BOOKS / In Defence of Fantasy: The covers are lurid. The plots tell of dragons and battles. The characters have silly names. So why are these books bestsellers? Is it time we took fantasy fiction seriously?

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The Independent Culture
FANTASY FICTION is not respectable. Its place in literary culture was summed up for me by a buyer from one of Dillons' central London shops. 'No, I don't read it myself,' he said, with a shudder of distaste. 'It's a rather suburban thing. Our Croydon branch does very well out of it. They're the sort of books bought by adolescent boys wearing anoraks.'

Such snobbery is widespread. There are merchant bankers, senior civil servants and Labour Party policy advisers who are fantasy readers - but only in private. In public they talk about Vikram Seth and Philip Larkin. John Gerald, Editorial Director of Random House's Legend imprint, is irritated by what he feels is an 'elitist and ill-informed dismissal' of the genre by the literary establishment. It is next to impossible, he says, to get a fantasy author reviewed in any of the serious book pages: 'I honestly think editors take one look and shove the books on to the reject pile.'

The prejudice against the genre has, if anything, become all the more entrenched in the face of popular enthusiasm. Even the covers of the books are called to stand for the prosecution: vivid, romantic and highly stylised, with staple Gothic ingredients such as swords, horses, mountains and castles, they are strongly reminiscent of the artwork on heavy metal albums, not the average literary editor's kind of music. Fantasy fiction is down there with crime and romance, in the meanest, most dimly lit street of the literary ghetto. Thanks, but no thanks, though they sell well in Croydon.

Fantasy fiction became a player in market terms in the late 1970s. The first big seller was Terry Brooks's Sword of Shannara, an unashamed Tolkien rip-off which edged onto the bestseller lists. Now W H Smith confirm that 14 per cent of their fiction sales are made up of fantasy or science fiction novels, with the market share about 70 per cent/30 per cent in fantasy's favour. This compares favourably with crime fiction, which has seven per cent of Smith's fiction market, and easily outsrips any other category except '20th-century fiction', which also has a 14 per cent share and includes both contemporary mainstream fiction and established favourites such as D H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh. Dillons has a slightly lower figure for fantasy, 10 per cent of its total fiction sales: again, a high figure for a new genre. Yet, despite this popularity, fantasy reading is still a solitary vice: something you do alone, with the bedroom door firmly locked.

When you look behind the prejudice, you discover there aren't enough anoraks to cover the fantasy fiction market. Seven titles appeared on the Guardian's 'fast sellers of 1992' list: authors such as David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Terry Pratchett, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams and Raymond Feist. Jordan, for example, has hardback sales of over 100,000 for The Dragon Reborn, Part Three of his Wheel of Time series. And he is some way behind the really big boys such as Pratchett, whose books make up 10 per cent of all fantasy fiction sales.

The market for fantasy fiction, according to a profile in Books and the Consumer 1992 is 67 per cent male, 33 per cent female, and 57 per cent aged under 35; 48 per cent of readers are ABC1 and 52 per cent C2DE. This readership profile is more male, younger and more working-class than readers overall. However, that's not the whole story. Twelve per cent of all book buyers have read a fantasy title in the past year. Fiona Kennedy, a buyer for W H Smith, underlines the point that fantasy 'is not a specialist or minority area. It's true some people feel intimidated if they feel they're not in the know, and one of our future marketing aims is to make the genre as accessible as possible. But the readership is broad: now I'm a fan, too.'

IN TERMS OF literary antecedents, fantasy has nothing to be ashamed of. There is a continuous thread of the fantastical that begins with Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, both of which had plenty to say about monsters, quests and battles. The English fantasy tradition could fairly be said to begin with Beowulf. Not surprisingly, medieval literature in England, with its almost exclusive concentration on Christian myth and values, and its scant regard for the virtues of mimetic description, made extensive use of the tropes and themes of fantasy (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl, Piers Plowman, Morte d'Arthur).

The interest in fantasy continued in a more secularised form in the Renaissance, reaching its fullest expression in Spenser's Faerie Queene, though almost any Elizabethan writer worthy of the name was drawn to ghosts, diabolism and magic, in works like Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Dr Faustus, The Duchess of Malfi, The Spanish Tragedy - the list is almost endless. After a somewhat fallow period during the daylight rationality of the 18th century, fantasy was resurrected by the Romantics, most effectively by Keats and Coleridge.

The mid-19th century writers also took to it enthusiastically, with the classic fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, in addition to Rider Haggard, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and forays by Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol, The Chimes), G K Chesterton and William Morris. In our own century are writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Mervyn Peake, T H White and, of course, Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings has been as powerful (and sometimes ruinous) an influence as one of his magic rings.

This long and noble lineage lies behind today's allegedly bastard offspring - those ill-educated, gaudily dressed pieces of literature manque which seem to breed like rabbits across the shelf space of Waterstones, Dillons, W H Smith and Books Etc, and which swagger rudely onto the bestseller lists. Yet fantasy is the most durable of genres because it deals with eternal truths and human essence. From Homer to Robert Holdstock, the furniture has been rearranged countless times, but it is essentially still the same room.

CLASSIC FANTASY is centred around quests. The quest may have any number of different motives - spiritual, political, sexual, material - but its presence in the text is essential. The quest expresses the desire to accomplish a thing fraught with difficulty and danger, and seemingly doomed to failure. It also enables fantasy writers to deal with rites of passage: the central figure grows in stature as the quest evolves. Typically, the journey will be full of magical, symbolic and allegorical happenings which allow the hero to externalise his or her internal struggles: thus Odysseus must pass through Charybdis and Scylla, and the Knight of Temperance must extricate himself from Acracia and the Bower of Bliss.

Fantasy also deals with flux. The central characters operate in a world turned upside down, amid great wars and events of a cataclysmic nature. The possible outcomes are open and endlessly variable; the responsibility carried by the hero is enormous. In fantasy, the imagined world is always a global village. No action can take place in isolation. Every decision taken by the hero affects someone else, and sometimes the fate of nations. It is a deeply social genre.

Modern fantasy fiction is self-consciously aware of its mythic and literary inheritance, and the fantasy writers of today draw upon a wide and eclectic range of primary sources. This has given rise to a number of distinct sub-genres within the fantasy field. 'Dark fantasy', for example, incorporates many of the elements of horror fiction. 'Heroic fantasy' is perhaps the most macho of the sub-genres, filled with Nietzchean heroes of destiny. 'Historical fantasy' has a large female readership, and more than a nodding acquaintance with romantic sagas. In addition there is the phenomenally successful 'comic fantasy' of Terry Pratchett and others, the clearly identifiable strands of 'Arthurian' or 'Celtic fantasy', and what might be called 'Epic fantasy', to which school Terry Brooks, David Eddings and Tad Williams belong.

As far as literary worth is concerned, fantasy is a genre like any other: it produces some writers of real quality, and others who churn out embarrassing pap. Unfortunately, the better fantasy novels never seem to gain critical recognition. Jane Johnson, Editorial Director of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction at HarperCollins, says: 'The best of the contemporary stuff beats the pants off the best of British literary fiction, for writing ability, imagination and serious subject matter.' But the common assumption is that fantasy novels are not only crude potboilers, but politically reactionary and deeply anti-feminist: a dubious entertainment to comfort the wrong sort of teenage boy.

JUST WHO WRITES this pernicious rubbish? What kind of writer is it who can spend the day conjuring up swords from lakes and dragons from lagoons? And how do such writers feel about being labelled thugs and misogynists?

There is no doubt that Tad Williams writes fantasy fiction. To Green Angel Tower, the third part of his Memory, Thorn and Sorrow trilogy, was published in April, and entered both the New York Times and the Sunday Times bestseller lists almost immediately. A native of San Francisco, he has recently moved to Britain. Thirtysomething, erudite, strongly identified with the political left and touched by a Californian concern with all things PC, he seems an unlikely exponent of epic fantasy. Tall and lean, with long hair and quick charm, he gives no hint either of brutish machismo or introspective inadequacy. A card-carrying Anglophile, he now lives in Islington, where we met for lunch. Waiting for it to arrive, he talked about last year's British general election (he was 'devastated' by the result), about Bosnia, and about the origins of the term 'barking mad'. Before he became a full-time writer, he was a successful radio show host in the US, and it's easy to picture him at the microphone: swift reactions, sharp humour and endless verbal flow.

Despite enormous, and increasing, sales, Tad Williams has never been seriously reviewed in Britain. He admits that he feels ghettoised: 'Reading should be about enjoyment. But there's a feeling within the literary establishment that because fantasy sells it must be crap. Because those people read it. In my secret dreams I sometimes hope that people will read my stuff and say 'Oh, there is life in epic fantasy, in commercial fantasy, after all. Intellectual discourse can take place. Real books can be written.' '

He was introduced to fantasy by his mother, who read him The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Later on she gave him T H White's The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings, William Morris, and 'then I began to discover some of the practising people, like Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, and that sort of set me off. That was one of the reasons I started writing fantasy in the first place. I knew the lineaments well, I grew up with it, and felt I would be able to stretch those boundaries. One thing you have to understand about writing fantasy is that the country is very well mapped. Everything has been tried: the challenge is to use existing conventions to say something more or something different.'

Although Williams describes his reading as 'wide but shallow', Memory, Thorn and Sorrow is full of literary nods and acknowledgements, with references to Mervyn Peake, Dickens, Arthurian legend, Parsifal, Russian folk tales and The Tempest. But, he says: 'I model myself on writers like Dickens and Conrad. They write about going out and doing things, often in high stress, at times of great change. If Heart of Darkness isn't a quest novel, I don't know what it is.'

Most of all, though, Williams's books are a commentary on, and argument with, Tolkien. Benevolently paternalistic, almost exclusively male, and guided by a system of moral absolutes which owe much to the author's Catholic beliefs, The Lord of the Rings is a powerful lament for the loss of Merrie England, an idyllic, feudal, pre-industrialised world. 'A common theme in Tolkienesque fantasy is the idea of a Golden Age,' says Williams, 'so one of the important themes in my trilogy is the mutability of history: the idea of the past always being so much better is, to me, deeply pernicious nonsense. In Memory, Thorn and Sorrow the Golden Age is false, and full of its own dirty little secrets.' Nor is Williams comfortable with Tolkien's notion of evil: 'You know that he's going to present you with an evil character who is evil because he's evil, period. That's not the world I live in. I'm much more of a relativist. You might see the Palestinians or the IRA blowing up people, and think: how can anyone be so evil? But when you look closer you see that these people feel that they have their own horror stories to tell and their own justification. In my book the evil characters behave as they do for a reason, because things got out of control, or because their past has shaped them a certain way.

'It's very hard to write like Tolkien now: not just the moral vision, but the poetic grandeur seem wrong. You can't imitate his elevated style and not have your tongue a bit in your cheek. But at the same time I don't want my books just to be a piss-take of epic fantasy.'

ONE OF MANY preconceptions about fantasy fiction that should be given a decent funeral is the charge that it's invariably misogynist. Women writers such as Katherine Kerr, in the Deverry series, and Janny Wurts, who co-wrote the Mistress of Empire trilogy with Raymond Feist, have placed women at the centre of the narrative action. But they are not alone. Of the six central characters in Robert Jordan's gargantuan Wheel of Time series, three are women, and their male counterparts, when told to jump, tend to reply 'How high?' Women are no longer confined to stock roles as consorts or ice maidens. In Tad Williams's trilogy, it is Simon, the hero, who goes to his wedding a virgin, unlike his bride the Princess Miriamele, who has had a strategically unfortunate but physically satisfying affair with one of the enemy's chief henchmen.

Williams's series is also paradigmatic of the shift in political emphasis in the genre. His world of Osten Ard (modelled on 14th-century Europe) is divided between a number of powers, who between them have pushed the less successful to the fringes. These defeated peoples have become demonised by the nervous victors, whose re-writing of history sanitises and perpetuates past misdeeds. The trilogy suggests that colonialism, no matter how benevolent, will erode the values of rulers and subjects alike, and that the task of leadership is grim, onerous and debilitating. Prince Josua commands the armies of light, but he does so with a torn conscience and an indecisive mind, having little stomach for sending men to a bloody and unavoidable end.

As you would expect with any medieval society, religion looms large in the world of Osten Ard, in the guise of the established and recognisably Christian 'Aedonite' church, but also in a less acceptable but equally reminiscent form. As the fabric of society begins to come apart at the seams, religious cults begin to appear, prophesying doom and gaining worrying numbers of acolytes, who seem numb and unreachable to all outsiders. Williams calls these people the Firedancers, a name that stems from their tendency to set themselves, and anybody else they can get their hands on, alight. This concern with the Waco-like lunatic religious fringe is echoed by Robert Jordan, who has created the Whitecloaks, a sort of homicidal Salvation Army with inquisitorial tendencies.

Abstract concepts of honour, personal responsibility and the limits of morality are sometimes thought of as old-fashioned, but, in the world of Robert Maxwell and Asil Nadir, they could not be more current. Because fantasy is constructed on a the grand scale, it has the space to address large issues. It entertains with wild adventures and untold marvels, but at a deeper level is careful to tell us stories about ourselves. At best, it is intelligent, complex and contemporary. There is not such a glut of literary talent in mainstream fiction that we can continue to ignore its claims. It is time to forget about Croydon and the Iron Maiden T-shirts, time to set aside the snobbery and elitism, time to let our minds wander and to throw open the wardrobe door. -

(Photographs omitted)