What’s in a Tale?

Four years ago, I was taking the Metro from the Minneapolis/Saint Paul airport to downtown Minneapolis for a conference for work. The train car I was riding in was full, as many people were returning home from a busy days work and, though we passed sights like the Metrodome, Minnehaha park, and columns of tall important buildings, I saw none of them. I simply could not pull my eyes away from the words I had just read in The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I had, what many artists might call, a breakthrough.

I struggle with my work you see. Though I have read much about Tolkien and his “sub-creation”, I had yet to discover the joy of telling a good myth. I had the impression that the word “fantasy” was synonymous with escapism, which many authors would say is true.

I have read many books about the craft of writing. In them, nearly all of the authors consider fantasy rubbish. The unfortunate reality about reading their take on literature and writing style is that you tend to respect what they say since they are accomplished; they “made it”.

The problem I had was that I was (and am) writing fantasy. At the time (and I do have relapses now and again) I maintained a passive-aggressive love-hate relationship with my novel. I knew the story had to be told and the characters begged me to continue. They wanted to live, and I wanted them to live. I just did not want my work to turn into one of those novels you see in the “free” bin outside secondhand shops. You know, the guy has a bare chest, rippling muscles, has one hand around a chain that connects to the collar of a snow leopard, and his other arm wrapped around the waist of the same old voluptuous girl you see on the cover of many fantasy stories. Yes, in other words, recycled trash, or escapism.

The solution, or breakthrough, where I was finally at peace about writing fantasy is when I read about what a fantasy actually could be. John Gardner was a man some considered a literary genius, and I was thrilled to find an explanation of a fantasy or tale in his distinguished book. Here is what I came across.

The setting of a tale is customarily remote in either time or space or both…The landscape of a tale is of a kind likely to inspire the reader’s wonder–lonely moors, sunny meadows, wild mountains, dark forests, desolate seacoasts–and both natural and made-made features of the setting are frequently of great age…the principle of causality in a tale is psychological and morally expressionistic, or poetic… (Gardner, The Art of Fiction Pg 72-73).

So therein lies the high aim of fantasy, and my novel, per Gardner’s take. Inspiration to fill the reader with wonder in the form of a poetic story. If a fantasy or tale is written like this, it could hardly be considered literary trash. Thanks Mr. Gardner.


4 thoughts on “What’s in a Tale?

  1. I remember when you recommended that book to me, and I read the part you are referring to about some of the differences between a tale vs an epic and so forth. It is definitely very reassuring to see someone like Gardner give relevance to something that you are working on. I personally love the genre of fantasy literature and agree with Gardner that such a tale can inspire wonder in a reader, a feeling I’ve had many times in reading good fantasy literature. Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks Scott. And thanks always for reading. That is where I got the title for my book too, The Tale of Calelleth. I call it my “Fall of Rome,” story and most of the inspiration has come from our history or mythology rather than a fantasy story so epic may be a better name. I think all of those literature classes from university have taken a toll on me, making me dislike my own work. Funny how I read Orwell, Dickens, and Elliot and I end up writing something completely different!

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