I remember in Comp II the teacher saying that every great story had a theme, a message that spoke on something in the world. And the examples of this were always, invariably, a boring book written a long time ago. Maybe it was something interesting but more often than not it wasn’t. When I started playing around with with this short story, I didn’t really have any of that. No symbolism, no message, no theme. And that lead me to the questions above. Is it alright to write a story that is not laced with symbolism, that is not a commentary on the world around you, that a comp teacher would never include as part of their curriculum? Is it alright to simply write well and have a good story? Or should a writer wrap the elements of their story around some type of message, to give it validity? What if you have a really good idea but you can’t find anything meaningful about it?
What if it’s just fluff?
I find this to be especially essential to fantasy because, well, it’s fantasy. It’s not, generally, based around that serious of subject matter, at least not from the outside in. My Dad has always scoffed at all the stuff me and my Mom read and watch. He’s not a big reader so this normally applies to movies and TV but when it applies, it’s in a big way. He has trouble with the suspension of reality and can never immerse himself in the fiction. A lot of people are like that and look down on fantasy. Try explaining Lord of the Rings to someone who watches nothing but westerns. It’s not even like science fiction, whose authors are often times praised as visionaries and futurists.
My main story has a main character who early on failed in something he was passionate about. Part of that failure was rooted in his expectations of what the world was like and the rude awakening he was confronted with. All this is told in a setting reminiscent of the early nineteen hundreds but with magic. I started with the magic and his drive came later on as I became more disillusioned with a company that I really and truly care about. I didn’t even realize that’s what his story was about until I was almost done with it.
J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were close friends and wrote together. Both are classic fantasy stories and both are often seen as christian allegories. Here’s the difference, Tolkien hated his story being seen as an allegory and always argued with those who pointed at those references. He was catholic but that had no bearing on his story, or so he argued. Much later on he admitted that even if he didn’t set out to make an allegory, he was a christian and he wrote what he knew. I think in the end we all do that.
To answer the question, I think it is essential for a story to have meaning. It doesn’t have to be religious, it doesn’t even have to be obvious, but it has to be there. They make you tear down stories in Comp so that you recognize what the author was trying to do. It’s how the reader relates to the story. They may not even realize it. No one has ever taken the One Ring to Mt. Doom, but everyone has been overwhelmed by the situation at hand. That’s why that story, why that scene, speaks to us. Everyone has the burdens they bear and in that moment it is an analogy for whatever worry or obstacle is in the back of your mind.
Mine is about a guy who becomes disillusioned with his job. Yours could be anything from what it’s like to be a new parent to dealing with death. It could involve aliens or sorcerers or vampires. If you have an idea, write it. Who knows what you’ll start with. Maybe you’ll just want to write a story about someone in school and will have to invent a world for that to happen in. Or maybe you’ll want to write about a dragon and it’s not until you’ve finished that you realized your dragon is symbolic of an oppressive parent. Things always develop and since you’re the one making it happen, it will gain its meaning from your experiences.
I just don’t think it’s a matter of putting it there. If anything, it’s keeping it out.
I don’t want to be Shakespeare, or Tolstoy, or Hawthorne. I write fantasy. I want to be Brooks, or Butcher, or Rothfuss. All are fine authors. What they share with those other hallowed names is that their stories have a lot to tell about the human condition, about politics and culture, about all the things that go into our lives and make us who we are. I think these are great ways to frame a meaningful story. Because you want to read them. Citizen Kane may be a masterpiece, but it’s not something you’re gonna just pop in the DVD player on a Friday night. No, that’ll be the Avengers, and that can tell you a lot about the world as well.
The reason I like fantasy is that it has the ultimate advantage of taking the most important topics and framing them in a way that is intriguing and enjoyable. Fantasy is a genre for a reason. The earliest work of literature we have, Beowulf, is a fantasy. We’ve been making shit up as a people since the dawn of time.