When I was in college, I was amazed to discover there was a class on science fiction and fantasy literature. I’d read all kinds of sci-fi and fantasy growing up, but I’d never gotten to read one of those books for a class. The closest I’d ever come was reading 1984 and Brave New World for classes on modern British literature. No professor had ever suggested there was literary merit to The Hobbit or Out of the Silent Planet.
But there it was — a class on the very genre fiction I loved to read for pleasure. And I discovered something amazing: many science fiction and fantasy novels really did have literary merit!
This was another key step on the road to my becoming a fantasy author. As an English major, I dreamed of writing something important that students like me would have to study in college some day. But I figured I could never do that, since I wrote about magic and monsters.
Until I discovered there were actually classes on genre fiction!
(I should take a moment to note that dreaming of writing something college students have to read and study is an exceptionally arrogant desire. What can I say? I was in my 20’s, and that sort of arrogance not only came naturallly to me then, it all seemed very logical.)
Perhaps the most important thing I took away from that class (aside from having read some classics I hadn’t encountered yet) was the importance of metaphor in speculative fiction. In terms of fantasy lit, magic is a key part of the story, because it allows the author to take a step away from whatever he or she really wants to say, so as to express it more safely. In other words, fantasy writers disguise their themes with magic.
I employed this technique in my short story, “Sleeping Beauty.” When I undertook to rewrite the classic fairytale, I wanted to say something about overprotective parents.
The world is full of good people who work hard to raise their children well and help them grow into happy adults. But there is a certain percentage of adults who seem to think children stay children forever, and they think they can and need to be controlled.
Magic gave me the ability to write a cautionary story about people like that. Rex, the father in my fairytale, is afraid of his daughter’s budding sexual maturity. Like many men, he’s uncomfortable about his daughter becoming interested in boys and all of the joys and dangers associated with that.
Because I was writing a fairytale, I was able to use magic to give Rex the ability to do something other men like him might like to do: lock her way. Rex obtains a magic potion from a witch that causes her to fall into a coma from which she cannot awake. That prevents her from engaging in any sort of sexual exploration. Despite her body maturing into womanhood, he keeps her preserved as his “little girl” for all time.
Rex is the most obvious villain in a story that is full of them. He uses magic to steal his daughter’s destiny. He wants her to remain sweet and innocent, so he makes sure she can’t choose something else. But Rex’s attitude towards his daughter Beth, his obsession with her sexual maturity isn’t something unknown in the world today. There are fathers who think like him, and some of them bully their children, impose strict rules to keep them from dating, and obsess about what their kids do when they are alone with members of the opposite sex.
Beth’s mother isn’t any better. Prior to him casting his spell, she is involving Beth in the youth beauty pageant scene. She is the worst kind of stage mom, constantly pressuring Beth to do better and to act in a certain way. She is every bit as controlling as Rex is. She just exerts her control over Beth’s waking self.
Marie uses magic too. Rex casts the spell to put Beth to sleep. Marie uses it to wake her. Rex’s curse may be broken with True Love’s First Kiss. This should be a sweet moment of triumph — of true love conquering all. Instead, Marie figures out that one of the high school boys, Carl, is in love with Beth. So she manipulates Carl into helping her break the spell.
But Marie has no more interest in her daughter’s happiness than Rex does. She plans to get rid of Carl after he’s done what she needs him to. She doesn’t see him as strong enough — worthy enough — for her daughter. He’s just a tool to her.
So just like Rex, she plans to use magic to take her daughter’s destiny away from her. She’ll find someone better for Beth . . . just like Rex planned to.
Both parents see Beth as a toy. They treat their daughter as though she is some sort of doll they get to play with. They completely ignore the fact that she is a human being with a right to make her own choices.
The magic spell and its breaking are the literary tools by which I tell the story, and it allows me to disguise my theme. Instead of writing about how bad Rex and Marie are as parents and people, I have them use magic to demonstrate it themselves. Fantasy literature gives me the distance to say something about parenting in the modern world.
I no longer dream (often) of writing something impressionable college students will have to study to get a degree in English. But I still aspire to write something about the world in which we live, and fantasy is one of the tools I use to get there. Magic, monsters, and other worlds make it possible for me to hold a mirror up to the real world so my readers can pause and consider.
It’s still an arrogant desire, perhaps. But writers are arrogant people by nature. We want to be read. We want to go up to strangers and say, “Hey, look what I made!” And, even when we’re not trying, we usually have something to say about the world we live in.
I write fantasy literature because I’ve got something to say. Fantasy is the vehicle that enables me to do it.