I’ve always loved walking. When I was in high school, my friends and I used to walk for miles. Sometimes, this was just aimless drunken walkabouts that often ended in trouble and hooliganism. Other times, especially at night, it was simply just a way to pass the time that didn’t cost money and afforded us a chance to talk at length, as we were wont to do.
I remember one summer night, staying over at my buddy Jason’s house, we went out for a 10-mile hike to a neighboring town. Both being comic book lovers and a touch delusional, we spent that trek talking about wanting to be vigilantes. And not the Bernhard Goetz kind, because that was sort of pedestrian, but more along the lines of Batman or Rorshach. Masked, disturbed individuals willing to fight crime at great cost to ourselves.
And it wasn’t just a laugh-off—we treated the topic as serious as a heart attack, discussing the very real considerations. What kind of costumes we would wear, and how could we fix them if they got shredded in combat or stinky falling three stories into a dumpster. What kind of weapons we could construct that would somehow be emblematic and strike fear into the hearts of criminals, and still perfectly functional (which was tricky, since neither of us took shop class or were especially handy with tools). What kind of communications systems we’d need to be able to get the heads up on crimes in progress and still beat police to the scene. Ten miles, we hashed questions like these out, which, given that we were middle-class and had no wealthy relatives about to croak and leave us the dough to finance our vigilante careers, required some nimble thinking.
By the end of the walk, we’d actually just about convinced ourselves that two geeky teenagers could maybe even pull off the crime-fighting gig, but that maybe it required two who were more driven by rage or revenge to really do the thing justice. So to speak.
Fast forward two years, I was on another long walk with a good buddy, Matt. In addition to being a comic book junkie, I was also into D&D at the time, and as we walked around the outskirts of a townhouse complex surrounded by rivers, lakes, and woods, we had an incredibly lengthy discussion about what our real attributes would be—strength, dexterity, etc.—and how we would fare if we were magically transported into a fantastic realm just as we were, with the knowledge base, skills, aptitudes that we had. As we climbed a slow rise, we looked ahead, and the path ran between tall pines on either side and had grown suddenly misty, and the moon hung almost squarely between the trees, flanked by two silver-rimmed clouds, and our timing and moods were perfectly ripe, because there was something almost magical just then, and not in the suspend-your-disbelief kind, but in the there-is-something-truly-otherworldly-happening. We both stopped walking and talking and just stood there, and even though we didn’t say a word, I knew we were thinking the identical thing: that path in the woods, for one brief moment, actually seemed like a portal into another place, a stranger place full of wonders and sights and dangers completely foreign to us. For a few heartbeats, I felt like if we kept walking, we would pass on through. Maybe that’s what insanity feels like, but for me, that night, it felt like the actualization of the impossible, if only for a few seconds.
What does this have to do with the topic at hand? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Probably closer to nothing, but hey. You’re only as old as you feel, so the old-but-feeling-young adage goes. Most days, I don’t feel my age at all—I feel spry, springy, sharp, full up pep and vinegar, still enthralled with all of the possibilities, not just on the page when I write, but in life itself, in the future. Also a bit cocky, full of the ridiculous belief that the only thing that can possibly stop me is me.
Other days, well, less so. But more often than not, I still feel like an oversized kid, still engage in the fantasy-fantasizing, not simply as a means of escape or indulgence, but because it’s central to who I am and the way I approach the world. As Carol mentioned in a previous post, for a long time academics marginalized and denigrated genre fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy (and still do in a lot of circles) when geared towards an adult audience. Not serious enough. Too escapist or peripheral to all the stuff that, from the white tower point of view, makes literature great: theme, character complexity, sophisticated plots that don’t involve sophomoric wish-fulfillment.
But Carol was spot on about another point as well: children’s lit has generally avoided that biting criticism. As I sat down to catalogue the stories that first enthralled me—Alice and Cheshires; Dorothy and winged monkeys; Peter and Wendy; Bilbo and burglary; swords and stones; all the grim stuff those Grimm guys came up with, one thing immediately jumped out—they all revolve around kids or childlike characters. Now, this is clearly self-evident, given the audience. Not a real brave or astute observation, I know.
But that’s one clear way children’s fantasy has influenced plenty of adult fantasy—the inclusion of adolescents and coming-of-age, rites-of-passage stories. Pug and Tomas (Feist), Simon (Williams), Shea Ohmsford (Brooks). Rand and Perin and Matt (Jordan), Arya and the Stark pack (Martin), and countless other examples (well, they could be counted, but I’m just too lazy to do it, but I know it’s a lot). In some cases, these adolescent-centered tales had enough repetition to become sort of formulaic or cliché-ridden, to the point that plenty of adult fantasy writers intentionally eschew this, focusing instead primarily or even entirely on adult central characters. But the coming-of-age thing still crops up pretty frequently, and I think the prevalence of child/adolescent protagonists is no accident.
All fantasy writers have an unspoken compact with their readers—you will check your cynicism, or at least virulent disbelief, at the door (wardrobe/rabbit hole/what have you) in order to come on this journey. And it seems like that might be easier to do on some level when there’s a brat (sorry, young person) as a major character, as most of us found believing in magic and monsters far easier, or at least took to it more readily and with greater joy, before being burdened with credit card fees, root canals, high blood pressure, addictions, child support, mandatory overtime, escrow, paying off loan sharks (wait, is that just me?) and all the other potential nasty soul-sucking baggage that comes with adulthood. I could be way off the mark here—just spitballing really—but it seems like identifying with youth maybe makes accepting the trappings of fantasy a little easier or more seamless. Surely there are plenty of other reasons writers could gravitate to these stories, and I might be falling into the academic trap of trying to superimpose some framework or thesis over something for the sake of having something to blather about.
It’s hardly a shocker, given the participants and the forum, that most of us here argue that adults can and should engage in storytelling that incorporates the fantastic. And not simply because it affords some means of dodging/forgetting the doldrums, anxiety, or rigors of adult life, although really, I’m not convinced that’s the worst reason either.
Children’s fantasy writers have license to come up with any wild or wacky thing they imagine. But that same sort of freedom and willingness to explore lends itself just as well to adult fantasy, and in some ways, is more critical. Not locked into any historical period or analogue with all the expectations that go with it, we can explore societies incredibly different from our own. For a long time, fantasy was always accused of coming in a distant second to science fiction when it came to relevance to our own lives or being progressive rather than weirdly nostalgic for a fractal pastoral or premodern past that never really existed in the first place.
I’m a firm believer in character-driven stories, but characters and their dynamics can be set anywhere we dream up: in a militant matriarchal society, or one where both sexes are subjugated by an asexual or polysexual race, or one where the republic politics are hauntingly similar to our own but still differentiated enough to cast things in a new light, or. . . You get me. That willingness to give your imagination free rein (or reign if you prefer) can result in worlds and storylines that, yes, can be escapist, but also might illuminate something, might speak to us about ourselves, our passions, our vices, our fascinations and foibles, in the same language that dreams do.
I think the openness we experience as kids, both in play and in reading fantasy literature, serves us well as adults, in a variety of ways. While I might not actually believe in magic portals or the creatures that exist beyond them, I hope I never lose that openness to the power of the imagination.
Again, not an especially deep observation, I’m aware. Damn me for picking Fridays, when those clever/talented writers ahead of me have set the bar so high throughout the week.