If I really want to talk about differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy, then I really need to have solid definitions of the two. I recently gave my working definition of Science Fiction, from one of Science Fiction’s greatest practitioners – Frank Herbert. So now, we need a definition for Fantasy.
So why not get that definition from J.R.R. Tolkien?
I don’t know the source, except that I found it circulating on Facebook. There is a signature in the lower left, so I will let that speak for the creator of this image. I found this on Doctor Who and the T.A.R.D.I.S. on Facebook, but this is mostly just a Facebook page that shares images from the fandoms, mostly Doctor Who. Actually, one I recommend, just know that there’s a lot of images that they share. Be ready.
Anyway, after the jump, check out the definition of Fantasy!
J.R.R. Tolkien on Fantasy
There are some strong philosophical underpinnings here, and a definition as to the purpose of Fantasy. I would say this is a pretty good place to start. Let’s unpack this. And I’m thinking, in reverse.
First, the thought that you should share Fantasy with as many people as you can. This single-handedly calls for and explains geekdom, fandoms, and, say, this blog. It is a duty, a responsibility, to share our love of Fantasy.
Second, freedom requires escape – because if you are stagnant, are you free? Life is full of repeats, full of monotony, and it is not necessarily in these moments that we are free.
Whoa, I better stop, because I studied Political Theory in school, and I could talk about Freedom a long time. I guess, comments below if you would like me to do so.
Anyway, Freedom requires an escape from the ordinary – and Fantasy provides that escape.
Which, finally, leads us back to the start. According to Tolkien, Fantasy is Escapist. It takes us out of the ordinary, and into another world. It does not have to explore anything even remotely relevant to our world – though I might add, like in Herbert’s definition of Science Fiction, that humans are still the audience, and most Fantasy has someone at least on some level like us at the heart of it. In fact, maybe even moreso than in Science Fiction.
Escapist and Escapism are often thrown around as bad words. But are they? Clearly, Tolkien is trying to state that they are not. Instead, Escapism is a duty, is a shared experience, is a part of living a life free even from the shackles of the world around us. Freedom to experience more worlds than our own.
Good Fantasy – Harry Potter
If good Fantasy is escapist, and takes you into a fleshed-out other world that you would like to explore, then a great example is Harry Potter. It’s a world that would be fun to be a part of. And it’s a world just adjacent to our own, where we can easily escape with that thought… what if it’s real? What if we could go there?
And we get to see this world really only in a small space – mostly just in the one school. There are these small views of other parts of the world – the Ministry of Magic, students from other schools around the world – but mostly the rest of that world is left to our imaginations.
Which means Harry Potter is great both for the escape, and for the open-ended aspects. There is one large plot that works against our heroes, but the rest of the everyday workings of this world, the mundane parts, are there too. And even these parts are fun, with explosions and, well, magic.
I could have mentioned Lord of the Rings, I suppose, for good Fantasy. Instead, I would say Harry Potter is good for being some of the strongest Fantasy to come out since Lord of the Rings, which is so much the standard in what Fantasy looks like. As anyone who has played D&D can tell you.
Bad Fantasy – Bad Book Adaptations (Where You’ve Read the Book)
If good Fantasy is something where you escape into, then bad Fantasy would be something where you are kept in this world. Because I don’t know that I feel like I have read a Fantasy story I didn’t enjoy on some level – but I do feel like there are some Fantasy adaptations I didn’t enjoy.
For instance, there’s one I only watched a bit of – Eragon. The books are a fascinating attempt to create a new Fantasy world and story. However, the movie did not do it justice. So much so that I doubt that the there will be any other movies in the series – until it gets rebooted or restarted. So I guess we have the new Eragon movies to look forward to. But yeah, much of the problem is that they made a movie where we’re not in the world, but instead thinking about the problems.
Or, there’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. If you know the source material, then you spend the movie cringing at the changes, like the loss of the humor, or the mispronunciation of the names. You’re stuck outside of the world, rather than lost inside it.
Or, a TV series which was a lot of fun but only had one season, The Dresden Files. There was one episode that attempted to actually match the books – an episode based on the first book (the only one I’ve read in the series, it was pretty good). And it was the pilot, I’m pretty sure, though it comes up halfway through the season on the DVDs. And the whole episode feels forced, and was painful to watch. Yet the rest of the series, where they used the world and characters but made their own plots, worked well.
It’s where we try so hard to recreate what’s in the story that we don’t let the story be told that Fantasy fails. Where the world isn’t clear, where we are critics during the telling and not after. And this is hard to overcome. And it might be because, with Escapism, we are filling in details with our imagination, and so these recreations don’t match the world we’ve filled in on our own.