Tag Archives: on fairy-stories

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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Critiquing Chesterton

Last fall I came across an article about G. K. Chesterton in which the author said that most people, except for members of a small “Chesterton cult,” were unfamiliar with most of his writing. “Chesterton cult?” I hadn’t known that scouring the website of the American Chesterton Society made me a member of a cult. Now I do.

To be honest, I don’t think I’m obsessed with Chesterton. I do, however, value his writings—I’ve re-read Orthodoxy numerous times, and his Ballad of the White Horse helped me survive a statistics final. (I got a D and was prepared for an F. That the passage I marched off to class quoting was “That though we scatter and though we fly,/ And you hang over us like the sky,/ You are more tired of victory,/ Than we are tired of shame.” That may sound depressing, but I knew what I was in for.)

I’ve heard that Chesterton tends to be a polarizing influence—that people either love him or hate him. I’m not sure that I fit neatly into either category—perhaps admiration is the best word I can muster. C.S. Lewis seems to have felt similarly, praising Chesterton, paraphrasing Chesterton, and (sometimes) critiquing Chesterton. Because Chesterton is not always right. In fact, there are times that he contradicts himself. So why do so many of us admire him?

First of all, Chesterton is funny. By that I don’t mean he inserts jokes into his serious works so other people will read them. Rather, there is a good humor about his entire writing style. Among all the nonfiction I have read, Chesterton’s is the most entertaining. For example, Chesterton declares tradition to be “the democracy of the dead.” (Who else would put it like that?) “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarcy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.”

And, as the passage I just quoted suggests, Chesterton thinks for himself. He calls himself a liberal (in the 19th century sense) while simultaneously casting himself as a traditionalist. And both descriptions seem accurate. In an age of bipolar politics, Chesterton offers another way to look at life. He does the same thing in regards to Christianity; by starting with an informal anthropology, his book The Everlasting Man reveals Christ in a very different way.

In the end, I think one of the main reasons that I admire Chesterton is simply for his viewpoint, for his unique way of looking at things, and for his incomparable means of expressing them. As J.R.R. Tolkien said in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Chesterton’s “MOOR EEFFOC” –“COFFEE ROOM” seen backwards—is limited in its ability to make the world look new to us. It is good to realize, once in a while, that rivers really could flow backwards, or the grass be red, or houses be upside-down. But according to Tolkien (and I believe he was right) most of us cannot think that way for long. If we want to see the world in a new way, our best recourse is found in fairy tales. Yet, whatever he called his view, Chesterton’s way of thinking is that of a man permeated by the fairy tales that Tolkien so revered. Chesterton, unlike Tolkien, may never bring someone to the level of high myth. But he has convinced many people to learn what Cinderella did. If there is a pumpkin in the garden, the best response is to say “Thank you.”

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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Classic Literature


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