Essay by Katy Colby
Fantasy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible things.” This may be why we can enjoy Fantasy so easily; it is, by definition, impossible. Wile E. Coyote paints a cave on a solid rock wall. Road Runner speeds through the painted hole. The coyote follows, and, predictably, splatters himself on solid rock. We laugh, turn off the TV, and get on with the day. Nothing in this story touches us.
Then, there are the other Fantasy stories. These are the ones that hover at the fringes of our lives like whispering shadows. They offer insight, pose questions, and brighten what might otherwise be a mundane day by opening a world of color and texture for our enjoyment. They lend strength, treat us to laughter, and begin friendships with characters that share their lives with us, however short those lives may be. These stories, even if they don’t involve swords or sorcery, are what I like to think of as High Fantasy. They are the ones that make us think. They are the ones that last.
What divides common Fantasy from High Fantasy? I am not a literary scholar, but I have a theory formed from my own observation. High Fantasy stories are the ones set in a world so real that it seems ordinary to us “normal” people, except for the one or two little magical bits. Nothing in the telling makes us want to check reality. We can accept it all and go with the tale, eager to see what happens next.
Let me illustrate this by contrasting two versions of a classic fantasy story. The first version is the animated short Little Red Riding Hood, as told by Walt Disney. In this story, a young girl is sent to her grandmother’s house with a basket of treats. As she walks through the dark woods, she meets a wolf and tells him where she is going. The wolf races ahead of her, breaks in to her grandmother’s house, eats the grandmother, and dresses in the nightgown and cap his victim was wearing. The girl arrives, enters the house, and is nearly eaten by the wolf before a woodsman hears the commotion and rescues her.
This story is easy to enjoy, but hard to take seriously. For one thing, did Grandmother look enough like a wolf for the ruse to work? That’s assuming that the wolf could kill and eat Grandmother without damaging her nightgown and cap, of course. Then again, Red Riding Hood was willing to talk with a wolf in the forest, and the wolf could converse in human language. Never mind the illogic of a parent sending a small child on an errand through a dangerous forest, all the while assuming that staying on the path would protect the child from danger. Good grief! The Reality Check bounced a long time ago. By the time we see the wolf in Grandmother’s bed, we are so soaked in the unreal that we cannot truly share the experience with the characters.
The second version of the story is given in the film Red Riding Hood (2011). In this tale, a village somewhere in northern Europe is terrorized by werewolves. The heroine, at odds with her father over the man she wishes to marry, goes to stay with her grandmother in an isolated cottage. She discovers that her father is, in fact, a werewolf. So is her grandmother. So is her lover, the woodsman who rescues her from her enraged father when he is in the form of a huge wolf.
In the second, more adult, version of the story, everyone in the village knows there is danger in the woods. The wolves do not talk. The heroine realizes immediately that something is wrong with her grandmother. Instead of staying to discuss the size of Grandma’s eyes, she does the sensible thing and runs for her life.
This version of the story is not muddled by a number of contradictions in what we consider normal in the natural world. In Red Riding Hood, the world shown is so real that the fantastic elements of the story dance at the edges of our sight, half-realized but not entirely real. That is, until the moment a “normal” character begins to shift into a werewolf and we can only watch, frozen, in shock. The realistic world the story is set in makes the unreal believable.
Over the next year, with your indulgence, I plan to explore some of the realities exposed in our favorite fantasy worlds. My essays will look at the real-world necessities our favorite characters need, and fit the real-world facts into the fantasy settings to show how the mundane bends the fantasy into a more believable shape. My first effort will cover clothing worn in the pre-industrial world, and I hope you’ll stick with me. Reality can be more fascinating than a dragon’s hoard.
Cover image: “Little Red Riding Hood” (Smlshin, Deviantart)