How to tell Good Fantasy from Bad Fantasy
A literary authority (to me)
My mum can't stand fantasy, because it isn't real. If you ask her about fantasy, she'll complain about magic spells and monsters and elves and hobbits and whatnot.
My mum is one of the smartest people I know. She has a PhD (Petrarch et le Pétrarquisme avant le Pleiade if you're interested), and has read way more books than I have. She's tried all the great fantasy books, and read C S Lewis as a child - but thought of it as more of a fairytale.
So why would someone with such broad and well educated literary tastes detest fantasy? Is it because it's unreal, or doesn't try to be real? Is it because it's escapist or trivial?
Or is it because a lot of fantasy is bad fantasy?
The Two Towers
There are two distinct fantasy paradigms, and any fantasy from high, through epic, to urban, naturalistic or magical realism, is based in one of the two. To a less prominent extent, most Science Fiction also fits into one of these two.
One is Fantasy as Agency, the other Fantasy as Environment
In Fantasy as Agency, fantastical elements are built into the plot. The most common form of this is of fantastical elements acting as a means to and end; it's necessary to acquire and master them to be able to complete the quest.
In Fantasy as Environment, fantastical elements are part of the landscape, part of the everyday activities of people going about their daily lives; to complete his quest, the hero will encounter both fantastical and non-fantastical obstacles. The object of the quest might be fantastical in nature, but the objective of the story is not.
Either of these can result in bad fantasy. But Fantasy as Agency is the most usual culprit, and in one, very specific, form.
We Need to Talk about Magic
Seriously, folks, we do.
What is magic in stories? What is it for?
I've written about magic before. Quite a lot actually, and to help with this post, I've posted a couple of chapters from my book, Edit Ready.
You can read them now, if you like:
In most fantasy books, magic is a means of achieving goals that would otherwise be impossible, or provides a variety of alternative means to solve problems that would be unavailable in the real world, because... well let's face it: because physics.
Magic is also a source of problems, difficulties and obstacles that don't exist in the real world. However, usually, when magic creates a problem in a book, it's an analogy to some form of real world problem.
A Boy and his Magic
Subgenre "a boy and his dragon" is all about how a young boy, generally an outsider or a loner, probably with a poor relationship with his parents (or an orphan) who fits in badly with his peer group, befriends a young dragon and through their cooperation, comes of age. It's an oft-mocked archetype (I often mock it, at least) but it can be (and has been) done extremely well, and it's popular. It's also rather fun to edit, and an extremely good story to attempt if you are a first time writer.
There are always elements of wish-fulfillment in it; there's usually a scene where the dragon chases away some bullying kids. There's usually a scene where the dragon saves a remote homestead. There's almost always a scene where the dragon saves the village and the villagers gain a grudging respect for the boy, and a fearful, grudging acceptance of the dragon.
But because the dragon is a separate entity, the author has to work with the interaction and cooperation of two personalities, and this generally results in characters that are more accessible, and a story that is less likely to wallow in self-indulgence or go completely off the rails than it's BAD FANTASY counterpart, A Boy and his Magic.
This story starts with the same boy. But he either discovers a magical artifact, or makes a faustian pact, or discovers an old tome, or is apprenticed to an aging, embittered, alcoholic wizard, and turns out to be naturally gifted.
The story soon becomes about how the boy develops in, and masters his power, and then, well...
It's Payback Time
Okay, so not always. Sometimes the boy doesn't settle old scores. But usually he does. Sometimes he doesn't lord it over all those who used to look down on him. Actually, sometimes he just laughs up his sleeve at them.
What's wrong with this story, apart from how predictable and lazy and banal it is, is that the boy's mastery of magic becomes a means to an end, and that end... it's just power over the world. It's a childish fantasy of adulthood, that most of us know adulthood is nothing like.
And that's what BAD FANTASY does.
Bad fantasy offers fantastical solutions to real problems.
Whereas the boy and his dragon is about how a relationship with another person helps the boy to grow up, boy and his magic just hands the boy a really big stick, and he beats all the bad people with it, without growing up at all.
Science Fiction's Fear of Fictional Science
It's exactly the same with Science Fiction. Most of those people who say they don't like or never read science fiction (yes, this includes my mum), expect Science Fiction to propose imaginary technology to deal with real problems. Just ask. That's what most of them think Science Fiction is - being able to do stuff we can't do (yet) through made up or at best extrapolated sci-tech.
And that sort of SF does exist. It's called "Bad Science Fiction."
Good science fiction provides an alternate setting for real problems, or, best of all, imagines real people in situations that can't exist, and explores their reactions to it, in a realistic way.
(With an honorable mention to all the SF where real world solutions are sought by real people for problems caused by imagined or near-future sci-tech, especially where this involves ethics. Yes. SF is often about ethics. Who knew?)
In Some Enchanted Glade
... there sits Pan, cross-legged, the trills from his pipe flowing downstream in harmony with the babbling of the water. And the boy with the dragon is hand in hand with the boy with the magic, the dozing dragon coiled loosely around the grassy tump on which they sit. The dragon boy is trying, patiently, to explain how listening, and how kindness, and friendship, are the routes to adulthood, while the magic boy stares in wonder at how it is possible to be so calm, and so contented.
You see, fantasy stories are almost always allegories for the process of making sense of the adult world. If you hand someone fabulous godlike powers when they're a kid, they don't grow up. And no matter how much success they achieve, no matter how much dominion they obtain, they never really come to understand other people, and never find happiness.
Give a child a dragon to tame, and the child will learn to interact with other people or die trying.
I put it to you that one of this year's American Presidential Candidates is Magic Boy, and the other is Dragon Boy. I'll... er... leave you to guess which is which, and most of all, which one has read the most good stories.