It’s time to chase a butterfly with a torpedo, I think. Not because we’re so dead set against butterflies. (I rather like them myself—excellent with a bit of butter.) Because we’ve realized the butterfly is really a distant dragon.
That’s why I’m going back to that cartoon again. Hey, it’s a cartoon! It’s about little stick people, and it’s actually pretty funny as far cartoons about little stick people go. So what if a cartoon tries to undermine my views on fantasy? Not everyone needs to share my views, right?
Right. But the view inherent in the cartoon is, in my opinion, substantially endemic in our thinking about fantasy and fairytales in general. It’s not that it’s not what I think. It represents a social accumulation of misinformation that we can and should subvert with truth. The butterfly may well be a dragon.
In an earlier post, I explained how the cartoon offers a version of the Experience—the popularized existential leap into nonreason. The self forges an identity out of whatever exceptional, transcendental, or absurd experience that comes to hand. A portal, a joint, a murder. The self-authenticating act of the will is the nonrational vindication that we are. Therefore we can live.
After his Experience, our little stick hero gripes, ‘This’ll be a fun 70 years.’ He may have discovered that he’s not ‘a loser’ like he feared—but what difference does it make? What, in other words, is the good of Experience?
The complexities of certain existential thought can address and move beyond this question. Pop-existentialism rarely does. So as a philosophic illustration, the cartoon’s not a bad one. Is one Experience really enough? If not, life is hard pressed to be a continual string of Experiences.
But the cartoon aligns fantasy literature in general with Experience. And that’s its mistake.
In fantasy writing, we feel the tension of the absurd. Something is broken, utterly broken. The world is a farce of order, chaos colliding in irrational discord with nothing in particular. And our own lives—what of them? We live, we work, we love, we eat—but why?
Dictators rush forward to rip this steady life away from us, to give us instead a dehumanizing shattering of ourselves. People rise to the heroism, die to save others, fight and conquer and die. And the forces of darkness fall back, defeated. The forces of light settle into living, working, loving, eating all over again.
The point, Camus said, is to live. Life itself is the point. We live our lives even though we know they mean nothing—because life itself makes life worth living.
And that’s why we write fantasy. We create worlds where wonder is easier to see, where questions can take different forms, where the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’ are not at once known as this ‘I’ and that ‘Thou’, so we can, in a way, meet them again. We’re trying to discover what about life makes life worth living—even in the face of the absurd.
All our lives we’re reaching, feeble grasps after what we’re not sure. One experience in itself won’t do. We’ll constantly be grasping for something other. But what if we grasp something that lets us suddenly and forever see the wonder around us to be grasped? What if for a moment we do become the most important person in some world—not so we can hang our heads in despair, or embrace the bliss of forgetfulness, but so that we can realize in ourselves the promise and importance of every individual?
In fantasy we reach farther than perhaps we can on our own. We need not be made rich to see the world a richer place. We need, perhaps, only a glimpse of a different kind of wealth.
Torpedoes at the ready—here comes the butterfly. This one’s for meaning and wonder…