What Is Fantasy?

The anime which has been most on my mind lately is The Ancient Magus’ Bride. Which I find to be a tad unfortunate, as it has already gotten a rather thorough work-out on this site. So I want to step back a little bit and consider fantasy and fairy tales more generally – for part of the show’s appeal is how it scratches an itch for these things within the medium.

What are fairy tales? In his famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien critiques the notion that fairy tales are primarily about supernatural beings, instead claiming that they are more about place, or a kind of state:

The definition of a fairy-story…does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faerie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows through that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible….Fairie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic – but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.

Tolkien later clarifies a bit what he means on this last point:

The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things.

In some respects, The Ancient Magus’ Bride matches this in its evocation of a world that exists somewhat slantwise to our own, separate but also somehow also intimately linked. Chise’s own personal journey at times almost feels a bit like a tour of fairyland, with various wonderful locales and persons popping in and out of the narrative.

But it also shows an interest in the “vulgar devices” of the magician, giving no small amount of time to explaining how maguses and sorcerers (and the two here are quite distinct) go about their business. In this regard, it comes closer to modern, Dungeons and Dragons-inflected fantasy; which is, at least in its non-morbid expressions, less a fascination with the occult than it is a kind of naturalistic thought experiment: imagining a world where the laws of nature function differently than our own.

Of course, it’s much more difficult to make this sort of fantasy enchanting, because the magic, and the world containing it, become rather schematically defined. Fairy tales often have rules and a logic of their own, but they always have an uncanny quality to them, suggesting a deeper unfathomability – the mystery remains.

I think there is another dimension to the fairy tale which could be summed up as confrontation. We’re often so used to bowdlerized and Disneyfied versions of these stories that we’re a little scandalized to turn to the originals and find that they don’t play nice. They can often be grim and grotesque, trading in the horrific as much as they do the wonderful.

But what fairy tales give us here is a kind of starkness, where the beautiful and terrible aspects of life can be directly seen for what they are. For children it acts as preparation for encountering these things in the wild, as it were. And for adults it functions as a reminder, a shock to the nervous system that we need from time to time; it becomes a sort of psychological arena where our fears and desires can work themselves out.

What I’ve seen of the show so far suggests that it has something of this, choosing as its protagonist a character who has seemingly been chewed and spit out by the modern world. Chise is estranged and alone, and the normal, humdrum everyday world has become a sort of evil enchantment cast upon her. Which is a state that all of us have found ourselves in from time to time.

4 thoughts on “What Is Fantasy?

  1. I have a deep-seated, relentless attraction to fairy tales and Faerie in general, and largely what that comes down to is that it’s much more honest. With the exception of the story that actually deals with death and power and inheritance and things of import (The Lion King, which also has this curiously Christian flavor despite the Buddhism which I can only conclude was by accident and not design), most of the more sanitized versions don’t appeal to me too much. And I think that’s because there’s something about the sort of poison and danger many Fae represent that draws me close.

    “And for adults it functions as a reminder, a shock to the nervous system that we need from time to time; it becomes a sort of psychological arena where our fears and desires can work themselves out.”

    I think that another element of this point is….We get used to thinking of ourselves as unimportant. As tiny specks in an uncaring and empty universe. Even when we have religion, which claims that *everyone* cares *a whole lot* about us, we continually paint ourselves is weak and unassuming and pathetic. And sure, we are, compared to the big and scary beings that are out there. Compared to God. Beating the Devil (or really any of the angels at all) with raw strength or cunning or will would be insane and impossible, like ants fighting my hand.

    But that’s not how the Bible actually treats us. And it’s not how fairy tales treat us, either. Both fantasy and fairy tales create a sort of psychological crucible where we can make our wishes and fears and loves as big as they are in our minds, and in this sense such things ring true. Because…this is how important they actually are, too.

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  2. Well…I think that the Bible is indirectly why these stories hold such incredible power. If the Truth of the world is that there’s this vicious war being waged over the ultimate destiny of human beings, and that the Devil is essentially playing the world’s most utterly convoluted and complicated Xanatos Gambit version of the Joker’s boat gambit from the Dark Knight…

    ….well that’s *huge.* (I mean, YMMV on comparisons between Batman and God, but like, he’s the *bleep* Batman. XD And the Joker actually being a stand-in for the Devil is incredibly obvious, to the point where we have to subconsciously assume as much, or the entire plot doesn’t work half as well. I have a master’s thesis somewhere in me on how easy it is to infer Satan’s personality in general terms if you essentially associate together all of the characters who appear to have diabolical traits, and why that means that he seems to have a weird harlequin obsession. :P)

    And for the most part, most stories don’t describe us with the kind of importance we’d have to have for such a thing to be going on around us. Fairy tales actually do, and kind of go a bit of the way towards explaining how both sides of the conflict operate and work. They “explain the unexplainable,” or at least express various points of view on it, and the only thing that comes equally close is in fact the Bible.

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