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.