Instead of writing one of my long and pointless essays or converse with the close-minded and autoreferential game community, I’ll offer the perspective of those who actually know better what fantasy is because they work with it at a deeper level.
The typical answer is that people are searching for ‘escape.’ Fantasy represents, many would say, a retreat from the harsh world of competition and commerce. Another answer is that fantasy provides, like much fiction, a specific kind of wish-fulfillment. Fantasy allows us, for a time, to be the all-conquering warrior or the all-wise sorcerer. The problem is that neither of these answers in any way distinguishes fantasy from other genres of literature. Fantasy, I would like to suggest, offers a very specific kind of escape and wish-fulfillment, one connected, moreover, to its profound role in the great machine which we call contemporary culture.
Fantasy, I will argue, is the primary literary response to what is often called the ‘contemporary crisis of meaning.’ And as such, fantasy represents a privileged locus from which one might understand what is going in our culture in general.
Reading fantasy represents the attempt to give meaning to one’s life by forgetting, for a time, the world that one lives in. In the escape offered by fantasy one glimpses the profound dimensions of our modern dilemma. Fantasy is the primary expression of a terrible socio-historical truth: the fundamental implication of our scientific culture is that life is meaningless.
It’s not a case that also his books deal deeply with religion and philosophy.
From my own point of view there are truths in what he says, but it’s not that truth that is at the basis of fantasy. Younger readers (and gamers) don’t go that deep, and an explanation of the success of fantasy comes from there. Something that must be more visceral and accessible. Not something more delicate and complex like the reasons that Bakker explained.
So to complete those thoughts I’ll quote another of these great modern writer, another I named on this site already a few times: Steven Erikson.
I have two answers, one intellectual, one visceral. I’ll take ’em in order. Intellectually, the Fantasy genre is the only genre (and I include literary fiction as a genre) where a writer can take a metaphor and make it real, which for me is as creatively liberating as I can get.
And that’s it. Nailed in the head (for the visceral one, follow the link).
This is not the first time I write down a similar concept (last time was a few months ago writing about Marvel’s Civil War). Men are symbolic beings. So we eat and breath symbols. This links to what Bakker said because religion can offer the strongest symbols but the religion itself is not the key. Symbols in general are the key. The ease of communication.
At the end fantasy is a genre, but also a medium to communicate. As Erikson says, the main trait of this medium is that there no displacement between the message and the meaning. The metaphor is real. So it’s one of the most direct way of communicating. It’s effective, without frills, without superstructures. Usually you read or hear stories but you have to extract the meaning (symbol) yourself. Fantasy can deliver the symbol in the pure form. It’s powerful, not ambiguous. And exactly for this reason it’s transversal in the possible audience. Children will get it, adults will get it.
That’s the foundation. Then there are other, smaller reasons. For example fantasy is somewhat part of out history. The medieval world, lack of technology. It’s a step back to a kind of world we feel we actually relate better to, understand better. Direct relationship with the territory (and death, life, everything inbetween). So even in this case it’s more straightforward and visceral, common and accessible to everyone.
And now there are subgenres spinning off in all directions, which is both a good and a bad thing to my mind: good in that the genre is robust enough to spawn new tropes; bad in that a kind of segregation forms, where writers of a particular subgenre virtually cease reading fantasy works in the other subgenres and in the genre as a whole. As in science, specialization breeds isolation and before you know it, we’re all running blind and ignorant of everything else that’s going on around us. Huh, maybe like me.