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Mary Robinette Kowal – Field of Dreams Is a Whole Other Kind of Fantasy Baseball

Field of Dreams Is a Whole Other Kind of Fantasy Baseball” width=”560″/>

Last weekend I went off to a fantasy and science fiction convention, and as one does at these things, I sat on several panels. You know, things like “Gender Balance in Fantasy” or “How to Avoid Publishing Scams,” and then there was “Sports in Fantasy.” My immediate reaction was to wonder why in heaven’s name anyone would put me on a sports related panel. Seriously. Aside from my puppetry, I’m about as un-sporty a person as you could find. The topic was as follows:

“SF is filled with sports and games, but fantasy isn’t (Quidditch being a conspicuous exception). How come everyone in the future is involved in physical activities, but no one in fantasy seems to have extracurricular hobbies when they’re not dragon-slaying or wenching?”

I think what interests me about this question is how much I disagree with it with its basic premise. Fantasy is chock full of sports, you just need to know where to look.

Some fantasy sport is easy to spot, case in point Field of Dreams (1989). Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably still know the phrase, “If you build it, they will come.” Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is a corn farmer in Iowa who gets the idea to build a ball park in the middle of his field. Starting with Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), famous players walk out of the corn each night to play ball. It embodies lost dreams and the innocence of baseball. Firmly rooted in both fantasy and baseball, the story couldn’t exist without either. Another example: The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), where Bagger Vance (Will Smith) reappears to teach Matt Damon how to play golf and regain control of his life. When fantasy and sports intersect in the modern world, it’s often with a legendary sports figure coming back to teach someone a Very Important Lesson.

Sports in historical fantasy, on the other hand, are harder to spot because they don’t look like what we think of as “sports.” One important point to remember is that many sports began life as war games. Take fencing: Today, it’s an Olympic sport, but it began as a way to practice killing someone, as in the famous duel in The Princess Bride (1987). What’s wonderful about this scene is the meta-level in which both Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and the man in black (Carey Elwes) talk about the art of fencing and discuss the various techniques they’re employing. Even though the movie is pure fantasy, it’s grounded in a very codified form. So you do see lots of swordplay in fantasy, it’s just that it’s more a deadly enterprise than a past time.

Other than fencing, most of the other war games required a larger population to make enjoyable, like the jousting in The Sword in the Stone (1963). This was entertainment for the wealthy and something to keep knights occupied between wars. The thing is you had to have a large population center to support it — Wart and his family have to travel from their forest estate to London for the tournament. So one reason you might not see a lot of sports in historical fantasy is that the main characters are traveling through the woods and away from population centers.

Another way in which fantasy and sport intersect is through gambling. In Conan the Barbarian (1982), Conan (Arnold Schwarzenneger) is purchased as a gladiator so that his owner can win money betting on his fights. The betting doesn’t always have to involve large scale tournaments — even small wagers can kick off contests. In Beowulf (2007), the King’s advisor Unferth (John Malkovich) discusses how Beowulf lost a swimming match to Breca — which was incited by a bet. Why don’t we see more of this in fantasy? Frankly, when you’re on an adventure to save the world, there’s not a lot of time to stop for betting.

So Fantasy does not, as my panel surmised, have a dearth of sports — it’s just that a lot of them doesn’t look like much fun to a modern audience and fantasy, somewhat ironically, concerns itself with more pressing matters of life and death. We look for sports that are just for fun and aren’t training you to kill anyone — like Quidditch. But if you look closely at Harry Potter’s world, you can imagine a time when the fast-paced, dangerous and exciting sport could have been one splendid war game.

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.

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