I think today there is a great emphasis on originality. A writer is pressured to make sure their work is entirely original and fresh, with nothing copied or borrowed from anywhere else; dare I say nothing inspired by anything else? Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems like the world is staring at you expecting a book to just pop out of your head with you as its only source, like Athena suddenly jumping out fully grown from Zeus’ forehead. Not only do I think this is rather unlikely, if not impossible, but I also believe that would be a perversion of writing. It would produce nothing but empty literature. After all, aren’t the greatest pieces of literature the greatest pieces of literature because they reflected so perfectly the world around them? Think about it: Homer’s epics, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Jane Austen’s novels, To Kill A Mockingbird. All treasured because the authors so soaked in the world they spewed it back with breathtaking precision. Their works were unique because they had their own world as their source.
The books I listed above are not fantasy, and it is fantasy in particular that this driving need for originality is often found. We are privileged to stand in a post-Lord of the Rings world, but for a fantasy writer this is a challenge as well as a blessing. We see books like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon that are a little too like The Lord of the Rings to be taken seriously. On the other hand, I’ve seen more than one disaster stemming simply from the author trying just a little too hard to get as far away from The Lord of the Rings as possible. At the end of the day, C.S. Lewis is right: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
Yet another problem arises for the fantasy writer, and that is the Yachtsman Principle. In his masterpiece Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton tells the plot of a story he’d like to write someday about a yachtsman who falls asleep while sailing and awakes to find what he thinks is a new island; thing is, it’s actually the very same island he just sailed away from, also known as England. Chesterton remarked that is would be supremely wonderful: to have simultaneously all the adventure and excitement of coming to an unknown land and all the comfort of coming home.
And so the best stories have all the excitement of the unknown and the unexplored and all the joy of finding the familiar. Even as you take the reader to a new world, there has to be the glow of the hearth fires of home: the familiar warmth of the true. A world more true than fact.
(For an excellent book on fantasy, read Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories.)