How the world became hooked on fantasy

IF you’re not a big fan of fantasy and despair at all the wizards and dragons on TV, on film and in books, then you should blame John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Or, go back 1,000 years and blame the unknown author of Beowulf, with its monsters and kings. Or, go back another two millennia and blame Homer’s epic tales of gods and heroes.

How the world became hooked on fantasy

Or, you could blame the recession. After all, the fantasy genre offers a perfect way for people to escape reality, with all of its financial doom and gloom. Publishing houses and movie studios have ramped up their fantasy output since the depression began five years ago. For instance, audiences have flocked to the book stores and the cinema houses in record numbers.

In 2011, we snapped up 17.4m cinema tickets, ranking us 29th in the world. And what type of films are the biggest draw? Of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time, only three — Titanic, Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises — are set in the real world; two others are pure fantasy — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King; and two more are superhero flicks – The Avengers and Iron Man 3 — which is just a sub-genre of fantasy anyway. Seven of the top 10 films were released since the world economy went bust in 2008.

To qualify as fantasy, a work of fiction must be written in broad strokes, featuring grand themes and employing everything and anything to drive the narrative. This means mythical creatures can exist and the laws of physics take a holiday.

Though video games fall under the action-adventure genre, they too share a common trait with fantasy – wish-fulfilment. Titles such as Grand Theft Auto V and Call of Duty: Black Ops II offer players the chance to be someone else, to go where and do what they like, up to and including killing another character. Both of these games were released this year and left movie executives green with envy as they both took in more than $500m in 24 hours. Any film would be termed a box-office hit with that haul after four or five months on cinematic release.

Meanwhile, cinema’s closest relation, television, features the fantasy series Game of Thrones, which was the second most talked-about TV show in Ireland after the ubiquitous Love/Hate. Swords and sorcery played second fiddle to drugs and death. But the success of Game of Thrones has shown that viewers have a huge appetite for epic fantasy on television, an appetite that hasn’t been sated since the 1990s, a time when teenage witches, vampire slayers and warrior princesses were given prime-time slots.

Despite all of this evidence, people are still slow to admit their enjoyment of the fantasy genre, especially in its literary outings. Perhaps they think fantasy books are those forlorn copies gathering dust in back alley shops. Perhaps they consider fantasy always features impenetrable plots playing out over thousands of years and across many mythical worlds. Or perhaps they refuse to term some of their favourite writers as the authors of fantasy. JK Rowling, Eoin Colfer, George RR Martin, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are fantasy authors who have sold tens of millions of books.

Lots of people claim that they don’t like “all that fantasy stuff”, yet chances are that they have read at least one of the seven Harry Potter novels or the four Twilight books; that they have gone to the cinema and watched a group of people, including a green monster and a god, band together to save mankind (Avengers); and that they have tuned in as winter threatens Westeros (Game of Thrones).

For those few who have avoided the list above, the simple truth is that we all like fantasy, some more than others. We, as humans, need fantasy. It allows us to temper reality. We daydream, we fantasise, we wish for things to be true. We watch TV soaps, read about celebrities, listen to gossip, and browse Facebook profiles. We select nuggets from the lives of others that we wish were part of our own. This is a truly human trait.

Fantasy novels say as much about reality as any other literary genre. Just because it is wrapped in strange worlds and features bizarre creatures and demands that we suspend our disbelief does not belittle it or dilute its power. This is as true today as it was when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, and before Homer wrote The Iliad. It is as true today as it was when the first spoken tales of gods and monsters, heroes and dragons helped people to forget all about harsh reality — if only for a little while.

* Mrs God by Mark Evans is available for download on Amazon (€3.99) and in paperback at Liam Russell bookshop, Cork, and Midleton Books, Midleton, Co Cork, (€14.99).

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