In 1712, a British critic named Joseph Addison discussed what we would call “fantastic” or “fairy stories” as an identifiable literary form. This is, he says, “The Fairy Way of Writing”:
There is a kind of writing wherein the poet quite loses sight of nature and entertains his reader’s imagination with the characters and actions of such persons as have many of them no existence but what he bestows on them. Such are Fairies, Witches, Magicians, Demons, and departed Spirits.
Addison seems to think, when the story is “fantastic,” art becomes something apart from nature. While this may appear to make sense, in fact fantasy arguably requires more sympathy with nature, not less. What’s more, the beings he mentions don’t exist merely in the author’s or readers’ imagination. They exist in a tradition of storytelling that both author and reader dip into.
Addison seems to admit this a little later in the essay:
Besides possessing “a particular cast of fancy, and an imagination naturally fruitful and superstitious”, the author “ought to be very well versed in legends and fables, antiquated romances, and the traditions of nurses and old women, that he may fall in with our natural prejudices, and humor those notions which we have imbibed in our Infancy.”
In effect, fantastic tales “work” because we recognize something in them, however strange their new embodiment in this particular tale. This, by the way, is nice early confirmation for a point I’ve made before in this blog: to write good fantasy, it’s crucial to really know the deeper stratum of folk and fairy tradition that is employed – whatever tradition the author chooses.
Now back to Addison: Even stranger, at one point in the essay he seems to admit the possible existence of fantastic kinds of beings:
we are sure in general there are many intellectual beings in the world besides our selves, and several species of spirits, who are subject to different laws and economies from those of mankind.
It’s not clear to me how seriously he means this. If he’s serious, this leaves open the possibility of “wonder,” the sneaking suspicion that these stories (or something like them) might really be true.
As a recent critic, David Sandner, puts it, “Modern skeptical humanity should be immune to the ‘secret terrors’ of the fantastic, but is not.” Sandner adds that this is part of fantasy’s “power,” namely, its ability to reawaken our supposedly bygone, superstitious fears. (Think ghosts, goblins, demons.)
But critics of fantasy sometimes point to this very power as a fault: the longings and fears fantasy reawakens are “childish." From a staunchly modern perspective, this “childhood” is also the childhood of humanity—the “premodern man.” If readers discover that they are, in some way, “premodern” (superstitious, irrational, unenlightened) … Well, I don’t think that’s the fault of fantastic literature. It only shows that fantastic stories, done well, are a rightful part of our human storytelling heritage.
I’ll conclude with a quote that shows how perceptive Addison could be about what makes for a good, effective “fantastic” story. He says that if the author of a fantastic story lacks a deep knowledge of traditional legends and folk tales,
he will be apt to make his fairies talk like people of his own species, and not like other sets of beings ... and think in a different manner from that of mankind ....
Source: David Sandner, Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader (Praeger, 2004), 21-23; 316-325.