This is the introduction John Norman wrote for the third volume of the Dark Horse omnibus edition, which was scheduled to contain Captive of Gor, Hunters of Gor and Marauders of Gor, but was sadly cancelled. It is published here with the kind permission of John Norman.
I write fantasy.
Sometimes this type of literature is referred to as "escape" literature. Sometimes its "relevance" might be called into question.
It is perhaps worth taking a moment to discuss these observations, or charges.
Let us consider the first. That fantasy is "escape" literature.
In its cruelest connotation "escape" suggests cowardice, or evasion, a flight from conflict, the refusal to perform one's duty.
"Escape," of course, need not have these undesirable connotations. For example, if we looked up from reading this, perhaps having heard a small, unusual sound behind us, and discovered that several mature, possibly hungry, and seemingly ill-willed lions, had been introduced into the room, I suspect that most of us, at least upon reflection, after weighing the pros and cons, would be willing to escape. A few of us might attack them with our house keys, ballpoint pens or penknives, but probably not many. I do not think I would do so. I do not think there would be anything cowardly in our attempting to escape. It is one thing to be brave, and another, paraphrasing Aristotle, to be an irrational jerk. Similarly, we do not scorn a child who escapes from a burning building. Similarly, we do not scorn, but rather commend, say, an aviator, at least one of ours, surely, who manages to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp. He escapes from a miserable condition of confinement and returns later to fight a perhaps better war.
In short, there is nothing so horrible about "escape," per se. Much depends on context.
Still, "escape" is a put-down word.
Calling names is not helpful when the object is not to derogate, but to comprehend, to understand.
Let us consider reality.
Reality, I have noticed, when paying attention, which I do occasionally, from time to time, here and there - reality, I have noticed, is not, all the time, all that great.
Reality is just not that real, all the time.
You have doubtless noticed this, also.
There is more to life than caulking the bathroom tiles.
One does not have, I suspect, a moral obligation to surrender the secret and splendid privacies of the imagination to the obliterating weathering of prosaic realities. We must beware lest we become what we do. And if we do only in the world, and think only in the world, we shall become that world, not ourselves, or ourselves as we might be.
There are dimensions to human existence beyond the expectations of the contemporary flatworm, complacent in its single dimension.
Immersion in the trivia of diurnal circumstance can be more an escape than fantasy could dream.
Man is a working animal, but he is also an imagining animal, a dreaming animal.
The dream, or the physiological concomitants of dreams, are apparently essential to man's health and sanity. Clinically, a man may be driven insane by not permitting him to dream.
Dreams and play, and perhaps fantasy, of one sort or another, seem essential.
There is chess and music, and poetry and love, and collecting bottle caps and building ships, and books. Before man could read he would gather about and hear stories. And before he could speak his stories, it is not unlikely that he told them with his body, that he danced them.
Man is an animal that fantasizes, that dreams. It is his nature, as much as the intricacies of his circulation and the structure of the valves of his heart.
Now, that being the case, is there a biological sanction for this idiosyncrasy? In dreaming there seems to be. The nondreaming brain does not survive. Why this is the case we do not yet know. It could be that the role of sleep is to make possible the dream. We do know that an individual deprived of sleep and then permitted sleep dreams frenziedly as soon as he falls asleep. When he has dreamed, then, and then only, he drops into dreamless sleep. The body, under such circumstances, starved for its dreams, compensates by an orgy of fantasy.
Something of the same case may be true in the daydreams of human beings. If human beings do daydream there is probably a good reason for it, whether we know the reason or not. Telling a human being not to dream may be a bit like telling him not to drink water. Probably what is involved here is the need of the brain for stimuli. Our minds are the center process of a loop phenomenon, psychologically. The brain is a physical organ which, among other things, transforms physical stimuli into physical reactions upon a physical environment. This has analogies to the reflex-arc phenomenon found as far down the phylogenetic scale as the adagio extension of the pseudopodia of the graceful amoeba. We do know, for example, from sensory-deprivation experiments, if input stimuli from the environment to the brain are reduced considerably, or removed, the mind goes mad. The brain needs stimuli. And, one supposes, sometimes one's normal environment just does not provide suitable stimuli, and then the brain, picking up a thread of thought, an image, tells itself a story.
Fantasy, of course, is powerful stimuli. Perhaps this has something to do with why people daydream, or read, or listen to stories, and so on. I do not know.
At any rate, just as it is the case that dreams, or their physiological concomitants, restore a human being, vitalize him, and send him roaring back into his world, so, too, it seems likely that daydreams, or fantasy, may have an energizing effect on the human being. Like recreation, like play, like rest, fantasy may increase the vitality levels of an organism. Dreams, or their concomitants, serve a purpose; so, too, one supposes, might fantasy. Accordingly, to think of fantasy as "escape" is to misunderstand perhaps not only the nature of fantasy, but that of human beings. This is not to deny, of course, that a given human being might, undesirably, spend his days fantasizing. He could, of course, spend his days undesirably taking drugs, or drinking alcohol, or eating radishes, or doing numerous trivial tasks with great energy over and over-fleeing from reality by leaping into it, so to speak. Fantasy, like dreams and table salt, and drinking water, is a good thing. This is not to say one should spend all of one's time dreaming, or drinking water, or eating table salt. But so much for the hygiene of fantasy.
Beyond this, of course, the imagination of man is a noble property. Its exercise would surely seem to fall within the lawful perimeter of activities appropriate to a rational animal. Indeed, imagination, one supposes, would be an important component in a proper concept of human intelligence. It is interesting, since it seems to be an important component of intelligence, that it is not tested for in intelligence tests. This seems to be less a reflection on imagination than on the primitive state of contemporary psychology. At any rate, if a man, say, a statesman, can imagine new possibilities, new policies, new futures, new relations, new structures, new paths, he is not obviously inferior to one who does long division with great rapidity. Indeed, the latter sort of mind is commonly an arid mind. The former sort of mind we wish to make our leaders, for they have vision; the latter sort, though their I.Q.'s, at least as currently measured, may be higher, we will use for bookkeepers and statisticians.
So, what about the "escape" charge?
We have suggested that it is semantically confused and, possibly, physiologically unsound. We have also suggested that it might be a bit stupid. At any rate, there seems no particularly compelling reason to reprehend either the exercise of, or the gratification of, the human imagination. If human beings have imaginations, they might as well use them. It is probably unhealthy, in fact, to suppress portions of your person. Besides, the imagination is one of the glories of a human being. We agree not to knock it. Human beings need all the glories they can get.
Let us now, briefly, turn to the second charge, the charge that fantasy is irrelevant.
If we think of this charge we see that it is based on the premise that literature should be applied politics. That literature must subserve a nonliterary purpose, that it must be an instrument of ideology. We might note that individuals who speak this way, while commonly using the rhetoric of freedom and reason, actually have totalitarian minds. Everything must be devoted to serving the purposes which they think must now be served. Their purposes. For example, it is not simply that they believe literature must be ideologically prostituted, but that it must be ideologically prostituted to a certain doctrine. Their brothel must be the only one in town. A literature which subserved the ends of Neo-Nazism, for example, would not be cheered by them as relevant, but denigrated as pernicious.
I myself have some intolerances. For example, I am intolerant of intolerance. I find myself, for various reasons, in favor of an open society, a pluralistic society. I hope someday we will have one. Totalitarianisms, of whatever stripe or ilk, have a common arrogance, the hypothesis of the single virtue. "I cannot celebrate your difference," they say. "I fear you, for you are different from me. You will be like me. You will have my values. You will do as I say. I am the people. I am God."
Those who maintain that literature must be relevant, aside from the fact that they do not understand literature, or appreciate it, in its multiplex beauties and richnesses, seem to be the same ones who have the least objection to burning libraries. No one who likes to read is likely to burn a library. There are books there. If someone claims that literature must be relevant, I think we may take the utterance of that opinion as a sufficient condition for inferring that he is unqualified to form an opinion on the subject.
On the other hand, I am no advocate for either relevance or irrelevance.
As a philosopher, and, ipso facto, a reflective eccentric, I ask "relevance" to what?
All literature, in some sense or other, all song and singing, is relevant to something or other.
Is it enough for literature to be relevant to the glories of the world, that it sings them; is it enough for literature to be relevant to the sufferings and the satisfactions of human beings? Is it enough that literature helps us to see and know, and wonder and love? Literature then is relevant to the vast, profound concerns of the thinking and feeling animal that we find ourselves to be. We do not find Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, nor Rilke and Yeats, irrelevant. Their political applications may be obscure, but the human consequences of sharing their visions are exalting. What they have touched they have made significant, and radiant. They have helped us learn the fragility and poignancy of experience; they have taught us how to strike together stones; they have taught us to illuminate our darkness, and, for the time, shut away the cold; in the light of these flames we can see our world, and those with us; in these flames, too, we can see ourselves; crouching together, they have given us a wondrous thing; they have taught us how, in our darkness, to strike together stones and make fire; we do not find them irrelevant.
In closing, I would like to suggest that all fiction is, in a sense, fantasy. It did not happen, by definition. But, more particularly, what of that portion of fiction more usually designated as fantasy?
By this time, I hope, no more than other forms of literature, it stands in no need of defense.
If it did, I would suggest that its justification is that it brings joy.
It expands the mind, the imagination, the sensibility. It teaches the discovery of continents. In it we learn the lineaments of strange flags. In it we walk amongst the grasses of foreign worlds. We see new stars, new suns. In it we find a universe in which man must again, afresh, address himself to the project of his humanity. How shall he be in such a world? How shall he make his way? Will he be courageous? Will he fail? In such a place, how shall he conduct, and form, that small, fragile, cosmically insignificant, tiny, mortal possibility that is himself?
Stories make man happy.
They bring him joy.
That is their justification.
They may have other justifications, too, but who cares?
Joy is enough.
I wish you well,
Copyright © 2008 by John Norman. All rights reserved.