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What is the value of fantasy?

Fantasy has the kind of reputation no genre deserves. These days, when we say “fairy tales” we mean “nonsense” – but didn’t we used to love fairy tales when we were kids? Why not now?
“Grown-ups” have long been searching for some kind of justification – a way to prove that fantasy is valuable not only to toddlers but to, well anybody. Looking into it, I’ve discovered only two kinds of answers:

The answer I like: “There was a particular story that touched and moved me when I was young, and it changed my life.”
The answer I don’t like: “Fantasy presents symbolic representations of real-world concepts, which can facilitate our understanding of ourselves.”

The problem with the first answer is that it applies more to a story than to a genre. I dislike the second answer for two reasons. As an answer to the prompt, it assumes fantasy is only meaningful according to its symbolism, to the exclusion of all other qualities. Secondly, it assumes that all fantasy is symbolic; and this is also a two-fold problem: Pure fantastic allegory is not fantasy proper but fable (a separate genre – though I do not have time to distinguish them); barring that, there are numerous great fantasies without true symbolism (cf. C.S. Lewis’s remarks when asked if The Chronicles of Narnia were allegorical).

And yet, there is an over-arching difficulty for both answers: They could apply to any genre – not exclusively to fantasy! What then sets fantasy apart? Does anything? In American bookstores, we witness confused conglomerations of shelving, such as “Sci-fi/Horror/Fantasy;” and numerous magazines claim to treat those three genres equally.

Does anything distinguish fantasy from other imaginative genres; vis-à-vis, does fantasy have value in its own right? Cabinet des Fées has recently published my essay on the value of fantasy.

What about you? What experiences and understanding do you only achieve through fantasy?

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    Gail .

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    Feb 26 2013: For me, Fairy Tales seem to address unspoken truths about our current existence. "The Emperor's New Clothes" tells us how our fears imprison us. "Henny Penny" tells us the dangers of being sheeple.

    Fantasy, on the other hand, seems to address our potentials. Who can doubt the effect that Star Trek (science fantasy) has had on our culture? Piers Anthony (also science fantasy) couches his aspirations in allegory, but what fascinating ideas he has, and some of them are ideas that science is BEGINNING to address (though I ddon't credit Anthony).

    Ultimately, the two become bridged as we evolve. Science Fantasy points to what is or may be real (aspirations), but they are not yet recognizable because of lack of science. It doesn't take science to tell me that if I fail to plant the seed, harvest the wheat, and bake the bread, I will not eat. ("Te Little Red Hen") That takes experience.

    I use fantasy as a tool, as do all those who say that they use a deliberate creative process to manifest their realities. Einstein used fantasy to explore alternatives when he saw how broken physics was. Fantasy is a powerful device when used to its advantage.
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    Feb 26 2013: Stories, whether fantasy or fairy tales, are meant to present a worldview: worthy examples and otherwise; different characters revealed through their responses to conflict. The purpose of the fairy tale is primarily to entertain and secondarily to teach moral lessons.
    Good stories can help us begin to explore an issue- but they cant be a substitute for insight or discussion.
    Fantasy and fairy tales are of great value; for what they teach, the way they provide moral bounds for a society and for providing a source of income to their creators and for sustaining a multi-billion dollar film industry.
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    Feb 26 2013: Fantasy is like you are the creator of your own world
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    Feb 26 2013: Fantasy is to reality as cool water is to parched lips.
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    Feb 26 2013: (Continued from previous comment)

    2) I like the term “Science Fantasy,” though I would personally rather use it to describe Star Wars than Star Trek. To me, the ideas which define science fiction are:

    a. Strong focus on the present or a possible future (whereas fantasy usually occurs in the past or in an alternate world where time flows differently).

    b. Strong focus on human potential. I especially refer to TED Lover’s comments here: Fantasy typically looks inward, to the human heart and mind, and to our relationships with each other. Science fiction looks outward, to the purpose and possibilities of humankind in a universe of increasing possibilities (increasing according to the sum of human knowledge and science). There is certainly overlap here. “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” looks both within the human heart and without towards human potential. However…

    The primary reason I draw these distinctions on paper is that they are already drawn in my mind. Those of you who have distinguished between fairy tales and fantasy probably do not enjoy them equally; I do. Likewise, I will presume that TED Lover enjoys fantasy and “science fantasy” equally; I do not. The distinctions I have given above are “technical” outward distinctions; the true genre distinctions are in my heart. Perhaps I have chosen these distinctions because I am introspective, a lover of history, and not as concerned about the future as most? I admit that I do not fully understand my distinctions any more than I fully understand my own heart.

    Can you name ways in which your genre distinctions are influenced by your inner perspectives?
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    Feb 26 2013: Thank you all for these thoughtful responses!

    It is interesting to me to note the differences between how you each define and distinguish between genres. For instance:
    1) Feyisayo distinguishes between fantasy and fairy tales, noting that the secondary purpose of fairy tales is to teach moral lessons; Fritzie does not draw such a strong distinction, saying only that fairy tales “often” teach moral lessons.
    2) TED Lover also distinguishes between fantasy and fairy tales, but then refers to “Science Fantasy” as a fantasy sub-genre.
    3) Everyone acknowledges that fantasy has intrinsic value.

    I point out the above so that we can better question ourselves: I believe that where you draw the lines between genres is determined by which lessons and experiences you find valuable in your reading. For example:
    1) I do not draw a line between fantasy and fairy tales, but rather say that fairy tales are one kind (a sub-genre) of fantasy. To me, fairy tales are mainly defined by their construction – the way in which the tale is told. For example, traditional fairy tales are always succinct prose narratives; this is true of them, but not of all fantasy. Many fairy tales do teach moral lessons, but many (and I have read very many) do not. The qualities which tie them together are, in my opinion, chiefly caught up in the idea of “actualized truth,” which I describe in my essay (see link in the prompt).

    (Running out of characters! Continue to next comment)
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    Feb 26 2013: The value of fantasy is in the reminder of the power of human mind to explore beyond the experienced. It is a necessary skill for the out of box thinkers who can see the unseen, think the unthought and speak the unspoken. Fantasy is certainly more than the territory of literature.
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    Feb 26 2013: Fantasy is, among other things, an effective way of visualizing alternatives, playing out scenarios. You are right that various genres provide this, fiction and non-fiction, because the value of a book to the individual is in the "conversaion" between the book and what the individual does with it in his imagination. Fantasy is often involved on the active reader's end, even if not particularly anticipated by the author.

    I think this is part of the reason fantasy is such a popular genre in reading and movies. Surrealism can capture some of this in art, though in reference to Feyisayo's note that fairy tales often have morals built in, surrealism may ask open questions and capture the interest of those who prefer open to closed questions, who don't prefer for others to offer particular resolutions for them.

    Fantasy is a genre that particularly causes the reader to break set, to think outside of normal boundaries of situation and behavior.