I never knew it was called fantasy. I only knew that they were stories, and wasn’t all fiction a sort of fantasy anyway? By the time I discovered that those stories were part of a genre called fantasy, I was addicted. While I was the kind of reader who devoured everything with words on it—cereal boxes, signboards, fiction, non-fiction, you get the picture—reading fantasy, for me, was not just reading.
So why fantasy and not any other genre? I recently pondered that question and realized that a lot of the fantasy that I had read and especially savoured were, in some way, stories of self-discovery. When I was younger, I used to wonder if I was real because I couldn’t see my own face. I didn’t know if I still existed when I wasn’t in front of a mirror.
But from fantasy and specifically, Neil Gaiman, I learnt that “things need not have happened to be true” and that I was real, even if I couldn’t see myself. Right now, I know who I am but while I sort of know who I am, the person that I know I am isn’t the person that I want to be.
This brings to mind Fat Charlie in Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. At the beginning of the book, Fat Charlie is timid, easily embarrassed and although not married, already hen-pecked. He is stuck in a job he does not love, is not passionate about and has a boss whom he cannot stand up to. He starts off as a passive character. He doesn’t make things happen. Things happen to him.
What happens to him is the death of his father, Mr Nancy aka Anansi. Fat Charlie attends the funeral and finds out that his father has left him a whole lot of things, including a brother. His adventure really begins one night when, under the influence of alcohol, he talks to a spider on an impulse. His brother, Spider, shows up the next day.
Spider is the person that Fat Charlie has always wanted to be but could never muster enough courage to develop into. Spider is selfish, suave, confident and couldn’t care less about the world’s opinion of him. And like everyone who doesn’t care about the world’s opinion, he was loved or at least, treated with some sort of respect by everyone that he met.
The beginning of the turning point of the story is when Fat Charlie finally decides to do something. And even then, he makes this decision only because the situation presents itself to him. The singer at the restaurant at Saint Andrews happens to come to him and says, “What’s your name, darlin’?” (375)
She is asking him what his name is and Fat Charlie has the power to tell her. In fantasy, names are important, from The Amulet of Samarkand to Alice in Wonderland. Names are a sort of definition. Yvonne Bertills says in her study of proper and personal names that, “…a (personal) name is considered to be the essential linguistic label of individuals.” (17)
In The Lord of the Rings, one of Aragorn’s full names is Aragorn son of Arathorn. He is defined by where he came from, that is, his sire. Gimli is called the dwarf and Legolas, the elf. They are defined by their race. In the movie Beowulf, Unferth is called kinslayer. He is defined by what he has achieved ie. the killing of his brothers. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, the children are given names like Edmund the Just, Susan the Fair, Lucy the Brave and High King Peter the Magnificent. They are defined by their characteristics, which could be intrinsic (eg. values) or extrinsic (physical appearance).
When the microphone is in Fat Charlie’s face, he says his name—Charlie Nancy—but his voice “caught and wavered” (375). This shows that he is still trapped in the name that his father gave him—Fat Charlie. However, he is in the process of breaking free because he does what he would never have dared to do in the past.
He gets up onto the stage and he sings and he decides to fake a proposal to Daisy in order to save her from Grahame. Up till then, everything he had done had been a reaction to something or someone. The change in him started happening when he chose to act instead of just react. Later in the book, after a conversation with his father and he had put on his father’s green fedora, he met Dragon, who said to him, “…You look remarkably like dinner.” (409)
But now, Charlie does not take this opinion passively. He dares to challenge it. He said, “I’m Charlie Nancy.” (409) After that, he is no longer called Fat Charlie, not even by Gaiman.
At the end of the book, both he and Spider have each developed into “complete” beings. Charlie Nancy, who before, had suffered from stage-fright is now a singer. He is confident and suave and people love him. He found himself.
In a way, I am a lot like Fat Charlie. In fact, I think I might be worse. I am exceedingly shy. I agree with others to avoid confrontation, even though on the inside, I am disagreeing. I smile when what I really want to do, is laugh out loud. Like Fat Charlie, I know I have a whole other side. I just have to find her.
Simon Goldhill writes in his book Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters, “Without self-awareness, without self-understanding, there can only be a fragile grasp on the questions that matter.” (8)
I agree with him on that point but while he says that self-awareness comes from studying the classics, I found that I discovered more about myself from reading fantasy. Fantasy gives me ideas and makes me think—another way fantasy makes me realize that I am. “Cogito ergo sum,” said Rene Descartes. Or in English, I think, therefore I am.
And although names are important, I think that my self-identity has got to be more than just my name. Simon Goldhill wrote, “The tragedy [Bacchae] demonstrates…that if you think the answer to the question ‘who are you?’ can and should be answered with a name, a family, a role, then you haven’t begun to understand ‘what your life is, nor what you are doing, nor who you are’—as the god Dionysius taunts us all.” (8)
In Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Coraline meets a talking cat who tells her that cats don’t have names and then goes on to say, “Now, you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.” (43)
Mike Ashley says, in his essay on Coraline in The Neil Gaiman Reader, that, “It is…about a quest for identity and understanding of the world…” (172) Gaiman, through the cat reminds me that self-identity is not just in a name. The “self” is just something that one must know.
Fantasy is filled with characters who must remember who they are. From Harry Potter who must remember that he was the boy who lived, to Simba in the Disney cartoon The Lion King, who must remember that he is the rightful king. Throughout these stories, the protagonist is constantly reminded that he must remember who he is. The Lion King goes as far as having Mufasa say to Simba from the clouds, “Remember who you are.”
So like Fat Charlie, like Coraline, I am trying to find myself. And I am trying to remember who I am.
Now that I’ve “grown up”, I am expected to read more “serious” genres. But I wonder, what could be more serious than the discovery of self? Realist genres and non-fiction tell me who I am or who I am supposed to be but fantasy tells me, “Find out for yourself.” So every time someone asks me what sort of books I read, I say, “Oh, all kinds, you know, fantasy.”
In the end, I guess the reason that I keep reading fantasy is because I love stories and most of the storytellers that I love best, write fantasy. Neil Gaiman’s stories inspire me to tell stories of my own and in telling my own stories, I come alive and I find a way to define myself in a way that society might not understand but makes perfect sense to me.
In the book, Mr Nancy aka Anansi says, “…the stories change the tellers. Because now the folk who never had any thought in their head…now they’re starting to dream about a whole new place to live…” (341)
Ashley, M. 2007, ‘Coraline—A Quest for Identity’, in D Schweitzer (ed.), The Neil Gaiman Reader, Wildside Press, USA.
Bertills, Y. 2003, Beyond Identification: Proper Names in Children’s Literature, Abo Akademi University Press, Finland.
Gaiman, N. 2005, Anansi Boys, Headline Book Publishing, London.
Gaiman, N. 2004, Coraline, Harper Trophy, NY.
Goldhill, S. 2005, Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters, John Murray Publishers Ltd, London.
Beowulf 2007, Screenplay by Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary, distributed by Paramount Pictures (USA), Warner Bros. (International), ImageMovers (Japan), Performance capture film.
Campbell, J. 1968, ‘The Call to Adventure’, [in] The Hero with a Thousand Faces 2nd ed., Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Lewis, C.S. 2005, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, HarperCollins, NY.
Lion King, The 1993, Screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Linda Wolverton, & Jonathan Roberts, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, Feature animation.
Tolkien, J.R.R. 1966, The Lord of the Rings, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, Great Britain.
(An “intimate critique” written during undergraduate degree for Introduction to Fantasy Narratives unit)