Response to “The Quest For Fantasy’s Power”

by on February 20, 2013

Responses Takes
Illustration by Sally ScopaIllustration by Sally Scopa

For a generation that prides itself on self-awareness and being hip to the complexity of cultural referents, we allow blind spots for the most intimate topics. Despite the ubiquitous personal technology, who haswritten directly about Facebook or Apple Inc.? Despite the recent prominence of Fantasy in contemporary storytelling, few address it without sighing, as Christopher Hitchens did in his review of the final Harry Potter, that it’s finally over.

There are historians of Fantasy proper, who probe the source of its major tropes: dark woods, castles, rogues, duels, adventuring women, a hero borne by Fate, and mingling with the animal realm. Yet those who are serious about High Adventure are often too eager to push aside the Potters and Paranormal Teen Fiction as shallow distractions—only perfunctorily thanking them for helping bookstores make rent.

Writing about a generation is dangerous, but writing earnestly about Harry Potter, which we started in middle-school,is even more treacherous still. Nevertheless, Sanders takes that path and avoids any easy way out. What other story so dominated our Popular Culture of the 2000s? What can we learn about young America from it? It’s an important question.

But it is still a daunting task. In the text itself, superficial symbols of fantasy are sprinkled on a plot that crumbles on closer inspection. It can be read as a child, who plays in a backyard thinking the fence is to keep out hooded robbers, conjuring enemies while parents watch from the house. Or worse, Rowling’s tale is a perverted revival of the British campus novel, with all of its blood-nobility, materialism, and entitlement-envy. Yet Fantasy is all about context. Just as Sanders describes it to be the co-creation between author and reader, spells are interwoven with the land where they are cast, and as the Wizards of Eversea say, “Rules change in The Reaches.”

It might be worth recalling the openingclip to Disney movies of the 1980s and 90s that we soaked in as children: against a blue screen, a castle materialized from the top down, before a blinding flash left us with “Walt Disney.” Or the contemporary version, where we fall from the sky to see full sails on a boat catching twilight out to sea, while a train churns out a long trail of smoke. Then the flapping, gilded rest of Disney appears atop the castle, and we descend to find ourselves outside its walls. We stand before a watery entrance to this land of Fantasy, its travels and perpetual twilight, the walls made fantastic by a glow projecting up from behind the ramparts.

In 1939, two years after The Hobbit was published, E.B. White visited the New York World’s Fair and saw similar lights used to dramatize the Future: “In Tomorrow, people and objects are lit not from above, but from below. Trees are lit from below. Even the cow on the rotolactor appears to be lit from below—the buried floodlamp illuminates the distended udder.” When you tease apart the thin layers of these commercially successful trends in Fantasy, the story becomes as sickening as the lights were for White, when he recalled the “eerie shadows clinging to the wrong side of their branches.”

The arc that swings over the Disney castle at the end of the clip is only a play of light, a shower of sparks. The pixie dust marks the Kingdom, reminding viewers how Rules can change in foreign lands. The rich, enchanting imagery of Fantasy may often be shared among stories, but it frees the imagination in ways that matter. Still, what if there’s nothing more to Rowling’s version of Magic than glitter over a tale about reverence for Adults?

If we were fooled then and are ready now to deconstruct the illusions—separating insight from allure, trusting some wizards and not others—what do we tell the children? Sanders has given us a few places to start.