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The Advantages of Fantasy
It's not just fun, but it tells stories that're difficult to tell otherwise
I write a lot on this blog about fantasy books. The big reason for that is that I read a lot of them. But another reason - and one reason I read so many of them - is that I think that fantasy is a useful literary device which lets books tell stories that would be much more difficult to tell otherwise.
I'm not going to try to write a definitive piece on all the avenues the fantasy genre opens up for writers. I don't believe I know all those avenues, or even that I've identified everything that's been floating in my subconscious. But, while I'm sure there's more to say, I'm going to trust that what I do have to say will be meaningful.
Among the many things I'm not going to try to do here is to try to define what is a fantasy story. Many people have offered many definitions. The term is relatively recent, and used to have competitors; L. Frank Baum (in 1900) called his Wonderful Wizard of Oz "a modernized fairy tale," and J. R. R. Tolkien (in 1938, in his day job as a professor of English literature) lectured on the genre under the name "Fairy-Stories". Instead, I'll just gesture toward the genre, confident that readers will know generally what the term means, and focus on one sort of trope characterizing fantasy works: magic, treated as magic, without implying to the reader any technological explanation.
One advantage of fantasy is that it allows for "everyman" characters to gain agency and take significant actions, without having to go into the details of how they do that.
For example, take Star Wars. (It uses science fiction aesthetics, but it also uses fantasy tropes and what's essentially magic, so it can be better treated as a fantasy story.) Luke Skywalker is to all appearances an average farmboy, until Obi-Wan recognizes him for who his father is and takes him to join the Rebellion. There, on perhaps a few scant weeks of training, he's sent into combat where he not only survives but destroys the enemy superweapon and singlehandedly wins the battle. Without magic, this story would demand some backstory for how he acquired whatever skills he used. It's not impossible for him to learn spaceship flying (or some translatable skill) on a backwater farm, but it's rather unlikely. Even more significantly, if he already has the skills at the start of the story, it changes the dynamic. Luke no longer has the inward journey of learning, the uncertainty of whether he can learn what he needs to in time, or the uncertainty of whether he should rely on his own skills or Obi-Wan's teaching. And on top of this, if he's a trained pilot (even self-trained), he no longer starts the story as a real "everyman." He's instead a very skilled man who just hasn't yet been recognized by the world. That can be a good story, but it's a very different story.
Lord of the Rings shows this even more strongly. Frodo is an ordinary person with no skills pertinent to a war or quest. He doesn't even have the resourcefulness that led Gandalf to convince the dwarves to take Bilbo on as burglar. There's no reason why he'd come to the attention of either side of the war, except that he was given a magic ring. Perhaps this could be substituted with some non-magical superweapon, except that would totally remove the element of temptation. A nuclear bomb (say) could still tempt political leaders like Galadriel or Boromir through non-magical means, but Frodo and Gollum would be totally immune because it'd be obviously impossible for them to use it effectively even if they wanted to.
Instead, Lucas and Tolkien use magic to make these "everyman" protagonists important. Luke Skywalker has magical talent (though by another name) that can (after a bit of training) make him uniquely able to destroy the superweapon; Frodo has a magic ring that can magically tempt even him with plausible dreams of power. The magic gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their character in clearly important ways. These stories can't be told, at least not so plausibly, without magic.
(Okay, to nitpick, S. M. Stirling's In the Courts of the Crimson Kings tries to redo a lot of fantasy tropes with science fiction touches. For example, instead of a magic crown tied to a particular bloodline, it's a thought-controlled computer that tests your blood for a genetic signature. However, in the words of Clarke's Law, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Stirling gives his magic a new coat of paint, but for all intents and purposes, it might as well still be magic.)
Also, fantasy allows individual characters greater agency. They can take simpler actions with larger consequences than in a realistic story, again without the author having to explain how.
The climax of Lord of the Rings shows this to a huge extent. When the Ring is destroyed, Sauron instantly loses the war: even though he isn't particularly nearby, he dies and his army which was about to win the war scatters in defeat. This one individual action has extremely far-reaching results. If we take the non-magical rewriting I was hypothesizing earlier where the Ring was replaced by a superweapon like a nuclear bomb, destroying it might cause Sauron to lose hope of quick victory, but then he would just defeat Aragorn's army at the Black Gate and win anyway. Or, if he hadn't been in such an advantageous position, it might give rise to a new story arc of posturing toward a peace treaty. Frodo can only neatly bring about complete victory because of magic.
This happens throughout the narrative, not just at the climax. Even the snowstorm that blocks the pass of Caradhras (forcing the Fellowship to go through Moria) is tentatively blamed on Sauron. Most of this could be removed without great violence to the plot, but it would hurt the drama and mood of the narrative. Either the Fellowship would go through Moria as a first choice rather than as a last resort (losing the chance to build tension and emphasize its risk), or at least they would've been forced there by the coincidence of a natural snowstorm rather than (potentially) by enemy action. And, this's from a book usually - and correctly - regarded as low-magic because our protagonists the Hobbits don't usually get this sort of magical agency themselves! Other characters do get it, and that greatly strengthens the narrative.
Other authors use magic to increase character agency even more regularly for the protagonists. To pick on Brent Weeks' Black Prism series because I like it as well (even though it's got a very different tone from Tolkien), just in the first book we see one of our protagonists personally building a flying boat by magic to cross the ocean by himself, near-singlehandedly building a wall around a city that's about to be attacked, and more. He could have other achievements without magic, but they wouldn't be on the same scale.
In addition, being able to make up the rules of the fantasy world allows authors to introduce different tradeoffs and risks, and showcase elements of their themes more deeply through the world than they could in other genres. This often involves setting the magic up as an allegory to some other element of reality, but this can be a good thing.
To go back to Star Wars, George Lucas designed the Force so that anger and hate "[lead] to the Dark Side", and so Luke must never let them motivate him, because "once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny." We can say this to a large extent in the real world, too, metaphorically and imperfectly. But in Star Wars, we see it on screen very graphically such as through Darth Vader, and we can imagine it through the Force much more vividly than we can envision anger and hate coming to control someone in the real world.
Sometimes the allegories can be debatable. Luke Skywalker's decision to ignore his targeting computer while attacking the Death Star and instead trust in the Force is a powerful image which can be analogized to any of several things in the real world. It could be taken as a picture of trusting in one's intuitions, or trusting in common sense over experts, or trusting in one's sense of God's voice over reason. When I first saw Star Wars as a teen, I interpreted it the last way - but I can see any of these three interpretations and probably others.
Or, sometimes, the tradeoffs can be explored without any clear allegories at all. To jump back to Brent Weeks' Black Prism, there, every mage has a fixed psychological limit on how much magic they can cast during their life. If anyone uses too much magic, he goes insane or dies. This's a known fact of the world, and it raises interesting considerations about how much magic someone should use in his daily life, or in a battle. Our protagonist's emotions while considering that are also very conflicted. And then, the cultural institutions built around that are also interestingly conflicted... which plays into the series's larger questions about what makes institutions fundamentally corrupt or redeemable.
Weeks could have designed a story to raise these questions without magic. Suzanne Collins did raise similar questions without magic in her non-fantasy series Hunger Games (and answers them differently in the end). But, Weeks' choice to write fantasy lets him approach the question from a very different direction and emotional angle. The institutions to govern mages appear necessary in a way that the Capitol in Hunger Games doesn't. On top of this, even Hunger Games takes place in what's essentially an invented world even though it doesn't involve magic. Probably someone could tell a story in the real world that might evoke similar themes - but there would be complications, and it would be more difficult to show them so deeply.
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Finally - or at least finally for this piece - fantasy can speak to the reader with fewer distractions.
On the one hand, the way fantasy stories are told can introduce fewer distracting elements. Most of the plot elements I'd described above could've been duplicated in real-world stories without magic, but it would have involved more subplots and complications and explanations to show how the protagonist can use this power and agency. Frodo can maybe use the Ring by himself; he couldn't use a nuclear bomb. There's the tantalizing possibility he could directly use the Ring for good; using a nuclear bomb for good would be much more indirect. And, Frodo taking down Sauron's empire without magic would clearly require a lot more people working with him.
These complications would complicate the story and distract from the elements and character arcs we see in the fantasy story as it is. When Black Prism does show our protagonist Kip becoming a leader of an army, that arc - quite properly - covers most of a book in itself and has great impacts on his character. While Tolkien has most of Aragorn's personal growth happen offstage, we see a lengthy arc about his getting accepted as a leader by the people of Gondor (and to a lesser extent Rohan). Magic lets an author show characters taking action and demonstrating their inner character without having to distract the narrative focus with other elements and arcs like this. If Frodo went through Aragorn's arc or Kip's - on the one hand, he would probably be a different person. But even if his character wasn't different, the reader would view him differently because a large part of his time on the page would've been taken up by his doing different sorts of things. Even if an author could theoretically write a character like that without magic with a different arc, in practice it would be much more difficult.
On the other hand, writing a story set in the real world introduces new potentially-distracting elements all on its own. The reader knows the real world, or at least has some idea of it. If I read a story about an imaginary country, I'm going to come with an open mind to see how the story portrays it. But if I read a story about France - I know something about France, and I'm going to bring that to the story. Even if the story's about a specific French town I don't know about, I know some background about France and I'm going to be interpreting that town against that general background. If the writer has a different perspective on France or different opinions about its culture or political decisions or something, that might be significant and make the story harder for me to understand or appreciate.
This's true even though I have no personal connection with France. Readers who do might not just be confused but offended. This's why the 1984 film Red Dawn portrayed a Soviet invasion of the United States, while the 2012 remake originally planned to change it to a Chinese invasion but eventually settled on a North Korean invasion: they wanted to avoid offending Russian or Chinese people. On the flip side, Star Trek was able to speak about prejudice and discrimination without offending anyone by talking about fictional science-fiction cultures. They avoided the distractions of the real world.
Many readers and literary critics have said that fantasy is bad because it inherently distracts the reader from the real world. In other words, it's escapist. Prominent literary critic Edmund Wilson phrased it begrudgingly in his review of Lord of the Rings when it first came out, "if we must read about imaginary kingdoms...", calling Tolkien's fantasy "juvenile trash". Classics professors a little more recently, like Jasper Griffin, denigrate the literary merit of the Greek mythic Epic Cycle as "still content with monsters, miracles, metamorphoses, and an un-tragic attitude towards mortality, all seasoned with exoticism and romance", in contrast with the Iliad's "strict, radical, and consistently heroic interpretation of the world."
But, as I hope I've shown here, fantasy can still speak to reality in ways that - while indirect in some respects - can get deeper more easily than more realistic tales. J. R. R. Tolkien, in his lecture "On Fairy-Stories" (delivered in his day job as a professor of Old English literature), attacks this point even more strongly. He argues that timeless symbols like dragons are in some important ways more real than recently-developed elements of modern life such as automobiles. In fact, he says, such elements can distract us from larger and timeless concepts such as "evil and beauty." If fantasy is escapism, he says, it's escaping a prison for one's own home. I might not go quite so far - Tolkien himself actually thought modern technology was a bad thing in general, which I believe is implicit in his phrasing here - but if not an escape from prison, I view it as at least a useful mental repositioning.
As G. K. Chesterton said, "Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey." The timeless symbols are already recognized.
Before I conclude, there's one more point to make about fantasy. Aside from the inherent advantages of the genre, and despite the assaults of literary critics, fantasy gets one outside boost from the modern literary market: it's popular, which motivates authors to write it.
On the other hand, this popularity brings with it other genre considerations. If an author wants to build a completely new world, for whatever reason, however they build it, it's going to get pigeonholed as either science fiction or fantasy. Witness how Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons is cataloged as "fantasy", even though Brennan doesn't include any magic, her political map is obviously the real Victorian era with names changed, and her dragons are completely natural predatory animals. Margaret Lovett's The Great and Terrible Quest ends up in the same boat even without any dragons, just because it's set in a medieval country that never actually existed. The Victorian and medieval background is very significant to both books, but they're cataloged as fantasy regardless.
So when an author wants to worldbuild without being bound to historical accuracy, they're going to get shoved into the fantasy genre anyway. So, it shouldn't be surprising that they'd follow genre considerations and start including magic and other fantasy tropes. I know I've been tempted to do this myself in some short stories, after studying what webzines and magazines were looking for.
I'm not saying that fantasy is always going to be good; there're many bad stories. In some ways, it's harder to tell a good fantasy story, because you need to do all the work to build the world. When you design the rules of your alternate world to showcase your themes and allow your characters agency, you need to do it well. To quote Tolkien's lecture "On Fairy-Stories" again, "the inner consistency of reality is more difficult to achieve, the more unlike are the images... to the actual arrangements of the Primary World." Many fantasy stories, he says, "[remain] undeveloped." If this was true in his day, I think it's even more often true in the present, given the flood of fantasy stories following in Tolkien's own wake.
But, I hope I've shown that fantasy can be well developed. It can raise new possibilities of character arcs and character action, and illuminate real-world issues from a different angle, with fewer distractions and complications than a non-fantasy story or one set in the real world.
And then, good worldbuilding is itself interesting. I like the story elements I've talked about here - but in addition to that, seeing an author build a good "secondary world" (to use Tolkien's term again) is interesting in itself. When done well, I can chew on it and see how the elements relate to each other. Even when it isn't done well, I can chew on it and see how they fall apart and try to plan out how it could've been done better.
Fantasy stories are different, but the differences can be good and should not be dismissed or denigrated.