Who would not want to sail a ship into the heavens and watch a war between the creatures of the Moon and the Sun, to find and conquer a world hidden within a whale and sail behind a curtain to talk with heroes of old in their rest? The world is too narrow for all the stories our imaginations want to tell.
Dreams take us into impossible places (although for me, my tutored mind intervenes in the dream and insists on putting it into a logical narrative).
Whenever I see a sign labelling “Part time traffic lights” my fancies wander to where the lights might go on their time off. I always imagined they would sit around somewhere, perhaps in company with occasional tables. Lucian thought the same in the Second Century AD, giving us his City of Lamps, which he visited according to his ‘True Story’ while sailing the cosmos. It is a pretty invention that has charmed may writers since – including Margaret Cavendish, a friend and scholar of Hobbes.
Fantasy works are usually pulp nonsense to embarrass a bookshelf, but not all: the Odyssey is a fantasy book, and it is a foundation work of European culture. Science fiction is a rich branch of fantasy, rooted in Homer’s pen. If it is to become literature, the author must have the audacity to write without apology and create a world which is for a moment believable and desirable.
Lucian’s humour came from the familiarity of the genre he spoofed, and his own inventiveness. Romans would read books of distant travels and wanted to believe there really were men with heads in their chests or with wings, and lands where centaurs roamed, and if the reality is too dull, why not be released from the need to pretend it is true and have an open fantasy? Homer was too serious, as if he wanted to be believed.
Lucian is to Homer as Spaceballs is to Star Wars; a loving tribute to the work it played upon. The morality of the Ancient Greeks was different from ours, but surely Homer saw a problem with Odysseus’s behaviour with certain nymphs and demi-(clad)-goddesses on those fantasy islands? It took Lucian though to portray Odysseus in his eternal rest in the Isle of the Blessed creeping away from Penelope at night to slip Lucian a love-note to take to Calypso.
The Isle of the Blessed episode is full of crackers, showing the heroes of ancient times as just as flawed and more so than mortal men – they need a law court for when Helen’s husbands argue over whose wife she is for eternity, and when Alexander and Hannibal argue about who was greatest general. The Platonists, we are told, are not on the island, as they are still trying to devise their own state. Here too Lucian meets Homer and badgers him with all those questions that scholars had been debating about him – which shows that lit crit is as ancient as literature itself, and as tedious then as now.
That city inhabited by lamps, which live in fear of being extinguished if they do not do their duty, comes from the heart of a householder fed up with guttering oil lamps. (In the City of Lamps Lucian encounters his own house lamp and discusses with it matters at home – he says nothing about an occasional table.)
The squabbling worlds on the planets and the zodiac, the lost islands of the sea, the kingdom in a whale’s belly and the giants rowing islands to hunt it, are exercises in audacity just the right side of silliness.
I was musing on that here recently about ancient works that have been called ‘Sci-Fi’ which are not really, but which are fantasy as grown-up literature. Defining ‘science fiction’ is a whole topic on its own, and as a good Hobbesian I must feel the necessity to define it:
For the errours of Definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds; and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoyd, without reckoning anew from the beginning; in which lyes the foundation of their errours.
Not now though. I just wish to appreciate that works of fantasy can be literature, even if the majority of them have given the genre a bad name. How they become literature is another question. It is not by modelling a tale on the fancies of dreams as they are personal and dependent on the day’s experience or internal distempers as Hobbes explains:
divers distempers must needs cause different Dreams. And hence it is, that lying cold breedeth Dreams of Feare, and raiseth the thought and Image of some fearfull object (the motion from the brain to the inner parts, and from the inner parts to the Brain being reciprocall)
To be any good, a story must speak to a wide audience who are not all in on the internal workings of the writer’s own brain. I would go further: a really good book should work even if you strip the fantasy element out, and leave just the personalities and their deeds. The Romans called Homer’s hero Ulysses, and built more robust stories around him. Following their lead, if you take the wanderings of Ulysses out of the fantasy islands and the mythical age and place him in, say, Dublin in 1904, it will work very well indeed.