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From The Lord of the Rings to A Game of Thrones, fantasy fiction has established a firm place on our bookshelves. Some might say it taps into a much older tradition, one that harks back to the myths of Greece, Rome and the Mesopotamian civilizations of the Near East – not to mention the plethora of legends and storytelling that have grown up around the Abrahamic religions still practised by billions of people today.
If that is true – and I for one believe it is – then our once-humble genre is channeling some pretty potent stuff. The psychoanalyst Jung suggested that mythologies of all kinds arise from the unconscious; take away religions and rituals, and the symbols they were intended to express will inevitably emerge from the human psyche in the form of dreams. To avoid succumbing to neuroses – be it depression, anxiety or other harmful thought patterns – these symbols must be expressed and externalized in some way.
That’s quite an assertion, but I want to consider it. One thing I have heard fantasy fans say consistently is that they lose themselves in the genre like no other. You don’t often hear people say that about thrillers or literary novels, and for that reason I think Jung may well have been right. There is something undeniably comforting, reassuring even, about opening the pages of a fantasy epic and getting drawn into another world. Yes, there is the imaginative side: the magic, monsters, mysticism, fables, countries, peoples and so forth. All of this colours the imagination of the reader and makes us want to read on… But is it mere escapism that drives us towards this genre, making us turn one page after the other?
Perhaps. But then any work of fiction can be classed as escapist – even the so-called literary novelist is writing of fictional characters and events, though the world they take place in may be ‘real’. Fantasy (and all its sub-genres) is drawing from a much deeper well – and that is why I personally believe that this special genre has a hold on my psyche like no other. Can it really be coincidence that our ancestors gathered around the fire, in the church, or before the temple for thousands of years to be awed by tales of mighty heroes, fabulous quests, diabolical fiends and suchlike, while in the modern West – where many of us have divested ourselves of our religious practices and folk tales – fantasy fiction continues to grow in popularity?
Jung’s disciple Joseph Campbell posited the universal struggle of the hero in his seminal work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. He was talking about mythology, folklore and religion, but this concept was echoed later by sword & sorcery maestro Michael Moorcock with the ‘eternal champion’. Fantasy is notable for its explicit emphasis on the conflict between good and evil: sometimes this is expressed externally, in a great war of opposing sides (a la Tolkien); at others internally, through the contradictory actions of morally ambiguous characters (a la Martin or Moorcock).
Either way, the narrative usually expresses a fight for the very soul of the world and its inhabitants that the story has created. Often, said world faces annihilation – or ragnarok to use the Norse word for it – and a subsequent rebirth (the passing of the Third Age in LOTR or the creation of an entirely new world from chaos at the end of the Elric saga, for example). The actions of the hero(es) or anti-hero(es) will determine what kind of rebirth it will be: something better, worse or merely different. That isn’t just good vs. evil; that is good vs. evil writ large. And in taking on such fundamental principles I would argue that fantasy has, for many in the West, taken up a vital space in the human psyche once occupied by religion, mythology and folklore.
Take the example cited above. Tolkien and Moorcock are generally considered to be writing at opposite ends of the genre spectrum, but they both have this in common: at the end of each of their most celebrated sagas the old world ceases to be and is replaced by a new one. Both writers have suggested that this ‘new’ world is in fact our real one. Elves/Chaos pass, making way for Men/Law… magic is out, science is in.
These are two of the most iconic authors in the genre, and both have tapped into something that has been expressed in human cultures around the world for thousands of years: ragnarok will see Thor and Odin slain and the world torn asunder by Fenriswolf and the Great World Serpent, only to be reborn again; Hinduism speaks of Shiva, the destroyer who kills to create, sparking a cyclical rebirth of the world every 12.5 million years; the Christian tradition awaits Judgment Day, when the world will end and all the dead shall rise from their graves to be judged by the Lord (a belief echoed in Islam). Those found worthy shall dwell in the new paradisiacal world created by the Almighty, while the others shall be condemned to the ravages of Hell.
And so on… I know, hard to believe what our ancestors believed isn’t it? And yet, millions of Christians and Muslims today still believe just this, or something similar. While humanists may scoff at what they perceive as superstitious folly, it is undeniable that this belief system – irrational as it may seem to some – clearly does something to frame the thinking of people of faith. It gives them a way of being in a world that can often seem harsh, unjust and meaningless: CS Lewis once said that his faith in Christianity was a light by which he could view the world and find it beautiful.
Many of us (myself included) struggle to accept such a view, no matter how it might beautify the world: our scepticism has grown too strong. Fantasy literature, I would argue, allows us to suspend that scepticism for a while, and view a world that is perhaps more terrifying and beautiful than our own. Or as Jung might put it, it permits us a space in which to indulge our primordial need for powerful symbolism, and in so doing relieve ourselves of some of the pain of being human.
Devil’s Night Dawning by Damien Black is the first book in the Broken Stone Series. Here’s a taste of what readers have said about it so far:
‘An exciting and dark fantasy … Like nothing I have ever read’ [5 stars – Stephanie @ Adventures Thru Wonderland/Goodreads]
‘This book is superb. The characters are likeable & loathsome & each person has a good background story … I would highly recommend this book to any readers of Fantasy/Horror.’ [5 stars – Justin @ Amazon/Goodreads]
‘Interesting and compelling… The book contains everything we could want, a plot to follow, has some darkness but also humour. I will be reading more of Damien’s books for sure.’ [5 stars – Amazon/Goodreads]
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For as long as he can remember, Damien Black has been blessed and cursed with a hallucinogenic imagination. His sleep is disturbed by strange dreams that he struggles to remember upon waking, glimpses of worlds where superstitions are reality and prayers might actually work.