Fantasy, or the fantastic, can be read as a projection of our ideals, of our dreamlike ideologies. If we focus on fantasy literature, it raises interesting notions about why so often that limitless creative space (limitless by its very nature, the fantastic) is so often constrained by tolkienesque, mediaeval derivative settings.
Is it simply that we have romanticised that setting, or that time period? Is that a limitation of our dreaming? I would contend it is revealing of limitations we impose upon ourselves.
We often talk about fantasy in some ways reflecting the world we live in (let’s call it the real world, for simplicity) – and that notion of reflection, of mirroring, is crucial. It is interesting then to consider what values are reflected in the creation of a setting, or a culture, or a storyline, that are not done consciously. We must necessarily, and subconsciously, write in our own prejudices, our own judgments about the world’s limitations. Rather than simply treating fantasy as that mirror on the real world, it should be treated as a lens. In this way, we can better appreciate the limitations, our own prevailing ideologies that we unknowingly include. And by doing that, we can push back against them, as part of the very act of writing. Is that not a special power of any art?
But this must be a reflexive process: in writing, we consider the values and limitations we create and imply, and work through them not as the point of the writing, but as part of the act of writing. This self-criticism should be an ongoing and necessary part of the act of writing. So breaking the stereotypes and cliches, and considering our own ideologies in writing becomes not the end goal of the work, but something integral, freeing up the end goal, wiping the smudges from the lens.
In all spheres of human endeavour (especially creative), we should constantly try and break those boundaries we unknowingly impose, else we merely echo history and hegemony. But first we must recognise them, examine them, find their weaknesses (and their strengths). Again, I contend that fantasy provides an ideal setting in which to explore this process and carry it out.
If we don’t question our beliefs, they become self-reinforcing. They become assumptions – cliché and trope work this way. So if we don’t question why fantasy is enamoured of certain settings, we come to assume that they are a defining aspect of it.
As I have discussed previously, fantasy/the fantastic is a ripe field/genre for exploring our world and our assumptions, because it is a direct link (perhaps the most direct) to understanding our ideology. Like Freud thought dream was to conscious behaviour. This is not endorsement of the popular overgeneralisaton of Freud’s views, rather a recognition that in this convalescence between writing (the most direct form of self/auto-communication), and fantasy/genre (the most symbolically potent form of the art) we have a safe space to explore, we are not censored by ideology (rather, we are, but we can work through and around it by writing it in), just like dreams are seen as a safe space for the mind to explore emotions and actions and conceptions and fantasies that (more) conscious waking minds inhibit.
It is not that sex and death are the primal, underlying forces that drive all else, but that they are the most emotionally potent (the most intensely conditionable and the most primally feared); it is not that mediaeval settings are the most romantic and desired, but that these are the most able to directly solve the subconscious censor of our ideology, or so we think. The setting is also somewhat recognisable, relatable, and it echoes prevailing mythologies – of heroes and kings, and such. And while this creates great possibility, I feel it is also a dangerous lure – like a goldfish in a bowl, that thinks it swims in the sea.
We must always resist what comes easily, for that tells us something about our assumptions.
So not only is the content a lens on our world, the building blocks of that world are a lens through the writer. It is imperative that the writer is aware of what he or she is writing through.