This essay was released on January 21, 2019. After all those essays about spirituality, I thought it about time to switch gears and speak of things a bit earthlier. And by earthly, I mean completely imaginary. I am talking, of course, about fantasy.
What a large word: fantasy. Many definitions fit the mold. One speaks of that which is utterly outside of reality, a product of a mind filled with fancy, the notion of a pipe dream or the useless product of the imagination. A fantasy is a thought that is childish, a thought that is foolish, a thought that is totally without merit outside of a navel-gaze or two.
For me, though, my definition is a little more exciting. I think of adventure. I think of boldly approaching the dangerous unknown with the odds stacked high against our hero. I think of magic and dragons and an iridescence of colour and larger-than-life characters. I think of the books, movies, and games I enjoyed as a child and continue to enjoy as an adult. Heck, literally my earliest memory is of watching the cartoon version of The Hobbit in my parents’ starter home on a small CRT television. Fantasy in this context has shaped me into a lover and dreamer that always looks on the bright side.
There are as many kinds of fantasies as there are unique minds on this planet. Some people fantasize about falling in love, some people fantasize about accumulating money, some people fantasize about attaining some form of freedom or another. Some people fantasize about unbounded sexuality, some people fantasize about the landscapes of a religion, some people fantasize about building the next behemoth of a building that scrapes the sky.
Some people even turn these fantasies into reality.
I suppose what this essay is about is the power of the imagination. What we fantasize about is what becomes reality. If no one had imagined that a rock could be struck against another to create a spearhead, which protected our ancestors and made them better hunters, would we have survived the vagaries of the ancient wild? If no one had dreamed that ceasing our constant movements and trying to cultivate the plants that gave us sustenance would lead to a steadier way of life, would I be able to type this essay right now? To that end, if no one had fantasized about turning a mental concept into a symbol, would we even have language? If no one had fantasized about creating things, would we ever have become human beings?
Say what you will about the intelligence of species other than human, but from my perspective, the gift we have been given by virtue of the large organ pickled in our skulls is the ability to imagine and transform what we imagine into reality. This is what art is – the expression of a human being’s fantasy. And art can be practical, abstract, or somewhere in the middle.
I would say that fantasy is potential reality. What I mean by that is this: there is nothing that a human being has ever done that was not dreamed up first. You need to have an idea before you can do what is necessary to turn it into something that exists on the physical plane. Sure, a trite concept, but ideas are by themselves inert. They need some action on the part of the human being. So, how do we transform fantasy into reality?
Well, if we’ve done it before, usually we won’t have too much trouble with it. We just try what we did before, and if that doesn’t work, then we try something new. Repeat until the problem is solved. But what about things that we haven’t done before? The first thing to do is to try to find someone else who has done it first, i.e. one that has gone before. A mentor.
Mentors can come in many, many forms. You might have someone literally tell you what to do. Or you might read it in a book or on a website, which is essentially the same thing. You might have to use something similar, but not quite the same thing, because your idea is a new iteration on an old concept. Your mind will squeak along, provide you with solutions that you test, and then, boom: fantasy into reality.
But what about something more seismic than that? What about an unrealized fantasy that we are not sure how to extract from dreamland? I would say that when we have such a question, we must go and spelunk inside, farther down the rabbit hole of imagination. It is from this source, this deepest river, where paradigm shifts are found.
I mentioned language above. Someone on this planet – well, at least two people, – had to have decided that they wanted to communicate. And so, they must have tried many things. Perhaps hand gestures, perhaps drawings in the sand with a stick, coupled with a grunt and pointing. Or perhaps it started with a touch on the body and a grunt. Repeated often enough, it became understood. It made us survivors. And it was taught to others. And then it became refined. This process took a very long time.
But that only describes the process. Where did the idea come from? What was the impulse that spawned the fantasy? What gave it life and staying power? Was it the ceaseless random chittering of quarks and electrons, dancing around in their sub-visual realms that sparked something within us? Sure, it was selected for by evolution, but is that still looking at the window dressing? Is that itself describing the process as well, rather than being an ultimate answer?
Given our limited scientific understanding of consciousness, I think it fair to say that no one really knows where ideas come from. We can describe processes and label things with all manner of symbols, but can we really ever get to “the bottom” of the rabbit hole? That is a question each person must answer for themselves, I think. But I also believe that it’s important to ask the question.
When I ask the question, one of my favourite ways to do so is: why dragons? Who came up with dragons? Why do they appear in Chinese mythology, in European mythology, in Egyptian mythology: in pretty much every culture, according to the Wikipedia entry on dragons. Some people might say that it is because they resemble snakes, and that humans have always been terrified of snakes. But again, I think that is a speculative description of the process, rather than the bottom of the hole. They feature repeatedly in our myths, and they are at times benevolent or evil. If they were simply a reaction to a base fear within the reptilian sections of our brains, they would always be evil killers.
Now, I will admit, in most stories, dragons are evil. But they are not simply dangerous monsters to be killed. They often have metaphorical connotations, representing some part of the human psyche. In the opening quote of this essay, I referred to one of my favourite books of all time, The Hobbit. The main antagonist of the story is Smaug, an enormous dragon sitting on a pile of gold in the heart of a mountain. A covetous and greedy creature, no doubt, but it wasn’t Smaug who dug up the gold. It was the dwarves. Dwarves who, as metaphors for humans, were led by an equally greedy leader who got them killed because he was not satisfied by the riches. He wanted more and more and more, to keep for himself, including the Arkenstone, the most beautiful of all worldly treasures. And Smaug, seeing this, decided to take it for himself in a holocaust of fire and terror.
Now, in the story, the one who saves the day is Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, a diminutive chap, the most unlikely of heroes, really, and someone who wanted to be left alone and comfortable. His mentor, one that had been on adventures before, wise old Gandalf the Grey, knew that this loneliness and comfort would be the death of Bilbo. So, he gave him the metaphorical boot to the arse and admonished him to choose: the unknown new idea, or the safety of old hat. Gandalf did not hold Bilbo’s hand, but he did hold the door open for him.
And guess what – the hobbit chose the unknown and went on his adventure. There were many wonderful new vistas and places, like Rivendell, and Mirkwood, and the Misty Mountains. There were also many dangers – trolls, goblins, Gollum, wolves, spiders, and Smaug himself. As Gandalf himself knew, some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure, would see our hero through to the end.
Bilbo was tested at every turn. Using courage, he defeated all of his foes, including by burgling the dragon’s hoard as a tiny hobbit. His gambit sees Smaug defeated with the help of elves and men. A paragon of honour, he defied his leader, Thorin Oakenshield, who emulated the dragon in his greed. Bilbo, prepared to sacrifice the most enticing treasure of all, the Arkenstone, courageously risked Thorin’s deadly wrath by using it to try to broker a peace between the elves and men who rightly wanted a share of the treasure after bleeding for the cause. In the form of Gandalf, magic, a symbol for love itself, intervenes to prevent Thorin from killing the hobbit. Then goblins and wolves attack. The dustup sees the destruction of the remainder of the evil creatures. On his deathbed, Thorin does see the error of his greedy ways and apologizes to Bilbo. Finished with the adventure, the hobbit takes some of the treasure home, enough to see him wealthy, but the treasure was a metaphor. The real treasure for Bilbo was the wisdom and the experience itself.
He also brought with him a ring that was greed distilled into a world-destroying device that was the focus of the plot of Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, but… that is a discussion for another day.
When I think of fantasy, I think of stories like The Hobbit. I think of love, courage, honour, and wisdom. I think of those admirable virtues that have the potential to win out in human beings. And they triumph in most of the stories we tell. I would wager that this is no accident. Now, the stories where the world falls apart and ends in horror do exist. I mean, there is an entire horror genre, and I adore horror stories and respect the artists that create them. But, most of our stories end with the triumph of the hero. And the hero is invariably someone who has used courage, honour, and wisdom to advance the cause of love.
It is the seed of our fantasies, the ones that are beloved by most people. I mean, The Hobbit, after achieving worldwide success as a book, was turned into a three-part blockbuster movie long after its author’s decease. People are drawn to this kind of story like moths to a flame. To me, that represents evolution. How would the world become if greed suddenly lost tomorrow? How would our planet exhale a sigh of relief? How many of our woes would evaporate if people shared and shared alike? How much would we gain if we were prepared to sacrifice the greatest of our worldly things to others?
There is no answer. None that will be answered immediately, anyway, so the questions remain. Me, I like to fantasize about those. And I am reminded of the other example of new thinking that I raised: language.
How long it must have taken for language to take hold, how long ancient people must have had to try to communicate the notion of speech to others who lagged behind, how they surely had to come at the concept from so many different angles, how many generations of our ancestors had to have been born, before their fellows – all of their fellows – finally grasped the treasure that it is.
Perhaps stories like this are evolution at work. A mode of communication, of subtle symbolism that demonstrates the value of virtues like courage, honour, wisdom, and love – communicated in a way that touches the heart rather than simply the head – perhaps this is the arm of evolution, a paradigm shift in consciousness that has not yet taken root. Maybe these ideas need to be communicated this way so they are properly imprinted upon our souls?
My own earliest memory – it is of watching The Hobbit. Why did my mind deem it so important that I remember it so vividly? My entire life has been an ode to stories like The Hobbit, and now I find myself writing my own stories in that vein, in every free moment I have. There is something deeply valuable there – but why the value? Why do any of us love these stories in the way that we do?
Perhaps it is a fantasy, that evolution might work in this manner. But I would wager that it’s that kind of fantasy that might find us living in a merrier world.