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What’s with All the Stupid Fantasy?

I recently picked up a book about why manners are important. That may have been the title; I can’t remember now. It was sold in a shopping complex where about the only thing I could afford was a sandwich. Which was all I wanted, fortunately. But I did page through the book. It was exactly what it said, and I could appreciate most of it, even though etiquette was always my sister’s hobby, not mine. But one section gave me pause.

The author evidently loves novels of manners because she likes realistic characters who have to work through their flaws and mature. So far, so good. But she finds the current taste for fantasy disturbing. Imagine, she says, a fourteen-year-old girl who reads fantasy exclusively. Most of the time she reads stupid, caricatured descriptions of people who like to swing swords around. What little good fantasy she reads involves black and white moral dilemmas with characters so elevated that they are unrelatable and teach little about how to live in the real world. (I can only assume the author was thinking of Tolkien.)

I sympathize with some of the author’s complaints. Although I consider fantasy my favorite genre of literature, I actually do not read it very often. I don’t like the stupid characters, either. Especially the warrior elf queens who feel like they were invented to prove that women can be tough. And there are other problems with fantasy stories beyond those that might irritate a Jane Austen fan.

C.S. Lewis complained about people who wrote “science fiction” stories with perfectly ordinary plots—spy-stories, romances, and so forth—which have nothing to distinguish them as fantastic but the unusual setting. There are still a lot of stories like that. Whatever fantastic elements are there feel arbitrary. The wonder and sense of strangeness are missing. If you read fantasy for “otherness,” then the pickings are very slim.

I’m not going to comment on the author’s shallow interpretation of Tolkien except to say that if she thinks Boromir, Denathor, and Saruman fit neatly into black-and-white categories, she hasn’t been reading carefully. And The Silmarillion includes characters even more complex than those in The Lord of the Rings—if complex is what she really wants. (Sometimes I think that what people mean when they object to “black and white” characterization is that they don’t like reading about a world where a clear good and a clear evil exist, even if both are complex. But I would say, with Tolkien, that the real world is like that. Good and evil may be complex, but no one will be talking about shades of gray at the Last Judgment.) As for relatable, I think that in some ways Tolkien’s characters are more relatable than “realistic” ones. Frodo is an Everyman—as is Gollum. Archetypes are relatable precisely because they are archetypes. And archetypes can be complex.

The truth, I think, is less that fantasy characters are not relatable and more that the author could not relate well to fantasy characters. Well—that’s fine. Everyone has a favorite genre. I would rather relate to Frodo, or Faramir, than to Elizabeth Bennett. (In the past, I have even tried to deal with difficult people by trying to imagine them as Gollums, who, if evil, are also pathetic and in need of compassion.) It’s a personal preference. People who like good fantasy (scarce as that is) are not inferior to people who like good novels of manners (and I’m sure there are bad ones). It’s a difference in kind of taste, not necessarily quality.

But I recently re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” and it brought another problem into view. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were the hardest form of literature in which to write. To produce something that attempts to show what reality is really like, while simultaneously rearranging that reality, is extremely difficult. Thus, someone attempting a novel of manners has an immediate advantage over someone attempting a fantasy. In Tolkien’s words:

Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Another potential misunderstanding comes because, over the course of the last century, literature has grown more and more like drama. “Show, don’t tell” is the instruction I was given when I took a creative writing course in college. It works well—for realistic fiction. In fantasy, things don’t work quite the same way. My English professor warned our class, “Showing is not always superior to telling.” She was right. Of course, a fantasy can tell too much, but the point is this—realistic fiction and drama may be able to grow together, but drama and fantasy have no such luck. Even modern fantasy movies, with all their special effects, cannot exactly reproduce the feeling of “otherness” that a good fantasy story creates. I like The Lord of the Rings films, with a few reservations, but I don’t go to them for “otherness.” To fully appreciate the Elves, and Lothlorien in particular, you need the books.

Fantasy is hard to write. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that so many people had learned to write a “competent” short story, that the short story was in danger of dying of competence. Fantasy has no such problem. And your creative writing class may not help you—“show, don’t tell” injunctions only go so far.

If you love novels of manners, then go read them—by all means. Beyond reading a few fantasy classics, most works in the genre aren’t worth your time. But don’t blast the genre. Competent fantasy is harder to write than competent realistic fiction. Keep fourteen-year-olds away from the warrior elf queens, please. But introduce them to the good modern authors of imaginative fiction: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Ray Bradbury. And if they run out, try going back in time to Beowulf. Or The Kalevala. Or The Niebelungenlied.

Jane Austen would be okay, too.

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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Fantasy


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Fantasy Q&A

Q: So what is fantasy, anyway?

A: There are many definitions of fantasy, but I’ll narrow it down. 1) It has to do with boring teachers, the beginning of summer break, and baseball. 2) Something to discuss with your therapist. 3) A literary genre that I happen to like. Too much.

Q: Maybe you should see the therapist after all….

A: Me, and a lot of other people.

Q: You mean computer geeks?

A: It’s true that a lot of technology-lovers also like fantasy. But many of those who have written classic fantasies have hated technology. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, for example, most of the evil characters are also adept at using technology for evil purposes. Mordor is, in essence, an industrial wasteland.

Q: So who started this whole fantasy thing, anyway? Tolkien?

A: Good question. We don’t know. But it’s thousands of years old—just read The Odyssey.

Q: You mean the ancient myths? But people believed those. See why fantasy is dangerous?

A: Once people began believing the myths, they became a part of religion, not fantasy. As long as you know that your stories are stories, you are safe.

Q: With so many serious problems in the world today, how can you justify reading fantasy instead of realistic fiction? Isn’t that escapism?

A: J.R.R. Tolkien addressed that very question on a number of occasions. His question: What group of people is most worried about escape? The answer: Jailers. In any case, if you are unjustly imprisoned, getting out is the sensible and realistic thing to do.

Q: I expected a serious answer to that question.

A: I was being serious. And good fantasy is always applicable to real life. At the very least it will deal with ethical questions, which we all have to face. And many fantasies go beyond that. C.S. Lewis and N.D. Wilson both snub progressivism. J.R.R. Tolkien criticizes pragmatism. Madeleine L’Engel attacks central planning.

Q: But isn’t fantasy unrealistic?

A: There are two answers to that.

No. If C.S. Lewis had had Aslan stand up on the Stone Table and dance a jig, we would say his books were unrealistic. But Lewis didn’t do that. Narnia had many fantastical elements—talking animals, shape-shifting serpents, enchanted weather. But put together, they all made sense. You say, “If Narnia were real, this is how things would be.”

Yes. Of course. So is every other story. So-called “realistic” stories about someone becoming a multi-millionaire, overcoming all obstacles to find the man of her dreams, and so forth, are often untrue to life. In fact, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they are more likely to deceive some people into thinking that such things could really happen. No sane child will make killing a dragon his life’s goal for very long. But to overcome all obstacles to become the hero of the soccer team—that seems realistic. And for some people it could very well become an obsession.

Q: Who is this C.S. Lewis you keep bringing up?

A: C. S. Lewis was an Oxford literature professor who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-book fantasy series. The major character in the series is Aslan, a regal lion who loosely corresponds with Jesus Christ. Some people may feel inclined to blame Lewis for later Christian allegorical fantasies that combined biblical truth with terrible writing. Lewis, however, explicitly denied that the Narnia books were intended to be allegorical. Poorly constructed copies are to be blamed, not on their authors having read too much Lewis, but on having read far too little.

Q: I’ve heard Narnia has a witch in it. Isn’t that bad?

A: Yes. The White Witch is very bad, which is why she is killed at the end of Lewis’s first Narnia book. You’re right that you should be cautious about stories that include magic, since some fantasies can become occultic. But most of the pioneers of modern fantasy have been at least nominally Christian, and their careful treatment of magic shows that.

Q: What do you mean by “careful”?

A: Tolkien said that “magic,” in our language, is a problem word, because there is no distinction between evil magic—the sort that no one has a right to practice—and what I will call natural magic. “Natural magic” is the sort of “magic” that the good characters can safely practice, because it is simply a part of being what they are. Thus, Tolkien’s Elves can use their “art” to reclaim an important jewel from the Dark Lord, N.D. Wilson’s characters have the strength of dandelions or aspen trees in their blood, and Lewis’s lion Aslan can create the world. That’s a short explanation, but it’s a start.

Q: Okay, okay. I understand. But you have to admit that Lord of the Rings fans are really annoying.

A: No, I don’t.

Q: But all those coffee table edition books…and Elf languages…and fake Gollum voices…and people yelling “You cannot pass!” at the top of their lungs….

A: Well…maybe they—that is, we—can be a little annoying. My only comfort for you is this: they are few and far between. Avoid certain online forums, go underground when each new Hobbit movie comes out, carefully screen your friends, and you probably will survive. If the Nazgul don’t catch you first.


Posted by on March 21, 2013 in Fantasy, Humor


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The Hobbit Movie (and Other Psychological Disturbances)

The Hobbit Film: 13 Dwarves

DSM 5, the American Psychological Association’s new manual, is coming out in the near future, and a surprising last-minute change has been reported. Psychologists have added a new category, broadly labeled “literary disorders.” And apparently the first and largest subcategory has been titled “Severe Tolkien Inundation Syndrome (STIS).”

STIS is associated with the following symptoms:

  • Repeatedly reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, particularly The Lord of the Rings
  • Reading any of Tolkien’s works but The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit
  • Memorizing Tolkien’s poetry
  • Repeatedly watching The Lord of the Rings movies
  • Attending the midnight showing of The Hobbit
  • Hating The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit movies for being too “inaccurate”
  • Ranting about “what Peter Jackson did to Faramir”

In teenage females, STIS can be accompanied by temporary Orlando Bloom obsession, which may eventually be followed by permanent hatred of Orlando Bloom. STIS is also associated with depression, largely initiated by the departure of the Elves.

Well—that isn’t quite accurate. Psychologists haven’t actually labeled STIS as a disorder (yet), although I expect at least some of them find it disturbing. Personally, I love Tolkien. And I show some of the signs of STIS. But my ability to quote “The Fall of Gil-galad” from memory doesn’t quite match up to a real Tolkien obsession. Enter my teenage brothers.

The younger of the two has what amounts to a level 10 Tolkien obsession. As in, that’s what he wants to talk about at least 50% of the time. Unfortunately he has a very unique way of interpreting The Lord of the Rings. He says that the Balrog is his favorite character and wishes that Frodo had turned into a wraith so he could destroy Rivendell. He is also the one who managed to get the Twin Towers confused with The Two Towers. He’s reading The Silmarillion right now, and that seems to have cooled him down. But I’m taking him to see The Hobbit when it comes out, and my mom fears that she’ll hear about nothing but Tolkien until long after Christmas.

The older one doesn’t have quite the obsession with all things Tolkien that his younger brother does, but he remembers more from the movies and has a tendency to quote them at inopportune times. I can’t even safely threaten to kill him any more. His latest retort: “You would die before your stroke fell.” (For those who haven’t memorized the movie, that’s a quote from Legolas in The Two Towers.) He also makes regular use of Gandalf’s opening statements: “A sister is always late. She arrives precisely when she intends to…. A brother is never late. He arrives precisely when he intends to.”

That’s when I redirect my attention to the younger brother, who starts talking about how he likes the orcs from Moria best. I suppose I should feel some guilt for his situation, since I was the one who started it all by reading him The Hobbit. So far I don’t feel a lot of guilt, although sometimes I do feel like fleeing to another room and shutting the door.

And then, afterwards, putting a warning sign on his door. Something like “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”


Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Fantasy, Humor


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Fantasy and Mixing Genres

I’m not a fan of urban fantasy. The very idea of fairies (or vampires, or whatever) hanging out in some sort of London underworld makes me begin groaning (if alone) or grimacing (if not alone). The only explanation that I can come up with is something to do with the atmosphere—I don’t typically enjoy urban fiction anyway, and adding supernatural creatures to the cement environments I hate adds an additional annoyance factor. So perhaps it isn’t terribly surprising that I do like stories that bridge the gap between fantasy and historical fiction.

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge is one such book. It is seems set in the 19th century England (although that isn’t entirely clear) and centers around a story of medieval family conflict. The heroine, Maria Merryweather, has to find a way to right the wrongs of her ancestor, Sir Wrolf, in order "Virgin and Unicorn," Domenico Zampierifor peace to come to her family manor. Some of the story’s elements are realistic, if a little idealized. Others are possible by stretching reality, while a few are simply fantastic.

C. S. Lewis observed that one of the distinguishers of pure Story, as opposed to the novel, is a focus on atmosphere that envelops both the plot and characters, rather than the other way around. And The Little White Horse has a very strong atmosphere. In fact, coming away from the story, one of the main things I remember is the color—silver and black (and, well, pink).

My main criticism of the book is, in fact, that the atmosphere may be too strong—that the story would be more like a fairy tale if its fairy tale qualities weren’t so carefully protected. Most fairy tales are much less fairy tale-ish than might be expected. Often they are more realistic than we would prefer—the versions we are more familiar with have often been divested of some of their more jarring elements so they can be told to children. That isn’t to say that good fairy tales are jarring, but that there is a delicate balance between “faery” elements and realistic elements. The Little White Horse gives a bit too much dominance to the faery.

The Perilous Gard (written by another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Marie Pope) is a story similar in that it bridges a gap between history and fantasy. Also like The Little White Horse, it includes a love story of sorts. Granted, it is, I think, intended for slightly older readers; but I’m also inclined to think that it better succeeds in balancing the faery and realistic elements.

Of course, it helps the story is partially an explanation of where English fairy legends came from in the first place. But its atmosphere is at least as strong as that of The Little White Horse, although different—more caves and candles than sunlight and moonlight. Still, it isn’t every author who can create a story about violent elf-like pagans hiding in the backwoods of medieval England.

I suppose The Little White Horse rather shows why J.R.R. Tolkien so hated allegory. To protect the atmosphere, the story invokes so much symbolism that it likely produces groans in some readers.

I didn’t groan. And if it isn’t every story that can make violent elf-like pagans come alive, it also isn’t every story that can make an eccentric dwarf seem quite realistic. Or that can pass off a lion as a dog. Or that can come up with a credible ending without killing someone. The Little White Horse has its faults. I would not call it great. But it was very, very good.


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Fantasy, Realism, and Missing the Point

My first real exposure to fantasy came when I was seven years old, and my mother was trying to expand my literary horizons. I vaguely remember her reading Charlotte’s Web, The Silver Skates, and at least three of the Little House books aloud. And then, one day, she brought home The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I really don’t understand what made her pick that particular book; I can only guess that she saw it on a list of recommended children’s books, or that someone suggested it to her. It wasn’t until years later that I learned just how little she likes fantasy novels. I read the Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit to my younger brother, and she repeatedly declared that I was corrupting him. (How she stood reading LWW the whole way through, I’ll never know.)

“I like realistic fiction,” she told me, in a calmer moment (that is, one in which she wasn’t accusing me of child ruination). “I don’t like stories that have nothing to do with the real world.” Dislike of fantasy, in her cases, was partly preference, and partly an upbringing that included little exposure to fantasy or fairy stories.

My mother was speaking about her personal preferences. There are those, however, who take their dislike of fantasy more seriously. Such as the academic who said any boy that disliked The Lord of the Rings lacked heart, but that if the boy remained a fan by the time he reached adult hood, he probably lacked a brain. But by responding in such a way, the academic revealed that he did not understand what fantasy is about. To call fantasy “childish” or “unrealistic” or “escapist” entirely misses the point.

All literature communicates value, but in the fantasy genre, the communication of value is absolutely vital to the story. As a result, most fantasies focus on a struggle between good and evil. Those that lose this focus–whether by muting the difference between good and evil, or by using the fantasy genre to tell a normal love story, detective story, etc.–often fail to meet the demands of the genre. Sometimes the good-vs.-evil struggle is very obvious, as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings. In other stories the struggle isn’t as obvious. For example, in George MacDonald’s Phantastes, for example, there is no single evil opponent. MacDonald includes villains in his writing, but none with the singular power of a Dark Lord or White Witch. The story’s central conflict occurs within Anodos himself: “Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my shadow.”

In his book Reading Between the Lines, Gene Edward Veith writes of fantasy’s moral focus, “Such momentous truths are in the realm of the unseen, but fantasy can express them in symbolic form.” He goes on to note that fantasy’s “spiritual orientation” can be abused, but that it has resulted in many great works of fantasy embodying Christian truth, with most of the groundbreaking stories in that genre being written by Christians. By bringing readers outside of our world, fantasy writers have more room to communicate value symbolically, something that presents more challenges for writers of realistic fiction. That does not mean that fantasy is allegory–it usually isn’t–but rather that it has an otherworldly focus.

As a result of its otherworldly focus, fantasy by nature stands in opposition to materialism. Materialist attempts at fantasy do exist, but most fantasy does not fall into that category. At the same time, fantasy can help us better appreciate the material world in that it encourages a sense of wonder toward the natural world–something not easily learned from a science textbook, however “practical.”

Perhaps it’s time that we redefine “practicality.” If a book helps us to focus in a wholesome way on the eminently real spiritual world, and inspires a sense of wonder toward the physical world, its results are far from impractical. Rather, fantasy develops aspects of the human personality that a diet of strictly realistic fiction may leave undernourished.

C. S. Lewis once described a woman who struggled with this very sort of undernourishment:

A lady (and, what makes the story more piquant, she herself was a Jungian psychologist) had been talking about a dreariness which seemed to be creeping over her life, the drying up in her of the power to feel pleasure, the aridity of her mental landscape. Drawing a bow at a venture, I asked, “Have you any taste for fantasies and fairy tales?” I shall never forget how her muscles tightened, her hands clenched themselves, her eyes started as if in horror, and her voice changed, as she hissed out, “I loathe them.”

I don’t expect people who, like my mother and the psychologist with whom Lewis spoke, to read this post and immediately develop a love for fantasy. But I suggest that we reject the accusation that fantasy is unrealistic. Of course it is unrealistic in that it doesn’t deal with the earth as we know it. That is precisely the point. There are certain things that strict realism will find more difficult to accomplish, and these are the very things at which fantasy excels.

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Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Fantasy


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