The test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.
The quotation, from G.K. Chesterton, is from an interesting article by Bernard Manzo in the Times Literary Supplement of June 10, 2011 (he didn’t give the source in Chesterton’s writings). It got me to thinking about how imaginative literature, from folktale to fantasy, operates, and to wondering about its relationship to science, though I’ll only get to that at the very end of this piece.
The fantastic tale may suspend the laws of physics — carpets fly; cats fade into invisibility leaving only a smile — and of probability — the youngest of three brothers always wins the bride; the infant in the box cast upon the waters survives unharmed — but it carries its revolt against reality no further. Mathematical order is unquestioned. Two and one make three, in Koshchei’s castle and Alice’s Wonderland (especially in Wonderland). Euclid’s geometry — or possibly Riemann’s —somebody’s geometry, anyhow — governs the layout. Otherwise incoherence would invade and paralyse the narrative.
There lies the main difference between childish imaginings and imaginative literature. The child “telling a story” roams about among the imaginary and the half-understood without knowing the difference, content with the sound of language and the pure play of fantasy with no particular end, and that’s the charm of it. But fantasies, whether folktales or sophisticated literature, are stories in the adult, demanding sense. They can ignore certain laws of physics, but not of causality. They start here and go there (or back here), and though the mode of travel may be unusual, and here and there may be wildly exotic and unfamiliar places, yet they must have both a location on the map of that world and a relationship to the map of our world. If not, the hearer or reader of the tale will be set adrift in a sea of inconsequential inconsistencies, or worse yet, left drowning in the shallow puddle of the author’s wishful thinking.
It doesn’t have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says. It doesn’t say, “Anything goes” — that’s irresponsibility, when two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whuddevva, and the story doesn’t “add up,” as we say. Fantasy doesn’t say, “Nothing is” — that’s nihilism. And it doesn’t say, “It ought to be this way” — that’s utopianism, a different enterprise. Fantasy isn’t meliorative. The happy ending, however enjoyable to the reader, applies to the characters only; this is fiction, not prediction and not prescription.
It doesn’t have to be the way it is is a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to “being real.” Yet it is a subversive statement.
Subversion doesn’t suit people who, feeling their adjustment to life has been successful, want things to go on just as they are, or people who need support from authority assuring them that things are as they have to be. Fantasy not only asks “What if things didn’t go on just as they do?” but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwise — thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are.
So here imagination and fundamentalism come into conflict.
A fully created imaginary world is a mental construct similar in many respects to a religious or other cosmology. This similarity, if noticed, can be deeply disturbing to the orthodox mind.
When a fundamental belief is threatened the response is likely to be angry or dismissive — either “Abomination!” or “Nonsense!” Fantasy gets the abomination treatment from religious fundamentalists, whose rigid reality-constructs shudder at contact with question, and the nonsense treatment from pragmatic fundamentalists, who want to restrict reality to the immediately perceptible and the immediately profitable. All fundamentalisms set strict limits to the uses of imagination, outside which the fundamentalist’s imagination itself runs riot, fancying dreadful deserts where God and Reason and the capitalist way of life are lost, forests of the night where tigers hang from trees by the tail, lighting the way to madness with their bright burning.
Those who dismiss fantasy less fiercely, from a less absolutist stance, usually call it dreaming, or escapism.
Dream and fantastic literature are related only on a very deep, usually inaccessible level of the mind. Dream is free of intellectual control; its narratives are irrational and unstable, and its aesthetic value is mostly accidental. Fantastic literature, like all the verbal arts, must satisfy the intellectual as well as the aesthetic faculty. Fantasy, odd as it sounds to say so, is a perfectly rational undertaking.
As for the charge of escapism, what does “escape” mean? Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies. But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail. The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is “escapism” an accusation of?
“Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?” To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken.
I know that to philosophers what I’m saying is childishly naïve, but my mind cannot or will not follow philosophical argument, so I must remain naïve. To an ordinary mind not trained in philosophy, the question — do things have to be the way they are/the way they are here and now/the way I’ve been told they are? — may be an important one. To open a door that has been kept closed is an important act.
Upholders and defenders of a status quo, political, social, economic, religious, or literary, may denigrate or diabolize or dismiss imaginative literature, because it is — more than any other kind of writing — subversive by nature. It has proved, over many centuries, a useful instrument of resistance to oppression.
Yet, as Chesterton pointed out, fantasy stops short of nihilist violence, of destroying all the laws and burning all the boats. (Like Tolkien, Chesterton was an imaginative writer and a practicing Catholic, and thus perhaps particularly aware of tensions and boundaries.) — Two and one make three. Two of the brothers fail the quest, the third carries it through. Action is met with reaction. Fate, Luck, Necessity are as inexorable in Middle Earth as in Colonus or South Dakota. The fantasy tale begins here and ends there (or back here), where the subtle and ineluctable obligations and responsibilities of narrative art have taken it. Down on the bedrock, things are as they have to be. It’s only everywhere above the bedrock that nothing has to be the way it is.
There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty. This is why it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy. Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming acceptance of unanswered questions. Of course the scientist seeks to ask how things are the way they are, not to imagine how they might be otherwise. But are the two operations opposed, or related? We can’t question reality directly, only by questioning our conventions, our belief, our orthodoxy, our construction of reality. All Galileo said, all Darwin said, was, “It doesn’t have to be the way we thought it was.”
27 June 2011
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Café.