Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Limits of Creativity

    I fell in love with science fiction before I reached high school, reading Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Jules Verne, and others.  Partly, I was attracted to what might be called "technical wizardry": spaceships, spacesuits, submarines, miniaturization, time machines, laser beams and so on.  The marvels of science fiction wore the mantle of science; these things might really happen!  In some cases they already had--the real navy Nautilus, launched in the year of my birth, outperformed Jules Verne's imagined Nautilus hands down.
    A boy from my high school was reading a fat paperback on the bus home after school.  To my inquiry he replied it was called The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy story.  "You should read it; it's good."
    No thank you.  I hadn't read any yet, but I knew science fiction would be better than fantasy.  In a fantasy, anything could happen.  Fantasy authors could just make stuff up!  Science fiction had to be at least plausible, and in the best cases it was almost prophetic.  (By that, I meant that it predicted the future.  At the time, I had a very limited notion of prophecy.)  If the choice were between science and magic, I would take science every time.
    Of course, my ideas changed, and soon.  Paul Eslinger loaned me a copy of The Hobbit when I was a sophomore in college.  I was instantly converted.  I still love sci-fi, but antipathy to fantasy vanished.
    A worry still remains.  Once an author opens the door to magic, is there any limit?  My friend Ron made this point about the Harry Potter books.  In one scene, the muggle Prime Minister says to the Minister of Magic, "But you people can do anything."  And that's the problem.  We can suppose there are limits to what this or that character can do; apparently some wizards or witches are "stronger" than others.  But are there any limits to what the author can do? 
   Very definitely.  George MacDonald, author of The Light Princess and scores of other wonderful stories, wrote that the writer of fairy stories could display creativity in regard to many things: dragons, drarfs, long-lost treasures, fairies, witches, and on and on.  But the fantasy writer could not change the moral world.  No magic can make cowardice into a virtue or turn right into wrong.
    I think that's why we can love fantasy stories.  For all the marvels of the fantasy realm, the most important things are the people in them: their loves, their hates, their griefs, their hopes.  (Of course, the "people" of a fantasy might include elves or dwarfs or . . .)  We care about characters and about the good and evil they create or enjoy.

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