Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fantasy and Knowledge

Some people get all tied in knots about the fact that what might have been realism to our progenitors is now fantasy to us, because we no longer believe in supernatural things. But this is nonsense. What is science to one culture may seem magic to another (as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out), but this only goes to show that the presence of "magic" in a fictional work doesn’t suffice to make it a fantasy. On the other hand, a work of non-fantasy doesn’t suddenly become fantasy just because we learn a few extra facts.

It may be that the Odyssey affects us differently than it did the Greeks—I happen to doubt it, but who knows?—but, if so, this is not primarily a difference in belief. Modern readers of "taproot texts" have a tendency to see any ancient text as "the Bible" of whomever. Personally, I think that the way the Greeks heard the story of Polyphemus is probably closer to our reading of a modern fantasy novel than to the Hebrews' belief in the giving of the Law on Horeb. In fact, belief is a major limitation in story-telling (and not necessarily a bad one). The Puritans believed in witches, but they didn’t make up fantasies about them.

Further, I would argue that what matters is not extrinsic impossibility, but presentation. I can read The War of the Worlds or Thuvia, Maid of Mars or The Martian Chronicles or Out of the Silent Planet with the same pleasure with which the first readers did, despite the findings of space exploration, because I accept the possibility of undiscovered Martian life-forms at the outset when I submit to be worked upon by the book. In just the same way, an old fantasy about something assumed at the time to be impossible, which we now know to be possible, could be read with exactly the same pleasure; we accept the impossibility by accepting the tokens given us by the writer. Possibility or impossibility doesn't matter. What matters is the inner structure. This is what sets The Lord of the Rings or Titus Groan apart from (say) One Hundred Years of Solitude. The latter contains no internal impossibilities in its presentation to the reader.

No comments:

Post a Comment