What is fantasy? How comprehensible is the "fate of the world?" Yesterday, all I could do was keep reading Fair Peril, Nancy Springer's fascinating trip through the idea of frog kings and the perils of love's fantasy. As I was thinking about the book after I was through, I realized that my definition of fantasy was congealing.
This could be dangerous, since a definition already formed may not admit of other examples that don't adhere to a previous rigid standard. Yet, I need some way to explain, at least for myself, why something speaks to me and another work doesn't. Yesterday, fear made sense as something that is often missing. And it is, along with the idea that we are hazarding something more than ourselves in a fantasy novel.
Fantasy is the acceptance that our experience is far from a solid state rational evaluation of rules and needs. Fantasy that contains that risk of transformation (whether into a new creature or into a new state of understanding) will contain an element of fear, a familiar dread of things that are currently navigable (whether they are good or bad or a mix) being drowned in a new set of experiences that are less so. This is much different from a simple story of discovering a talent that one then exploits or putting a character in physical danger over and over again until he or she is a patched rag doll of a hero. Stakes are more than what happens to our bodies and what punishment we take changes our perceptions.
Transformative stories give the character the chance to be something different--no longer a child, no longer a neutral force in the world, no longer a recognizable part of this village. Part of my dissatisfaction with certain series is that the characters only risk harm, they don't risk change. They can't move, they can't get a new circle of friends, they can't truly risk transformation. It's not the "in" monster, the "in" metaphor. It's the character who is willing to take the chance that he or she will be something different at the end of the book.
As I was composing this, a friend posted an interview with an author regarding her new werewolf novel. The interview is interesting and the book sounds like a story that moves into the areas that I've discussed above--a true fantasy about negotiating and surviving a transformation, the willingness to make a difficult choices and risk not just oneself but also one's society. Check it out and let me know how you define fantasy and what you look for in a good story.