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On storytelling, fantasy and self

In the lead up to the publication of her first book - Starborn - later this year, Waterstones bookseller Lucy Hounsom shares her thoughts on the role of fantasy writing...

Posted on 15th January 2014 by Lucy Hounsom

The Owl Service

Awaiting my first ever professional editorial notes is a daunting as well as an exciting experience. I finished the first draft of my novel nigh on two years ago, and up until last August, I had to be my own editor. The book went through four drafts until it was hard to see the wood for the trees. So – although a bit nerve-racking – it’s a relief to finally share the burden of editing with someone undoubtedly better at it.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the nature of story and its place in the human psyche. I recently read The Voice That Thunders by master storyteller, Alan Garner. It’s a richly autobiographical book that explores concepts of writing, creativity, mythology, anthropology, language and mental illness. I found it moving and wholesomely thought-provoking. As a writer, Garner’s discussions of story and fantasy held a special resonance for me.

Stories are as old as the human race and are arguably the most powerful cultural forces in our world. They originated as learning at an elemental level: a means to impart wisdom without knowledge. Oral storytelling was a practice shared across the world from the Australian Aborigines to the Icelandic peoples – adults and children gathered around a fire to hear an elder unfold the archetypal lessons of life.

This tradition began long before words reached paper, but its ability to stimulate our imaginations and to further our understanding is phenomenal. Today in a world of offices, technology and high-speed living, a simple anecdote is still able to hypnotise us. It remains the most effective way to impart information, or a principle. There is something innately valid about stories. They are conveyors of myth: that essential half-truth left in the wake of our constant, forward journey.

Myth is the backbone of fantasy. J. R. R. Tolkien thought England was so lacking in a distinct mythology that he felt compelled to shape one, drawing on Norse and Old English texts such as the Elder Edda, Prose Edda and Beowulf. Incidentally, Penguin recently released an accessible five book series called Legends from the Ancient North: translations of the original narratives that inspired Tolkien.

Garner too drew heavily from myth, not least of all from the medieval Welsh tales known collectively as the Mabinogion. Speaking of his famous book, The Owl Service, he said:

"As with all the books so far, The Owl Service contains elements of fantasy, drawing on non-Classical mythological themes. This is because the elements of myth work deeply and are powerful tools. Myth is not entertainment, but rather the crystallisation of experience, and, far from being escapist, fantasy is an intensification of reality."

That last statement struck me as a compelling refutation of fantasy’s purely escapist label. Genre novels have a history of being dismissed as somehow less than their literary cousins. Why? Is it because they’re set so deeply in the imagination? Or that they sometimes feature a cast of non-humans, magic or far-fetched science? They certainly have a different feel, emphasising character-driven plot over literary introspection. But genre novels also push the boundaries of human imagination to greater heights.

Take an early example of science fiction: H. G. WellsThe Time Machine, published in 1895. Undoubtedly ahead of its time (excuse the pun), the book spawned generations of stories about the possibility of time travel. Simultaneously, it was an astute comment on class and human endeavour, painting an exaggerated – and frankly terrifying – picture of the distant consequences of a dysfunctional social structure.

Like such classics of science fiction, well-crafted fantasy can also be a means to explore the human condition. The Lord of the Rings is both a riveting, epic adventure and an extensive voyage into the nature of self. It’s my favourite book for a number of reasons. Near the top is Tolkien’s subtle handling of heroism in juxtaposing Frodo and Aragorn. Frodo’s quest is destructive; it can only end in his obliteration, or the Ring’s. Although he survives, the quest breaks him, and he’s unable to continue his life in the Shire. By contrast, Aragorn’s quest is healing; he seeks to unite the world in defiance of evil. Ultimately successful, he ushers in a new Age of peace and receives a hero’s rewards. You could argue that Aragorn is the true hero of The Lord of the Rings, but both quests must be completed in order to achieve victory.

Naturally, not all science fiction and fantasy writers are as accomplished as Wells and Tolkien, but I’ve often wondered why the genre appealed so much to me in my teens. I won’t deny that it did provide a kind of escapism during some difficult years. Good characters can act as mirrors. In their trials, we see our own. We travel with them; we feel with them. Perhaps we understand both ourselves and each other a little better after the last page is turned.

My point, however, is this: fantasy, like other genre writing, allows us the space to explore our selves in a world that isn’t quite the same as our own. Whether it’s an intensification of reality, as Garner argues, or simple escapism, the fact of its distance grants us a clarity that’s sometimes lost in the day to day business of our lives.

Lucy Hounsom, for Waterstones.com/blog

We'll have more from Lucy regularly as she gets closer to her publication date.

Find her previous columns here