A long long time ago, in a Fantasyland far far away
The purpose of this blog is to put forth one vision of Fantasy as a broad literary choice, rather than a pigeonhole for predefined content. My point of view is that you are writing Fantasy as soon as your story takes you 1) far away 2) in the past. Here are my collected thoughts on this subject, although the very fine line between this particular view of Fantasy and History will be a matter for another post.
The idea of the past may seem self-obvious, but when you think about it, it begs for further qualification. The day before yesterday is in the past and everyone knows this is not what we are talking about here. It has to be much farther away in time, possibly at least several Ages; swords and mail are a staple of imaginative Fantasy for a reason. This particular quality of Fantasy stories is coincidental, however, given that the powerful and heroic themes associated with medieval literature are certainly not exclusive to it (other than in their specific combination, I guess). An imaginative mind could certainly create an interesting world featuring muskets and tricorne hats instead of blades and helms. Perhaps this even exists already (I hope it does).
Yet it still feels as though genuine Ancientness has better value. One could just say that swords are cool, and I would heartily agree, but I would ask in the same breath: why are swords cool? What kind of author’s choice do they imply? They remain a mere token, a by-product of a bigger picture.
Every good writer knows that you can handle myths through a modern narrative (Michel Tournier‘s Le Roi des Aulnes being a phenomenal demonstration). That is because myths are what they are: universal stories about the human experience. On this particular point, however, I must shamelessly vouch for Fantasy’s utter superiority. The past is the best vehicle for mythical stories because they can actually play the game of telling the origin of these myths, or at least the earliest forms apparently known. Who can claim doing better than that? This idea of a primeval form, or even perhaps a true meaning, of a familiar and universal human narrative is instinctively appealing. Ergo, we have allegories and religions, but they represent extreme (and opposite) cases which do not interest me much, the former being dishonest, the latter being… what it is. In any case, I wonder if this is not what Tolkien meant when he identified recovery as a positive trait of fairy-stories (that must be presented as true). I certainly believe that you can understand this quality in such light. I have interpreted the power of magic as a kind of recovery, instead of a simplistic disguise for technology.
It seems therefore that in Fantasyland, the older (relative to the reader), the potentially better (for mythical power).
I think this Remoteness in time is just a special case of Remoteness in general. Remoteness and Ancientness are natural allies and I suggest that this is exactly what Fantasy tries to capture. Of course, both themes may be exploited independently. I believe it only requires the former to qualify for a fairy tale. Pan’s Labyrinth is quite typical, though contemporary: in 1944 fascist Spain, a girl discovers a hidden world full of wonders, sometimes dangerous ones. By this place’s quality of being somewhere else, in fact anywhere else, than her cruel and oppressive environment, it is sufficient to be powerfully bewitching, given the promises it holds. Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major is timeless, but it is an enchanting tale of discovering by chance and then accepting a beautiful and mysterious other-world. ‘Once upon a time’ is a tried and true formula that enables this necessary distance by virtue of being unfathomable.
Fantasy is therefore old, and thus by design unreachable, a good condition for its desirability and mythical power.
That shalt not — or else thou shalt depart beggared into endless regret. The gentlest ‘nursery-tales’ know it. Even Peter Rabbit was forbidden a garden, lost his blue coat, and took sick. The Locked Door stands as an eternal Temptation.
— JRRT, On Fairy-Stories