Poppins Paradox

What is the only essential ingredient of fantasy? The Poppins Paradox explained

Apropos something else entirely my wife yesterday suddenly exclaimed: “I didn’t think Mary Poppins was a fantasy adventure…

I looked at her and grinned, then I made a sarcastic observation along the lines of: “No, I reckon it was a documentary film…”  but I later added, “What do you think the story of Mary Poppins is, if not fantasy?” As you can imagine, there was no answer to that question (probably just a slap!) However, the exchange got me thinking: what ingredients are required before you can say that something is a fantasy?

Poppins

For example, using the Mary Poppins source to extend the argument: is one criteria of fantasy that it must reproduce an imaginary universe? Do not all works of fiction, be they speculative fiction, magazines, art, movies, etc. don’t they all fabricate imaginary worlds? Are not even daytime theaters, prime-time soap operas, and even the most daring kitchen sink dramas, regardless of the creator’s impressive attempts to depict reality & literal truth, are they not imaginary universes? So why don’t we call them fantasy?

real London?

The Poppins Paradox is that the story is based on a (in the film version, clumsy and hackneyed, I agree) “real world” setting, in this case London, at a point in “real world” history (a Disneyfied Edwardian England, I suppose) and it incorporates a cast of what seem to be, anyhow on the face of it, ordinary “real world” people. Actually, the British-Australian writer P. L. Travers always knew (and she always intended) that her books would be classed as fantasy adventures… and that’s because they featured a magical English nanny. So is it the addition of a “magical” element that makes a story a fantasy — rather than any attempt to create an imaginary universe?

Oz World

As fantasy writers, I think we can get bogged down (and easily convinced) into thinking we need to create imaginary universes. From L.Frank Baum’s Oz World (above), via Tolkein’s Middle Earth and across DC Comics’ multiverse and into James Cameron’s ecosystem, dropping by the continents of Westeros and Essos on the way through —  we have so much enjoyed reading about & creating our own detailed imagery for invented worlds that we get lost within them. (By the way, these are paracosms, and I discuss them in my non-fiction manual “So You Want to Write Fantasy” — and I also explain why you and I might be drawn into paracosmic worlds) — I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I’m just saying it’s not essential for fantasy…

But that brings us back to my original thought: what is the essential ingredient of fantasy (if it isn’t an imaginary universe?)

As I have said before, in much more detail, the supernatural and the fantastic have always been an essential part of any fiction project (not just fantasy fiction.) In fact, ancient civilizations couldn’t separate storytelling from fantasy… and maybe neither can we!

We're Diabetic

Imagine if I gave you a true-life account of one hour of my life from yesterday… a bit like a witness might give his accurate testimony in court… I think it would bore you to tears, and you would probably unplug or fall asleep before I’m done. Not only would my minute-by-minute and step-by-step story be tremendously tedious… it would also be long (endlessly long, you might think) because it would have to take-up more than an hour to narrate, because every component or aspect would have to be fully explained. Most undesirable of all, though,there wouldn’t be any point to it. There’d be no benefit. So you would ask: what was the point of all that? Why did I waste a good part of my life listening to it? What did I get out of it? In short, a real life account of an hour of my life would be an absurd and unproductive waste of time. Knowing this to be true, ancient storytellers sensationalized, romanticized, and glamorized their stories: they made them fantastic, even if those same stories were based on true events or real-world history. In other words, they hyperbolized the cojones out of their accounts! And the public loved it. So the storytellers knew they were onto something. And that’s how real life and the fantastic got mixed up.

Todorov

Along came a Bulgarian-French historian named Tzvetan Todorov (1939-2017) who famously claimed that the “fantasticis a liminal space within the architecture of life. This is why I bang-on about liminality so much!

I previously covered liminality in greater detail in my Myth & Magic podcasts (you’ll need to listen to Episodes 13, then Episode 40, and Episode 51 please find the link below) but basically (very basically) it’s the idea that there are moments in our lives when continuities and situations dissolve or become uncertain or outcomes that are previously certain will be thrown into doubt… these are liminal periods (or thresholds) in our life; we meet them rarely (but occasionally) and we all experience them.

We will find (all of us) that during liminal moments (most often experienced in rites of passage) our understanding of time becomes fluid and malleable. And when time is amorphous like this, everything we think is true can be doubted.

Why do I feel so tired?

I propose that conjuring liminality, the positioning of ourselves or our readers on an impermanent (almost evanescent) threshold — is the only essential criterion of fantasy. This is why portals are so important in fantasy stories: you leave from a “real place” and enter the magic world of Narnia through a wardrobe, you board the Hogwarts Express and enter an imaginary world from King’s Cross station in London through Platform Nine and Three Quarters. Bilbo Baggins and, after him, Frodo leave the Shire to enter into their magical adventures at a liminal moment in their real lives (their joint birthdays.)

Even the act of picking up a book and immersing oneself inside the world it describes (or luxuriating in a fantasy adventure on screen) is a temporary journey into a metaphysical dimension. Yes, reading and viewing is a transitional moment (a temporary interruption) in how we experience the mechanical passage of time. How often do we suddenly blurt: “Good grief, is that the time?” after reading in bed for too long. How often do we leave a cinema and enter the pale sunlight (blinking) and think “gosh, the real world seems so weird...”

And Mary Poppins? She is caught up in the lives of the Banks’ children, Jane and Michael, and twins John and Barbara, by the east wind. Why then? Because it was a time of liminality: a fluid, malleable and impermanent time when new rules could be established for the young family, and a new “normality” could begin. Poppins always promised she’d “pop out” of their existence once the wind changed… and she did. Poppins’ period was transitional and she, the bearer of change, was merely a temporary evanescent visitor.

So to sum up: fantasy has many desirable ingredients: magic, supernaturalness, fantabulous plot elements, highly imaginative themes & settings, magical creatures, and detailed imaginary universes… but it has only one essential criterion: a sense of disorientation at a transitional moment: liminality.

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments?

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.