AUGUST 25, 2019
AS GAME OF THRONES finally set its audience free earlier this year, largely to their chagrin, I was reminded of another fantasy franchise with a rather hasty conclusion. The How to Train Your Dragon films center on the friendship between the dragon Toothless and his “human soulmate” Hiccup, who starts off as the runt of his Viking village but whose adventures turn him into a hero. The first movie revolves around the animosity between the Vikings of the fictional island of Berk and the horde of dragons that terrorize them. Hiccup and Toothless’s against-all-odds friendship changes that, however, and by the final film the question becomes how to protect the dragons, not how to exterminate them, and ultimately this means saying goodbye. The second movie introduces a human antagonist who employs trappers and mercenaries to subdue dragons; in the third, it’s a group of conquering warlords who threaten the peaceful coexistence of dragons and humans on Berk. The message is clear: for the Berkians to save their dragons, they need to place them far beyond the avaricious reach of other humans. “Our world doesn’t deserve you yet,” Hiccup says, tenderly caressing Toothless’s huge face in the final moments of the final film. Luckily, the film’s titular “Hidden World” offers a secret sanctuary for dragon-kind beyond the sea. I was gratified to see that I was not the only adult weeping as the credits rolled. And yet, despite the emotional satisfaction of the ending, I couldn’t help feeling some adult anxieties about its implications. In our own world, we’ve allowed keystone predators to be hunted for sport or have pushed them into smaller and smaller zones of habitation until they blip off the map from lack of resources. The optimistic note on which the film ends — the “yet” which allows Hiccup to say goodbye to his beloved friend — lands heavily on contemporary shoulders.
How to Train Your Dragon is hardly alone in leaving the magical across a body of water. Neverland, you may remember, is an island. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, the High Elves head west over the ocean, so that Middle-earth may become the Kingdom of Men. Earlier still, King Arthur’s felled body is placed on a barge, and three fairy queens escort him to the mystical island of Avalon so that he may slumber peacefully until Britain has need of him again. Even going back as far as the Greeks, the underworld is separated from the world of the living by the River Styx, which the dead pass over to their final rest or mortal adventurers cross at their own peril. Every fantastical story relies on a vanishing act: either the protagonist enters a magical world that they have to leave, or the magical element, so precious in our mundane world, has to abandon a mortal protagonist, or at least a mortal reader. “If elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them,” J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, “then this also is certainly true: […] Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.”
Since this sunder is fundamental to fantasy, the genre is naturally vulnerable to charges of escapism. As a young reader of fantasy, I grew defensive when I heard that word used by those who didn’t like the genre, and fantasy readers who embraced the label seemed to me to be living in a state of arrested development. Most importantly, it simply didn’t ring true for my experience of good fantasy. Escapism implies the desire to leave behind quotidian concerns in favor of engrossing illusions — a desire so great that escapists are more than willing to ignore flaws that would rupture the illusion; but, in fact, the reader of fantasy is keenly, even devastatingly aware of such rupturing moments. A voluntary leave of absence is required of escapism, and yet, as soon as a suspension of disbelief becomes necessary — say, for instance, when one notices glue from a prosthetic elf ear flaking into someone’s wig at a convention hall, or the discovery of a hidden sanctuary for a threatened species feels rather too convenient, or an infamous Starbucks coffee cup is spotted next to the wine glass of an alabaster-haired dragon queen — the spell of good fantasy is broken, and the whole thing seems ridiculous, even depressing. Flight from reality isn’t enough, or else one wouldn’t feel so let down when it becomes obvious how far from the real world you’ve cast yourself. Never mind the painstaking lengths taken with every other detail. The interpersonal experience of these emotions is often embarrassment, which speaks to fantasy’s special ability to enrapture. No other genre can claim the heart and loyalty of its readers like fantasy, and this is why, when it fails, it feels like you’ve fallen on your face. We might say that fantasy’s true power is this intimacy.
In “On Fairy-Stories,” an essay published in 1947, Tolkien wrote compellingly that the purpose of fantasy is to return the reader to the world, not to help them escape it: “We should meet the centaur and the dragon,” he writes, “and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses — and wolves […] freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.” The capacity for transport, in other words, affords the possibility of transformation. And is it any surprise that Tolkien, who lived through two World Wars, would alight on fantasy’s ability to cultivate a sense of wonder at living things? There is a special delight to fantasy stories that inspires total devotion, and this pleasure is not accidental. The text is supposed to enchant. It has to be utterly immersive to return the reader to the world so transformed, and this is the source of its special intimacy: its enduring hold on our most private selves. A great fantasy story will leave its mark, much as it does to the adventurers it depicts; a proverbial streak of starlight in one’s hair, or a scar on the forehead, so that you are not able to forget, once the story is over, the essential mystery of being a living thing on an earth that is alive with other things, too, the sum of which, in all their vibrancy, is usually totally beyond comprehension.
Tolkien’s impact on the genre is impossible to overstate, and much of what was codified as characteristic of fantasy reflects the morality of somebody who had seen firsthand the death embodied by “the fearful symmetry” of the tiger replaced by the hulk of armored tanks and the slink of mustard gas. Fantasy written today still carries his imperative to believe that even the littlest person can do good, still bears traces of the lyricism with which he exalted nature’s complexity in order to deflate human ambition and greed. Perhaps his most enduring legacy, however, is his insistence that the highest function of a fairy tale is the happy ending. He called this the “eucatastrophe,” and it is defined by its total implausibility in relation to the rest of the plot. By design, the spell of the text should only be broken once, at the very end, by the miraculously good: “[W]hen the sudden ‘turn’ comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
Invariably, this ending is bittersweet. Precisely when all has been gained in a fantasy story, the reader is suddenly returned to their own world. Grief is built into the structure of these stories; the sunder that inevitably tears the protagonist from the magical is experienced by the reader too, ideally as a kind of catharsis. Like the Pevensies, who grow old and wise as kings and queens of Narnia before walking through the wardrobe and resuming their lives as English school children, we close the books more sensitive to the world’s majesty, as well as to our own powers. Fantasy stories teach us to say goodbye to something that will be lost forever, then return us to the world ready to be kinder, braver, more keenly aware both of what is fleeting and what will outlast the scope of human ambition. You will never be able to return, and you will probably forget the details of what has transpired, though you will be left with some ineffable sense of magic. This is, of course, also what it means to grow up.
There is a reason that so often the protagonists of these stories are children who, in the process of their adventures, become adults who cannot again cross the threshold into magical worlds. Though Tolkien essentially created contemporary fantasy, the “return” he popularized is part of a very old storytelling structure, one that has existed for millennia. Independent of one another, anthropologists Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp both discerned an ur-narrative in European folktales, which they called, respectively, “the hero’s journey” and the “wondertale.” Though Campbell’s and Propp’s theories differ in significant ways, they both suggest that people told these fables in order to instill and encourage certain values that would strengthen the social fabric, with courage, kindness, and practicality among them. With slight regional and artistic variation in the coloring of the story, the adventure is always a passage beyond the veil of the known; the powers beyond the boundary are dangerous, yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger is surmountable. The “call of adventure” is to “a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight,” writes Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In Historical Roots of the Wondertale, Propp even suggests that the arc of the folk story was based on rites of passage that real children would experience: a ritual kidnapping, for instance, where they would have to rise to the occasion and prove that they were ready for the responsibilities of the adult world. Thus, there is always the understanding that the “other world” where the adventure takes place must be left behind; the goal is to return home, wherever home may be.
So the children return home and the dragons go across the waters. In the 1950s, when Tolkien and his contemporaries were crafting what was to become the fantasy genre, there was good reason to emphasize the catharsis of the wondertale. Two World Wars had devastated Europe, and a story that allowed readers to return home was embraced fervently both by children and a counterculture that rejected the values that had brought civilization to the brink of total destruction. In our own time, however, the graceful vanishing act so integral to fantasy literature takes on a fundamentally different moral inflection. The global refugee crisis has left people seeking sanctuary to die in the liminal spaces of the desert or the sea, and those who offer aid are imprisoned. This situation will only become more dire as the climate crisis escalates, the effects of which we can already begin to see. In the animal kingdom, the meek are more likely to inherit the Earth than our doomed megafauna, and ahead of them are the mean, the sly, those ingenious enough to live off very little. The destruction, or at least disruption, of the natural world prioritizes animals that blend in, not stand out: fish that can slip out of nets, or opportunists like coyotes, racoons, rats, and crows that can live off human refuse. To have the emotional linchpin of a fantasy story be the moment when the protagonist must turn their back on a vanishing world seems naïve at best, considering the devastation wrought by the capitalist global order. But fantasy has always adapted to serve the moral requirements of its readership, and it can change again.
Indeed, fairy stories have always been radical. The particularities of any one fairy story may differ, but the point is this: another world exists, largely invisible or obscured but right alongside our own. It is not governed by our hegemony but has its own traditions and rules. It is often older than ours, and though its existence may be denied by figures of authority, the elders — the grandmothers, the spinsters — whisper their tales of a different kind of world to the children before they sleep. If you are keen enough to sense where the boundary between worlds is stretched to only a translucent scrim, and brave enough to break through it, you will find something that takes your breath away. And though nowadays compendiums are plentiful, fairy tales have an oral tradition of much longer standing; the democratic nature of this tradition, in combination with its content, is what led Propp to credit it with a “revolutionary dynamic.” Often, in fairy tales, the good triumph over tyrants thanks to ordinary powers of cunning, kindness, or perseverance. In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit makes the point that in fairy tales power is rarely the right tool for survival: “Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness — from beehives that were not raided, birds that were not killed but set free or fed, old women who were saluted with respect. Kindness sown among the meek is harvested in crisis.” Perhaps this aversion to absolute power was another reason that Tolkien was drawn to the fairy story. When asked if the “one ring to rule them all” was an allegory of nuclear weapons, Tolkien replied, “Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for Domination).” These stories are some of the oldest in our collective memory, and yet they continue to be told. If they did not need to be, we would stop.
It is worth remembering that the wondertale was originally shared with the intent to create mature, empowered actors in society. On the cusp of adulthood, our heroes strike out on an adventure that will bar them from ever returning both to the enchanted realm and to childhood itself. Though many of us have childhoods that are less than picturesque, the further we grow from them, the more fantastical they seem. Aging gilds our memory, a soft light creeps inexorably at the edges, and we forget everything beyond a couple visceral experiences. One thing most of us can remember quite vividly, however, is a real sense of danger. Children see ghouls under the bed, and witches walking past them on the sidewalk. They are extremely brave — they believe that monsters are real, and that they must deal with them on their own, because the adults they trust cannot detect these creatures. Most of us could probably benefit from that degree of daily bravery. Perhaps all it takes is to believe in the possibility of other worlds, even if we must build them ourselves.