Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

The Violet Fairy Book (1906)

What is a fantologist? What does the fantologist do?

First let’s think about fantasy. What actually is it?

Fantasy is an experience that transcends logic. The general belief is that the universe described by science is the real one. That means that everything “outside” the general vision expounded by science is represented as unreal — not reality. Everything else is fantasy. 

As citizens of the modern scientific world, we prioritise reason, empirical experimentation, technology, and logical thinking over the magical act of conceptualization (i.e., inventing or generating an idea ‘out of thin air’ or, if you prefer, drafting designs and notions using imagination.) Business people call this type of conceptualization “blue sky thinking.” But, I support the theory that creative free-thought is inherently illogical (to drift into Mr. Spock for a moment) so every serious thinker has to make a choice: abstract thought or logical thought. If he or she follows the second path and follows the ‘rules’ of logic and convention, then the scientific constraints of logical thinking could precondition, discourage, or even obstruct the creator’s playful inventiveness and/or their conceptual productivity. That’s why I promote fantasy thinking as a vital part of anyone’s creative endeavour. 

A fantologist  tries to unite these two points of view: abstract thinking and logical thinking. The fantologist will try to explain the possibility of alternative ways of thinking. The fantologist considers possibleness!

What is ontology? Ontology is a question: what does it mean to exist? For example, in the news this month, we’ve seen images of cosmic objects that existed 4.6 billion years ago. These images came from the amazing James Webb Space Telescope. Did these gigantic galactic clusters once exist? Yes, it is logical and reasonable to say they did exist, though we can say with less certainty that continue to exist. Yet we see the images of them on our television screen! These images are an example of logical thinking. But do we dare ask if advanced civilizations once existed in any of those trillions of star systems? Erm, for that type of illogical thinking, we’d need to approach the notion imaginatively. So that’s abstract thinking. We need to use our sense of fantasy to answer a question like that! Do you see how the two types of thinking unite?

By the way, the images from the James Webb Telescope, of those star systems that are billions of years old, teach us that reality is not a thing but a process. Reality is a transition infinite process. We don’t understand reality properly and we never will, we never can! That’s why these images are too difficult to grasp. Reality is a Möbius strip that goes around-and-around and goes on-and-on forever. Reality is eternally looping on itself, as if seeking some kind of endpoint: though the endpoint, as we can see from these images from the space telescope, never arrives!

As the Buddhists say: everything is transient, evanescent, inconstant

  • Transience = nothing ever reaches a permanent state
  • Evanescence = everything passes through phases
  • Inconstance = everything is periodically changing, always shifting

The idea of transition infinite process comes from the ancient Greeks who guessed that the basic nature of all things is *change* Therefore reality is not a “thing” at all, but a set of infinite processes. Reality is processes in flux! So, for example, a river is not an object but a process of flow. A sun is not an object but a process of conflagration. A book is a process of drafting. A painting is a process of texture and line that requires perpetual interpretation.

Interpretation is a key ingredient in understanding existence. Most of us saw those images from the space telescope and we wondered. What do those amazing swirls mean? Attempting to interpret things that lay beyond our senses (conceptually or literally) is part of our shared human experience. It makes us human!

Theseus in the Minotaur's labyrinth, by Edward Burne-Jones, 1861

Another example of ontology is this: I went to Knossos on the island of Crete, where I visited the labyrinth, where the Minotaur (part man, part bull) was said to have lived and finally killed by the hero Theseus. (see above) Does the labyrinth exist? Yes, it is logical & reasonable to state it does because I saw it myself. I visited the place. So that part is logical thinking. But did the Minotaur exist? Erm, I’m not so sure of that! For the Minotaur to exist, I would need to think imaginatively. I would have to use abstract thinking.… Also, I’d need to put my logical thinking ‘on hold.’

So using questions about existence, a fantologist speculates on the possibility of alternative realities. And that’s easy, because we all experience a kind of alternate reality: dream state. I think it’s logical to say that dreams perform some type of quasi-therapeutic role, allowing our minds to process everyday traumas in a safe “sandbox.” But like the galaxy clusters seen with the James Webb Space Telescope, how real are dreams? They are authentic enough to provoke a sensory response from us… yet they are altogether imaginary. And so are hypothetical characters, fictional heroes, fabulous monsters (such as the Minotaur)… all these things provoke a sensory response in us, but are altogether imaginary.

a fantologist speculates on the possibility of alternative realities…

The other seriously weird alternative reality we all experience is a phenomena known as ‘liminal space.’ It can be a place, a time, or just a feeling. Liminal spaces are experiences of life in flux, or that idea of transition I talked about earlier. We all have liminal experiences! Try to remember your first day at a new school or the first day in a new job. You didn’t ‘fit in’ did you? Everyone was super nice to you. They were especially kind and understanding to you… extraordinarily so. As if they were ‘dream people.’ And things were incomprehensible, too. You didn’t know the simplest thing, where to have lunch, where the emergency exits were, what the bells and alarms meant, and you didn’t know who to trust. The place even smelt different. It felt different too. The atmosphere of that place/time was unreal. Being in this peculiar space/time felt oddly strange, didn’t it? You couldn’t go back, you couldn’t go back to your old school or your last job, but you couldn’t ‘move on’ or go forward either…because moving on from this ‘feeling’ would take ‘time’. And you instinctively knew that. So you were trapped in liminal place/space. But the feeling of being a fish out of water didn’t last long. A few days at most. Soon you made real friends, learned the rules, got used to the geography of the place, and those unsettling feelings of ‘newness’ were replaced by experiences and knowledge. That’s when you were ‘permitted’ to leave the liminal space and move forward. Well, that is until the next moment of flux in your life!

Liminal space can be a place, a time, or just a feeling… we often experience these odd and fleeting moments at major milestones in our busy lives: big birthdays (generally 18th or 21st), or momentous celebrations (weddings, funerals, baptisms), big changes (degree ceremonies, or new jobs.) So liminal spaces are often associated with rites of passage, i.e. the passage from childhood to adulthood, single life to married life, life to death.

A graveyard is a place that testifies to liminal transitions…

The graveyard is a place that testifies to one of these liminal transitions. That’s why such places feel holy, special or ‘spooky.’ Our ancestors were attuned & receptive to this type of liminal experience and often provided their citizens with a special “magical” place that sparked “liminal” adventures. Watching the rising sun at Stonehenge was (and still is) a liminal adventure, because we witness the birth of day and the death of night in a special place. But just as exciting is watching for the green flash sunset at Key West. There, the liminal adventure is to be present at the transitional moment when day becomes night. Right after the green flash, there’s always a big party!

Another modern equivalent of an adventure into liminal space would be the haunted attractions known as “hell houses.” These attractions are run by church organizations in the U.S.A. on or about Halloween. Visitors are invited to consider the nature of perpetual hell by visiting a set of spooky scenarios (on a night that most cultures believe is a ‘portal time’ when entities from the ‘otherworld’ might easily pass into our earthly dimensions!)

Stamp FO 585 of the Faroe Islands - A Selkie i.e. The Seal Woman (kópakonan)

Fantastic beings: Humans like to be scared! Society invented scary monsters to teach lessons or provide warnings… so we warn children not to enter the forest at night, nor leave the straight path, or the boogeyman will catch them. Adults will tell their kids not to swim alone in the sea at night or a selkie might drown them. How real are these dangers? I would say very real. The danger to life is real. And so it’s logical to warn our kids about hidden dangers. But why create an imaginary monster to remind people of real danger? Perhaps, we do this sort of thing as a kind of socio-cultural shorthand: It’s easier to talk about boogeymen than to address the palpable, physical (but no less terrifying) truth that there are grown men who will grab a child, harm the child, and kill a child in the dark. It is easier to talk about selkies than to talk about currents, tides and shifting sands.

What is magic?

By magic, I mean supernatural magic (and not sleight of hand conjuring tricks). I’m willing to bet that everyone you know practices magic! The definition of magic is: a set of beliefs, rituals, or actions that people *suppose* they can use to manipulate their natural environment. When my kids were little, they watched a kids’ quiz show called Blockbusters. In each episode, the friendly quizmaster introduced each of the (3) contestants. After asking for names, age, schools, hobbies, interests, Bob always asked the brainy contestants: which lucky mascot did you bring with you today? The kids provided answers such as: my lucky monkey, my lucky koala, my leprechaun. No kid ever said, “I don’t believe in magic. I don’t need a lucky charm to manipulate my natural environment and get easier questions.”

The same people who tell me “I don’t read fantasy titles because I don’t believe in magic” will flick a coin into a wishing well, blow on a dice, read a fortune cookie, wear a charm, have a lucky tattoo inked onto their arm, say ‘things come in threes’ and knock on wood. We might call this type of behaviour ‘wishful thinking’ or ‘superstition’, but it’s actually ‘magical thinking’. It fits the definition of magic: a set of beliefs, rituals or actions that folk think they can use to manipulate their natural environment. It’s fallacious thinking. And, of course, it is not logical. Yet, at least 70 million Americans read horoscopes daily, 6 million use homoeopathy to treat specific health conditions (200 million worldwide) and while we are doing statistics, more than a third of Americans believe in ghosts and extra-terrestrials! Even though they live in a time of logical thinking.

No kid ever said, “I don’t believe in magic”

Is any magic real? Yes, we have real magic here right now in today’s earthly world! Here are some examples:

  • emotions. Emotions are magic. We cannot see them. We cannot evaluate them. And emotions manifest themselves in different ways and differently from person to person. However, they are part of our natural human experience and being emotional is a magic we all perform. If we concentrate on emotions in our creative endeavours, we will be more successful.
  • storytelling. Written words are magic. Think about it. An author passes a “thought” to another person using telepathy and a scatter of runes (runes are ink spots on paper or dots on a screen). How does this magic happen? How does a story materialize into the mind of the recipient? Nobody knows. But it’s magic.
  • maths. Numbers are magic. Numbers don’t literally exist. They are purely convenient ideas that might be scratched onto paper or wax, so we might evaluate them.
  • money. Money is magic because numerals are magic. Money doesn’t exist. Money is a convenient idea that can be weighed and gauged on a spreadsheet or on an abacus.
  • humans. Humans are magical beings. We don’t need unicorns and werewolves when we have humans around. Each human arrived “out of nowhere” and one day will enter “into nothingness.” But, for a short time, a human can sing, laugh, invent things, create, and best of all, can love. Isn’t that magical? We seem so ordinary, yet we humans encompass everything that is possible and impossible. And that is true magic. Isn’t it?

Myth – what is myth?

Myth is folklore consisting of narratives that play a fundamental role in society, such as origin myths or providing lessons, setting standards of behaviour, or warning of dangers. Although myths might be related to religions, they don’t have to be religious to be mythological… but they must ‘have a purpose’ that is useful to society.

  • We can build upon myths (myths can be exaggerated or re-drawn)
  • Myths can be allegorical (Poseidon represents water. George’s dragon represents evil. )
  • We can ritualise myths (On a wedding day, we exchanged rings. A bride wears something old, new, borrowed, blue)

What is a fairy tale?

The difference between myth and fairy tale is that in a fairy tale (the narrative) unfolds in fairyland. A myth unfolds here on earth and helps in our understanding of ‘reality’. Thus, the minotaur I mentioned earlier is a myth. It helps us understand confusion and heroic duty. But Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a fairytale because the narrative unfolds in fairyland.

Fairy rings or fairy wells are somewhere between the two. They are liminal places! The Labyrinth I visited was also a liminal space.

Dobrynya Nikitich rescues Zabava Putyatishna from the dragon Gorynyc public domain

What do fantologists do?

Fantologists help creative artists use fantasy as part of their productive processes…

I help writers, for example, to write images with thoughts…

By the way, here’ a stunning thought for you: books don’t need words! Ha, ha! No, they don’t They need fresh ideas. Lots of fresh ideas! When people say they are prevented from working (writer’s block) they haven’t run out of words. They can’t have! There are 170,000 words in the English language and over 6,000 other languages. No, they have run out of ideas!

A Fantologist’s View of Creativity

Creative thought isn’t easy: Most prehistoric humans were hunting, fishing, gathering, stalking, etc. or using their fingers and minds to make tools, baskets, cook, repair, clean, etc. they didn’t spend time looking at the universe or contemplating their tummy-buttons! It is not a common human condition to think creatively. But a few rare humans embarked on creative thinking: these were the tribe’s inventors, discoverers, innovators, engineers, and designers. Yes, and the philosophers.  

Creative thinking is playful thinking and society has deemed that “thinking outside the norm” is regarded as deviancy and an insubordinate human trait. In many cultures, even now, creative thinking is presumed to be mischievous behaviour. Because blue-sky thinkers are not applying themselves to ‘useful’ work, i.e. hunting, fishing, gathering, cooking, mending, cleaning, etc. “Stop looking out of the window and day-dreaming… apply yourself to your text book!” teachers will shout. It’s as if society wants to shut-down creative imagination.

What is creative fiction?

I tend to describe imaginative people (for instance, the schoolgirl that endlessly looks out of the window during class) as creative fantasizers

Creative fantasizing is tapping into your semi-conscious to find other worlds. You, as the creative fantasizer, has no immediate connection with these otherworlds, yet the otherworlds have content and ingredients that are recognisable to us, the remainder of the human audience.

Words: @neilmach 2022 ©

As a creativity advisor, Neil supports other artists by offering advice, examples, and exercises that help boost creative imagination and harness originative potential.
The author is the creator of the fantasy author’s guidebook “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and he hosts the popular weekly Myth & Magic podcast.
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