Books about orcs, goblins, dragons, wizards, and bullshit

Earlier today on his Facebook page Patrick Rothfuss posted a link to the video below and said this about it: “When I was in Milwaukee, doing my reading and signing, someone told me that their creative writing teacher required them to go to a reading as part of their class, but that my reading didn’t count, because I wrote fantasy. I had her record a video where I voice my opinion on the matter.”

The thing is, I think he’s 100% correct and I think he brings up some great points; Midsummer Night’s Dream as fantasy? The Odyssey? I honestly hadn’t thought of them in those terms, but they are, indeed, very much fantasy. However, I think one could actually take his argument quite a bit further. If you look at its most basic elements, fantasy fiction can be traced all the way back to oral tradition, back before the Brothers Grimm set “fairy tales” down on paper, when the woods were a dark and unknown place and full of hungry wolves and cannibalistic witches; where the concept of “science” was not yet a thing and so we had to figure out a way to explain why the seasons changed or how the tiger got its stripes or why the bear has no tail; where “here there be dragons” was written at the edges of the known map; and the oceans were full of sea serpents and mermaids. I would argue that fantasy stems from the very roots of culture, that it’s the oldest form of fiction, that it contains our most basic fears, dreams, and desires.

Much of fantasy fiction feels like it could be told around a fire, like the stories of old were, long before the printing press had been invented. And like that ancient oral tradition, the best fantasy has a lyrical quality to it (Patrick Rothfuss’s books, “A Wind in the Door,” and “A Wise Man’s Fear” are both excellent examples of this–his words ring in your ear and his stories stay with you long after you’ve read them). Fantasy resounds with themes of love, loss, danger, betrayal, action, introspection, coming-of-age, and self-discovery, just as those old oral stories did. It can be used as a platform to get a point across or teach a lesson, to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. Just as oral tradition did.

What we now call fairy tales, the well that has been tapped for so long by Disney and other modern animators, movie makers, and storytellers, derives from a very dark and dangerous time in human history, when the world was a very scary place. We have these tales now because the Brothers Grimm took it upon themselves to record them; otherwise, they would have most likely been lost to time. Red Riding Hood is a warning: Don’t go into the woods because there are dangerous things in there. Including wolves that will eat you. Hansel and Gretel tells much the same tale, only it substitutes a cannibalistic witch for the wolf, which sends a slightly different message: Don’t go into the woods because there are dangerous things in there that we don’t really understand, but could definitely kill you and eat you. Other stories from the oral tradition such as Bluebeard, about a serial killer whose most recent wife discovers the room where he keeps the remains of his many past wives, and the Juniper Tree, about a woman who beheads her stepson and feeds him to his father in the form of blood pudding (I’d love to see Disney animate that!), both speak to the dangers of the society of the time, which could be lawless and cruel (so not too much has changed). In the Grimms’ versions of just a couple of stories that Disney has, uh, Disney-fied, Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off a big toe and a heel respectively in order to fit into the glass slipper and Snow White’s stepmother was forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes. It was a cruel, cruel world in the days of the fairy tales and awful things happened to good and bad people alike. But if you pay attention, you can learn about what was and was not socially acceptable behavior at the time and how to and how not to act toward others. And maybe, just maybe, if you follow those rules and play your cards right, you, too, could meet your Prince Charming and become a princess. In other words, what we now call fairy tales were used as a method of teaching, passed down from one generation to the next. Thankfully, we now have print, which is much more effective at doing the job.

And let’s talk about those orcs, goblins, dragons, wizards, etc. for a second. First off, orcs were a creation of Tolkien, but they were derived from much older Western European legends and tales. But goblins, dragons, elves, brownies, trolls, sylphs, dryads, nymphs, mermaids, sea monsters, sirens, banshees, gods on high, etc., etc. go back to the early days of human culture and storytelling. They were ways to explain the things that go bump in the night, a way to comprehend the incomprehensible, to describe why things in nature happened the way they did. Science hadn’t been invented at the time of these early stories. Nature was only observable in the most rudimentary way; there were no microscopes or telescopes in early culture to discover the nature of the solar system to explain how the seasons work or the ability to observe nature on a microscopic level to explain that it was bacteria and viruses that make people and animals sick and not a curse by a malevolent witch. So stories were made to explain things in a way that made sense. And we borrow these stories today, as well as the characters and plots and settings because they have a cultural significance to us; they speak to us because they spoke to our ancient ancestors. In short, they’ve become archetypes.  We understand them at this point without them having to be explained to us.

So my question is, why shouldn’t a reading by a fantasy author count toward credit in a literature class? To me, any professor of literature who turns his or her nose up at fantasy and dismisses it as “genre fiction” hasn’t been paying attention.


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