Sunday, 19 August 2007

Answers We Should Be Giving

To understand fantasy, one must firstly understand its enemy, and its enemy is not ‘reality’ whatever that may be, neither is fantasy someone’s laughably literal-minded idea of what constitutes 'magic'. In short, fantasy’s enemy is the kind of thinking that says ‘what I can see, what I can touch, that’s real’. One only has to think of the Dursleys in the Harry Potter books; there is no spiritual dimension for such people, there is no wonder in God’s creation because they will never accept or see what is not of their making, in their control, or in their direct understanding. And they can never understand the touch and the peace of the divine, or the heroic potential of the inner self. To represent such worlds, the world of the spirit and the psychology, fantasy uses magical worlds, the worlds of magic, of wonder. These are of course, in every way, ‘other’ worlds. We need faith to pass through, as we need faith to understand that there is more to reality than the seductive realm of the Possession; where the absence of the newest model of whatever coveted artifact (cars, food, phones) signifies absence of self in some way, (reducing of identity, of status). This is of course, exactly the world the Dursleys live in: the world of the mundane and material, of expensive cars and neat suburban homes.

Magic in these books, is of course a double edged sword; on the one hand it clearly signifies power and a certain kind of wisdom. Wizards are born, not made, that is clear. But to be a great wizard definitely signifies a mastery of the inner self, not of physical prowess. To produce a patronus, we need a happy memory, so we need to understand what happiness is to us, therefore we need to understand ourselves. Good readers of fantasy will be drawn into wondering what constitutes happiness for them, and about the power of positive thinking; they’ll start thinking about hope in a very sophisticated sense, and that will inevitably bring them to faith. Fantasy maps that journey with a metaphorical pen on a sort of paper called Destiny.
Poor readers of fantasy, on the other hand, will start wondering how cool they would look if they pointed a wooden stick at someone and shot out a silver animal at them.

Both Good and Evil can evil can master the inner self, which is why the Other world is always in peril, in some way a battlefield. Having faith is not the end of the journey; we need to know evil as it whispers in ourselves. I once read that in a fantasy novel, there is no character or place that does not symbolize something within a single human being. Elves and hobbits are two different faces of humankind…so are orcs. We are both Harry and Voldemorte. Stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia is only the first step, but if you can’t; if you get to that point and think “how stupid…how can a country exist inside a wardrobe?”, and toss the book over your shoulder in disgust…well, you haven’t even begun.

Thursday, 09 August 2007

The Painted Glass

My father recently took up reading the last two Harry Potter novels, rather defensively justifying himself by saying he ‘needed to know what happened’ and that the stories sustain their appeal through the drive of plot, which is to say that he adamantly denies that the stories are any kind of ‘good’ literature. I would agree that Rowling’s fantasy series doesn’t have the aesthetic literary quality of the canon; you cannot, as is at any point possible of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Charlotte Bronte, take out a single line and go ‘wow’. But not many who have read Rowling could deny that while reading the stories they were not utterly immersed in the world she created, or hopelessly compelled by the events she described and that, whatever else you may say about her, is story-telling at its most skilful. In fact if anyone really sits down to systematically consider what enthralled them so about the books, they might be amazed at the way Rowling’s story worked at them on a hundred different levels, and I am not just talking about plot. I am talking about her ability to make a story work and work well. Again this gets frustratingly confusable with canonical judgments, so let me rather put it this way: I am talking about the ability to make a story story good, not about good literature. But where then is the line over which one crosses into bad story? Where do the forces of subjective judging hold sway and when is something just irredeemably cheesy?

Anime here offers the most fascinating example of all. In particular I am referring to Naruto, but I think the series serves to demonstrate ideas that are peculiar to anime, not least because it is richly thematic and, like the Harry Potters, seemingly simple in its aesthetic.

Naruto makes use of the crude mechanisms of cartoons to convey some of its humour, but also has the full flush of epic in its emotional scope and thematic complexity. Being a fan of either can bring one to ‘the other side’, and this is where the mode’s genius and greatest disadvantage lies. It is difficult to ‘pass into’ a story, to go from being a mere spectator to an emotional participator in it, when the mode through which that story is conveyed is something like animation. It is difficult to take animation seriously on the level on which Naruto makes its emotional demands, which is sophisticated in both its depth and its complexity. This means that it is difficult to see the story for what it is, to pass through the painted glass that is the mode of story-ing, the animation, and breathe the living emotion that is so vibrant and astonishing behind.

The Painted Glass does not always take the form of crude artifice. I believe it is the obstacle of our prejudices, that keep us from ‘passing through’ into a story, an essential transformation if we are to access it at its most yielding, and only then, attain the authority to judge it fairly.