Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Value of Fantasy and Mythical Thinking - Katherine Langrish

Myths (so runs the myth) belong to past ages, when people were naïve enough to believe in them. Today, in scientific modern times, we’ve put away such childish things. So why bother with fantasy? Isn’t it just puerile escapism? Even children are expected to grow out of myths and fairytales, and surely any adult found reading or writing the stuff cannot expect to be taken seriously? Can fantasy really have anything meaningful to say?

These are interesting questions. Bear with me as I try to answer them in what may seem a round-about way. I’ll begin with an even bigger question:

What makes us human?

The answers to this one keep being refined. A special creation in the image of God – for centuries a popular and satisfying answer? Difficult to sustain as it became clear that we’re only one twig on the great branching tree of evolution. Language? Perhaps, but the more we study other animals and birds, the more we realise many of them communicate in quite sophisticated ways. Toolmaking? Not that distinctive, as chimpanzees and a variety of other animals employ twigs and stones as tools. Art? It depends what you mean by ‘art’ – if you think of bower-birds designing pretty nests to attract their mates, it seems clear that some animals do have an aesthetic capacity. So are we different from other animals at all?

Common sense says yes – at the very least, we have taken all these capabilities incomparably further than other animals – but is that really the best we can do for a definition? What was the point at which our ancestors became recognisably ‘us’, and in what does that recognition rest?

Innovation is one answer – the development and bettering of tools. Homo habilis and homo heidelbergensis lived with one basic design of hand axe for about a million years. When, on the other hand, we see signs of people messing about and tinkering and trying out new ideas, we recognise ourselves.

Related to this is another answer: symbolic thinking. Maybe some of our closest relatives are partially capable of it – a chimpanzee can recognise a drawing or a photograph, which means nothing to a dog. But wild chimps don’t indulge in representational art. Sometime, somewhere, somebody realised that lines of ochre or charcoal drawn on stone or wood could stand for a horse or a deer or an aurochs. That in itself is an amazing leap of cognition. On top of that, however, there had to be some fascination in the discovery, some reason to keep on doing it – some inherent, achieved meaning that had nothing directly to do with physical survival. What? Why?

Somewhere along the line, human beings became sufficiently self-aware to be troubled by death. When you truly understand that one day, you’ll die, the whole mystery of existence comes crashing down on you like the sky falling. Why are we here? What was before us? Where did we come from and where will we go?

The ‘mystery of existence’ is an artefact. We choose to ask an answerless question, and that question is at the core of our humanity. The before-and-after of life is a great darkness, and we build bonfires to keep it out, and warm ourselves and comfort ourselves. The bonfire is the bonfire of mythical thinking, of culture, stories, songs, music, poetry, religion, art. We don’t need it for our physical selves: homo heidelbergensis got on perfectly well without it: we need it for humanity’s supreme invention, the soul.

Karen Armstrong claims that religion is an art, and I agree with her. In her book ‘A Short History of Myth’ she examines the modern expectation that all truths shall be factually based. This is what religious fundamentalists and scientists like Richard Dawkins have, oddly, in common. A religious fundamentalist refuses to accept the theory of evolution because it appears to him or her to disprove the truth of Genesis, when what Genesis actually offers is not a factual but an emotional truth: a way of accounting for the existence of the world and the place of people in it with all their griefs and joys and sorrows. It’s – in other words – a story, a fantasy, a myth. It’s not trying to explain the world, like a scientist. It’s trying to reconcile us with the world. Early people were not naïve. The truth that you get from a story is different from the truth of a proven scientific fact.

Any work of art is a symbolic act. Any work of fiction is per se, a fantasy. In the broadest sense, you can see this must be so. They are all make-belief. Tolstoy’s Prince André and Tolkien’s Aragorn are equal in their non-existence. Realism in fiction is an illusion – just as representational art is a sleight of hand (and of the mind) that tricks us into believing lines and splashes of colour are ‘really’ horses or people or landscapes.

The question shouldn’t be ‘Is it true?’, because no story provides truth in the narrow factual sense. The questions to ask about any work of art should be like these: ‘Does it move me? Does it express something I always felt but didn’t know how to say? Has it given me something I never even knew I needed?’ As Karen Armstrong says, “Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever.” If that happens, you will know it. It makes no sense at all to ask, ‘Is it true?’

Fantasy still deserves to be taken seriously - read and written seriously - because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols. Here’s the last verse of Bob Dylan’s song ‘The Gates of Eden’ (from ‘Bringing it All Back Home’):

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true:
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.

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Leslie Wilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie Wilson said...

was out with daughter Jo and grandson Max yesterday and we were commenting on how well Max understood 'symbolic' representations. 'When he looks at a highly stylised image of an animal, at the age of 2, and realises the squiggles mean a cat,' I said to Jo, 'it must be the beginning of reading.' The earliest writing was all ideograms, after all, then they got complicated. I thought about this when reading the first part of your posting, and still feel it was probably an accurate observation. Abstraction begins with stylisation. And for the rest of the post, I totally agree with you. Fantasy matters, symbols matter, just as dreams matter.

Elen C said...

Really interesting post, Kath. Thank you!

Gillian Philip said...

Lovely & fascinating post, Katherine. I'll be waving it in front of my (hyper-realist) husband's nose till he reads it!

adele said...

Fascinating, Kath! Any post that quotes His Bobness is by definition one I like.

Katherine Roberts said...

Can fantasy have anything meaningful to say? Of course it can! (That's why I write it, anyway.) I believe fantasy is a powerful tool for digging to the heart of universal truths from a safe distance. All genres have meaningful things to say in the right hands.

But, like any genre, there are also derivative examples that give fantasy a bad name and make many of its best writers try to distance themselves from it, as if being labelled a "fantasy writer" might be some kind of curse, or at least an unpleasant goblin-type disease that might give you pointy ears.

Maybe because of the genre's potential power and depth, younger readers can enjoy fantasy stories on a superficial level (the adventure and magic), whereas older readers will enjoy the deeper themes. Witness the successful remarketing in recent years of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"... LOTR was never a book for 8 year olds and never will be. But many 8 year olds will have enjoyed the film version. Will they go back to the book in later life and see it as an adult read? Maybe not, and I feel that is a shame. Fantasy should not be seen as "just for the kids". I didn't start reading the genre until I was in my late teens. When I was 8 I'm not sure I'd have coped with LOTR... even the Hobbit was heavy going when we read it at school. At that age, I was still reading pony stories.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

The Exhibition at the V&A Telling Tales, touched on this... designers using myth,story and symbol, based on three themes, the Enchanted Forest, the Fairy Castle and Heaven and Hell to explore our fears and fantasies. It was a slightly unbalanced exhibition but worth seeing esp for writers. Unfortunately for those who didn't see it, it ended today Sunday 18th Oct.

Nick Green said...

I struggle not to be impatient when I meet a person who says they won't read a book that's not 'realistic'. Some of these people merely avoid fantasy or SF, others avoid fiction altogether (I think of one acquaintance who will only read factual books and biographies).

It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a book is for, doesn't it? Do we only read books so that we can learn more facts? Perhaps some do. But stories have the potential to do infinitely more than that. Do I believe in hobbits? Of course not. Do I believe in their story? YES.

Katherine Langrish said...

Wish I could have seen the exhibition, Diane. Katherine, I agree: it's a shame that some writers shy away from admitting they write in the genre for fear of being tarred with the same brush as the poorer examples. I don't know why they should feel this way: all genres include poor examples. Two hundred years ago, novels themselves were thought to be dubious stuff, compared with essays, histories and poetry. But nobody nowadays pretends the book they've written isn't really a novel, in case readers automatically assume it must be trash.
Obviously fantasy is popular, but I still observe a widespread sense that it's not serious and somehow needs to be apologised for.

Kit Berry said...

I really enjoyed this article - thank you. And I wish I'd known about the exhibition as I'd have been there like a shot!

My books are sometimes labelled as fantasy and I've always resisted this tag because to me, fantasy means swords, magical creatures, strange worlds etc. My books have none of those. But as you say, it's also a vain reluctance to be lumped into the same genre as many awful titles. Maybe I shouldn't be such a snob about it!

I too believe that humans need myth to feed their souls and satisfy that part which makes us human. The fiction refusnik will still watch films, I bet! The archetypal themes to be found in the majority of stories, whether for tiny children or educated adults, are amazingly similar.

It wasn't till I'd written and published my first three novels that I discovered Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces" and also Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey". I read them after being invited to lecture on creative writing at a university. I was attempting to put an intellectual spin on what to me was an instinctive act of creation. I was completely flabberghasted to realise that all my characters, my plot and everything about the series I'd written fitted entirely into Campbell's theories of the archetypal myth. I'd had no idea! I'd thought I was being original, not following some ancient formula.

Now I understand the basic philosophical truth - we all seek the answer to the same question, albeit at a deep and hidden level. And there is only one story, but it's told and written and filmed in a million different ways.

Caroline J. said...

Hello Katherine,
I love this article and I'd like to ask your permission to translate it to my language, Portuguese, and publish it on my blog, with all credits given. Please let me know =)