05 February 2010

Fantasy: A Connection with Our Mythic Past

I've been reading an interesting book lately, Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, by Richard Mathews. In chapter one he talks about the origins of literary fantasy.

Fantasy was pervasive in early human cultures. Mathews makes the case that the "...the literary paths of realism and fantasy began to diverge in the 1600s as new systems of learning from the Renaissance brought about a rejection of superstition in favor of science and reason. Until the scientific method began to tame and frame the world, the human imagination had had free rein to explain mundane reality by referring to supernatural forces. ...The great resources of human reason gradually reduced the number of acceptable explanations, however, leaving less room for unrestrained belief and imagination."

And, thus, based on this new science and reason, literary realism was born. "The widespread interest in and market for stories of real life with ordinary, believable characters grew and flourished concurrently with the increasing dominance of the scientific method, the expansion of the industrial revolution, and the unfolding of related historical developments, including changes in printing and publishing technologies, increasing literacy, and a rising middle class."

Mathews says, "Fantasy as a modern literary category all its own took shape through a dialectic with this new literature of realism. The ...modern authors who crafted fantasy as an alternative literary form ...understood that they could create a complex and appealing counterpoint to popular fiction...by imbuing their writing with ancient human impulses toward myth...
The emergence of realism as the mainstream focus for the literary imagination created a clear dialectical pole against which the fantasy genre could counterthrust as a specialized mode of fiction."

So, who knew? Every time we partake in literary fantasy we are experiencing the ancient human paradigm of myth. What do you think?


fairyhedgehog said...

It's interesting to think that fantasy came first.

Boudica said...

Ursula Le Guin's being saying the same thing for years. I don't necessarily think everything that is fantasy is mythic, but the best of it is.

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