One of the best things about fantasy books is their ability to take the reader into another world. This is a great strength. At the same time, from some people’s perspective, their greatest weakness.
A large number of readers only like “real” books – things to do with the world as we know it and historical events: memoirs, histories, self-help books and the like. I read a post on a writing forum recently where someone showed this attitude. He said that he was happy to charge high prices for his books because they were non-fiction and useful. The fiction writers, he suggested, were welcome to discount their novels as they were only made up things of no value.
I certainly enjoy non-fiction books, but are they any more real than, say, the high fantasy of A Wizard of Earthsea?
Let’s take a closer look.
I’ve read the memoirs of many famous historical figures and sports people. Most of them were entertaining, some were enlightening, a few downright inspiring. These people had interesting stories to tell about their lives.
But telling a story is exactly what they did. It just happened to be their story. They presented a recollection of events, as seen through their eyes, and as such their reminiscences were filled not only with personal insights, but also their prejudices and misunderstandings. Who among us is free of those?
In short, a memoir is a record of how things happened, from a particular person’s point of view. Other people may have experienced those identical events, or reviewed the same set of facts, yet arrived at vastly different opinions.
For instance, I might argue that Tolkien is the greatest writer to have ever lived, but William Shakespeare need not agree (nor, for that matter, my English teacher). Likewise, some doctors say a daily glass of wine is good for you. Others argue that it’s poison. The truth is that the more you try to pin facts down, the more slippery they become.
So, what perspective do we gain on things looking out of the fictional eyes of Sparrowhawk while he sails the uncharted waters of Earthsea? Certainly, we learn a lot about pride, humility and the responsibility of power. Ultimately, these perspectives all derive from the author, because it’s the writer who breathes life into the character. But are the perspectives and insights any less real for that?
And what about Sam and Frodo as they trudge across Middle-earth. Their struggles show us a lot about sacrifice, courage and loyalty. You can read a dictionary (one of those useful non-fiction books) to find the meaning of these words, but in The Lord of the Rings you feel them in your very bones.
Which is truer? Which more real? The desperate grit of Sam as he carries his master up the broken slopes of Mount Doom, empty of all hope but filled with determination anyway. Or the dictionary definition of the word: courage, toughness, resolution.
But as I say, it’s all a matter of perspective.