Fantasy panel sparks imagination at Pitt

By Mark Pesto / For the Pitt News

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After 10 years, Pitt students are still letting their imaginations run free. 

The Fantasy Studies Fellowship, an undergraduate book club dedicated to the analysis of fantasy novels and films, celebrated its 10th anniversary last Friday by holding a conference on Tolkien and Modern Fantasy in the Cathedral of Learning from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.

Undergraduate FSF members held panels during which they discussed their research on fantasy works from “Harry Potter” to “The Hunger Games,” followed by two lectures by Michael Drout, professor of English at Wheaton College and editor of the academic journal “Tolkien Studies,” and Laini Taylor, author of the “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” trilogy.

In his talk “A Very Long Shadow: Explaining J.R.R. Tolkien’s Continuing Influence,” Drout said Tolkien’s massive popular readership and the blockbuster films based on his “Lord of the Rings” novels cannot explain the dramatic effect his work has had on the landscape of modern fantasy.

“Explaining Tolkien’s influence requires more than a facile invocation of mass-culture popularity,” Drout said, stating that Tolkien’s work began to influence later fantasy writers long before it became a popular phenomenon.

Taylor gave the day’s second keynote lecture, titled “Fantasy Rules: Why We’re More Awesome Than Everybody Else.” 

Taylor discussed her development as a fantasy writer and the time she spent living in an attic in Paris, trying to gain experiences that could inspire her to write a great work of fantasy. Unfortunately, she said, her months in France were too mundane to even make an interesting autobiography.

Her career as a bestselling novelist came after a long break from writing, she said, during which she attended art school and found writing inspiration by reading the then-new novel “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” by J.K. Rowling. 

“Stories are awesome. Fantasy stories are the best stories. People who like fantasy stories are the best people,” Taylor said. 

Pitt English professor and adviser Lori Campbell, founder and faculty advisor of the Fantasy Studies Fellowship, listed a few other works that are popular among the members of the FSF.

“Regardless of the meeting topic, we almost always digress to some discussion of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter,’ and we do a work by Neil Gaiman at least once per year,” Campbell said. 

Campbell started the club in 2005 after noticing that students in her Myth and Folktale class were particularly interested in fantasy books and films.

“I was astonished when, after sitting in class for three hours on a Friday morning, my students always wanted to stay after class to keep talking about ‘Lord of the Rings,’” Campbell said.

In response to the student interest, Campbell informally organized the Fantasy Studies Fellowship to provide undergraduates with a place to discuss works of fantasy. 

Deepshikha Sharma, president of the Fantasy Studies Fellowship and a junior fiction writing and communications major, said that “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” was her favorite of the works the FSF has discussed.

“I love the series so much because, as a whole, they deal with potent themes such as sacrifice, survival, freedom, slavery and love of all kinds in a way that feels fresh and uncluttered,” Sharma said. “Honestly, the books are just fun to read, even when they’re dealing with some seriously heavy things.” 

According to Campbell, 10 years later, the FSF is thriving with 135 members. 

At each monthly meeting, club members talk about that month’s chosen reading, often digressing into discussion of other works of fantasy.

Sharma said students who attend the group’s meetings find a space where they can discuss works that English classes and book clubs might tend to ignore.

Paige Jesionowski, vice president of the FSF and a junior fiction writing major, agreed, adding that, in a college environment where students are required to analyze everything they read, the FSF’s emphasis on informal discussion is “de-stressing.”

Campbell said that, while the FSF might invite another author to speak within the next year, the club probably won’t hold another large-scale conference in the near future.

“I expect we’ll wait until another big anniversary — possibly our 13th, since that’s a fun, magical-type number,” Campbell said. “But you never know. If this conference is super-successful, I might be persuaded to do another one sooner.”

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