Posted by: Jack | June 16, 2007

Fantasy: What’s The Appeal?

Apparently the next and last Harry Potter book will be released soon and not surprisingly, there is once again a big fuss being made about it. Admittedly, I haven’t read any of these books but I have seen a couple of the movies. The films were well-produced and visually appealing as one might expect. And the plots are good enough to keep my, and most other’s, attention for a couple of hours. It can be easily argued that there is some definite appeal to stories of the fantasy genre.

But I often have a hard time understanding why this is true for adults where, in most cases, imagination no longer gets confused with physical perception and real experience. And based on similar reasoning, I have never found a fantasy based book or movie that reaches a level of greatness occasionally seen in other genres.

An obvious supposition might be that characters in fantasy can perform or achieve feats which we can only dream and wish for. An example in Harry Potter would be the ability to fly unaided (although I guess they do need their brooms). Many people, myself included, would delight in the ability to cruise through the skies, unhampered by the laws of physics. And a young child may read of a character doing just this and leap to the conclusion that just maybe, sometime in their future, this could actually happen. But as a rational and cynical adult I tend to reach the opposite conclusion. When Harry Potter hops on his broom and just lifts into the air without even the slightest attempt of an explanation of how this is happening, I am just further reminded that this doesn’t happen. And this brings me to the keyword which I feel plagues the genre of fantasy: magic.

Books, such as those in the Harry Potter series, imply that the concept of magic is a tangible force. A basic definition of the word magic is an event that occurs outside of the realm of natural events or more simply, supernatural. Harry seems to possess magic and presumably this was imposed upon him at birth or conception. And further more, he can obtain more magic through studies and practice. Another important issue that is consistently present in Harry Potter stories is the idea of competition or more specifically, one individual having a superior grasp on magic when compared to others. For any competition to be practical, the competitors cannot each possess infinite ability. First of all, infinite ability doesn’t really make sense but if it did and both had it, there would be no point in competing. So abilities are finite which means that there must be limiting factors. And this is where magic trips over itself. How does an author quantify or justify one individual being limited at one level of ability while another performs at a higher level? In Harry’s case, it is apparently a matter of genealogy. Harry’s parents were both well-endowed with magic and therefore he is too. But such an explanation is infinitely regressive and therefore not a valid explanation at all unless of course one were to propose an evolution of magical power. Aside from theoretical invalidity, this also seems to imply a concept of inherent inequality which really doesn’t seem like a value one should be embedding in children’s stories.

The above is definitely not sufficient grounds for discounting the worth of a fantasy-based plot. These books are clearly filed under fiction and don’t require a basis in reality. However, the concept of unbounded potential (magic) provided to the hero seems to draw away from the purpose of a story. If one can utilize magic then there is no obstacle which can’t be overcome. If a character can always increase their ability to surpass that of their foe by a sheer act of will, they have no justification for displaying fear or doubt. Simply put, there is no challenge to endure. The reader knows ahead of time that the hero will arise as the victor and will do so by the means of “performing” magic.

All of these ideas were equally detrimental in the Lord of the Rings series. There are lots of magic rings but then the bad guy makes a magic ring that is more powerful than all the other rings. Of course, the good guys never think to just make their own ring that is in turn, more powerful. They do however, progress through the tales with the assurance that if anything ever happens to them–even if they die–they can and will be saved. However, the bad guys also possess magic but never think to use it to bring themselves back to life. And when Gandolf finds that he is betrayed by his more powerful wizard friend he simply comes back a while later with greater powers.

One may argue that generally in fiction of any genre, the heroes of the story will arise as the victors of any challenge and so the outcome is usually known regardless of genre. And this is true. No one reads Jurassic Park expecting every human to be eaten and the dinosaurs to once again rule the Earth. So why read fiction? The journey to victory is what makes it worthwhile. We may often be able to infer the outcome, but the means by which it is obtained remains a mystery. Except in fantasy, where the story comes to a close and is topped off with an anticlimactic flick of a wand.


  1. I saw the title of this and was hoping I’d get to talk about fantasy football or baseball.

  2. Another similar scenario would be to judge the Star Wars movies where Jedi’s have the ability to use The Force (for all intents and purposes, magic). Although possessing the ability through study and traning, Jedi have the ability to increase their knowledge of The Force, but it seems that some Jedi simply have more natural ability (as judged by their medochlorian count). Another factor is their lineage, much like Harry Potter’s parents were competent wizards, Luke and Leia’s Skywalker dad was Anakin (aka Vader). My original intention of writing this was to try and convince you that Harry Potter books are sweet (as I assume you enjoy the Star Wars films), but after stating these points, all that I can think about is that JK Rowling completely ripped off George Lucas and should pay him some sort of royalties (although I will still read the next Harry Potter book, to each their own).

  3. […] After a quick flight and a short layover at LAX I was leaving the country and enduring the latest cinematic entry in the Harry Potter series. It was okay but as I’ve said before, “I just don’t get fantasy.” […]

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