance, the legacy of a hundred generations distilled into words.

All–or nearly all–literature exists to describe us, our reality and our hopes and the sum of our knowledge.

But there’s also something else. That something is why Draupadi was born from the fire to be the centre of a war that would destroy a generation of men, why the Wyrd Sisters hailed Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor to make him believe he was destined to be King, and why the power of Lily Potter’s sacrifice was stronger than any spell Voldemort could cast.

Fantasy, like the mythology from which it draws its beginnings, exists to let us speak about the things we don’t quite understand. It doesn’t have to be about good and evil, although they form a part of it. Perhaps they’re a way of representing the essential dichotomy of creation that we instinctively know is there.

At the moment of creation in the story, evil is nigh-indistinguishable from good. Ravana, great-grandson of Brahma, is a capable ruler, a sublime musician, and a loyal devotee of Shiva; Lucifer is the Light-bringer, the greatest of the angels; Melkor is the most powerful among the Valar, seeing more than any of them; and Tom Marvolo Riddle is a brilliant and handsome young man with the potential for greatness.

It is in reaching too far that these figures fall into darkness: not because they try to be better, but because they try to be everything. In so doing they bring about the duality of the universe. So the old Canaanite legend of Attar the morning star, who tried to take the throne of Ba’al but was flung down to the underworld instead, is told over and over again. The evil of fantasy is not evil as humans see it, but a cosmic disruption of the balance of reality.

Putting humans–or Hobbits–into this struggle is an expression of our agency as individuals. The hero or heroine fights not for ascendancy but for the right of all people to live as they choose and find pleasure and purpose in their lives.

This very human objective is part of the other major theme of fantasy: that of destiny and free will. Failed attempts to defeat the ultimate fate of all mortals litter mythology and fantasy. Those are the antagonists’ stories, and the reason they fall.

On the other side are the protagonists, bound to their paths by prophecy, by being chosen and marked by the enemy, or simply because, like the One Ring falling into the hands of a Baggins of Bag End, it was meant to be. Unlike the antagonists, the protagonists accept their fate. This is how they become heroes: not by being puppets of destiny, but by claiming it for their own. Circumstances and greater powers may push them to the moment of choice, but the choice itself is free and willing, the recognition and acceptance of a greater purpose.

At the crossroads, protagonist and antagonist at once, is Macbeth, whose real story Shakespeare imbues with the fantastic. Arousing all our sympathies despite being a murderer–and, worse, violating guest-right–he seems almost a puppet of fate, but is he? How much can the witches’ manipulation be blamed when it was his hand that held the dagger? Is it his belief in the prophecy that was his downfall, or the act that brought it about?

In the spaces that these matters leave are the smaller things. How might magic work? Are there sentient creatures other than humans? One or the other of these is a requirement, the fantastical element of fantasy, and what sometimes puts off people who don’t enjoy it. Fate and creation are all very well, but why does their exploration need talking horses? Wouldn’t normal people do just as well?

Perhaps escapism is part of it. Like Atlantis and Utopia and other lands invented by philosophers, the distance provided by a fantasy world makes it easier to talk about things that matter, whether large or small. Is it worth preserving the way of life of Hobbits? Is Hermione Granger right to force clothes, and her worldview, on the House-elves of Hogwarts? Are the House-elves benighted or is Hermione misguided? Fantasy allows us to talk about these things without the baggage of the real world.

Then there’s another reason – not the least important reason – we read fantasy: it’s fun. It isn’t real and we know it, and that lets us treat it with a delightful degree of irreverence. Which of us hasn’t tried to Jedi-mind-trick a professor into extending the date on a paper, or said Alohomora to an automatic door?

In the end, that’s one of the most important reasons to do anything. Whether it changes your life’s philosophy, or whether it’s just fleeting happiness, it makes you feel better about yourself and about your world. For me, fantasy does that.

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