“How could it have been otherwise . . . ? Story then, in every part of the world, was a means of keeping the inhabited dark at bay, and of making some kind of sense out of survival.”
Fantasy, in other words, is not properly seen as a sub-genre, but as an ur-literature, an original form of story with great meaning, a step up from the narratives of our daily hunting or gathering, a telling of grand tales to explore a hidden world of imagination and . . . we prayed . . . a revelation of meaning, an amulet of protection from the growling wilderness nearby, an elixir of hopeful purpose and elevated spirit that infused the cave we huddled in at night.
This is my sense of fantasy literature, one that inspired me to write a 2009 work on the subject, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, and now, just published at the end of 2013, my new work, The Purpose of Fantasy.
There were two specific things that propelled me to write this work last year. The first was a trend in fantasy movie-making. Great books like The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and other fantastical stories were being made into blockbuster films. Sadly, it seemed to me, there was often an escalating reliance on special effects, increasingly at the cost of the underlying story. The assumed purpose of these movies is more and more to provide a platform for intensely improbable fantasy action, grotesque make-up, and blow-it-up-bigger-than-the-last-movie special effects (Hollywood’s version of wizardry, its high-volume fireworks of magic and mayhem).
This in itself isn’t a terrible thing – we all love to see a drooling, gruesome orc now and then, or take a awe-inspiring virtual-reality ride on a dragon. But the special effects were supplanting the imagination-enriching, traditional power of storytelling.
The second impetus for me came after a survey of children’s ebook reading habits that showed how much today’s youngsters love fantasy stories. On the heels of that report came a predictable flurry of social-media commentary to the effect that this was expected, as kids today clearly desired to read fantasy as “escapist” literature. They could hide from reality, with all its warts and terrors and insecurity, in a book.
This, as I wrote in a short essay, “Is Fantasy Escapist,” was not how the gifted writers of fantasy or their legions of readers viewed their stories:
Escape from reality? I understand why people have that instinctive reaction. There’s an easily misconstrued logic to note that fantasy is by definition about not-reality (as a branch of literature that allows impossible things), and therefore, reading it is escaping from reality. However, a lot of influential writers (Lloyd Alexander, Ursula Le Guin, Jane Yolen, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and others) have pointed out that reading fantasy is not an avoidance of dealing with difficult real-world issues.
These gifted writers saw fantasy stories as imaginative, value-based ways of trying to understand intangible aspects of what it means to be human, to explore creative ways to think about issues of good and evil, right and wrong, and other complex matters. Fantasy stories do that quite well.
A reader’s suspension of reality is not the same as trying to escape from reality. As Tolkien and Chesterton noted, a key part of a fairy-tale’s approach to an imaginary world is the reader’s return to reality at the end, refreshed, with new insights.
If you’ve read any well-crafted fantasy, you’ll likely agree. Ask the kids who enthusiastically devoured the Harry Potter novels if they learned anything that might be worthwhile to them about good and evil, about friendship, responsibility, trust, and more.
Perhaps the popularity of reading fantasy may actually reflect an attempt by youngsters to deal with the difficult issues, albeit through fiction, that some might think they are trying to escape. Maybe they are looking for an encouraging, hopeful response to the constant, solution-free reporting of the range of human misdeeds found in those “news headlines of today.”
– From “Is Fantasy Escapist?” chapter in The Purpose of Fantasy
And . . . while I was on my high horse about the value of reading fantasy, I also tackled “Is Fantasy Subversive?” and “Are Children’s Books Only for Children?”
I then went on to look at twelve books that exemplified the range of spiritual and philosophical values explored, in storytelling ways, in great fantasy novels – from Tuck Everlasting to Charlotte’s Web, from The Ocean at the End of the Lane to The Little Prince and The 13 Clocks. And other powerful works of enduring, endearing literature: tales of Moomintrolls, of a girl named Momo, of a last unicorn’s quest, of Ratty and Mole’s adventures, and other fantasy books worth reading, or, for most of us, rereading.[For a full table of contents for The Purpose of Fantasy, see the book’s title page. The book can also be ordered from that page, in paperback or in an inexpensive Kindle edition.]
I’ll close with a comment from C.S. Lewis, who wrote, on the subject of re-reading classic works, that in his opinion, to waste a good story on a first-time reading is “like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst.”
I wrote The Purpose of Fantasy to celebrate the reading of lovely, life-changing, uplifting stories, to help continue the conversation that book-lovers love of why great stories move us so. I also hoped to prick a few holes in the hot-air arguments of those who wanted to diminish fantasy because of it magical special effects and immensity of imagination, to chase away the chimeras (a monster from the Greeks, a fire-breathing creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail) so easily invoked to explain away the truth of a powerful story. Let’s move beyond the easy thought that fantasy is escapist.
It is, in some ways (as is all fiction).
But mostly, it is not.