When you think of fantasy in literature, the first image to come to mind probably involves magic, dragons, elves and epic battles. This is the genre’s most common and popular form today, but it’s far from the only one. The number of fantasy categories in existence – modern, dark, paranormal, alternative history – shows how influential this artistic direction is. Science fiction focuses on technological and scientific elements, but which are often no less imaginative. Magic realism is the best example of what fantasy as a highly creative device can and is meant to do in literature. Let’s explore further the art of fantasy.
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The Point of Art
The human urge to put memories, thoughts and ideas on rock or paper, drawn or sculpted, is fascinating to say the least. When an artist looks at their creation, what might they feel? Anything from relief, awe and curiosity to fear and disgust. But perspective is another vital thing everyone receives when absorbing a work of art.
Its artist may discover something about themselves. Its special view of the world may enlighten each of its viewers. Or surprise them with their own reaction to what they see. Their interpretation of it alone alters the original perspective of the piece. The concept of perspective takes many shapes and sizes, but, going even deeper into art’s effects, it essentially shocks people out of how they understand reality.
Think of what you know about dogs. Happy, bouncy, laid back and mostly simple creatures. Then look at C. M. Coolidge’s painting, Dogs Playing Poker. How does that affect your long established understanding of them? You might wonder if dogs are more intelligent that you thought. How they’d handle cards without thumbs. Or what dogs could and have represented throughout history. Whatever your thoughts, the defamiliarising effect of art makes you see dogs in a different light. Viktor Shklovsky in Art, as Device explains:
‘The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the device of art is the “estrangement” of things and the complication of the form, which increases the duration and complexity of perception…’
Art tries to make you feel what you see – or read – and perceive a previously familiar subject anew. You can apply this fresh way of looking at things to everything around you.
The Power of Fantasy
Returning to fantasy literature, this art form creates worlds or embellishes ours, filling them with fun, mind-bending features. They pose speculative scenarios of varied imagination in order to question reality.
The reader’s role in this literary exchange is to either simply observe the story, happy and impassive, or absorb it, allow the text’s messages, symbolisms, devices and mentalities to open his or her eyes to the possibilities and disturbing facts of reality.
Such stories can deliver important issues about people, society, history and so on, but through an imaginative, stimulating prism. Industrialism and the horrors of World War I inspired The Lord of the Rings. Christian hackles rose at Philip Pullman’s interpretation of Adam and Eve – religion in general – in The Amber Spyglass. And did Harry Potter not discuss issues of bullying, depression, slavery and loss?
The pangs of reality stand out more in a fantastical context. People’s recognition of these real things strike and stick with them, even teach a lesson to each unique reader.
The Magic in Reality
Magic realism takes this meaningful role of fantasy art more seriously than other imaginative genres. Its fantastical yet grounded strangeness, rooted in familiar reality, estranges and enlightens readers the most. The stories of Jorge Luis Borges, for example, the grandfather of magic realism, are steeped in uncanny features, while often discussing deep concepts – metaphysics, free will, identity, foreignness, fate. The settings and events chosen by magic realists will also typically be actual places and happenings but presented through bizarre scenarios.
The bottom line? Fantasy has value within literature and beyond. Our reality and identities would never be questioned or changed without it. Fortunately, imagination is part of the human package. How and to what extent it’s used, however, determines individual insight and, in turn, the potential for a better world.
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