Flight To Fantasy

In his Preface to Shakespeare Samuel Johnson wrote: “Whatever is remote from common appearance is always welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity; … [such things as] adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments.” That is to say, only children and unlearned people enjoy stories of fantasy.

Many people, some critics among them, thoroughly agree with both Dr. Johnson’s conclusion that fantasy is not worthwhile for adults, and his reason that fantasy does not come to grips with things-as-they-are. But there are problems with this harsh judgment. In the first place, think of all the people, from the beginning of Western literature to our own time, who have otherwise passed for intelligent, mature readers and yet must be said to have “vulgar” or childish taste because they enjoyed books about adventures and enchantments. And it is not just readers we will lose. Consider the authors, in English literature alone, whom we must censure or even banish on this account; among them are the Gawain poet, Malory, Spenser, Shakespeare (whom Johnson was praising), and several of the Romantic poets. At this rate we may decide that Dr. Johnson’s critical dictum had better be overhauled, if not scrapped altogether.

In recent years we have seen people who are more familiar with the geography of Tolkien’s Middle Earth than with that of their own country or state; we have known adults who would rather reflect on Christian truth in Lewis’s Narnia books than read his or anyone else’s theological works; and, if reviewers’ predictions can be trusted, we are likely to see another publishing record like that of The Lord of the Rings set by a new children’s book, Watership Down by Richard Adams, which will certainly be read by more adults than children. “Curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice said. I think we are not curious enough about the popularity of children’s fantasy among adults.

Fantasy, in literature as in life, is concerned with that-which-is-not. In literature, fantasy results in the creation of completely new worlds—“secondary worlds” as J. R. R. Tolkien calls them in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” That essay and two others by C. S. Lewis (“On Stories” and “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”) lay the groundwork for a serious consideration of children’s fantasy. It deserves attention because it gives pleasure to many adults if for no other reason. Perhaps even more interesting is the growing popularity, among Christians, of the books by Lewis (the Narnia chronicles), Tolkien (The Hobbit, the trilogy The Lord of the Rings), and George Macdonald (the Curdie books). I would like to suggest three reasons for this popularity, though they are by no means the only ones.

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To begin with, the secondary worlds of fantasy provide a sense of completeness that is missing in more realistic fiction. The virtues of this completeness are two: the pleasure of a travelogue, and the possibility of enchantment. One virtue derives from concrete detail, and the other from the insubstantiality of atmosphere. Both are to be found distinctively in fantasy.

Each of the fantasy worlds exists independently of our world. As a result, each has its own geography, citizens, and customs. If the fantasy world is depicted convincingly, and if it provides that conviction of truth which Virginia Woolf calls “integrity,” it arouses and holds our interest by its very foreign-ness. Anyone who has ever pored over a copy of National Geographic will know the experience. Disparities of climate, dress, and custom between the fantasy world and our world are cause for curiosity and speculation.

Dorothy Sayers once said that one either is, or is not, the kind of person who is susceptible to the chill of the words “It is later than you think.” So it is with the romance of other worlds. To some readers, but not to all, it is both a longing and an end to longing to enter a world where enormous consequences depend on the conjunction of supernatural design and personal courage. There are readers, and they come from all age groups, who speculate with intense curiosity and delight on worlds where animals have human speech, or where trees and mountains possess a ponderous thought and volition, or where different races of creatures are rational and yet distinct from one another. Nineteenth-century authors, in their wide-canvas novels, registered with precision the differences between the way a lady of fashion responded to life and the way a tradesman’s wife did so. But there are savorable differences, too, in the way a modest Mole and a fatuous Toad and a brusque Badger respond to life; there are whole ranges of qualities and abilities peculiar to rock-delving, earthy dwarves that are in contrast to the poetry and song of elves of the forest.

You either have a taste for such things or you don’t. If you do, the worlds of fantasy literature have a significant advantage over merely foreign places in our own world, transmitted to us by photographs. No photograph confines our mental pictures of Mirkwood, Cair Paravel, or Prydain. But they are no less immediate for that. Lewis once wrote, “I have been more curious about travels … from Morna Moruna to Koshtra Belorn than about those recorded in Hakluyt [The Principal Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1589]. The proliferation of maps of fantasy worlds—Middle Earth, Narnia, Prydain—testifies to this kind of pleasure. When a fictional world is both complete and well conceived, its very imaginative concreteness invites the use of a map.

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At the opposite pole from this descriptive concreteness, yet equally characteristic of fantasy, is the atmosphere of enchantment, the wind blowing from the realm of faërie. It is an atmosphere that readers of Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory have learned to prize. Most evident in Tolkien’s books and the fairy tales, slightly less in Lewis, Macdonald, and Lloyd Alexander (the Prydain chronicles), and hardly at all in Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows, it is compounded of mystery, enigma, and magic; and it is achieved in part at least by what is left out of explanations and descriptions:

Gil-galad was an Elven-king,

Of him the harpers sadly sing;

The last whose realm was fair and free

Between the Mountains and the Sea

But long ago he rode away,

And where he dwelleth none can say;

For into darkness fell his star

In Mordor where the shadows are.

J. R. R. Tolkien,

The Lord of the Rings

The desire is all, in this atmosphere. Remoteness is the essence of the enchantment of fantasy. Only at a distance can a dragon remain the heraldic creature of enamel-bright scales, wicked claws, and fiery mouth. Brought to the foreground by realism, he must share the lethargy and wrinkly skin of his near relative, the lizard.

If the sense of completeness, with its attendant pleasures of travelogue and enchantment, is one reason for the popularity of children’s fantasy, an even stronger reason is its ability to set us free. Reading fantasy, for me at least, always feels like a holiday. Tolkien discusses at length the escape offered by fantasy, and we will come back to that in a moment. But the kind of freedom I have in mind has to do with problems and their solutions.

Both the problems and the solutions in fantasy narratives are remote from us, and once again their very remoteness is a pleasure. We praise great fiction, and properly so, for an action that exemplifies universal problems of the human condition. We all have reason enough to know the “temptations common to man.” But for that very reason we can turn with enjoyment, in fantasy, to the spectacle of a protagonist who meets, not an alienated society of the consequences of flawed vision or his own inadequacies, but a wizard or a giant or a land gripped by evil enchantment. His problems are remote from ours, and so are the solutions. Cloaks of invisibility and rings of power would be of little use in our world.

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Jungian critics would see the struggle between heroes and monsters in fantasy as archetypes of the struggle between good and evil forces within us. And I think it is true, as I will try to show later, that one great pleasure we receive from fantasy comes from the opportunity it gives us to align ourselves so completely with what is good against what is unequivocally evil. Nevertheless, there is a pleasure inherent simply in the great disparity between those worlds and ours, and part of that pleasure comes from a temporary withdrawal from our own kinds of problems. As Alice said to herself, while she was falling mile after mile down the Rabbit Hole, “Well! After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of falling down stairs!”

Of course, the disparaging epithet “escapist” is always easy to attach to literature of fantasy. Tolkien objects to this kind of criticism by insisting that escape is a perfectly admirable and mature thing to do in our circumstances. For we really are imprisoned in an ugly, depersonalized, and barren world, he says; the only sensible thing to do about imprisonment is to try to escape.

I would add a further objection to “escapist” criticism: escape from the external appearances of the modern world, or even from the psychological introspection of modern fiction, is not necessarily an evasion of the moral ambiguities of human life. It is true that appearances in fantasy literature conform far more closely to the reality they represent than is the case in our world; that is, evil in fantasy is usually easily identifiable by its ugliness and open malice, whereas evil in our world is often more subtle and hard to define. But it is easy to exaggerate the complexity of evil and good in our own time and world as a means of excusing a half-hearted struggle for what we know to be right against what we know to be wrong. “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” asks a character in The Lord of the Rings. “As he ever has judged,” comes the reply. “Good and ill have not changed.… It is a man’s part to discern them.”

I think, too, that critics who sneer at the stories of fantasy do so frequently because of their assumptions about the nature of the universe. If supernatural intervention in our natural world is a lie, a baseless myth formulated by primitive peoples to help them face their hostile environment, then it follows that books that depend upon magic or enchantment for the defeat of evil will appear to be fanciful and cowardly in the extreme. Christians, who do not share those anti-supernatural assumptions (and some non-Christians who wish they did not), may judge the stories very differently. Not that magic swords or enchanted castles are any more believable for Christians than for non-Christians; it is just that the idea of a miracle is not, to them, an offense.

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A third pleasure fantasy offers is its moral framework. It is here that I think we will find one of the most important reasons why parents in growing numbers are borrowing their children’s books. In his essay “Religion and Literature” T. S. Eliot contends that “literature affects directly … the whole of what we are” and that the contemporary literature affecting us now “is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life.” Whatever the value of the tortured or despairing insights into a universe barren of God and meaning which we get from modern playwrights and novelists, we must not underestimate the vigilance of intellect and spirit necessary for the Christian to counter the overall experience of futility he receives.

Certainly no one would want to compare the modest productions of children’s fantasy writers with the gifted writing of serious modern authors. Tolkien himself once said, “On a strict judgment all children’s books are poor books.” But many of them do offer, in addition to their other pleasurable qualities, the virtue of a supernatural moral framework unavailable in almost any other worthwhile contemporary literature. Lewis’s world of Narnia is overarched by a supernatural order that combines wonder and enchantment with clear, luminous, reflections of Christian truth. Macdonald’s books, too, combine the atmosphere of faërie with Christianity. The supernatural in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, while not specifically Christian, has many of the same qualities as the others.

Beyond the presence of the supernatural in these books, goodness itself is admirable, lovely, and heroic. It is no easy task to create a hero both good and likable, but the fantasy writers accomplish it repeatedly. In literary worlds where goodness is made desirable and where order and meaning derive from a morally absolute supernature, the twentieth-century Christian can momentarily relax his vigilance and free his attention for the humble but refreshing pleasures of nature, friendship, and adventure. Perhaps more significantly, an unbeliever can feel he is a stranger in a gracious place, and wish he were at home.

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In a recent textbook on children’s literature, an educator has said this of fairy tales:

they reiterate the old verities that kindness and goodness will triumph over evil if they are backed by wisdom, wit and courage. These are basic truths we should like built into the depth of the child’s consciousness [May H. Arbuthnot, Children and Books].

It would be well for us if the lessons of kindness, goodness, and courage could be learned once in childhood and never forgotten. But, as Dr. Johnson observed (and we need not argue with him here), men need more often to be reminded than taught.

It would be a shame to leave the deliciously sly humor of Alice or The Wind in the Willows only to children, who are often ill-equipped to enjoy it. It would be a greater shame to leave the evocative beauty of Tolkien’s prose to children whose ears are hardly tuned to it. And it would be perhaps the greatest shame of all, for Christian and non-Christian alike, to lose the opportunity of meeting the Lion in Narnia. Many of us will never come closer, here, to a quickening of the heart toward heaven than we do at the end of The Last Battle when the cry rings out, “Higher up and farther in!” To leave these to children, to neglect them ourselves out of mistaken motives of embarrassment or indifference, is simply careless—and childish.


Miriam Jensen Hendrix is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago.

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