Does Realism Have a Place in Fantasy?

realism fantasy

Photo Credit: latd.com

By Yonatan Gordon

A few days ago, I posted a question on several groups on LinkedIn entitled, “What Do You Do When Your Futurist Fiction, Becomes Fact Today?” While the science fiction writers had much to say (as several of them wrote about futuristic technologies and happenings that later came about), the most interesting comments came from the fantasy writers group. There it was debated whether realism related to the world of fantasy at all. To be sure, it was suggested that the very question itself shouldn’t have been posted.

As there was a back-and-forth, the question still seems pertinent to science fiction as well as fantasy. Whereas, as we mentioned in our previous article, at least 18 once futuristic technologies from Star Trek have now become real to an extent, many fantasy writers will tell you that their writing is simply beyond the scope of realism. They explain that, if anything, their writing is based on something from the past. But most definitely, it is not intended to be a depiction of a potential future reality.

This answer didn’t quite settle with us though. Surely something about fantasy could in fact become real over time?

One way to phrase this debate is to say it’s between fact and falsehood. Whereas science fiction may portray some future truths, a fantasy writer claims that his writings are intended to stay false or fictional. The fact that Star Trek has had so many technologies become real is no coincidence. In fact, much has been written about the physics of Star Trek, including a book by that very name!

While the characters and species depicted are made up, the technology generally has some scientific basis to it. Whether our warp drives in the future will be made of dilithium crystals or not, doesn’t take away from the fact that scientists are now actively pursuing warp drive technologies.

Futurists or Escapists?

So is it just that science fiction writers are futurists, and fantasy writers are escapists? The difficulty with making fantasy real, is that science and technology is a much easier thing to make factual. Simply calculate Moore’s Law into the future a decade or two, and you have the basis for the technologies used in movies like the Minority Report (which depicts the present-day version of the Leap Motion sensor, another other things). But as mentioned, fantasy if anything is based on the past, not the future. What this really means is that fantasy generally has a more mythological angle to it.

Therein lies the difficulty. Can we say that fantasy, with its mythological underpinnings, can ever become true? Whereas science and technology, although futuristic, is to some extent grounded in present-day empiricism, fantasy prides itself on its ability to depict another world altogether.

Because the transformation is much more difficult, we rely on great Jewish sages to do the work for us. Only they can turn something which is completely impure like the name of a false deity, and transform the name  into something holy. One classic example of this is the Hebrew month of Tamuz.

Tamuz – Time for Transformation

The names of all the months in the Hebrew calendar are originally from Babylon. The Jewish people adopted these Babylonian names during the 70 year exile in Babylon. Yet, of all the Babylonian names adopted, Tamuz stands out as peculiar: it is the name of an actual Babylonian deity and idol. Why would the sages allow the adoption of the name of idolatry into the holiness of Judaism?

The short answer is that our role is not only to combat idolatry by defacing it, because the psychological motivation that draws people to idolatry is not cured that way. Instead, in the long run, we have to transform the negative psychological proclivities that lead to idolatry and transform them into positive ones.1 It seems therefore, that the sages’ choice of the false god of the Tamuz provides us with a case study of the problem of idolatry and its solution. The month of Tamuz is thus the time of year best suited for understanding and practicing the process of transformation (or, ithapcha as it is called in Chassidut) in the psyche.1

Not Mythological At All

There is another possibility. Instead of waiting for a tzaddik (righteous Jewish sage) to transform the fantasy character, perhaps an easier approach is to show it to be a Torah concept to begin with. Such was the case for the Phoenix, as depicted in this story (as originally published on Chabad.org):

It was 22 years ago, when the widow of Jacques Lifschitz, the renowned sculptor, had come for a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, shortly after her husband’s sudden passing.

In the course of her meeting with the Rebbe, she mentioned that when her husband died, he was nearing completion of a massive sculpture of a phoenix in abstract, a work commissioned by Hadassah Women’s Organization for the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, in Jerusalem.

As an artist and sculptor in her own right, she said that she would have liked to complete her husband’s work, but, she told the Rebbe, she had been advised by Jewish leaders that the phoenix is a non-Jewish symbol. How could that be placed, in Jerusalem — no less!

I was standing near the door to the Rebbe’s office that night, when he called for me and asked that I bring him the book of Job, from his bookshelf, which I did.

The Rebbe turned to Chapter 29, verse 18, “I shall multiply my days like the Chol.”

And then the Rebbe proceeded to explain to Mrs. Lifschitz the Midrashic commentary on this verse which describes the Chol as a bird that lives for a thousand years, then dies, and is later resurrected from its ashes.

Clearly then, a Jewish symbol.

Mrs. Lifschitz was absolutely delighted and the project was completed soon thereafter.

The Future of Fantasy

Still we are left feeling like even the most used fantasy characters today are just beyond the scope of reality. Even the transformation or sourcing of the phoenix in this story was initiated by a righteous Jewish sage. While there are Torah sources that relate the fear of the wolf to the fear of rape2, we would be hard-pressed to say that we can transform the character depicted in thriller films and books on our own.

The message we would like to conclude with is that the wave of realism is something that affects all of fiction. It’s only some transformations from fiction to fact are easier than others. Whereas fiction based on science is ultimately empirically founded, fantasy is in many ways the opposite.

But even from the extreme fiction of fantasy, it is indeed possible to go to the other extreme. The main difference though, is that when dealing with something totally not-real, the reality or truth first needs to be made known by someone who is only real or true–the complete tzaddik or righteous Jewish sage.

The good news is that once the transformation is complete, we can all readily benefit from the results.

1. For the full explanation about this deity and the transformation that occurred, please read the entire article “Tamuz: The End of Tragedy

2. As mentioned throughout “Body, Mind and Soul: Kabbalah on Human Physiology, Disease and Healing

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