The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Realities Behind Fantasy Literature

When I was young, most of the books I read were fantasy novels, as I was easily whisked away by wizards, talking animals, and castles in imaginary lands. I’m not sure when I started favoring more realistic fiction, but when I saw that Ursula Le Guin’s novel, A Wizard of Earthsea was on our Big Read list, I was reminded of the joy of reading fantastic literature. A fantasy author has the power to create a completely new world filled with inventive places, creatures, and magical objects. But have you ever wondered how these unique worlds come into being? The imagination is a powerful tool, and I was fortunate enough to discuss the creative process with Dr. Gary K. Wolfe, an expert editor and critic of science fiction and fantasy literature. A professor of humanities at Roosevelt University, Wolfe has been honored with the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, and two Hugo Award nominations. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

NEA: Earthsea, Hogwarts, Westeros. Where do fantasy authors find inspiration for the worlds they create?

GARY K. WOLFE: They find a lot of inspiration in a long tradition of fantasy literature. Pretty much all the writers I know grew up reading some of the classics, from The Wind in the Willows to authors like Lewis Carroll. Beyond that, I think it varies widely from one writer to the next. Ursula Le Guin, for example, grew up in a family where both her parents were anthropologists, so she learned a lot about the way societies are structured, and the way symbol systems are structured. That's probably a little bit more sophisticated than many earlier writers, but it's not as though any of these writers are inventing this from whole cloth. I think Ursula started with the fact that she's always read fantasies in which wizards were old and wise, and she wanted to know where they came from, so she started thinking about where they might be trained. There are a lot of writers who had done that sort of thing well before Harry Potter, but she was certainly one of the first.

NEA: Most fantasy novels have maps either at the beginning or throughout the book. Are these drawn up out of thin air, inspired by real places, or a combination of both?

WOLFE: That's an interesting tradition, and it probably started with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. His maps are clearly some version of England, just altered. Later writers wanted to kind of move away from that and invent their own territory. In Le Guin’s case, I don't think Earthsea is inspired by a real place. She has an archipelago, so there are lots of locations and lots of ways to separate it. There is, however, the other extreme. There's a fantasy writer named Guy Gavriel Kay that wrote really brilliant novels about an imaginary country he calls, "Kitai," which is clearly China, and the maps he has in his novels are basically maps of China with the regions re-labeled.

NEA: Le Guin is noted for inventing a series of new plant names. When it comes to naming a place, object, or colloquialism, how are these created?

WOLFE:  In Le Guin’s particular case, I think some of it has to do with her familiarity with Native-American mythology and nomenclature. Again, that goes back to having a father that was a famous anthropologist. Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, had written a book called, Ishi: The Last of His Kind, which was about the last tribal member of the Yahi tribe. He actually lived with the Kroebers for a while, so Ursula picked up some ideas from Native Americans, and some from Europeans.

I think in her case, she's trying to avoid looking too much like she's writing a version of England or a version of Europe. The names and terms are not easily traceable, where in a lot of fantasy novels, the names sound vaguely Celtic, or very vaguely Irish. That’s the influence of Tolkien, but a lot of it is the earlier influence of things like the Norse Sagas, which were very important to the development of fantasy literature. A lot of Northern European mythology is what lies behind Tolkien, William Morris, and many of the classic fantasy writers.

Le Guin is trying to avoid that, I think. The other thing that works with her names is that she makes them easy to remember and easy to pronounce, so that you do have a sense of what these places are like without having too many associations with real places. I think a good fantasy writer tries to keep you from translating her or his fantasy worlds into just a version of something that you recognize, with exceptions like Kay, who really wants you to know that this is China he's writing about.

NEA: What are some of your favorite worlds created by science fiction and fantasy authors?

WOLFE: Earthsea is definitely one of them. I'm also very fond of Le Guin's science fiction series set in a huge galactic empire which she calls the "Ekumen.” It’s a very clever word, because it suggests "Ecumenical," which is partly what it means, but it suggests something alien as well.

Certainly I love Middle-earth, from Tolkien, as well as one of the great creations, Terry Pratchett's Discworld. I think one of the appeals of these books is the sense that you can actually navigate these places, and that they're not completely psychic inventions, but places that you'd like to go.

NEA: On that note, what is your opinion of film adaptations?

WOLFE: There was a terrible Syfy channel adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea. All the characters were turned into Caucasians, and it just looked like any generic place. I think it was a mistake, even, to make movies out of C.S. Lewis's NarniaNarnia was a terrific place to imagine, and then as soon as it's on the screen it looks like the forests of France. It loses a lot of its magic. There's an argument to be made against trying to make too visual something which invites the reader to create a world on their own. Trying to replace your vision of that world with a director's vision of that world is always going to disappoint.

It's interesting; there have been a number of good science-fiction film adaptations, but not that many good fantasy adaptations. I think it may have to do with its very nature. Science fiction deals with a physical, believable universe. The iconography of it is something we all understand: spaceships and robots and alien planets. A fantasy novel is a completely invented world, and part of the joy of reading it is the participation in the creation of the world.

You also can't assume you know a story because you've seen the movie version of it, and that's especially true for sci-fi and fantasy. I like the Lord of the Rings movies, but a lot of my favorite characters weren't in them. I've also heard a lot of young people say you don't have to read a book because you've seen the movie, and that's just absolutely wrong.

NEA: What was it that drew you to science fiction and fantasy as a focus for your career?

WOLFE: I didn't exclusively read science fiction and fantasy, but there was a sense, especially starting when I was a kid, of thinking, "Okay, this is a possible world I'm going to be living in. All this, going to the moon and flying cars, is going to happen, so I want to know about it now." And then after a while, I think you outgrow that and realize there are ways of commenting on the world that are free from restrictions. One of the early examples of science fiction, which is on the Big Read list, is Fahrenheit 451, and that was a very interesting way of commenting on censorship and hyper-conformity in a way that, during the McCarthy era, you probably couldn't have gotten away with in more realistic fiction. It sort of liberates your imagination and takes things out of the historical moment, making them more universal and abstract.

NEA: For someone who's new to the genre, can you recommend any authors or titles that would be good entry points?

WOLFE: I think science fiction, more than fantasy, sometimes gets too sophisticated for its own good. There are some very complex ideas out there which science-fiction writers are familiar with, and which new readers can have a hard time getting into. Certainly Le Guin is one of the better entry points for both; the fantasy of The Wizard of Earthsea and the science fiction of her classic book, The Left Hand of Darkness, are very accessible. This sounds obvious, but certainly The Hobbit is a way of getting into the genre.

You have to read enough novels to understand what you like and don't like. Not everyone is going to like every type of fantasy or science fiction, and the field now is so broad that I don't think there's a single work that represents all of it. Now we have steam punk and vampire fantasies. If someone gets started with Twilight, which is very formulaic, I'd recommend they go back and take a look at Dracula or Stephen King's Salem's Lot. There are really powerful vampire novels out there---you need to move beyond the most obvious.

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