I’ve talked about why I write fantasy, and recently I pondered why I read fantasy. The contemplation came on the beach of Kiawah Island when my heart skipped a beat at the sound of a dolphin spraying salty seawater from its blowhole just a few feet away. And when I glimpsed the dorsal fin cutting across the calm surface, my mind drifted to a dolphin named Peek.
About a month before my toes were in the sands of the Atlantic, I’d finished reading Dolphin Mimicry by Roger J. Kuhns, my mentor from The Clearing. Roger had transported me to an oil rig off the coast of Namibia where a diver named Jonas discovered a telepathic connection with a dolphin. Peek had a unique perspective on the world. When Jonas tried to explain that humankind was an advanced civilization because we build great things, Peek replied, “Does building things mean you’re smarter? The coral builds things—you call them reefs. The seabirds build things—you call them nests.”
In discussing mythology and evolution, Peek noted that he’d “sounded” a pregnant woman with echolocation and realized the embryo had a tail in the womb, just like a dolphin. Peek concluded that “you humans are born from us and are the relatives we’ve sent onto land to look around. But for some reason they never came back to the sea.”
Sitting on a sofa in Indiana with this book in my hands was the closest I’d been to experiencing the sea in over a decade. The words on the page expanded my mind in a way that television just can’t accomplish; I felt the ocean spray and tasted the salt. I was deep underwater with Jonas, the pressure pushing on my ears, the current tugging me into the depths. Reading is more engaging than simply watching because the good writers are able to engage all the senses, not just sight and sound.
A great book in any genre can have that effect, but there’s something special about fantasy. While grounded in realism, it opens the mind in a way that lets us talk to animals and marvel at magic we believed in when we were children. And sometimes, the line between fantasy and reality blurs. For me, it happened in South Carolina.
At low tide, the Kiawah dolphins partake in a ritual known as strand feeding, a practice that, as explained to us by a marine biology student studying the activity, is unique to these South Carolina bottlenose dolphins. Somehow, she said, the pelicans have an uncanny ability to predict exactly where the dolphins will rush the beach, and they’ll be waiting in hopes of a snack. She proved to be right; while we were watching a dolphin on our left, several dolphins splashed onto the beach several yards to our right where the pelican was lingering. Their proximity was breath-taking and unforgettable.
The Kiawah dolphins ignited memories of the adventure I’d experienced off Namibia’s coast, even though I’ll probably never see that part of the Atlantic in my lifetime. Memories! As if I’d actually been there. I thought about what it would be like to talk to a dolphin. I wondered what the dolphin would think of me, of humans. The fantasy adventure and the real experience played off each other like a duet.
Reading about exotic adventures awakens my wanderlust. It’s an escape from the confines of ritual and routine in everyday life when exploration is not feasible, and it’s a lonely call in the mist beckoning a trek to new places, to see the vast oceans and ancient castles that exist in both the imagined and the real worlds. Fantasy pushes the mind’s envelope. It presents old problems in a new light. It inspires new ideas, new mindsets, new technology. In some ways, like Peek’s ocean and the lives of the dolphins, fantasy tales invoke a desire to experience more of the world we live in. In others, like the fictional telepathic link between a dolphin and a diver, fantasy allows us to experience things that can never be happen. It is existence on a plane inaccessible to our physical selves, a place that is different for each and every reader spinning words into worlds. We fall in love with people who exist only in our hearts.
As a fantasy writer, visiting new environments sparks my imagination. I walked cobblestone roads and wondered how bumpy the ride would feel inside a carriage before cars were invented. I watched out the window as we drove over a bridge crossing a wetland and imagined a character wading through the tall grasses, startling an egret and looking over her shoulder in fear of pursuers. I marveled at the winding branches of the live oaks dripping with strands of moss. I dreamed of creaking ships on cresting waves, the snap of wind-filled canvases straining ropes.
And I held my breath in the presence of the bottlenose dolphins, the Atlantic’s greatest explorers. If only they could speak….
Check out Roger’s book Dolphin Mimicry here