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.
KristaWayment

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.
GoblinWriter

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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8 Responses

  • This is an excellent post – thank you for including me! It’s great to see a psychological (i.e. scientific) perspective on fantasy. Great stuff!

  • Kelson Lucas says:

    Awesome post. I loved quote by Dr. Brown. Play is vital to a happy life. Fantasy and science fiction raises the bar for what is possible (or impossible). I shall endeavor to play every day. Keep that nasty deficit low and sated. Looking forward to more great material.

  • Lindsay B says:

    Thanks for including me. 🙂 I like the idea of asking folks for opinions on a topic via Twitter and then doing a blog post including everyone. Might have to steal it!

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  • Christina Kessler says:

    I have that book on my shelf right now! I haven’t read it yet. You are correct, play is essential. I would challenge, however, that the idea that “work” and “play” are somehow separate entities is incorrect. Play is not just having fun, or a break from learning. Play IS learning. All mammals do it because all mammals need to learn. Those kittens searing my eyeballs with their cuteness are having fun AND they are improving coordination, muscle strength, fighting tactics, and social templates. They go together. It’s only in adult humans that we distinguish learning and play. They go together. Personally, I think adults would be better off if we didn’t constantly try to separate them!

    In applying this to the fantasy genre, enjoying reading fantasy (“playing”) does not mean you aren’t dealing with important mental concepts (“learning”). Fantasy, as you have said elsewhere, helps us understand the real world by creating something that isn’t real. I would argue that the playful factor is necessary to learn, not an adjunct to it.

    Not all books we read are “fun,” but not all play is fun either. The idea that play = happiness is a nostalgic adult concept. I watch children playing every day. Play is hard, exciting, enjoyable, sad, peaceful, frantic, and so frustrating you end up screaming! Play isn’t about having fun, it’s about learning. Even “easy” play that is done for sheer delight is usually exploring mastery in something that was once “difficult” play.

    I’m enjoying following your blog! Rock on!

    • A.E. Marling says:

      So glad you posted, Christina.

      In the book Play, by Dr. Brown, he emphasizes the importance of motivation for play. For instance, if you play a game with the exclusive desire to win, your enjoyment may be less than if you played just because you love the game. Also, if you do an activity, game or otherwise, because you know playing is essential and you’re forcing yourself to play, then that regimented activity may be slipping out of the category of play. That we gain additional benefits from play is why we were evolutionarily hardwired to pursue it.

      It should be mentioned that play means different things to different people. I’m glad to hear that learning is and ends unto itself for you, though others will legitimately enjoy activities focused on other elements. I would say that running is a form of play for me at this point.



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