Fantasy literature is an object of considerable controversy, but this controversy is not specifically or uniquely modern. Arguably, fantasy literature has been controversial since its very beginnings in Western Society, though I am by no means certain of when that is, nor is it the aim here to determine it. The controversy regarding fantasy stories exists mainly on two levels. The first, a concern regarding the direct moral and spiritual implications of these stories, is perhaps the one predominantly focused upon today in our society.
This is seen in the debate over J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series in which the main character attends a school of witchcraft and wizardry and uses magic to defeat an evil villain. Understandably, Christian parents are concerned about their children reading these stories in which the occult holds such a central position, because the Bible warns against and expressly prohibits any involvement in it, and experimentation with it in real life is extremely dangerous.
This concern is well worthy of discussion, but I would like to focus primarily on what I perceive as another historically controversial issue, which is perhaps overlooked today, that of fantasy literature as imaginative experience. Though it is distinct from the first concern, it is not unrelated, and I would even suggest that understanding this debate is key to deciding the previous one.
For unless we understand fantasy literature as a medium in the abstract and the nature of the mind’s engagement with it, it seems unlikely that we can determine the effects of any particular story upon the reader, whether or not the series is a “good” or “bad” one on the surface. The concerns regarding the imaginative experience of fantasy literature are multiple. Most often, however, it is criticized as an “escape” from real life, or perhaps more accurately, a “desertion”(Tolkien 76).
It tickles readers’ minds with the strange and unreal, teaching them nothing but allowing them to indulge in pleasurable sensations and desires while temporarily avoiding confrontation with anything painful or discomforting in the actual world. It is to frustrated and lonely children what alcohol or opium is to angry and depressed adults. Likewise, though perhaps it can be consumed responsibly, it seems to have something innately addictive about it, at least for certain types of people. It lends itself to obsession.
Many children who read fantasy stories don’t simply enjoy them as an occasional treat like an ice-cream cone; they gorge themselves regularly, possibly even centering their lives around them. Ask a twelve year old if he has read the Harry Potter books—if he has read them at all and liked them, chances are that he has read them more than once, even several times or more. As a child delves deeper into the realm of fantasy, he may withdraw increasingly from actual life, his family, and his friends, if he has any.
He lives, as it were, in a continual dream, an illusion or vision, and he cares less and less what is happening around him, so long as he has a continual supply of stories to read, even if that supply consists only of several books read repeatedly. He acts contented, but what good is contentment if all it involves is nothing but lying in bed staring at pages? Is a life full of this the proverbial “good life”?
Perhaps not, if we are to judge by the lives of the characters the reader so admires, for ironically, they don’t spend all day reading like him—they’re always having adventures. And what happens in the instance that he is deprived of his books? He is miserable, at least at first, and displays his ill feelings to the source of deprivation, often a parent or perhaps a teacher. He begs desperately to get them back, but if he fails, he only continues sullenly a short while before a very curious thing happens.
It strikes him that though the physical source of his delight is out of his reach, he has retained the images pleasing to him in his memory, and he finds that he can still interact with them in a day-dreamish fashion. And better yet, nobody else need know about it; it can be done entirely secretly. Of course, his fantasy world may slip out into the open, especially if he takes to acting it out with stuffed animals and the like. But if he encounters any hostility, he easily can withdraw it all back into his mind, where it is safe from the suspicious eyes of spectators.
No one can now rob him of his succor. The consciousness of this adds a new pleasure, a feeling of power. The child is now a self-contained unit, isolated from his surroundings and cut-off from reality. An apology must be made for this lengthy example, as of course very few children may act exactly like such, and it is quite exaggerated. The responses to fantasy literature may vary a good deal according to the personality of the child and his circumstances.
It might be said that obsession is more at issue here than fantasy literature and there is some truth in that, as a reader’s interaction with a story depends upon both subjective and objective factors. But yet, even if obsession is by definition excessive and harmful, the question is still begged: what is the proper relationship of a child, or an adult, to fantasy literature? It doesn’t seem to be enough just to say, “Moderation in all things,” if by that is meant moderation in the time spent reading, although that is certainly an important factor.
The attitude of the reader, the nature of his engagement with the stories and the characters, and how is behavior is affected by them seem more at issue (And by behavior, I don’t mean whether or not little Johnny has been induced to steal cookies from the cookie jar, but whether Johnny steals the cookies just to steal them or he steals cookies while pretending to be squirrel in a tree; meaning that my concern is not on the surface a moral one, though deeper down it is very moral).
Another way of putting the question is, what, if any, is the essential good of fantasy literature, and how may it be perverted? To fully answer that question, it must also be asked, what is the proper relationship between the realm of fantasy and the actual world? These are really questions that apply to all of literature and art, but I have chosen to discuss them in regards to fantasy literature.
It is my belief that there is indeed a proper and healthy relationship between the reader and fantasy literature, and though it is perhaps not explicable in all of its details, it is fundamentally that fantasy literature should deepen the love of the reader for what is true, good and beautiful in the actual world, both heightening and enriching his appreciation for it and motivating him to pursue it. Continuing the analogy of fantasy literature to alcohol, it is like red wine at dinner, cleansing your taste-buds so that you can taste and appreciate the flavor of the meat and potatoes better, while of course being exquisitely good in itself.
On the other hand, an unhealthy interest in fantasy literature is one in which imaginary goods have become fully a substitute for the actual goods of this world, creating withdrawal from life and relationships. This is when fantasy has become not an escape, but a desertion. Before going further, it should be stated that this is not an attempt to tell anyone how he or she ought to feel as they read a story, nor to ruin the pleasure of reading by excessive analysis.
The joy of reading a good fairy story involves an intimate encounter with things dear to us, so of course it is understandable for lovers of fantasy to feel hostility towards the scientist peering in and meddling with his scalpel, tearing things into pieces. I wish to avoid as much. I would like to hope that this will be rather a celebration of good fantasy literature and the blessings it brings, but also a word of caution regarding a medium so very powerful that it is prone to abuse. It is necessary to consider briefly, in a very general sense, what makes a story a fantasy or a fairy tale.
As I see it, the description of fantasy literature can be placed upon any story that contains strange elements not to be found in the natural physical world, but without either attempting to give a scientific/technological explanation for them or implying that there is or could be one. This, according to C. S. Lewis, is what distinguishes fantasy from science-fiction. Fantasy has no concern whatsoever for the laws of science and the possibilities within them, as science-fiction does. Fantasy is concerned with a poetic reality, and thus any deviations from the natural world have a poetic justification rather than a scientific one.
This is perhaps unnecessary to say, but fantasy must also be distinguished from Christian books that dramatize spiritual warfare in the real world, such as those of Frank Peretti. These books contain fantastic elements, yet they, similar to science fiction, are concerned with what is in the realm of theoretical possibility. Instead of giving scientific explanations, however, they give spiritual ones. Neither is pure allegory within the category of fantastic literature, though fantasy stories may have allegorical touches or symbolic elements.
It is perhaps imprecise, however, to characterize fantasy by its “unnatural” elements without specifying what they usually are. Generally speaking, the common features of fantasy literature are the following: a removed setting (both in space and time), magical elements (which are not necessarily the same as witchcraft), strange creatures and monsters (including talking beasts), the strong presence of brave heroes and cruel villains, and direct confrontations between good and evil.
These are general characteristics, but a story need not have all of them to be fantasy, nor does one specific lement of those listed necessarily make the story fantasy. “It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot that really count,” writes Tolkien in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories”(120). Thus a story might have only a few of those elements listed, yet because of the coloring, atmosphere, and details, may better capture the essence of fantasy than a story that contains all of the items listed.
Thus, fantasy literature cannot be merely reduced to dragons, knights, and wizards, or any particular strange feature, however prominent a place it may hold in the story. Ironically, much of the makeup of fantasy literature comes from elements that are not foreign to reality at all, things that are quite ordinary. This last point is quite significant, as it relates to the first way in which fantasy literature can develop a reader’s love of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Fantasy literature is in a way very much like poetry.
Not that it is written in verse with rhyme and meter (though it perhaps could be), but rather that it does for readers of a wide range of intelligence what poetry often does only for a more sophisticated audience (Lewis 16). It gives poetic knowledge, meaning a kind of knowledge that penetrates its object, knowledge of a thing from the inside out. This is in contrast to the kind of knowledge that is about a thing, discursive or scientific knowledge. Fantasy literature gives poetic knowledge because it provides vicarious experience for the reader of the setting, action, and characters in a story.
This means that when one reads The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he in a way possesses the story as a part of his experience. The forms of the characters—Peter, Edmund, Susan, Lucy, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Aslan—along with their experiences, and the enchantingly beautiful land of Narnia, all impress themselves upon the reader’s soul, with the result that they have become more or less a part of him (depending on how he has read the story, whether he has indeed surrendered himself to it in his imagination).
The implications of this are quite remarkable—that one can have a friendship, one-sided though it may be, with the Pevensie children, and share in their adventures, as well as their love for Aslan. Thus, if a story provides true, good, and beautiful things, as fantasy stories should do, as objects to be grasped by the senses and the intellect, they will cultivate the reader’s understanding of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Again, it must be reiterated that poetic knowledge is not the sort of knowledge one gets from “educational” books, nor can it be quantified.
It is rather a kind of sympathy between the knower and the thing known—connatural knowledge. It is knowledge of a thing that is inseparable from a love for it (Taylor 15). Hence it is significant that for all the departures fantasy literature makes from the actual world, with magic, dragons, witches, and other strange creatures, the best stories are those that are chalk-full of the best things in real life, however wonderful they may seem in their removed setting.
Delicious food and drink, feasting and festivities, games, song, dance, friendship, nature, journeys, even stories—these are many of the things that make the world of fantasy so delightful, and yet all of them can be found in the actual world. Tolkien writes, . . . fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting . . . It was in fairy stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.