Lev Grossman on “What is Fantasy About?”

“Something is up with fantasy,” said New York Times-bestselling author Lev Grossman on his blog in November of 2011, “I feel like the zeitgeist is taking an interest in it. Like the Great Lidless Eye of Sauron, the zeitgeist has turned away from the big science fiction franchises of the 1990s (Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, The X-Files) and swung towards big fantasy franchises instead (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, True Blood, Game of Thrones). [We’re generalizing glibly here, I know there are a lot of counterexamples (cough, Hunger Games, cough), and I do not repeat not want to get in a big wrangle over whether or not Twilight is fantasy—sorry. Just go with it for a bit.]

“But what is the Great Eye seeking? What questions does it have that fantasy answers? Or at least asks? …I get asked this periodically, in public, and it’s a hard question to answer. Probably impossible.

“Though one place to start is with longing. It’s something fantasy does especially well.

Lewis and Tolkien were virtuosos of longing. They had, after all, lost a world, the world of their Victorian childhoods, which had been erased by the calamities of the 20th century: automobiles, the electrification of cities, the rise of mass media, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. They lived through, if not a singularity, then a pretty serious historical inflection point, and they longed for that pre-inflected world.

“(Laura Miller writes about this really compellingly, albeit somewhat differently, in The Magician’s Book, her excellent book about Narnia. She quotes Lewis on his special notion of Joy: ‘an unsatisfied desire that is itself more desirable than another satisfaction.’)

“We too have lived through an inflection point: a great deal of technological and social change. We can lay claim to a certain amount of longing.

“Longing for what exactly? A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense – not logical sense, but psychological sense. We’re surrounded by objects that we don’t understand. Like iPods—they’re typical. They’re gorgeous, but they’re also really alienating. You can’t open them. You can’t hack them. You don’t even really know how they work, or how they’re made, or who made them. Their form is abstractly beautiful, but it has nothing to do with their function. We really like them, but it’s somehow not a liking that makes us feel especially good…

“This longing for a world to which we’re connected—and not connected Zuckerberg-style, but really connected, like a dryad with its tree—surfaces in a lot of places these days, not just in fantasy. You see it in the whole crafting movement—the Etsy/Makerfaire movement. You see it in the artisanal food movement. And it you see it in fantasy.

“Or at least, it surfaces in the fantasy I write.”

  • This is only part of Grossman’s essay. Read the essay in its entirety at his blog.
  • The Magician King is Book 2 in The Magicians series about Quentin Coldwater who is brillant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless. Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would. Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.
  • Enjoy the first three chapters from Book 1 in the series, The Magicians.
  • Collectively the Magicians series has over 7000 community reviews and 40,000 ratings on Goodreads.
  • To order The Magicians, follow the handy icons 

Lev Grossman is a senior writer at Time Magazine and the author of the bestselling novel The Magicians and its sequel The Magician King. At Time Grossman serves as both book critic and lead technology writer, and The New York Times called him “one of this country’s smartest and most reliable critics.” He brings a uniquely qualified, humanistic eye to the complex and unprecedented ways in which technology and culture are merging, drawing on his own expertise and his extensive conversations with major figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, and Jonathan Franzen. Grossman’s award-winning journalism has also appeared in the Times, the Village VoiceEntertainment WeeklySalonWiredThe Believer and the Wall Street Journal, among many others, and he is a frequent guest on NPR. (This bio via The Lavin Agency.)