Monday, April 18, 2011

Shadows on a Cave Wall

Posted by: Jenny Schwartz

Aren’t you just the littlest bit curious about what lurks in your unconscious? Dark secrets, fragile dreams, absurd self-portraits,...

Fantasy stories let the unconscious out to play; that’s why they’ve been popular since humans sat around campfires and told stories with shadow puppets on cave walls.

We know we can’t explain everything in the world. We can’t even explain our own actions and secrets of the mind. But with fantasy, we can explore and celebrate the mysteries. We can tell each other great truths by cloaking them in fantastical garb.

I’ve mentioned before my love for Terry Pratchett’s satirical fantasies, but I’m talking now about something less tangible than explicit social commentary. I’m talking about aspects of our unconscious playing out in the stories we share.

Maybe I’m wrong: I’m no psychologist. I’m simply a writer intrigued by the perils and monsters each generation imagines, the fads that rise and fall in fantasy media (books, movies, games), and how these changes might reflect and shape wider social and personal concerns.

Are vampires our fascination with destructive relationships? Cinderella our martyr complex? Superman our powerlessness? More positively, is steampunk active nostalgia, the belief that once (and maybe again) all things were possible? Shifters our capacity to re-engage with the natural world, draw strength from it and renew it? Is magic wish fulfilment, and the twist in its tail, our acceptance that choices have consequences?


  1. Good points, Jenny. Of course there's always the possibility that the fantastic in fiction is just good plain fun. :-)

  2. Interesting post, Jenny. Provocative questions. I think Cinderella's charm is the rags to riches thing. Superman, yeah, I do think that's about our powerlessness and wanting to be protected by a more powerful being who fights for right. As for steampunk, for me it's just the fun ride. Escapism.

  3. Cindy and Janni, I'm intrigued that you both comment on the fun part of fantasy. Don't get me wrong, I agree with you, but it's interesting... What makes fantasy fun? the talent of the writer? the particular story being told? or simply allowing ourselves (as readers) the indulgence of believing the impossible for a few hours?

  4. For me, reading fantasy is about escapism and experiencing a unique world – usually something dark, sinister and including a forbidden love :P So, this is what makes it fun for me. To achieve this, of course the writing has to be strong, the characters enticing and the world believable.

  5. "and the world believable" -- this is crucial -- and explains why fantasy writers obsess about world building. Patricia Wrede wrote a guide, I think. A kind of checklist. It's quite detailed, things like currency, religion, stuff I hadn't thought of.

  6. Wandering around in your subconscious is dangerous, Jenny. You could get lost in there. This was such an interesting post. I do agree that fantasy is a great space to explore all that. But as a writer, sometimes I think the more I'm consciously aware of the symbolism within a story I'm writing, the less powerful it becomes.

  7. Eleri makes a good point. Maybe it's better to let the symbolism emerge from the subconscious without conscious intent. Maybe there's more purity to it, or maybe it's infused with more mysticism. Who knows? Have you ever heard of the (I don't know the correct spelling) akashic consciousness? It's a kind of collective consciousness that we're all connected to, but we're not aware of it. Some really creative, intuitive people can tap into it, and that's the source of their muse. Lot's to think about.

  8. I agree with you, Barbara, Eleri's point really resonates. I think I'm more clumsy, stilted, the more aware I am of the symbols/metaphors I'm using -- except, interestingly, when writing poetry. Different format, different expectations perhaps. I find poetry (even when mine is so awful I won't show it to anyone) is a great way to play with a fantasy idea that I can't quite find a full prose story for.

    Sorry, I ramble off topic way too easily.

    I came across the Akashic Field when I was (trying to) read about Quantum Physics. Some people try to shuffle it into science, while scientists try to kick it out. I love these controversies of academia and its fringes. Anyway, I really like the idea of an akashic consciousness. Kinda like Jung's archetypes? Well, no, I guess not, but that dipping into a shared vision place/place of meaning is intriguing.

    Thanks everyone for commenting on my musing blog post.

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