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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.

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Posted by on March 21, 2013 in Fantasy, Humor

 

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The Life of the World

When I was in early elementary school, I liked dandelions—or at least I thought my mother did. In our backyard—the same yard where the grass stubbornly refused to grow, the yard where a new crop of rocks appeared every spring, no matter how many we collected and threw into the gravel part of the driveway—dandelions grew by dozens. Or perhaps hundreds. In any case, there were too many for me to bother counting. I picked them, though—two or three big dandelion flowers at a time. I would take them inside and give them to my mother, who inevitably put them in little glass cups by the kitchen sink, where they wilted and died. She always said thank you.

As I grew older, I slowly learned that dandelions are considered weeds. When you’re being forced to dig dandelions out of garden beds (those roots! uggh), you’re less likely to view them kindly. I also have certain grim memories of a boring and slightly distasteful children’s book with the main character—a lion—was named Dandy Lion. Ha. Ha.

A few days ago I finished reading The Chestnut King, the conclusion to the 100 Cupboards trilogy by N.D. Wilson. I read the first two books in the series last January (I’ve re-read them several times since then), but I wasn’t able to get the third book from the library until this summer. As I read it, I thought about dandelions. And I  realized, oddly, that I will never see them in the same way again. That’s not what I would typically carry away from a fantasy series.

Wilson tells the story of Henry York, born in another world and transported to Kansas by accident as a baby. Adopted by a pair of smothering but distant parents, Henry is protected from real life until his parents are kidnapped while traveling in South America. He returns to Kansas to stay with his Uncle Frank and Aunt Dotty. Henry doesn’t know his true background. But he does know that he likes Uncle Frank’s house better than his usual boarding schools and nannies. And in that house is something special—cupboards in the attic, portals to other worlds.

Henry does not know it, but he is a seventh son, destined to understand the world’s inner life and to merge its green strength with his own. And when he sees the inside of a dandelion burning with life, his own life will never be the same. He will find his first home and his true family. And he will also find an old evil, deathless—unless Henry, through the life that is in him, can become its death.

Why dandelions? Wilson argues that people tend to ignore the ordinary magic of our own world. Dandelions multiply, and no one tends to pay a great deal of attention (except a few people chagrined about the state of their gardens).  Dandelions are alive, and life is inherently magic. It comes directly from God, beyond our control or even our understanding.

Dandelions intruded into my prayers the other night. I was tired, emotionally and spiritually, and I told God that I needed some of Henry’s dandelion life. There’s some part of me that thinks it’s artistically bad to pray using metaphors from children’s fantasy novels, but I doubt that God (or Wilson, who is Reformed) minded. In any case, my mind turned from life in dandelions to life in something else—the Resurrection.

I’ve read, in passing, that the early church placed a greater emphasis on the Resurrection than the modern church does. And I typically do not think of it very often, aside from at Easter. I know what Christ’s suffering and death mean for me—how they affect my daily life. I participate in His death every time I take Communion. But the Resurrection is hardly mentioned between Easters, and I forget it. I have hardly thought about what it means.

Christ lives. He is the Life of the World. And I live, truly live, by drawing on that life. Henry becomes strong by relying on the strength of others, and particularly the life he sees blazing in one Kansas dandelion. But it is Christ’s life that is enlivening the world even now—his life that made dandelions, and his resurrected life that promises to resurrect dandelions, and the rest of creation. He is the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Renewer. That is the promise of the Resurrection.

There’s a song I’ve seen in hymnbooks, but have never sung—“Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.” It’s true enough, but incomplete. A better title might be “Jesus Lives, and So Do I.” Christ lives—now. His life turned death on its head. I don’t have the life of dandelions to draw on, but I do have the life of Christ, which pulses through the world—and through me.

 
 

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