When I was a child, one of my favorite places in the whole world was our local library. It was filled with rows upon rows of books just waiting to be read. Adventure, magic, life, love… all of them whispered my name, inviting me to visit places I had never dreamed of and live lives I could only imagine. But of all the shelves in the entire place, there was one in particular that held my heart. It was an average looking bookcase in the back of the children’s section that was filled entirely with fairy tales. Each story was grouped with other versions of the same; Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, the Little Mermaid, all stood in proud attention just waiting for a child to rescue them from their lines and set them free. Choosing a book, you see, was not just part of the task, it was part of the adventure and fairy tales had the best adventures.
Eventually I think I wore out that child-sized bench next to that shelf and moved on to more “teenage” stuff which, for me, meant digging into “real life” stories, realistic fiction. They were good, sure, but stories of average high schoolers and mixed up dating troubles could never hold my attention the way a good sea adventure or daring quest ever could.The exploration of good versus evil is one of the things that makes fantasy so important.
By the time I was in college I found myself once again escaping to faraway lands with elves and dwarves and magic and danger. This time though, the stories weren’t called fairy tales, they were called fantasy—and I’ve been reading them ever since. It’s not that I won’t read other books, I do. But none of them hold me the way fantasy does, and I’ve decide that I’m totally ok with that. In fact, the older I get, the more I see how fantasy as a genre is not just idle fun or escapism: it has the power to enrich our lives and point us to truth.
Fantasy, as a genre, deals almost exclusively in make believe. It’s characterized by magic, fanciful creatures, and imaginary settings. Many feature created races like Elves or Dwarves in the high fantasy style of Tolkien. Others deal with monsters more along the horror lines of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Some take place in fully developed worlds unlike anything we know, while others still introduce magic to our modern-day lives. The variations within the genre are huge! Often, in fantasy stories, there will be heroes and villains, quests and battles, and histories filled with tales of creation and ruin. Good versus Evil is an ever-present theme.
In fact, the exploration of good versus evil is one of the things that makes fantasy so important. In a fantasy world, the difference between good and evil can be strikingly dramatic or savagely blurred. “Good” in a fantasy novel can quite literally save the world, or even multiple worlds. It can be ethereal, made of light, and unmistakable. On the other hand, “evil” can be sinister in the highest sense of the word; dark, menacing, and torturous. The ability for good and evil characters to be overtly recognized is really important, yet often fantasy stories present situations where the real difference between the two, which on the surface seems so easy to spot, is less than clear. Sure, sometimes the villain in a fantasy novel is a malevolent sorcerer bent on subjugating the world, but sometimes evil plays the part of a trusted mentor in white wizards’ robes. Or worse, sometimes the horrendous power enslaving the world is doing so for good reason. And that, as far as I can tell, is part of the point. Fantasy teaches us to look deeper than appearances to find the truth.
Stories like this aren’t just about exploring huge imaginary worlds or discovering treasure or even saving the world. They aren’t about ego. Instead, fantasy has a unique ability to confront us with the murky areas of our own lives. In a fantasy world, you can explore questions of morality and empathy in a way that is safe and yet also challenging. You can see power and sacrifice and dignity and depravity all imagined in a way that is totally separate from our own world and yet somehow helps us see our own clearer. Good fantasy challenges us to think about the world differently. Something about wading through the darkness and uncertainty in a made-up world makes confronting both in our own that much easier. And confront it we shall, for the courage to do so is tucked in the pages of stories like this.
G. K. Chesterton famously said, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey… Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”1 You need only to immerse yourself in a fantasy world to see the truth in this. Fantasy stories don’t convince us that there is evil in the world; they show us that it is limited and it can be defeated. We need that, perhaps now more than ever.
We live in a world filled with horrible evil. It is ever present, flooding the news and nipping at our heals as we go through the day. We have intruder drills in elementary schools and code words for terrifying realities. We teach kids about “tricky people” and then so often, turn around and do our best to shield them from villains in fairy tales. Yet there are few things more scary in a story than what is already in our lives. This is not to say that all stories are ok for children. Instead, it’s to recognize the inherent value in stories that present massive dragons and the plucky heroes needed to stop them. These stories convince us, as Chesterton said, that there is a limit to the evil in our world. They buoy us up with a hope that there will come a day when evil no longer prevails, when good triumphs, and peace reigns once more. They point us to better and stir in us a longing for more.
C. S. Lewis, unsurprisingly, was a huge proponent of fantasy, or fairy stories, as he called them. In his day, there were people suggesting that fantasy was not healthy for children. They thought it would be too much of an escape or perhaps that it would blur the lines between what is real and what is imaginary. Lewis had none of that. In an essay he wrote, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,”2 he makes the point that between fantasy and realistic fiction, fantasy is by far the safer choice. Both are make believe. Both stir up longings and create wishes within the reader. But realistic stories, where what is happening does not in any way defy the rules of nature and yet is also entirely improbable, deceive children into believing that it might actually come true. They start to believe that maybe they can become the star football player, be the immensely popular girl in school, or the kid who manages to train the horse no one else can ride. The longing created by realistic fiction of this sort is, as Lewis says, “ravenous and deadly serious… we run to it from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world: it sends us back to the real world divinely discontented. For it is all flattery to the ego.” Lewis isn’t against realistic fiction, but he disagrees with the notion that it is safe while fantasy is not.
Like realistic fiction, fantasy also stirs up wishes and longings in us, but of an entirely different sort. “Does anyone suppose that [the child] really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairyland arouses a longing of he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it new dimension of depth. He does not despise the real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” When we read fantasy, we don’t believe that it’s true and then deal with the disappointment that it’s not. Instead, as Lewis points out, the longing we experience is a holy sort-of searching that doesn’t dim the real world, but leaves us seeing it even clearer while searching for more.
This is perhaps the most important thing fantasy can do: point us to a greater power than our own. Magic is a common, if not necessary, element in fantasy. It is a power that exists outside the characters; accessible, sure, but uncreated and unknown. It is a force beyond their own abilities without which their goals could not be met. Most often in fantasy, the world needs this power, it’s very survival depends on it and this need has the ability to stir a longing in us as well.
Chesterton and Lewis both touch on this—I’m sure many more people have as well—but one of the best parts about fantasy to me is that it allows us the opportunity to think about the supernatural, to look past ourselves and search for God. As a Christian, this is important. This doesn’t mean that everyone who reads a fantasy book will seek out a Bible too. But it does mean that stories like this have the great potential to create a longing for more. They push us to look beyond what we can see, past our broken world and our hurts and troubles, and search for that which can make all things new again. They are not dangerous to our faith, they are encouraging, eye-lifting, and hope creating.
I’m huge fan of literature in almost every form or genre, but I’ll choose fantasy almost any day. I’ll hand it to my children too, for that matter. Fantasy pulls us out of our little worlds and expands our vision; it shows us vast new places, huge new dangers, and forces us to think outside of ourselves. Fantasy takes us on quests where good and evil are not always clear and lines get blurred; it teaches us to think critically about who and what we are trusting in our own lives. It shows us new and terrible monsters but convinces us that those monsters can be defeated. And fantasy presents us with entirely impossible worlds that somehow allow us to see our world more clearly.
1. Chesterton, G. K., Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”