by Catherine Jones Payne
When I walk in the woods, the world feels enchanted. Every firefly might be the tiniest fairy; every tree houses a dryad. When I plunge into the ocean’s chilly embrace and swim over a field of living coral, every flash of movement could belong to a mermaid fin. As a teenager living down a dirt road in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, amid fields full of cows and forests full of trees, I wrote a (dreadful) high fantasy. In it, the mythopoeic inhabitants of the land come together to fight a great evil, and each setting was inspired by a piece of the rural landscape I saw every day.
This sense of magic in the mundane guides the way I write. People ask me if I develop my characters or my plot first, and the truth is that those are always second and third. The first thing I get is an image—an underwater city set in a massive coral reef, in the case of my Broken Tides series, or a traveling festival of fire magic, for Fire Dancer. And these images are nearly always inspired by something I’ve seen in real life, something that evokes the numinous.
Perhaps I was merely born a thousand years too late. Julian’s anchorite cell has lain dormant for centuries; we live in the time after Weber’s disenchantment of the world, or at least after humanity was able to draw a firm boundary between themselves and those mysteries, so that we no longer feel threatened by them. Of course, Charles Taylor points out that such nostalgia is innately anachronistic, that “our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane” for “go[ing] to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson,” for to the ancient and medieval minds, such magic and mystery was deeply terrifying.
But modernity is in many ways unsatisfying, and through art, we have sought ways to “discern the numinous without being porous to it,” to experience the fantastical even when we no longer expect to encounter it face-to-face if we venture too deep into the mountains. In the ancient pantheons, the gods were a bit like superheroes, or perhaps supervillains—in many ways almost human, but powerful, and with an extra helping of petty vindictiveness. The stories of the gods were often less concerned with questions of ultimate meaning and more with explaining the difficulties of day-to-day life.
And maybe very little has changed in a thousand years, after all. Perhaps “fantasy may best be taken as an acknowledgment that the great problem of the pagan world—how to navigate as safely as possible through an ever-shifting landscape of independent and unpredictable powers who are indifferent to human needs—is our problem once more.”
In a world in which we feel whiplashed by the news cycle, captive to technology, and fearful of so much that is out of any one person’s control—elections, pandemics, pernicious injustice, environmental degradation, threats to civil liberties, and too many other things to list—fantasy stories still (more often than not) show us a world where, for all the moral ambiguities that must be sorted out first, the face of injustice is ultimately beaten back, whether in small or profound ways. Though the Avengers fight amongst themselves over questions of what is good, they eventually come back together to face the clear and present evil—Thanos’s snap is undone, and a thousand portals bloom like fireworks in the sky as love and self-sacrifice win the day.
Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” This year, we’ve felt the weight of a lot of those dragons. Though there may be an impulse to dismiss fantasy as frivolous in the face of the pressing concerns of the world, we might consider that fantasy is even more relevant for us now. A sense of enchantment in the world, of magic in the mundane, draws us back to those stories that affirm a truth we know in our bones: that beneath all the cynicism of the year 2020, “there is some good in this world . . . and it’s worth fighting for.”
Catherine Jones Payne is the YA fantasy author of Breakwater and Fire Dancer and the executive editor of Quill Pen Editorial. She believes that story is the deepest kind of magic there is. She loves getting lost with fairies in the forests of Upstate South Carolina alongside her historian husband, Brendan, and playing with her two flerkens, Mildred and Minerva, who pretend to be ordinary cats. She’s watched Parks and Rec more times than she should admit and consumes entirely too much tea.
 I would be remiss if I didn’t start out by acknowledging the profound debt this piece owes to my college professor, Alan Jacobs. He is cited below, but his excellent article is only a small piece of that debt—I am certain that most of my thoughts here owe their inception to his classroom lectures.  Taylor, Charles. “Buffered and porous selves.” The Immanent Frame. September 2, 2008. https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/  Jacobs, Alan. “Fantasy and the Buffered Self.” The New Atlantis. Winter, 2014. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/fantasy-and-the-buffered-self  Ibid.  There are, of course, subgenres where this is not the case. Perhaps one of the reasons I read and write YA fantasy is that this arc is fairly reliable.  Gaiman, Neil. Tumblr. February 12, 2013. https://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/42909304300/my-moms-a-librarian-and-planning-to-put-literary  The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, 2002.