My middle son is doing an MA in music, so for his final project he decided to explore the role of fantasy in society. True to time-honoured student tradition, he emailed home for help. "Naturally we all need to relax and we all love escapism," he wrote, "but the important question is why? You're a fantasy writer, mum, got any ideas?"
Creating a definition for what I have done for years by instinct is a bit of a tall order, but this is what I came up with:
Fantasy is vital for the human mind. It begins as the psychological process by which a child learns to fill the gaps between knowledge, reality and experience, and becomes a vital adult coping mechanism.
When we were small children, trying to get to sleep, a creaking floorboard was really spooky. Who or what could be making the noise? The only way to make sense of the experience, for which there was no "certain"answer, was to fantasise: there's a pirate or a burglar, or more probably a crocodile under the bed.
Children scare themselves silly like this, but while they have no knowledge of central heating pipes swelling, they have to engage with make-believe to bridge the gap between experience and knowledge. As time passes and children learn about the effect of heat on pipes and floorboard, they will often prefer the crocodile theory. Fear, within a safe context, is fun.
Children are born with the full spectrum of human emotions, wild, exciting, passionate, vigorous, totally irrational and raring to go. But they are also inexperienced and longing to explore their feelings. This is why they need to be scared and fantasy is an excellent, "safe" way to do it - going out to find real crocodiles to play with is neither practical nor safe.
Fantasy offers children a rehearsed exploration of the too big, too wide, too dangerous world that is getting closer and more real every day. But fantasy needn't just be dungeons and dragons - it can be any element of pretend. This is why as they grow, children need stories that include divorce, bereavement, war, falling in love, becoming a hero and saving the world.
These provide developing emotions with a contextual framework within which to awaken and limber up, ready for "real life" when it hits.
Most importantly, fantasy isn't just for children. Becoming a teenager, rites of passage, facing failure and defeat, coming to terms with betrayal and disappointment - all the stuff of emerging adult life also has to be faced and coped with. Psychoanalysis and counselling have their place, but the most important tool we as humans have to tackle reality, is the creation of metaphor - the allegorical story.
Louis Sachar's Holes is a brilliant modern exposition of this, but the best ones are those we choose or make up for ourselves. A friend who is a child psychologist was treating a boy who'd been abused by a relative. The child loved this person, and was confused and hurt by what had happened, so my friend wrote him a story about a fox cub that loved his uncle, a wolf. One day, the wolf hurt him. The fox remembered the love, but he also understood that wolves were dangerous, and had to be avoided. The child went away with the tools to reconcile the irreconcilable.
Taking one step away from reality to that "safe" place of pretend, prepares us to look the world's harsh realities in the face. From there we can name the horrors and celebrate the joys before going back, with a clearer perspective on situations that bother us.
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