Kate Constable grew up in Papua New Guinea, without television but within reach of a library where she “inhaled” stories. She studied the liberal arts and law at Melbourne University in Australia and then worked part time at a record company while beginning her life as a writer. She now lives in Thornbury, Australia, with her family.
The following is a short essay Kate Constable recently wrote about why she writes fantasy.
Life, the universe and everything: fantasy, fairy tales and philosophy
“Oh, you're a writer?” said the new mom at playgroup today. “What do you write?”
“Kids' fantasy,” I said, and she nodded politely. Not a real writer, then.
Yes, I confess, I started writing fantasy because it was so much fun. Everyone knows that fantasy is fun - it's escapist nonsense, right? Pure and simple. Nothing to do with the real world. Real writing is about real people, with real problems. It's about real places, and real events, and the big, serious questions of life. But fantasy is all enchanted castles and mystical quests and terrifying dragons and magical swords. And the young hero and his feisty girl companion and their talking animal face many perils and always save the day. Just like a fairy tale.
Fantasy is the offspring of the fairy tale, and the reason that fairy tales have endured through the ages is simple: it's because they tell important truths. As Bruno Bettelheim points out in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, “the fairy tale...takes...existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life, and the fear of death.”
It's true that the stories might seem grotesque or implausible, but the archetypes linger because they resonate with meaning. The wicked usurper who abuses the power they've been given, the brave yet overlooked child hero/heroine, the magical tasks, the importance of the quest, all have their place in a child's emotional development, even if they don't realize it at the time.
Everyone is on a journey. Everyone needs to learn how to be brave, and resourceful, and kind. The world is full of cruelty and danger, but it is also filled with unexpected magic and wonder, and it is those who are open to the possibility of magic who triumph in the end. These are the lessons that fairy tales teach, and though not all fantasy writing sticks to the fairy tale rules, I would argue that fantasy can confer the same benefits on its readers.
Any worthwhile fiction addresses, on some level, moral and philosophical questions. These can include the difficulty of sustaining loving relationships; the quest for a meaningful life, lived with honor; the damage that prejudice and fear can do; the richness and joy to be found in small, precious moments of beauty and connection; the importance of faith, and justice; the rewards of courage and compassion. For a shy kid, or an awkward adolescent (and I was both), it can be easier, less threatening, and more pleasurable to explore these “big questions” in a setting that's a few steps removed from the real world. In fact, sometimes, it's the so-called realistic books that can seem to be the ones written about an unfamiliar universe!
For ten years, I struggled to write a succession of realistic novels, about real people, or at least people whose lives were not very far removed from - well, me and my friends. None of those novels was published; some of them were never even finished.
When I turned to fantasy writing, it was with a sense of plunging into a delicious pool of freedom, a wild liberation that realistic fiction couldn't offer. Literally anything was possible now! I created walls made of solid ice that enclosed a whole community, a clarion that called up fire, a man who could speak in silence, a girl who could sing up the wind, an empty ship rowed by magic instead of galley slaves. And as I wrote, the tools and symbols of fantasy began to reveal a richness and complexity that I hadn't realised was there.
For example, I gave my characters the ability to perform magic through songs called chantments. Gradually the chantments became separated into different types, the Nine Powers, each with its own distinct style. The chantments of the Power of Wind were high and melodious, and usually sung by women. The chantments of the Power of Seeming (which create illusions) were as shrill as the buzzing of a mosquito. The chantments of the Power of Iron (which move whatever belongs to the earth) were similar to the throat-songs of Tuva. The chantments of the Power of Becoming, which govern healing, birth, death and the force that gives life, are not sung at all, but danced.
It wasn't until I'd been working on the Tremaris story for some time that I realised what a perfect metaphor the different songs had given me: the image of a choir of singers, all singing different notes and with different voices, but blended and harmonised into a rich and multi-layered whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. And what followed naturally from that image was its counterpart: the demand that everyone should sing with one voice, the same notes, a recipe for monotony and sameness, a stamping out of difference and diversity.
Perhaps this was a predictable vision for someone who lives in a country which has prided itself for fifty years on the strength and diversity of its migrant heritage, the blend of ethnicities and cultures that enriches our cities and all our lives. Yet as I worked on the book, I was appalled at the savage demolition of that ideal that unfolded around me every day, the demands that all Australians adhere to one (Anglo-Celtic) heritage, one (conservative) way of looking at the world, one (frightened and unfriendly) response to strangers who approach us seeking shelter. Here was the consequence of the “one voice” philosophy, even clearer and more terrifying than I'd ever imagined it.
But it's within the framework of the story that the big questions can be played with most fruitfully. My heroine, Calwyn, is struggling to realise her destiny. How do her choices shape her life, and her awareness of herself? Who is she, and where does she belong? Her relationships with her companions grow and change during the adventures they share. Tremaris, the world she inhabits, is taut with mistrust. Peoples of different lands despise each other; there is suspicion between those with the gift of chantment and those without, between the Voiced Ones and the Tree People, between the desert-dwellers and those who live by the sea. How will they ever come to sing together, each contributing the unique notes that will make up the whole of the music?
I should have told the other mom at playgroup, yes, it is fun. It's pure delight. I feel a sense of guilty, self-indulgent pleasure whenever I sit down at my desk, because it doesn't feel like work, it feels like play. But it's more than just fun. The world of reality and the world of fantasy share more common ground than you think.