‘Home and Away’ is an amended form of a speech I first delivered as the keynote speech for an academic conference in Toronto, and then (with examples updated and varied) at a convention in Zagreb, Croatia. I cut the speechmaker’s jokes. One was about John Clute. A shorter version of the same piece also ran in the Globe and Mail in Canada in the fall of 1999. I was trying to start an argument about the whole idea of using real lives in fiction. I didn’t succeed, really. Canadians are extremely polite.
Fantasy fiction occupies an uneasy niche these days. Certain forms of it – the sort the Sunday Times once memorably called ‘saga puddings’ – sell volume after volume … after volume. These works, hugely successful as they are, have a downside: they shape the perception of a genre.
Fantasy is usually seen as escapist fiction and that is most often meant as a criticism. Fantasy readers escape from the responsibility of reality, the allegation goes, hiding from the real world amid dragons and magic, broadswords and broads with swords.
The criticism ignores an obvious truth: all good storytelling is escapist in a basic way. We are moved and engaged by what happens to invented, imaginary people,whether in Vancouver or Shangri-la. (I am aware that some might claim these are the same place.) If the writer is ambitious, what sometimes happens is that we return from this crafted escape with illumination cast upon our own journeying.
Sometimes, mind you, there’s a kind of book that doesn’t intend to be important, profound or illuminating. It wants only to entertain in an undemanding way, much as almost all television and most films do. These are the books one reads on a beach or for fifteen minutes before falling asleep at night. It is hard to read challenging fiction in fifteen minute installments.
The bloated, adolescent fantasies one sees everywhere are, for the most part, simply examples of this fiction-as-distraction. But it is a mistake to assume that because many or most works in a given field are unambitious (aside from length) that the genre itself must be seen as trivial.
Fantasy has the capacity to be as important and as thought-provoking as any other form of literature we have. Indeed, in some ways, the journeys and motifs of classic fantasy can come closer to mirroring the inner journey of the human spirit than almost anything else. The patterns of myth, folklore, archetype and fairy tale embedded in such works are time-honoured and immensely powerful, and fantasy can tap more directly into these ancient wells than just about anything else: they are the core elements of the genre.
But there’s another strength of the form that’s less discussed – and is at the heart of what intrigues me of late. Fantasy is not just about magic and supernatural quests. It can also be a way of dealing with history, with the elements of our own past.
But as soon as this idea is raised, an immediate – and a fair – question arises: why write fantasy about the past? What can fantasy do that straightforward historical fiction (or even non-fiction) cannot? Or, putting it another way, what traps and dilemmas can fantasy avoid that more conventional works cannot? Why write about (as I have) an invented Peninsula of the Palm instead of the early Renaissance Italy it was intended to evoke, or about a medieval country called Al-Rassan instead of the ‘real’ Al-Andalus – which was Moorish Spain?
All right then: what can fantasy do better, or what can it do that is unique and of value?
First of all the genre allows the universalizing of a story. It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer – and the reader – to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions. And, paradoxically, because the story is done as a fantasy it might actually be seen to apply more to a reader’s own life and world, not less. It cannot be read as being only about something that happened, say, seven hundred years ago in Spain.
There’s another twist to this and one that has particular relevance today as many countries continue their complex emergence from totalitarian tyrannies. In the autumn of 1990 I had a late night talk with a Polish science fiction magazine editor at an international convention in The Hague. Rendered melancholy by vodka, the editor glumly advised me that he expected his immensely successful magazine to lose about half its writers and many of its readers in the next year. Why? Because with the demise of communist control, many writers who had used science fiction and fantasy to write disguised stories about their world would no longer have to disguise their stories. They wouldn’t need a screen to get around the censors. They would set their stories in the ‘real’ Poland.
Now, one could quarrel with the notion that it is automatically ‘better’ to do that, but I won’t. The very fact that these Eastern European writers had been using the genre in this way underscores something too little realized today – that fantasy need not only be escapist, that it can deliver core truths about the human experience. That the fantasy setting allows and may expand the possibility of such things.
That is one aspect, then, of fantasy as a means of exploring our own past and present. Consider another point. It was Henry James who argued that historical fiction was, in fact, impossible. That it was condemned to be ‘cheap’ because getting to ‘the real thing’ with regard to the world views of people in the past simply could not be done. One could only write from within one’s own world view, leaving access to the vision or the soul of the past hopelessly barred.
I don’t agree, but I see the point, and it strikes me forcibly that by treating the past through the form of a fantasy, one acknowledges the sort of difficulties James was referring to, while still probing and revealing motifs of the past. Fantasy, in this light, becomes a way of being honest about limitations.
And then there are the moral questions. These emerge most strongly when we consider that ‘history’ isn’t just about the distant past. Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?
The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient. We read Don Delillo’s Underworld, which opens at a baseball game where Jackie Gleason, helplessly drunk, vomits on Frank Sinatra’s shoes in the stands while J. Edgar Hoover sits with them and watches.
The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss. Some might weigh that agains
t the loss of any balanced picture of Richard, following that brilliant piece of propaganda on behalf of Shakespeare’s Tudor patrons. I’m a writer and a reader. I’ll take the play with deep gratitude – but I can see an argument the other way and if we think of some more recent works of political propaganda designed to bolster regimes and shatter the reputations of opponents, that case is easier to make.
I don’t have an answer to this, I confess it freely, but I have a great many variants of the question. Can we make Elizabeth I of England say anything we want her to say to her secret lovers – lovers for the allegedly Virgin Queen – because, well, it is just a novel or a film, everyone knows we are making it up? Can we do it with Elizabeth II right now? Can we hide behind the fact that our work is fiction, even while we seek to gain readers and a thrilled attention by using real, famous people? Is there, in short, a moral issue here? Does privacy or respect for lives lived have anything at all to do with novelists? Should it?
If someone is famous can we do whatever we want with their life? If they are utterly obscure – like Almasy – can we do it? If they are dead, like Jackie Gleason? Long dead, like Richard III? Living, but so famous their lives and names might be considered public property – like Queen Elizabeth or Elizabeth Taylor? These are issues I find worth wrestling with, as more and more works today seems to be incorporating the existence of real people, with too little thoughtful discussion ensuing about the implications.
How does fantasy address any of this? Well, I think the gist of my answer is likely to be obvious by now, but let me illustrate it with another reference to The Lions of Al-Rassan. This is a book based on the the broad sweep of events in medieval Spain. One of the major characters is modeled on Rodrigo Diaz, El Cid: the single most mythic and potent figure in Spanish history. No one in English-language culture, not even King Arthur, comes close. El Cid was a real person who became – for good or ill – the symbol of a society and its self-definition.
It seemed to me, over and above the strengths fantasy would offer in telling the story I wanted to tell, that by inventing the setting and inventing a man based on Rodrigo Diaz but clearly not him, I might also be demonstrating a measure of appropriate distance. I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his friends, his enemies. When we work with distant history, to a very great degree, we are all guessing. And this, as Henry James knew, is as true of those who claim to be factual historians as it is of novelists.
By placing the story in a fantasy setting – even if it is clearly drawn from history – we are acknowledging that this educated guesswork, invention, fantasy underlies our treatments of the past and its peoples – and for me, that is an honest and a liberating thing for any writer to do.
I am not saying – and I hope it is clear – that this is the only honourable way to approach the matter of the past. What I am offering is the notion that fantasy has the potential to be one such way of addressing the issues that the past so often throws at the present day. It isn’t just an evasion, an escape, a hiding from truths of the world: it can be an acknowledgment that those truths are complex, morally difficult, and that many different sorts of techniques and processes may lead to a book’s resonating deeply for a reader and a time.
Many years ago, the poet and critic, Douglas Barbour, described a fantasy he admired as, ‘The kind of escape that brings you home.’ I realized, reading these words, that this was how I’d always seen the potential of the genre. For me, that is what fantasy can do and be if we allow it – as writers and as readers.
© Guy Gavriel Kay