by C. M. Barrett, Rated G
When I was eight years old, my father brought home a library book: The Abandoned, by Paul Gallico.
It’s the story of Peter, a lonely boy in London, whose parents are never home. Though he longs for a cat, his nanny won’t allow it. One day, entranced by the sight of a kitten across the road, he runs towards it and is hit by a truck. When he wakes up, he has turned into a cat—but he needs the help of an alley cat named Jennie to learn how to become a true feline.
As a cat-loving child who’d also not been allowed to have one, I got lost in the story at once. I’d never read a fantasy novel before, and it ruined me for the bland books recommended for children my age.
I didn’t want to read about children or teenagers who lived in the same kind of dull suburbia that I did. I searched for books that took me to worlds—whether on this planet or others—where magic could happen. Assisted by the town librarians who graciously accommodated my passion for reading and parents who didn’t believe in censorship, I discovered Jonathan Swift, Tolkien, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Greek, Roman, and Celtic myths.
By the time I was in junior high school, I read at a college level. I thank Paul Gallico and The Abandoned for setting me on the path to appreciate not only fantasy but many kinds of fiction.
Some might argue that childhood exposure to any form of literature can fire up the reading habit, and I would encourage children to read widely in many genres. Yet I think fantasy has a special ability to stimulate the imagination.
Part of the magic of fantasy is that it gives us tickets to travel to worlds very different from our own. I believe that this has never been more necessary. We live in a world that has grown increasingly more homogenized and in many ways predictable.
The news we read is geared to the lowest common denominator. People are far more likely to turn on the television than to open a book. Many U.S. politicians adopt the rhetoric of idealizing the 1950s, the era thought by many to have ushered in the ideal of conformity.
With fantasy, we explore not only other physical dimensions but other ways of thinking and being. Some of the most notable fantasy writers use that distant perspective to cast new light on issues in our world.
Consider Ursula LeGuin’s pioneering novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. The inhabitants of the planet Gethen have sexual identities only when they enter kemmer, a state that ignites the urge to mate. People briefly become either male or female, depending on the partners’ mutual chemistry. As a result, one person may be a father to some children and a mother to others.
LeGuin suggests that the overall genderless state of the population removes the incentive for male domination, female submission, and the cultural limitations that result from these states. Published in 1969, at the onset of the feminist movement, The Left Hand of Darkness remains a provocative novel about gender and its effects on society.
Another fantasy classic focuses on the women left on the sidelines in most retellings of the Arthurian legends. The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, brings to life the struggle of the Celtic matriarchal culture to survive the incursions of patriarchal Christianity. As well as highlighting the fact that women once had far more power and respect than they do now, the book also reminds the reader that Christianity was once an upstart religion with sometimes-dubious credentials.
In more recent times, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series describes a world that is not only flat but which rests on four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle. This marks only the beginning of Pratchett’s comic and imaginative romps.
The author is also gifted with a deep humanity. Many of the novels in the series deal with resistance to the integration of non-human species—dwarves, trolls, vampires, and werewolves—into the social fabric. The human reactions to these “immigrants” highlight many aspects of prejudice.
The inspiration of these and other visionary authors helped me choose to write fantasy. My first journey began when I wondered what might happen in a society—somewhat like our own—where emotional intelligence and intuition were sacrificed at the altar of reason and logic.
What fate would befall strongly intuitive people? How would people regard animals and the world of nature? And what might result if beneath all that logic and reason there lurked a consuming fear of a dragon who lived not far from civilization, a dragon that no one actually knew anything about?
In the first book, Big Dragons Don’t Cry, all that can save a nation of clueless humans is taking a few steps towards recognizing animals, especially the dragon they fear and loathe, as fellow citizens of their world. In following books, four main characters (a dragon, a cat, and two humans) chase drug dealers, kidnappers, and dragons who give new meaning to the word, “underground.” Their journeys follow inner as well as outer paths, and most of the monsters they uncover live inside them.
Having no interest in presenting thinly disguised political manifestos, I write fantasy primarily to entertain. However, in fantasy, entertainment and enlightenment, if not twins, are often related.
Humankind needs fantasy authors whose original, bizarre, and often whacked-out minds dare to create realities very far from the ordinary. At the same time, we need their ability to imagine daring solutions to the problems we face here on twenty-first century Planet Earth: overpopulation, intolerance, and ecological disaster.
Einstein said that we can’t solve a problem at the level where we created it. Fantasy takes us to mythical worlds and provides a way for looking at our own world from a new and far more creative perspective.
C. M. Barrett lives and writes in upstate New York. She is the author of the series, A Dragon’s Guide to Destiny and other books.
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