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The human gift

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Fantasy is the art of being ‘elsewhere’, and as such it had spread itself through all the arts; including fiction, drama, poetry, music (where as fantasia it steps outside the formal rules of composition), surrealistic art (where it challenges our understanding of the world) and dance, to name a few. Fantasy takes many guises, from the comic, the grotesque, the gruesome, the charming, the threatening and the satirical; anywhere, in fact, that takes us beyond our usual modes of being. I asked Chatbot to explain fantasy, and here is what I got: 

Fantasy is a genre of literature, art, and entertainment that involves imaginative or supernatural elements. It typically encompasses stories, settings, and characters that go beyond the bounds of reality and often incorporate magic, mythical creatures, or extraordinary abilities. In fantasy, authors and creators have the freedom to invent and explore fantastical worlds, mythical beings, and epic adventures.

Fantasy works can take many forms, including novels, short stories, films, television shows, video games, and role-playing games. They often involve themes of heroism, quests, coming-of-age, battles between good and evil, and the exploration of human desires, fears, and dreams.The genre of fantasy can be traced back to ancient myths, legends, and folklore that have been passed down through generations. In more recent times, notable authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, and George R.R. Martin have contributed significantly to the development and popularity of fantasy literature.

Much more can be said of course. It is by stepping outside the immediate and looking at other possibilities that we invented the wheel; in fact, all of science and technology. No other animal can do such a thing, but for humans it is both a blessing and a threat. The blessing is obvious, the threat more indirect. But by disconnecting from the world, and living ‘in our heads’ we lose much of the richness of that which should most command our attention. The ‘actual’ world is an amazing place if we are prepared to attend to it.

But what are the mechanics of fantasy, and how does it produce such an extraordinary effect on so many of us, myself included? I suspect it triggers a desire, hardwired in us, to explore the unfamiliar; that same desire, perhaps, that sends us off to other countries, other places, in the real world.

In fantasy there are always two realms, the familiar and the magical. The familiar we take with us, as readers or viewers, although it may also be present as a sort of stepping off place in the stories. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings there is a third realm, in the sense that the quaint English atmosphere of the Shire is the ‘familiar’ within the tale, although it is already part of the fantasy. The hobbits in general have no wish to go beyond its borders. It is this extra realm that reinforces the magic of the world beyond the Shire; that, and the echoes of Nordic mythology.

One particular form of fantasy that I enjoy involves a collision between the realms. It goes as far back as H.G. Wells, and is beautifully exemplified in Neil Gaiman’s story ‘Chivalry’. It begins: ‘Mrs Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat [actually, in an Oxfam shop]…’ The deadpan matter-of-factness about the story (including Mrs Whitaker’s refusal to be in awe of anything, even Holy Grails and questing knights) along with her commonplace life, gives the story an exquisite, comic charm. 

I conclude with a very short poem of my own: Second Coming. Here I rely on the reader’s expectations regarding such an event to contrast sharply with what I actually present.

Second Coming.

I sometimes imagine that God will come

like a young shepherd girl,

wide-eyed and joyous,

while the new earth sings

without fanfare

or drums,

but with water from fountains falling,

and crickets calling

over the dancing grass.

In other words, a time of rejuvenation for the world, and of starting all over again.

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