“Artists use lies to tell the truth.” These words were spoken by Evey Hammond to the masked terrorist/freedom fighter V in V for Vendetta, echoing Pablo Picasso’s words, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth […]” Despite the dystopian and relatively fantastical setting of the film, those words spoke truer to me than any lecture I ever sat through in school. That one simple tenet is found throughout the history of fiction, but is especially prominent in the realm of fantasy.
Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.
– Dr. Seuss
Despite the growing popularity of the genre in the eye of the general public, fantasy is still looked upon by some as unimportant, childish, and, in worst cases, worthless.
HBO might be inclined to disagree, however.
Ever since the first story was told to explain why the stars moved in the sky and how the mountains came to be, fiction has been a way for humanity to try to make sense of itself. Its past, its future, and its present. That exploration of imagination simultaneously draws on our own experiences and beliefs while holding a mirror up to current society. In that mirror, we see ourselves and our cultures as what they are and what they could become, for better or worse.
In Lord of the Rings, it’s not the brooding Ranger who doesn’t want the throne that is his birthright who is the hero (well, he is, but he’s not THE hero). It’s the tiny hobbit from under the hill and his friends who save the world from the resurgent evil. Tolkien’s stories are indeed a fantastical retelling of the history of our planet, but also a story of how bravery and courage can be found in the most unlikely of places and people, how it can be found in everyone, not just a select few. It would have been far too easy to tell the story with Aragorn in Frodo’s place and make it a typical sword-and-sorcery fare. Aragorn would have been the poster boy for the heroic figure who defeated ultimate darkness. But Tolkien gave that honor to Frodo, a hobbit who simply wanted to help his friends then return to the comfort of home.
The pervading theme of love and friendship throughout Harry Potter is what Rowling’s saga is all about. Harry, while still being a typical teenager in many regards, was the embodiment of the strength and power of love. It was love that saved him from Voldemort as an infant when other powerful wizards and witches fell before him. Voldemort, on the other hand, was the personification of the inability to love. Conceived by way of a love potion, Voldemort was incapable of feeling love for anyone or anything. In the end, it was love that triumphed over that evil, because where Voldemort thought himself above everyone, Harry had his friends at his side through thick and thin.
Although many would classify it more as sci-fi than fantasy, Star Wars easily fits into both categories depending on how it’s viewed. Like with other fantasy films, Star Wars taught us that even good people can fall. Some people don’t react well to some things, especially when a loved one is involved. Anakin Skywalker fell to the Dark Side out of his crippling fear of loss and being left alone (among other things). However, Return of the Jedi showed us that just because someone has given in to their worst fears, hope is not always lost. It was love for his son, Luke, that brought Anakin back from his life as Darth Vader. Although he gave his life for Luke, he was at peace knowing that he had done the right thing, the first right thing in many, many years. At its core, Star Wars is very much a tale of love, loss, redemption, and hope.
Even lesser-known films among the masses such as Dragonheart continue to resonate with audiences. The last of his kind on Earth, Draco the dragon chose to remain in isolation in an effort to live in peace. However, many an ignorant knight tried to kill him simply for being what he was. Bowen was just such a knight, until he began to talk with Draco. Friendship replaced ignorance. Long-held prejudices were swept aside in favor of truth and the greater good.
And of course, many fantasy films are pure escapism from the constant hassle and stress of our lives. Sometimes we just need to be entertained without having to be learn a lesson. Dungeons and Dragons, Conan the Barbarian, Krull, and Kull the Conqueror just to name a few.
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
– J.R.R. Tolkien
So why does fantasy do such a good job with teaching us about ourselves where more frank attempts fall on deaf ears? Because those morality lessons and social commentary are dressed up in chainmail and leather and interspersed with epic battles between the forces of good and evil. When we’re being told flat-out what’s right and what’s wrong, we become defensive and standoffish; generally, we don’t like being preached to. But with fantasy, we can relate as much or as little as we choose to the characters and both the overarching and interpersonal conflicts.
Fantasy matters because it presents things about ourselves that we’re hesitant to acknowledge. It cloaks difficult subject matter in a layer of wonder and awe that makes it easier to digest. It grabs our attention with pretty costumes and intense fight scenes and holds it with the connections we develop to the characters. It’s through fantasy that we begin to better understand who we are as individuals and as a society. For that reason, fantasy will always be an important artform that deserves the same recognition as other genres (do you hear me, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?).