Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fantasy Please?

Hello, blogsphere! I'm back in Ithaca! *dances* Classes may very well drown me with homework this semester! *stops dancing and hides*

Anyway, I've been mulling this post over for a few days and I should finally just sit down and write it (before all that homework falls on me). I seem to have a habit of watching movies a LOT right before I go back to school. The summer before freshman year I watched half a dozen Disney movies on YouTube in a kind of "lalala I can't hear you I'm not leaving home what is this nonsense lalala" way.

This summer, however, I rewatched some of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended edition, of course) and some of the special features. I was reminded why I was so completely obsessed with LotR in middle school (seriously, I dressed up as a Ringwraith for Halloween in seventh grade), but it also made me think.

Why is fantasy never taught in school?

Okay, okay, I know one of the major reasons - fantasy is LONG. I mean, if you need twelve hours of movie time to cover the subject material of a book and there's significant stuff that got left out, that's a pretty long book and probably not good for an English class setting.

But... have you looked at how long Hamlet is? You can't get away with not teaching Hamlet, even if it is long!

When Ella and I went to the panel discussion hosted by Neil Gaiman in New York City, one of the writers, Kat Howard (who I believe is studying for her teaching degree?), mentioned to her colleagues that she wanted to teach a Shakespeare play as a fantasy. Her colleagues all looked at her as though she had three heads and said "but Shakespeare is good."

Implying, of course, that fantasy is inherently not good.

Don't get me wrong, I love Shakespeare and I think there's a lot to learn from it. But I also think there's a lot to be learned from fantasy. After all, there's no better genre to showcase the importance of symbolism, allegory, metaphor. Fantasies of all kinds are just chock full of that.

Again, take LotR. I know Tolkien did not intend for it to be an allegory of WWII, but it can be read that way, and I think that's a very interesting angle to consider. And if you look at the Scouring of the Shire segments, it's got an environmental twist to it - the old-style, natural beauty of the Shire is threatened by orcs and industry at once.

I suppose some people might ask about the relevance of teaching about books where people run around in armor casting magic spells at each other, but if I can bring up an environmental concern in a book published in 1954, then I think there is a lot of relevance in fantasy, no matter what the setting. I think there are a lot of ideals in fantasy worth teaching. Isn't Sam's big speech in The Two Towers all about the good in the world that is worth fighting for? I think that is a noble ideal - why is fantasy not even discussed when so often that is the central crux of the story?

To a lesser extent, sci-fi is also ignored in English classes, but you do get some of that, whereas fantasy isn't represented at all. People read 1984 and Brave New World in English class - I even had an English class last semester that was ALL sci-fi (but that's college, which is decidedly more awesome than high school). Why can't fantasy edge in? How cool would it be to read The Golden Compass for English class - doesn't that have just as many "coming of age" themes as some of the classics we read in high school?

The Golden Compass also has one thing that almost every book I read for class in high school lacks - a female protagonist. Now, I know that fantasy (unless it's YA fantasy, which often makes a deliberate point to put girls into the spotlight) also usually has male main characters, but unlike books like A Separate Peace and All Quiet on the Western Front, girls are actually, you know, present. Which is nice. Eowyn kills the Witchking - and does it because she is a woman and not a man. How awesome is that?

So, I think English classes should stop ignoring fantasy. I think English teachers should take on a book like The Golden Compass (which you could probably teach without needing to read the second two books in the trilogy) and see what happens. Maybe doing something different from the usual lineup of classics would actually get more kids interested in reading. Even if it doesn't, I think there is a lot to learn from fantasy and that it should not be relegated solely to the realm of nerds who read for fun (which is a good place, don't get me wrong). I think everyone could benefit from a healthy dose of fantasy.

What do you think?


  1. Very nice points! All around a great post. I definitely see your side of the argument and can say I AGREE! Oh, school would've been even more interesting if fantasy was taught in it.

  2. Agreed with everything. Bunch of snobs. The only requirement for writing should be that it's good, Fantasy shouldn't be afraid to say we have good and great writers, and Snobs should shut up and read. What these snobs fail to realize is that many of the classics they're reading were released as popular serials and novels or plays for the masses. And that writers like Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling are just as likely to be remembered as classics as any Pulitzer winner.

    Oh, and a note-

    "it's got an environmental twist to it - the old-style, natural beauty of the Shire is threatened by orcs and industry at once. "

    The whole book is an environmental twist. Industry intruding on Tolkien's England. But all most people can see are elves and orcs. Sigh.

    Here's a good article by the NYTimes related to this-

  3. this is fantastic.
    i think another good point is that, while many adults may look down upon fantasy for being so far removed from reality (as in all-human cast, real places, no unnatural powers, no unnatural beasts), imagination is a huge part of development for children and fantasy literature a perfect source for this. not to say non-fantasy genres can't inspire imaginative thought, but reading about fantastical situations is a great exercise in opening up your mind and stretching your creativity.

  4. This is a great post and I whole heartedly agree. I think that all forms of literature should be represented throughout one's academic life so as to inspire kids to find their niche in what attracts their reader's mind. It's funny, but I kind of blogged about this today (why I didn't grow up an avid reader) and I believe a big part of it has to do with the fact that we had to read what we were told to back when I was in school and when we could choose, the choices were so much more limited. I wish that there was something like the HP series when I was younger because I think it would have drawn me in to the world of reading and the amazing experience that reading offers. Things are a little different today than it was when I was in school, but I guess (according to your post) there's still a ways to go. Good topic and insight.