Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Best Fantasy Describes Reality

Fiction itself is born in fantasy. The millennia-old quarrel between Plato and Aristotle questions the source of “truth.” Plato insisted it resides only in the realm of history and fact. But Aristotle praised a poetic version of reality, one more coherent, credible, and causal than the randomness of whatever really happened.

Fantasy has its roots deep in this dispute. Great fantasy builds a credible world, reveals truths about our own, and gives us a fun read. “Dwarf and Dragon,” the second book of D. L. Burnett’s trilogy “In the Kingdom of Dragons,” does all of this and more.  

At the Chicago Book Expo in 2004, beloved author Ursula K. Le Guin told her audience this: “Fantasy is a literature particularly useful for embodying and examining the real difference between good and evil.”

Burnett’s novel accomplishes this by layering oaths, dilemmas, and inadvertent betrayal throughout. Is your loyalty to your people or to the mentor who helped you become a leader? Do you betray your husband or your moral code? Would you kill a friend who’s gone on a rampage that endangers lives? Can dragons, or dwarfs, or giantesses overcome their basic nature and achieve something gentler, more “human”?

Questions without easy answers generate terrific plotting and gorgeous writing. As the Dwarf army approached, “Their braided beards swung like pendulums across their chests.” They are defiant about reclaiming their homeland; they are unbeatable. Only a coerced marriage can save this people.

But this is a novel about loyalty—and love. The marriage begins with a Dwarf finding his spouse “a worthy diversion.” Sadly, he discovers that “’Human love is mist. What can I or any Dwarf know of it?...I am less welcome in your chamber than a winter wind….We cannot build a union upon a grave.’” But wait. Out of an ephemeral substance called Dripstone, he expresses his love through a sculpture he must carve and carve again. Will it move her? Read the book and find out.

LeGuin’s “Why are Americans afraid of dragons?”reminds us that “The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny. …For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true… it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.”

Author Maureen McHugh reminds all novelists to “Follow your weird.” Plato was wrong. Truth doesn’t “lie” in the fantastic. That’s where truth resides.

Tip: Regardless of genre, use your imagination to shape reality. That way you express the themes closest to your heart. 

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