Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Jason Miller
English 225
Think Piece 1
March 2011

An Interest in the Fantastical

Ever since I was young, I've been more interested in fiction that is fantastical, that is about things that could never happen. By fantastical or fantasy I don't simply mean books like The Lord of the Rings that are in the genre of fantasy, I also mean books and media that are, in some way, unrealistic. Whether it's traditional fantasy, alternate history, or science fiction, all of these genres are more appealing to me than something so grounded in reality that it actually could have happened.

I'm not sure why I'm captivated by tales like this, but I do know it is one of the things that greatly defines who I am today. I love writing and drawing comics about unreal things in the tradition  created by many fantasy and science-fiction authors. I play tabletop and video games which require me to not only learn about a fictional world, but to pretend to be a part of it, in a certain sense.

The Wonderful Wizard  of Oz is one of the stories that interests me. The land of Oz is something entirely distinct and different from our world. While reading the book, and enjoying it thoroughly, I asked myself what it is that makes stories like this so much more interesting for me than stories more grounded in reality.

The characters in such tales are often quite human, despite their appearances or the setting. An elf, a scarecrow, or a talking dog can be just as developed as the protagonists or antagonists of a more realistic book. The stories themselves often follow similar structures, themes, or conflicts regardless of how they're dressed up. The only distinct difference is the setting of the books. The setting changes the way the characters act and the specifics of the story, though often not enough to be completely alien to us.

But even among fantasy works, I find that some have far more interesting worlds than others. This isn't based on how unrealistic they are, as I enjoy and am interested in stories that sit along the entire spectrum from fantasy to realism. Rather, it seems to be the way in which they're constructed. Books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Line, and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle are such books.

The thing that makes Oz stand out is that it utilizes the reader's suspension of disbelief well. The concept of willing suspension of disbelief rests on the fact that readers will accept what is happening in the story and its world, even if it is completely unrealistic, as long as it remains internally consistent. You can have everything from wizards to robots as long as they make sense within the setting and story.  Even though the story in The Wizard of Oz is filled with many different and strange things, the suspension of disbelief is maintained. We know scarecrows aren't alive and animals can't talk, but those things are portrayed as everyday occurrences in the world of Oz. A character even talks with the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man as though they were average people, and assumes that, because talking animals are normal in their world, that Toto can talk as well. It's details like those that maintain the world and set it apart from other, less consistent fantasy worlds.

It's a relatively simple matter to discern whether a fantastical world and story is constructed well, but more difficult to decipher is why we enjoy them in the first place. And, in cases like mine, why I prefer them to more realistic stories. As I mentioned before, I tend to like things that are impossible. We can imagine what it would be like if magic was real or if people had psychic powers, but it's something that, as far as we know, couldn't or hasn't happened. The question is: Why do I enjoy things like that?

Thinking about that question was difficult, as it was something I inherently enjoyed and, as far as I could tell, there was very little reason behind it. However, I noticed some things that may have influenced my interest in fantasy worlds. When I was young, I was fascinated by science. To me, it was a mystery because I knew very little. But the more I learned, the less mysterious it became. I began to develop a very clear picture of the world and how it worked. I still found science and history interesting, but the mystery was gone. No matter how far I delved into it, I wouldn't find anything that was completely foreign to my view of the world.

When you think about it, this has happened to humanity as a whole as our understanding of the universe has increased. Things that were originally mysterious frontiers where anything could exist, like the depths of the ocean or the New World, were eventually explored and cataloged. As our understanding increased, the chance that mythical things like Atlantis or the Fountain of Youth could exist decreased. The only frontier that really remains is space and the possibility of alien civilizations, and even then we have a staggering amount of understanding about the universe despite being physically confined to our planet and its moon. Fantasy allows us to explore new worlds and raise new mysteries, sparking our innate curiosity. And because these worlds are entirely fictional and known only to the author, each page we read or each new installment that is released is an unknown.

We can try and predict what will happen based on the author's style or on tropes and cliches, but the author has absolute power and anything could happen. By reading these works we can learn about an entirely new world from, usually, the perspective of a third party, able to analyze everything that happens. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does this well by taking Dorothy, a resident of the world we know, and taking her far away to a new place nobody has ever known. We get to explore an entirely new world with her that can only exist in the realm of creativity and imagination.

Another thing that draws my interest to fantasy is its ability to let us explore ideas, emotion, politics, morality, and other difficult questions by removing them from the real world. It can be difficult to discover what you truly believe or understand when there are numerous real-world influences impacting your thoughts. Unless you can divorce yourself from a situation and look at it from a third person perspective, it can be difficult to discover what you really believe. Fiction and fantasy, however, allow us to look at similar situations and problems but replaces all of the actual events, people, and places with fictional ones, letting us view it with fresh eyes even though the conflicts or themes are nearly identical. First Light and The Line are two books we read in class that use this approach. First Light tackles global warming, risk, and authority (do we take a risk now to gain a brighter future or avoid a darker one, or do we sit on our hands because this is what works for the moment?). The Line wrestles with the issues of abuse of authority and doing the right thing. Even when the setting is technically in 'our world', there are enough departures that it's clear it's not the exact same.

Another explanation for my interest in fantasy is the sheer creativity in it. Fantastical works run a massive spectrum in tone and setting, each unique to the person who created. These are worlds sprung forth from the minds of various artists. Sure, they are undoubtedly influence by other works and experiences, and often fantasy works will look quite similar due to this, but I feel that settings that are not rooted in what we consider reality to be to contain the most creativity. I was brought into art by entirely fictional comics and stories. They sparked an interest in me to share and explore my ideas and to have people enjoy them like the stories that first inspired me. For me, my fantasy stories let me explore themes and ideas in a manner that I can more easily understand them. I can consider at what point I the whole becomes more important than the individual, or the issues of revenge and hate, or even something simple like what the world would be like if we had psychic powers.

I found it was easier to determine why I enjoy such stories by looking at how I write and draw stories and characters. I feel that artists are simply mirrors of what they enjoy and understand. The creativity and uniqueness arises from how each artist interprets these things and how they feel they can express them. For me, fantasy stories allow me to experience something completely new, whether that's a new world or even a new view on ethics or reality. I don't have the money to travel the world right now, and I can't try every food in the world once for practical reasons, but I can still experience an unlimited amount of new things and ideas by reading fiction and, for me, fantastical fiction. Each thing I read, watch, or play is an entirely unique, new world that I would otherwise have never experienced.

My revision notes, by Jing

 

Copyright 2011
Jason Miller

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
1999-2015