The Importance of the Impossible
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The most playful genre

Posted by A.E. Marling in Why Fantasy

To spot certified Senior Fantasy Experts, pay close attention to persons garbed in refinement. They wear top hats to capture and hold their lofty ideas. Their monocles of x-ray vision allow for quick identification of secret passages in haunted mansions. And their walking sticks are in fact wizard staves sized for strutting. I asked this week’s panel of experts why the unreality of magic is so fascinating to people.

Because we all want to believe that the impossible is possible. If it is then our dreams really may come true some day.

Well, for me, it’s the wish that you could be special, could reach beyond what is to what could be. It comes down to power, I suppose. AMhairi_Simpson

I actually like my magic on the light side. It’s more the strange new worlds that attract me to SF/F.

We all have difficulties in our lives, but if a farm boy can defeat a dragon then our own problems might seem just a little more possible. Also, imagining ourselves using magic to solve our problems can be useful, if the impossible method turns out to be within reach after all, which I discussed last week.

People read fantasy for a variety of reasons. The genre is like a jewel, and it is not my intent to point to any one facet and claim it is the correct one. In high fantasy, magic systems are often complex and rigid, while in low fantasy magic plays a more subtle role and is more mysterious.

Sometimes I feel that pinning down what makes the genre captivating is like trying to catch a phoenix with a butterfly net. To assist in this difficult endeavor I will introduce Stuart Brown, M.D., who wrote the book PLAY: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul . Dr. Brown defines play as irrelevant, gratuitous, and utterly essential. (I love paradox.)

“When play is denied over the long term,” he writes, “our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.”

All work and no play makes Jack a suicidal boy. And I propose with its whimsy and impossibilities, fantasy is the most playful of genres. Stories of dragons and magic swords, of princesses and vampires, are reminiscent of make believe we enjoyed as children. Reading fantasy is mental play.

Dr. Brown maintains that the drive to play is inherent in mammals. Think of kittens playing with each other in mock fights, where neural maps are being formed in the cerebellum. A desire to play takes to the fore most often when we are well-fed and provided for, and if we do not get our daily dose of play we accumulate a play deficit, as much as sleep deficit.

So please, obtain your daily dose of fantasy today. Next week we will delve further into why play is useful and how it relates to fantasy. And I will leave you with another quote from Dr. Brown.

“It is the ‘meaningless’ moment that makes the day memorable and worthwhile.”

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