Fantasy, according to Crawford Kilian, takes place in a morally meaningful universe, and that is why readers like it so much. “In fantasy, meaning is not something we slap on from the outside, it’s built right into everything from the rocks and trees to the political system.”
I do love fantasy, possibly because I believe everything on this earth is morally meaningful in a rather messed up way. Everything in this world points to something. So I was very intrigued by this explanation of what defines fantasy. It might explain why I enjoy fantasy, and am rather ambivalent about sci-fi. But even for people who don’t think the way I do–most people would like to imagine a world where everything that happens is meaningful.
Then I wondered–does this actually apply to all fantasy?
For old school fantasy giants such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, it obviously applies. Prophecies predict events that happen. Good is recognized as good (and is considered attractive and beautiful by other good people), though some are deceived by its humble nature and rough surroundings. Evil, while attempting to appear beautiful, is revealed as ugly and not worth following.
But even in quite different books, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, this theory of meaningfulness applies. Especially so, since so many of her character names, place names and spell names gives clues to what the thing is actually like. The hero has a plain, ordinary name–Harry Potter. The Death Eaters‘ names all sound ominous–Lucius Malfoy, Draco, Bellatrix Lestrange, Mulciber, Yaxley… The appearance of the Thestrals in the fifth book are a clear indication things are getting darker. And so on.
I am still not sure all fantasy follows this rule though. Some books seem to plunk characters down in a world solely because the author likes that kind of world, and the towns/forests/roads the characters are travelling don’t seem to mean much. I’m not sure if Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is set in a meaningful universe–it’s so incredibly huge I have no idea what it’s trying to say–if you have any ideas on that, add it in the comments below.
That’s one drawback to Crawford Kilian’s book (Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy – I really enjoyed it, by the way). He makes good points, but insists everything in a story should be there for a reason, even if symbolic. As a reader, I do hate pointless scenes. But if they entertain me (and I’m speaking as a reader here, not a writer), fine–I personally don’t care what every object “means,” or represents. That’s why I hated highschool English (Did Shakespeare really mean that?). It is important to put thought in your stories, and not be random. But even Tolkien put in long passages of description that meant nothing to the plot as a whole. (Actually, this was a bad habit of Tolkien’s, but some of it is enjoyable).
How about you–what would you say a good description of fantasy is?