Do the children of immigrants have a chance of being accepted to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? How can vampires build normal relationships? And how do they behave at festive family meals? What is the status of women in the kingdom of Narnia? Are the Orcs, the servants of the Dark Lord in "The Lord of the Rings" inherently bad or do they suffer from cultural oppression?
Such questions seem irrelevant and perhaps ridiculous, even at a time when works of fantasy are attaining a more central place than ever in the media and popular culture. While film and literary works from other genres are subject to psychological, cultural and political analysis, fantasy is for the most part considered a genre that is not worthy of any kind of serious treatment.
"Fantasy is a subject that is above time, that always has been relevant. But fantasy as a literary genre was not until recently the focus of scientific review," says Prof. Yoram Bar-Gal, the organizer of the Fantasy and Reality: Depictions of Past, Present and Future conference that will take place today and tomorrow at the University of Haifa. "We are opening the university's door to fantasy, in all the various contexts of this concept."
The conference's focus will be the various fantasy worlds, from the ancient myths to works of science fiction and modern social utopias. "Even Zionism is, at the bottom line, a product of a fantasy or delusion," says Bar-Gal. "Some of the fantasy has been realized and some not." In keeping with the topic, and in the spirit of the holiday of Purim, the conference (which is free) will be lighter than the usual academic conference and will feature, in addition to lectures, exhibitions, film screenings and performances by school students.
The characters have grown up
"In the past fantasy was a kind of marginal culture, but today the genre of fantasy and horror films has gone mainstream," says Ornat Turin, a researcher of popular culture at Haifa's Gordon College of Education, who will lecture at the conference.
"Major directors are involved in it, and it has become increasingly sophisticated and more refined." Consequently, in recent years fantasy has been given a more central place also at academic institutions around the world, primarily in the United States.
However, many researchers feel that the attempt to analyze works of fantasy with standard tools is pointless. "Nearly all heroes of fantasy and science fiction are motivated by simple, and even simplistic, human psychology," says literary researcher Dr. Galia Shenberg, also from Gordon College.
"These heroes are very different from each other outwardly speaking, but if you analyze their soul, you will find that it is built uniformly, and they are always motivated by a kind of Protestant morality."
However, Shenberg, the author of the fantasy work, Hadelet Shel Polie ("Polie's Door," Beit Ohr Vilnai Publishers), feels that works of fantasy should be judged according to their own criteria. "It's not fair to judge science fiction and fantasy according to the criteria of literature from other genres," she says. In her lecture, she will compare the ways in which fantasy heroes and science fiction heroes are shaped.
"you don't have to look for complex characters like Raskolnikov in 'Crime and Punishment,' but for the way in which this literature manages to create the setting: if there is innovation in the external form of the character, and especially if the character presents some kind of new idea," says Shenberg.
Turin, on the other hand, feels that fantasy characters, and primarily the monsters and satanic creatures, have matured in recent years and become much more complex than in the past, as have their personalities.
"The forces of blackness today look better than ever," she says. "They have become a lot more anguished, struggling and empathy-evoking. If we take for example, the character of the vampire, it seems that it has been transformed from being absolutely evil into a very charming creature. There is a constant improvement in the status of the vampire.
"In F.W. Murnau's 1922 film 'Nosferatu,' the vampire is a negative and repulsive character. Seventy years later, in Francis Ford Coppola's 'Dracula,' the vampire is the hero, an enchanting character that sparks identification with it."
According to Turin, "we live in a world of multiple narratives, and absolute evil has collapsed. The dichotomies are ending and you have to see the reality from the perspective of the monster too."
"When the world was unknown, people wrote about witches and about unknown worlds beyond the horizon, but in the modern era, the important writers have switched to dealing with the unknown of the soul or of the language," says the writer and literary researcher Prof. Ortzion Barhana, a former chairman of the Hebrew Writers Association and a fan of fantasy.
"It is true that much of the fantasy writing is not brilliant as far as the language and the metaphors, but it deals with upsetting the daily routine, which is quite limited. A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz repeat themselves, and in the meantime fantasy works are trying to go to another place and another time."
Ninette is a fantasy
Paradoxically, what pushed fantasy to the center of the cultural arena is actually some very earthly technological developments, that make it possible to produce an amazingly convincing visual presentation of supernatural phenomena and creatures. At film studios such as George Lucas' Magic and Industrial Light, mankind succeeded for the first time in creating magic in an industrial and commercial way and not just imagining it.
In such a situation, the imagination takes on flesh and bones and the screens that traditionally separated the real from the imaginary are torn down one after another. "The impact of fantasy on our lives is gradually increasing," says Shenberg. "Completely fictional creatures are acquiring a physical realness. In the capitalist world, fantasy generates a lot of money, and behind it there are huge financial interests. For example, the appearance of an Orc in a film has a considerable financial impact on the toy industry."
However, according to Shenberg, the collapse of the separation between realness and fantasy is not taking place only in films based on characters created by Tolkien or J.K. Rowling.
"The boundaries between reality and fantasy are unclear in every field. A series such as 'Survivor' is a totally simulated reality, and clearly none of the contestants is really in danger of dying. But those who participate in the show have a real interest in succeeding that is not at all in the realm of fantasy.
"Even Ninette Teib is a fantasy," she adds. "You don't know what's real and what's illusion there. The entire circumstances in which she was chosen are staged and the way in which she became famous is reminiscent of a fairy tale. But the network's ratings are totally real."