[This is the penultimate post reflecting on the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic. It summarises the thoughts of the afternoon workshop at that event, and together with the final post (forthcoming in a few days) points the way forward to the formation of a Glasgow Centre of Fantasy and the Fantastic. At the same time this particular post can stand on its own as a consideration of fantasy as a catalyst for action. Thanks to all the remarkable people whose thoughts fed into it.]
The Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic was conceived by my colleague Dimitra Fimi as a way of taking the first steps towards establishing a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. That would seem to be a clear statement of its objectives; but the terms I’ve just used deserve to be unpicked, and the desire itself, the desire to establish a Centre, needs to be explained. It’s not so easy to define fantasy, as many commentators have found. For me the word means the kind of fiction, the kind of films and paintings, music and TV shows and theatre and opera, even the kind of architecture I’m drawn to. I know it when I see it. I can feel its pull from inside the covers of a book I’ve picked off the shelves of a second-hand bookshop as I flick through the pages and spot some reference to magic, or an apparition, or a metamorphosis, or a country – preferably a world – that doesn’t exist. But not everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that all the things I’ve just listed are definitive of fantasy, and if we are to have a discussion on the topic, a conversation across disciplines and practices and cultures and art forms, we need to know what we’re talking about, have some sense that it is more or less the same thing.
A Centre, too, is an uncertain concept. Many Centres have no physical location at all (though a Centre for Fantasy should surely be located somewhere: in a forest or an abandoned building or on a threshold of some kind – a doorway, a railway tunnel, a piece of furniture – since place nearly always plays a crucial role in fantastic works of art). I know what I mean when I say ‘Centre’: it’s a term that pulls things to it much as fantasy pulls me, attracting people and funding and activities and resources; a term that insists on the existence of a community, however scattered and diverse, with a common objective, who will come together physically or virtually from time to time to share their knowledge, their experiences, their ‘arts’ (in the widest and most inventive sense of the word). But what a Centre is varies widely, even in the context of the University of Glasgow, and there is an astonishingly wide range of models for the way it might function and the things it might make happen.
To understand what a Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic might be and do, then, it was clearly necessary to hear from the community that could potentially make it up. So Dimitra applied to Arts Lab – the organization responsible for supporting research and researchers in the College of Arts at Glasgow – and obtained funding to bring together a representative cross-section of such a community: writers, artists, ecologists, IT experts, scientists, students, fans, academics from many disciplines, editors, publishers, activists, educators, theatre people, musicians, circus performers, witches, talking animals and mythical beasts of all stripes and hues. She invited them to a day-long meeting in the recently refurbished Kelvin Hall. And she asked them questions related to the ones I’ve just been asking: What does Fantasy do? How does it work? What should a Fantasy Centre do? But the format of the Symposium affected the delegates’ answers, so I should start by explaining what the format was.
In the morning, attendees who wished to speak (not all of them did) were asked to introduce themselves in a series of ten-minute presentations – so-called ‘lightning talks’ summing up their fantasy-related activities – so that everyone would know who they were dealing with. Then came lunch and mingling; and in the afternoon a workshop in two parts, one addressing the questions of what fantasy does and how it does it, the other considering the potential functions of our putative Centre. The day ended with a talk from one of the most significant thinkers and activists on the part of fantasy: the writer, artist, musician, editor, performer, mentor and catalyst Terri Windling. After all, who better than a polymath to bring together the concerns of the diverse community which met that day? Who better than this inspirational orator to send us out into the world determined to act on what we’d been discussing?
And afterwards? What would happen next? That’s where we are now: at the stage of drafting the application to the University of Glasgow for Centre status. But before we set about that task in earnest we thought it important to leave some record of what happened that day. We began that record with a series of blog posts from individual attendees – representative samples of what was said in the ‘lightning’ talks that morning (the first is here). And now comes a summary of the two-part afternoon workshop – a trickier thing altogether, since all we have to go on are the sometimes cryptic notes taken by volunteers from each of the smaller groups who discussed each topic in a huddled knot before sharing their findings with the Symposium at large.
How to convert these notes into something more or less coherent? Or is coherence precisely what we should avoid: a trap that seeks to impose shape and unity on something dynamic, rendering it lifeless, inauthentic, ineffectual? ‘We murder to dissect’, said Wordsworth, a saying that joins itself in my mind with Keats’s ‘Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold Philosophy?’ and Pope’s ‘Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?’ as three fine expressions of resistance to analysis (though the last is more about expending excessive effort on a thing of no consequence, which is equally applicable to a discussion of the fantastic). But analysis is what I do – making coherent and logical narratives as best I can out of knotty, perplexing or fragmentary texts – and I choose here to reduce the notes to a continuous story, risking as I do so falsifying the meaning of the note-takers, but also hoping to turn them into something of a blueprint for action.
Action, after all, was at the heart of the questions we asked at the workshop. We asked the delegates not ‘what is fantasy?’ but ‘what does it do, what is it for?’ and afterwards, ‘how does it do what it does?’ – all of which presuppose the concept’s essential dynamism, its continuous reinvention of itself and redirection of its energies. As I’ve indicated above, each workshop of forty-odd people was divided into groups of varying sizes, each with a designated annotator. Each annotator chose to record the group’s deliberations in a different way; with a mind map, placing the questions in the centre of the page with ideas raying outwards from them at the end of sinuously curving arrows; with neat lists of mostly single words running down the page from top to bottom; using bullet points or numbers and more or less complete sentences; with scattered phrases or terms peppering the paper, as darts pepper holes across a dartboard. They also used different inks – black, blue, red, green – and I found myself wondering if this was significant. The choice of layout certainly affected the way I read the notes, and this suggests it may have reflected different approaches to the discussion.
The first list I’m looking at now, for instance, made up of mostly single words, suggests that fantasy is for the following:
sense of wonder and beauty
inspiration for creative skills
My favourite entry here is ‘food – tastier’, a phrase that invokes the central role played by eating in fantasy narratives while heaping shame on the head of writers who can think of nothing more palatable than ‘stew’ to serve their characters (see Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land for the lashings of ‘stew’ that get consumed in the less inventive fantasy fictions).
The final term, meanwhile, ‘recovery’, summons up Tolkien’s notion (as expressed in his famous Essay on Fairy Stories) that fantasy helps us to regain the sense of encountering things for the very first time and giving them names. For him, recovery takes us back to the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; seeing the world afresh, discovering its contents, tasting them, so to speak, with an unjaded palate (which takes us back to food); and these experiences are linked to the genre’s invocation of a ‘sense of wonder and beauty’, one of the other entries in the list. ‘Wonder’ is, for me, a little different from recovery, because it doesn’t involve naming or even recognition. It’s the state of astonishment, of the temporary suspension of one’s intellectual assumptions and linguistic faculties in favour of raw emotion and intense curiosity, with which one encounters something wholly unexpected or utterly absorbing – something that takes one out of oneself; the moment before one attempts to categorize, name, or explain the thing encountered (though one can sometimes think, I believe, in a state of wonder). ‘Escapism’ could be said to be the impulse that leads one to seek out a state of wonder in the first place. It’s a turning away from everyday stresses, perplexities and dullnesses, and has often been seen as a way of evading responsibility – though Tolkien saw it as a liberation from oppression, a freeing of one’s mind from entrapments of various kinds, from presuppositions and rooted prejudices, from limiting narratives about the world and about oneself and one’s narrow range of socially prescribed obligations and duties. The phrase ‘role modeling’ was perhaps the most unusual entry in the list, for me; it made me think of how fantasy can provide alternative roles for readers to imagine their way into, to be inspired by, and I like the implication of diversity in the term, the suggestion that there are many more roles available to make models of besides that of Joseph Campbell’s monomythical male hero. A role model, too, implies action, even as a sense of wonder reminds us of the moment before action is taken, or as recovery gifts us with the possibility of thinking afresh about the terms on which we’ll base our actions. Given that fantasy is often said to be about retelling familiar stories, these terms insist that the process of making them new is the thing that matters; and as a quester after fantasy and the fantastic I have to concur. I have no interest in fantasies that simply retread old paths; there has to be something new about them, on the level of language or style, or on the level of concept, form or plot.
At the same time, in the answers provided by this first group in response to the second question, ‘What is fantasy for?’, the past loomed large:
Take you on a journey
‘Provide history’ and ‘Rewrite history’ head the list, followed by ‘Representation’ – perhaps an extension of the concept of role models, though with greater stress on what role models might be used to do – that is, to represent people and ideas which have not been adequately represented elsewhere or by other means. Then come ‘Explore fears/hopes/desires’, ‘Take you on a journey’, both of which insist on physical or metaphorical movement through time and space; while the final category, ‘Suspended reality’, seems to pick up on many people’s central assumption about fantasy: that it takes place in an environment where the ‘real’ world and its rules are being in some way held in abeyance. This might take us back to the way history was described in those first two entries, as something that needs to be ‘provided’, suggesting that it has not yet been ‘provided’ in the way that fantasy provides it; an idea which is reinforced by the second entry in the list, the statement that fantasy rewrites history, offers a different version of it, perhaps from a new perspective or with a different emphasis, which gives it a new trajectory or shape. Each of the entries on this list implies that fantasy deals with our world even as it alters it. Reality cannot be suspended without drawing attention to the reality or rules that have been set aside; history cannot be rewritten without invoking the familiar history from which it diverges. Fantasy is firmly rooted in the here and now even as it turns away to reimagine the past or take us to non-existent places.
The same group went on to indicate how fantasy achieves these things, and again the annotator chose to record the group’s findings in the form of a list. Again some of the entries entail familiar concepts, others less familiar ones:
address fundamental questions of human existence
transcend experience (lack of restriction by ‘normal’ rules)
viewing reality from outside
The phrase ‘uncanny valley’ refers to an idea first advanced by Masahiro Mori concerning a series of robots which are designed to resemble human beings to an ever increasing degree. The closer the resemblance between machine and human being, the more positive the human reaction to the machine becomes – that is, up to a certain point, when the closeness of the resemblance suddenly becomes unsettling and the human begins to find the robot deeply repulsive. This experience of revulsion continues until the robot is redesigned to resemble humans more closely still, when at a certain point human responses to the machine start to become more positive again. The period of revulsion at the robot’s imperfect duplication of human appearance is known as the ‘uncanny valley’, and explanations of the emotional response it provokes range from the idea that we find certain levels of resemblance threatening to our sense of identity, either as a person or as a species, to the association of ‘wrongness’ in a person’s looks with disease and the risk of infection. Once you know what uncanny valley is and where it lies, its position at the head of the list of answers to the question how does fantasy do what it does makes perfect sense. The ‘experiment’ which comes next on the list might involve various tests of the responses of writer and reader to imitations of the familiar world, with its ‘“normal” rules’ and authorized history, which vary from it to one degree or another, generating emotions that range from wonder and delight to fear and loathing, and underlining or generating the ‘moral quandaries’ or ‘fundamental questions’ which arise from, or are focused by, the variations they introduce (what would the possession of magic powers, for instance, do to an individual’s personality? How might the presence of those magic powers affect the structure of a community?). Each variation, once it becomes to some degree ‘naturalized’ to the writer or reader in the course of the narrative, can briefly give them the sense of viewing the real world ‘from outside’ as they emerge from the different world they’ve visited, and hence either of recovering that real world, in Tolkien’s sense, or of transforming it; this, at least, is what the final entry on the list suggests to me. It’s more complicated than making the other familiar, since fantasy often depends on retaining the sense of strangeness and newness from beginning to end; and it’s more complicated than estranging us from the world we live in, since fantasy also often depends on retaining that sense of nostalgic familiarity with which everyday scenes and actions are invested, even while sounding a note of otherness (the faery Note that haunts Nathaniel Chanticleer in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the horns of Elfland heard by C S Lewis and W B Yeats). The list helps mark out the complications in each of its individual entries by juxtaposing them with other entries that affect or modify familiar concepts by their presence nearby.
Other groups came up with different ideas of what fantasy does and how it does it. The group whose thoughts were annotated in the form of a mind-map, for instance, seemed concerned to avoid the sort of hierarchy of importance that a list can imply; and accordingly it chose to resist being pinned down in terms of definitions and assumptions. For this group, one of fantasy’s functions was to ‘Make us ask: “what is fantasy?” and engage with “genre” as a concept’, and so to ‘engage with history/traditions/categorizations of fantasy’. These processes of self-contemplation are dynamic and continuous, so that the ‘inability to define [or delimit] fantasy is fantasy’, since the fantastic resists the state of closure or inertia which definition entails. The Mind Map Group also introduced a new concept which is only partly analogous to the notion of ‘experiment’ mentioned by the Group of Lists: that fantasy plays. The term ‘play’ implies trying things out in a light-hearted way, without overmuch concern for consequences; there may well be rules involved but these can be set aside or changed at the player’s whim. No one takes play excessively seriously, which means that it can turn attention to serous things without getting bogged down by them or by a single attitude to them. Play is always flexible, transformative, lighthearted – or better still, light (and I’m thinking here of Italo Calvino’s essay on lightness in Six Essays for the Next Millennium). These are qualities which the upholders of rules can sometimes find threatening, even dreadful – and play can go too far, turn sour, go bad, a possibility which is also often explored in fantastic narratives.
The Mind Map Group also insisted on the interactive nature of the act of reading fantasy. ‘Cultural differences influence reception’, it asserted, so that (for instance) what seems impossible to readers in the Netherlands might seem entirely possible for those in Argentina, Nigeria, Iceland or Japan. For this group, in fact, fantasy dissolves hard and fast distinctions or ‘boundaries’ of all kinds: between possibility and impossibility, reality and unreality, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the self and the other. At the same time, fantasy needs internal coherence; it ‘has to be real enough to immerse you. Fantastic worlds have RULES’, which enable them to test out ‘magic systems/social systems’ (and does the slash imply that magic systems are always a way of exploring social systems?). Asking how fantasy performs all these feats seems for this group to have elicited just one core idea – ‘Using fantastic mythos to do these things (e.g. dragons)’ – though this may well be because I’m misreading the mind-map.
Another group that used lists – though much messier ones, and expressed in terms of sentences or phrases rather than single terms – came up with more new concepts. Asked what fantasy does, the Messy Group replied, like the Group of Lists, that it’s an ‘exploratory tool’; and they added that while it can ‘reinforce the symbolism of mythology’ it can also engage ‘in salvage/détournement/appropriation (of past/myth/fairy tale/story etc.)’. So far so familiar. But for this group, one of fantasy’s primary functions is to ‘make communities’, through music and theatre (or like music and theatre, which are mostly communal activities). Another is to ‘enable the reader to live vicariously’ and hence potentially to ‘transform the reader’. The notion of transformation pointed the Messy Group towards another of fantasy’s functions, that of self-care – another meaning of ‘recovery’; and this was followed by a more sinister transformation: ‘sometimes you need spoons to make shivs’. For me this repurposing of a domestic tool suggested that the ordinary and everyday can provide the means for unexpected, violent action – perhaps as a way of escaping from prison (one of the functions Tolkien assigns to fairy stories in his famous essay) – and my thoughts turned to Michael de Larrabeiti’s YA fantasy series about class warfare in the 70s and 80s, The Borribles, whose protagonists often use shivs. But next on the list came a reference to ‘spoon theory,’ which gave the spoons a rather different significance. Spoon theory is a disability metaphor which refers to the ‘reduced amount of mental and physical energy available for activities of living and productive tasks as a result of disability or chronic illness’ (I’m adapting the Wikipedia entry). Spoons here are a way of metaphorically measuring that reduced amount of energy: each person is allotted only so many spoons in any given day, whose number will only be replenished when that person recharges, so to speak, by taking a rest, and as the group went on to indicate ‘there are only so many spoons to go around’ (and there’s a class connotation in this phrase: some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths, with the result that others are born with almost no spoons at all). In this way the group brought representations of class struggle, illness and disability into the discussion of fantasy’s functions. If fantasy is about transformation, and transformations are achieved through power, to emphasize the unequal distribution of power in your fantasy narrative can turn the fantasy genre itself into a tool for real social or political change. That’s something I’ll be pondering for quite some time, I think.
The Messy Group showed a special interest in the second question asked of the workshop: how does fantasy do things. As they responded to it the entries in their list got terser, though no less messy, at least in the way they were written down. Fantasy ‘changes the modality of sentences’ to achieve its effects (someone mentioned Samuel R Delany at this stage, and I thought of Delany’s statement that he is ‘forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing’). Fantasy, they went on, uses hesitation/deliberation, tricksterism, play, genre crunching, different media, ‘displacement to elsewhens’, and ‘nostalgic/archaic desiring’, which was for this group a way of ‘tracing origins’, taking things ‘back to their roots’. As an arsenal of literary tools to support its potential political applications that’s pretty formidable, though other groups added to it considerably, as we shall see.
A fourth group, whose note-taker favoured a red pen, chose to focus on the question of what fantasy does which can’t be done by other modes or mediums. ‘Why would someone use fantasy to do these things?’, the Red Pen Group inquired, and concluded that there might be different reasons for different audiences (and for different writers and artists too, of course). The answers grouped together under this heading included the notion that fantasy engages in ‘Historical thinking that isn’t history’, which ‘allows a kind of reflection that isn’t otherwise accessible’; that it ‘allows us to step outside to see in’; and that it ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world [about] history, gender, society’. In addition, fantasy ‘softens the grip of our rational minds, reconnecting with our bodies and imaginations and the irrational’; and offers ‘Consolation (distraction?) for impotence’, in politics and elsewhere. Most of these things, of course, could also be said of other genres. Other responses to the question of fantasy’s function offered by the Red Pen Group seemed more fantasy-specific. Among these were that it ‘reflects the structure of the world by abstracting away from inessentials’ – as realism does not; that it is iconogenic and mythopoeic, generating new raw material for our imagination to work on; and that it engages in a practice called ‘farfetching’ which involves ‘integrating distant or disparate ideas’ – a process that picks up on its interest in genre-crunching, as mentioned by one of the other groups, but also implies a great deal more. On reflection, these activities too are not unique to fantasy, apart perhaps from mythopoeia, the making of myths. Does this mean that nothing is, I wonder? If so, does it matter? I’ve sometimes thought that fantasy does what all fiction does, but more intensely, in a more exaggerated and self-aware fashion, since it calls attention to its status as fiction through the manifest impossibilities it peddles. Interestingly, however, neither this group nor any other had recourse to the term ‘impossible’ in their answers – though the idea that fantasy ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world’ comes interestingly close.
Looking through the responses from other groups adds further new responses to the question of what fantasy does. The group whose notes were peppered across the page (the Pepper Group, I’ll call them) proposed that fantasy is for ‘nothing and therefore everything’ – a phrase which I’d suggest comes very close to stating exactly what makes fantasy different, since the term ‘fantasy’ is so often used to refer to something so detached from reality that it has no value, and things of no value can do a great deal without being noticed (see under ‘play’ above). The Pepper Group also noted that fantasy ‘unites different storytelling traditions’, which is something a little different from genre crunching. I’m reading Charles de Lint’s Moonheart at the moment, which combines stories from European ‘Celtic’ cultures with stories from the cultures of the aboriginal peoples of North America, and this seems perfectly to illustrate the group’s perceptions, as does Tolkien’s fusion of Finnish and Old English material, or Lewis’s combination of Northern European and Mediterranean mythology. The question of the purpose of these combinations of different storytelling traditions, of what they do, is well worth asking; in the case of de Lint it’s to draw attention to the sometimes violent clash of cultures which is at the core of 1980s Canadian society, but as the Red Pen Group suggested there will be different answers in different contexts. The same group suggested that fantasy ‘brings dreams to life’ – which was implied by the Red Pen Group, though not explicitly stated – and that it is fundamentally intermedial, transferring its subject matter from one vehicle to another – from literature to video, comic, painting, game and song – just as Erasmus once said of the expert rhetorician, who ‘pours’ the same subject matter from one stylistic receptacle to the next, from verse to prose, from public speech to private letter to reported conversation between friends. The Pepper Group also suggested that fantasy is rhizomatic, meaning that it connects things in a non-hierarchical way – a philosophy better suited to representation by a mind-map or a peppering technique, perhaps, than by orderly lists. I’d be curious to test this notion of the rhizome or root-system as an organizational principle for fantasy at my leisure; it seems to me to apply quite well to the formal techniques of Terry Pratchett, or George R R Martin, or Ellen Kushner, each of whom uses multiple points of view to build their worlds with, though it may apply to other fantasy texts in ways I’ve not thought of (Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao suddenly comes to mind, a book that has no central character, not even the impresario of the title, but which structures itself around visits by different people to the various tents of Dr Lao’s cavalcade; or Ursula Le Guin’s utopian miscellany Always Coming Home).
The group that recorded its findings in bright green ink added ‘mental acrobatics’ to the notion of play, and confirmed fantasy’s interest in intertextuality and metafiction by aligning it with ‘postmodernism and stuff’. But the Green Ink Group also introduced the new idea of the absences or lacunae in fantasy narratives. Fantasy, the group suggested, supplies its consumers with unfinished landscapes, leaving ‘gaps’ in them that we’re not necessarily expected to fill. This led the group to the phrase explored by Marita Arvaniti in her recent blog post: ‘fantasy exists badly’. I wonder if this means that the holes or gaps in fantasy narratives – the logical leaps and glaring omissions with which they’re filled – make it essential for their readers to use their own active imaginations to make up for what’s left out? If so, then the statement that we’re not necessarily expected to ‘fill’ those gaps stands out in sharp relief. We notice and condone them, we assume that there’s something that explains them or occupies that space, but filling in lacunae implies a methodical response which is precisely the reverse of what many readers want from the fantastic. One could call these readers’ refusal to engage in the filling-in process a preference for mystification, ignorance or deliberate self-deception; but one could equally call it a willingness not to let speculation be held back by petty details, and a corresponding affection for radical difference and epic transformations, things that can only be achieved by setting aside the question of exactly how those transformations might be brought about. I’m reminded here of John Martin’s giant paintings of impossible scenes, whose different parts are cut loose from each other by vast abysses implied through patches of obscurity, or by juxtapositions in each picture of scenes on radically different scales whose relationship to one another is only ever implied, not made clear on the canvas. The disengagement of the various sections of each painting from one another is precisely what makes them so disorienting, so exhilarating to look at. I apologize to the group if this is not what they had in mind, but let my response to the phrase ‘fantasy exists badly’ stand as an indication – through the gap or lacuna it represents – of the fruitfulness of the concept.
The Green Ink Group was much concerned with tensions – between formula and freedom, between new and old – as well as with fantasy’s preoccupation with allusion and cross-reference. For them, fantasy is always in ‘conversation with other books and itself and the mythosphere’, the latter phrase invoking the constantly changing common pool of stories on which narrators draw. These ideas, too, support the idea that ‘fantasy exists badly’, since they imply that it is always drawing attention to its own artifice. The Green Ink Group summed up this tendency in an invented term, ‘intermetaparatextuality’, which speaks for itself; and its list concluded with the fine observations that fantasy ‘creates immersion in the face of artifice’ – that is, that we find ourselves absorbed in it even as we get startled into noting its references to other narratives of similar kinds, or its unsettling gaps – and that fantasy thus assists at ‘the birth of the reader’. This final point highlights the fact that the Green Ink Group was almost entirely concerned with the relationship between reader and fantasy text, since the reader plays an active role in shaping fantasy through her willingness to condone absences, recognize allusions, engage in conversations with the real world, yet to be immersed or re-immersed in what she’s reading all the same. There’s a challenge here to Tolkien’s idea, as expressed in his essay on Fairy Stories, that what he calls ‘secondary belief’ involves a total imaginative commitment on the part of the reader to the world created by the writer, for as long as she’s reading. If this were true, Terry Pratchett’s books would be fantastic failures, riddled as they are with allusions to the ‘real’ world we inhabit, many in the form of footnotes or extended pastiche. Pratchett is always playfully un-immersing us, yet the reader freely re-immerses herself in his secondary world on each occasion, like a dolphin sporting in the waves. It’s the quality of lightnessthat makes this possible, and lightness is also (ironically) a quality that Tolkien possesses in abundance, and which he embodies in the lighthearted personalities of his hobbits.
The final group laid out their answers in a numbered list – I think so as to key in their responses to ‘what does fantasy do?’ to their responses to ‘how does fantasy do it?’. Time ran out, however, before they could provide all the ‘hows’. Their ‘whats’ yielded the following insights: that fantasy ‘makes visible the invisible’ (an idea that draws on the roots of the term in the Greek verb phantazein, to make visible); and that fantasy concerns itself with mirrors, windows and doors. The ‘hows’ expanded on that second idea, explaining that fantasy offers an ‘invitation to a place that’s different from where we are’, enabling us to ‘leave our troubles behind’, and that in this new place we feel able to ‘control time and space’; as a writer obviously, but perhaps also as a reader, given our capacity to manage the gaps in space, time and narrative which the writer leaves. Going back to the ‘whats’, the group claimed that fantasy ‘both feeds and feeds on our creativity’ in what it described as a ‘vicious circle’. And if this ‘what’ unsettlingly invokes the Elder Brother’s definition of evil in Milton’s Comus, something ‘self-fed and self-consumed’, bringing this group’s idea of fantasy close to horror, the last entry in their list of ‘whats’ introduced a comic element. Fantasy, the group concluded, is for ‘educating parents’, which they explained in the ‘hows’ as taking place when parents read fantasy books ‘and see the effects [of these] on their children’. One such effect is to ‘turn readers into writers’, eager to enjoy that absolute mastery over time and space available to sub-creators (as Tolkien calls them in his essay). Fantasy, the group suggested, is often the first stimulus towards making that transition, and this is not surprising given its nature as imaginative play, and hence its close alliance to the stories children tell themselves as they manoeuvre their toys or the contents of their minds.
Looking through the workshop’s responses to the questions ‘what is fantasy for?’ and ‘How does it do it’?, one thing struck me quite forcibly: that none of the groups chose to state in so many words that it is about inventing secondary worlds. The Group of Numbers came close, with their statement that it gives us entry through its imagined doors and windows to ‘a place that’s different from where we are’, while the claim by the Group of Lists that fantasy ‘transcends experience (lack of restriction by “normal” rules)’ and ‘views reality from outside’ implies an exodus from the world we live in, as does the Red Pen Group’s insistence that it ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world’. The Mind Map Group’s statement that ‘Fantastic worlds have RULES’ asserts the existence of secondary worlds, although that group did not choose to emphasize the process of making those worlds, and their statement was in any case a ‘how’ to supplement the initial observation that fantasy ‘has to be real enough to immerse you’. For all groups in the workshop, the question of what fantasy is for was firmly rooted in the world we live in. This is inevitable, of course, from one point of view: even when fantasy is entirely set in a world quite different from our own we can never gain access to that world except by means of terms we understand, terms that enable us to compare its strange contents with familiar things, and hence bring its strangeness into the compass of the known. But our groups were strikingly insistent on fantasy’s impact on our own world, its transformative effect on that world’s human inhabitants. Our questions – what does it do, what is it for, how does it work – invited such a bias, of course; but the result was a set of observations that did what we hoped: provided the basis for a template for action. And the second part of our workshop aimed to give a focus or context for that action by asking what a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic might accomplish – what transformations it could bring about, what journeys embark on, what strange fellowships and conjunctions conjure up. That will be the subject of the final blog post on the Symposium.
[All photos of the Symposium are by Olly Rendle]