Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Question of Why

The HobbitOur book-filled house is, like so many, home to rows and stacks of jeweled Fantasy volumes. Successive versions of touchstone works are there, thirty-year-old, dog-eared, and travel-worn paperback editions of The Hobbit nestled near hard-bound commemorative editions, one a delight for memories of how we read back then, the other a monument to what that book means to us in a grander way. The kaleidoscope of the many colored Fairy books are beguilingly resting on one shelf, just at a child’s eye level, and all of Narnia frequently sits in our daughter’s hand in one volume, perfect for days of rain or travel. Our bedside tables are towers of weaving bookstacks, where Patrick Rothfuss and Connie Willis beckon and invite among Arthurian scholarship and Margaret Frazier mysteries. Mighty buttresses of Robin Hobb, George Martin, and Robert Jordan fill whole shelves in a reassuring statement that in our house, for many reasons, fantasy does matter and always has.

But in the last few months, this constancy and reassurance has been penetrated by one small, very large, question: why? That same daughter, who devours Lewis and has heard the words of so many tales at bedtime for years and consistently pursues stories beyond her age, has posed it several times and under different colors. Some are standard daddy-fare, and can be worked through with direct help from the books: are there really elves? If there are elves, then why aren’t they more angry that people live where they did? I think dragons are fierce and scary, but they are all old king dragons - why are there no dragon princesses? Others stretch into realms of literary criticism and philosophy, and leave the world of omniscient-appearing fathers far, far away: why aren’t all the faeries magical, or what else makes them faeries? Why did Boromir have to die? Why does Aslan let the White Witch be there so long if he can fix anything? These, though, are welcome questions that open the books to us and let us, as a family, dive into what we think about how worlds work. Book geek discussions with a precocious third grader are salve for the soul.

Yet the last “why” questions are ones that touch on the basis of the original Fantasy Matters conference, and now very much this site. My daughter’s reading and discussion and appreciation for fantasy as amazing stuff runs full force, each day, into general third grade devotion to Disney, and many of her peers belief that all “that stuff” is for little kids, and is all silly fairy tales, or worse. Her response to her friends, in perfect tone, has almost always been that she likes it and that is enough for her. But her response to herself has not been so strong, and her question to me has been the inescapable why: why do these stories and books matter if they aren’t about real things and are just old stories? In the moment she asked it, turning to gesture at the books around her, or talk about what the stories meant, seemed heavy handed, and I did not have the grace to quote about fantasy allowing us to fight dragons or triumph over evil (or, I suppose, indulge in being evil rather than our good selves). That playground comment inspired “why” hung in the air.

FaeriesThe answer, or at least the one that found me, was not in the stories or so much in fantasy proper, but was in the authors themselves. Asking her what she thought the people we read might say about whether fairy, I did at last turn to some of those shelves and piles and bastions of books. . .I pulled out two, Tree and Leaf by Tolkien (because I am a man of habit), and the anniversary edition of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, more for the reassurance of the beautiful drawings than anything else, or so I thought. I turned to the start of Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” and read, with our daughter, those magical self-deprecating words: “FaĆ«rie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read. . .I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or tresspasser) in the land, full of wonder, but not of information.” We talked about the whole beauty and sweep of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and how beautiful and complex and wonderful and frightening it is, and how this one person imagined and created this full and brilliant place. While we did, and my daughter looked through the Faeries book, I remembered something about Jane Yolen’s introduction that might matter, too. My daughter read it aloud to me, being unwilling to let go of the book: “I remember the first time I saw Faeries in a bookstore, where it seemed to leap into my hands without me actually willing it, instantly becoming the mainstay of my fairy-tale library. It proved to me that an artist (or writer) could start with folklore and then make imaginative leaps with sensibility, nonsense-ability, humor, wit, and charm.”

Then, the answer arrived in full, as we talked about what that meant. What makes fantasy matter for my daughter, at least for right now in answer to her classmates’ questions, is the writers, and how they imagine and craft and write stories that are their own, and our own, from whatever fairy tale “stuff” was before. For her, right now, fantasy doesn’t so much provide a vehicle for slaying dragons of her own, or a glass for viewing a world that is better or worse than our own, or even a stage to cast whatever arch-enemy she may have in real life as the nemesis in the tale. Right now, fantasy matters because it is where good writers make good stories. And in many ways, all those fantasy books that fill our house matter for exactly the same reason.