Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Why We Need Dragons: The Progressive Potential of Fantasy

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Why We Need Dragons: The Progressive Potential of Fantasy

Article excerpt

We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold ... sheep, and dogs, and horses--and wolves ...

--J. R. R. Tolkien

WHATEVER THE MEDIUM, FANTASTIC NARRATIVES NOW DOMINATE VAST areas of the popular imagination. So entrenched that it has become "a default cultural vernacular" (Mieville, "Editorial" 40), fantasy cannot be overlooked. The popularity of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and A Game of Thrones indicates that the genre is a pervasive phenomenon, demanding critical evaluation of its emotional appeal and its political implications. Fantasy's increasing presence in the marketplace, together with the genre's potential for progressive socio-political representation, indicates the genre's aesthetic power. Indeed, as a communicative method, fantasy's ever-widening audience implies an increasing burden on the genre. We, as writers, readers, academics, must ask and continue to ask: what is fantasy communicating? What are its discursive objectives? Why should I read fantasy?

Kathryn Hume argues that realism "no longer imparts an adequate sense of meaning to our experience with reality" (39), that the realist strategy does not, and cannot, fully engage the reader. By going past reality, by plunging through and beyond it, fantasy can offer an interesting, at times disturbing, perspective. As Mark Bould suggests: "Marxist theories of fantasy and the fantastic offer an opportunity not only to engage with extremely popular areas of cultural production but also to better model the subject for political praxis" (53). Be that as it may, Bould is vague on how fantasy best shapes the individual subject for political praxis. Before continuing, this fundamental position must be unpacked; political praxis and progressive potential carry heavy, ideological baggage. Quite rightly: the concepts are linked. The progressive potential of fantasy can direct the subject (reader) towards a new, radical, (perhaps) emancipated subjectivity. Only after this process is complete will political praxis--action engendering changes to the dominant capitalist gestalt--be able to develop. By affirming fantasy as a site that can potentially (re)direct political praxis, Bould alerts readers to the exciting possibility of a social role for fantasy. However, certain epistemological biases must be made clear.

Brian Attebery sums up the problem succinctly in "The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy" when he discusses the nature of fantasy's most obvious impossibility: anachronism. He says: "But the more important function--dare I say political function--of creative anachronism occurs when you take a little bit of the Middle Ages and plop it down in the midst of freeways and shopping malls. The contrast, the disjunction, transforms the present" (15-16). The basic instance of disjunction, the novum of dislocation (if this is possible) is neutral. Transforming the present does not suggest transformation for the better or for the worse. We can argue that any transformation is political but it is apolitical or, to put it another way, its political cloth has yet to be dyed. The transformative aspect of anachronistic disjunction is an aesthetic tool and its uses can be many. While Bould and Jameson may want the fantastic to deliver revolutionary or progressive responses, there is nothing intrinsic to fantasy or sf that forces them into Marxist representations. When this article explores fantasy's progressive potential, it is with the full knowledge that the genre does not skew in that direction traditionally. Indeed, the writers later discussed are not to be taken as wholly progressive fantasists; indeed, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, with its reworked Christianity, carries distinctly conservative notions regarding the role of the state, the nature of sacrifice, and the function of suffering in society. The ability to write the strange, the impossible, and the unreal is a means to many ends.

Mieville asserts that to "claim that fantasy is in some systematic way resistant to ideology or rebellious against authority is, and anyone who knows the genre can attest, laugh-out-loud funny" ("Cognition" 242). …

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