Watch: Terry Pratchett, A S Byatt and Terry Eagleton on fantasy, fiction and desire

What can fantasy tell us about the ways in which we perceive reality? Terry Pratchett, A S Byatt and Terry Eagleton discuss fantasy as a vast and powerful mode of thought.

Fantasy is often seen as existing outside higher culture, with little to contribute to our lives. It is considered by many as little more than throwaway entertainment, but is this an error? Might our creation of fantasies be central to how we perceive the world, and even gesture towards the limits of our understanding?

Booker Prize-winning author A S Byatt has drawn heavily on fantasy, sci-fi and myth in her fiction and essays, writing that "fantasy is something we can’t do without. It is an essential aspect of reality."

Sharing Byatt’s view of fantasy as "a way of thinking about things", Terry Pratchett believes "fantasy makes a new world from which we can see this one" while acknowledging that "it can be dangerous". Pratchett has sold over 85 million fantasy novels around the world, and is loved by adults and children alike.

Terry Eagleton is not only a Pratchett fan but also this country’s foremost literary theorist and critic. A Marxist thinker, he is opposed to the notion that the left has always favoured realist fiction, highlighting the prominence of fantasy and utopianism at historical moments when societies have most needed to imagine new ways of operating.

But are their fantasies the same? Can they agree on what the essential point of fantasy is, or where the distinction lies between fantasy and fiction – and reality?

In this debate above chaired by journalist and broadcaster Mary Ann Sieghart, held at this year’s How The Light Gets In festival at Hay, these three brilliant thinkers ask why it is we crave fantastical worlds. They ponder what makes good fantasy writing. Does it provide writers and readers with incomparable freedom, they ask, or does liberty from the logic of the "real world" simply mean new rules must be invented and followed?

Byatt compares the "truth" of fiction with historical and scientific truths, while Pratchett examines the transformation of science fiction into science fact, and the pattern of news stories informing fantasy writing. Eagleton explores the Freudian necessity of fantasy and fiction in our perception of the world, claiming that they are economically woven into our society.

Patrick Driver

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt