I sat down intending to write about the environmental implications of genre fiction. Green fantasy, I was going to call it. Sort of like steampunk, maybe, just organic.
But as my thoughts gathered, I grew convinced that I couldn’t write that just yet. To me, environmentalism and sustainable living are linked to social justice. They’re ripples of the same eddy. We can’t justly explore the one without first more fully contemplating the other.
The Nazis, of all people, understood in their own twisted way the power of fantasy. They had an official policy on fairytales, erroneously believing them to be Aryan cultural relics (ironically, many European fairytales are Semitic in origin), capable of teaching Nazi propaganda.
Their interpretations of these stories sound—and were—reprehensible. But, nonetheless, they recognized that seemingly harmless stories about woodcutters and dwarves and frogs are in fact powerful social influences, stories which, if told, have the power to reconstruct the fabric of society.
At about the same time, socialist writers were predicting the rise of a new fairytale—tales of the industrial working class. Machines and tools would find voices of their own, they said, speaking new words of freedom and equality. From the ranks of the proletariat, new tales would arise, tales of their own. Wonder would appear in the streetlights, magic in the factories.*
I don’t know if this vision has ever been realized. But the concept remains true. Ultimately, fairytales will subvert the deceits of fascism. They will give the poor, the unemployed, the exploited, power to speak their own words, and find wonder in a windowless world.
The potency of fantasy is the evocative power of the human voice. The recognition of humanness fuels the conflict and deconstruction that is fantasy. Our words call into being worlds that have never existed. As Tolkien observed, we participate in the creative act. Speech conjures life.
Really, the best fantasy implies that the story always continues, the conflicts do not end forever, no matter how much has been achieved throughout the story. In other words, even in a world where our ideals have been realized, the human capacity for degradation still provides us with ample material for tension, conflict, and really awesome sword fights.
The speaking of creative words allows us to tear down as well as to build. As we sub-create, we challenge, question, deconstruct. What kind of world lies before us? Does it have the same problems as our own? Or have those problems been solved, with new problems appearing in their place?
For instance, is this a world that has moved beyond our problems of inequality and prejudice, of disrespect for humanness, but has developed problems of provincialism and complacency? Calmness before powerful words, ideas to shake the world reduced to status quo?
Could, perhaps, this complacency provide a varnish of excitement to those idealists who want to go back, to overturn present ideas, and extol the virtues and potentials of class-based system, segregation, robber baron capitalism, child labour?
Fantasy does not simply confront oppression with the presentation of utopia. It does not simply offer an imaginative escape from struggle. It clashes with the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed, restrains the oppressed who would turn and become an oppressor. To borrow Freire’s term, the creative speech of fantasy delivers reader and author alike from the fear of freedom. In restoring the dignity of humanness, fantasy restores the dignity of the world.
*For a much fuller treatment of Nazi and Bolshevik views on fairy tales, see Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (Routledge, 2006), pp. 137-168.