June 19, 2015

Realism and Truth

        In the first century philosopher Apollonius of Tyana wrote of Aesop:
He was really more attached to truth than the poets [historians] are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.
        Apollonius makes two points that I’ve argued before.  First, that what passes as realism is not necessarily so.  Just like any other genre, “realistic fiction” has conventions, fashions, and rules that have more to do with what sells than what is factual or actually realistic.  Ursula K. LeGuin observed in an interview last year, that “fake realism is the escapism of our time.”  Perhaps it comforts people to think that the world truly is uniformly dark and dreary, to justify their own hopelessness or their unwillingness to work for greater goals.  ( Heh - that makes me sound almost as curmudgeonly as LeGuin!)
        The second point is, of course, that fantasy can indeed be true.  More than that, fantasy can be more true than misused “facts” or “realism.”  Of course, it isn’t always true.  Unfortunately, fantasy can push the agendas of prejudice, violence, or ignorance just as any medium can.  But we would always be wise to remember that, as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in 1939:
Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.

[Pictures: The Two Doves, wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from Select Fables of Aesop and Others, 1871 (first published 1818); 
detail from The Geese & the Cranes, wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Own Aesop, 1908 (first published 1887) (Images from Aesopica).]
Quotations from interview with LeGuin by Hari Kunzru in The Guardian, 2014;
from the essay On Fairy-Stories by Tolkien, 1939.

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