In Defense of Fantasy
The sky cracks an eyelid and yellow sunbeams flood the surface of the earth. Standing on a hill above my house, the sunlight glitters, yellow gold over a sea of rolling green hills and I breathe in the cold air. It’s Middle Earth all around me and my heart finds the place that is both home and not home, familiar and yet brand new. At times like this, I pity the mortals who have never read about Smaug in all his fearsome glory, who never heard of the Ents, and who walk through the world seeing everything as ordinary, while I stand and breath in magic.
Fantasy literature is written off by some as fantastic, unrealistic, and irrelevant. Yet I believe that fantasy is hard wired into the cold earth we stand on, birthed new in every sunrise, chasing us in the scent of jasmine that blows by on the ocean breeze, whispering to us in the stolid stance of a gnarled oak tree. If you but once let magic into your heart, the world around you changes into a world of magic and hope, romance and beauty. Our culture is hard wired to pull us away from wonder directly and efficiently, like a harassed nanny. We are constantly surrounded with painful reminders of reality, from our buzzing phones, to unromantic traffic, to never ending to-do lists. Surely there is more of grave than of gravy in the world around us. What have we to do with dragons?
Yet in the peaceful taverns of the shire, the echoing halls of Hogwarts, and the snow clad lands of Narnia I have found deeper truth than anything handed to me in a sharply written news article or the barren wasteland of social media. So for a moment, suspend your disbelief. Take my hand and dare to step through the wardrobe into a world more like your own than you might realize. Here are four reasons to give fantasy another chance:
Fantasy gives us a sense of wonder.
G. K. Chesterton warned that “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” And we are certainly starved for wonder, as though a dementor came and sucked it all away. With our heads bent over a meager feast of screens large and small, we hardly see the world around us. It’s natural, I suppose. We are anesthetized to the everyday, intent on snatching crumbs from beneath the table of our routine existence. But when we read fantasy, we are transported to a world unlike our own, and startlingly so. There are elves and vampires and underage wizards in flying cars. When we look up from these stories, we are startled by our own world. People have remarkably round ears and smooth feet. Walls are surprisingly solid, no matter how quickly you run at them with your luggage cart. Suddenly we realize there has been a feast on the table all along. The key to reawakening this sense of wonder is in reading stories that “say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water” (Chesterton). We must read about fantastic worlds in order to see our own world through wonder-filled eyes.
Fantasy reminds us of larger battles being fought in our own world.
We may not be fighting a legion of dreadful orcs, but there are plenty of battles raging around us in our own reality. On a national scale, it wasn’t so long ago that people sacrificed time and comfort (two of the most coveted things in America) to fill airports around our country in protest of an insidious evil, brandishing a humble sword in the ongoing fight for human dignity. On a more local scale, the bullying rate has skyrocketed, and everyday kids fight battles on behalf of themselves and others, choosing the difficult path of resistance against a force that appears larger than their small selves, a force both cunning and cruel. These sacred battles mirror those fought in fantasy literature. When we read about Harry fighting Lord Voldemort, we might not be able to relate because we are not wizards and we haven’t been chased by a maniac who killed our parents and is now intent on murdering us. But we can relate to the epic ongoing struggle between good and evil, because we recognize it as one we’ve fought before. Fiction founded in reality can become muddled in the minute and the mundane, but fantasy takes on the whole sweep of history’s ongoing struggle to defy evil and maintain human goodness.
Fantasy teaches us how to handle a variety of challenges.
My favorite scene in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is when Bard is trying to kill Smaug. He uses a makeshift bow and has to steady the arrow on his son’s shoulder. It’s their last hope. His son is terrified and looks over his shoulder as the dragon circles, speaking words of death and despair over them. But just as Bard’s son turns to look at the dragon, to stare impending doom in the face, Bard stops him. “Look at me. You look at me,” He says quietly. Here is a deep truth, my friend: we will all face challenges like this. Certainly, the odds of your needing to rest a spear on your shoulder so your father can shoot a dragon who has the sexy voice of Benedict Cumberbatch are slim. But the odds of you being in a situation where despair circles you and you feel like you are an inch away from losing something terribly precious is unfortunately quite likely. It’s part of being human in a broken world. And when it does happen, where will you turn? Will you look despair in the eyes and give in to the lies it breathes over you? Or will you hold on to hope and fix your gaze on that until the very last? And on that note...
Fantasy consistently delivers themes based on hope.
My favorite quote of all time is a G.K. Chesterton quote paraphrased by Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” In this age of gray postmodernism and misanthropic heroes, it helps to see the painful battles in our life in their simplest form: fire-breathing, destructive dragons, laying waste to our hearts or our bodies or our minds. We all have metaphorical dragons we are facing and we need to be told in simple terms that dragons can be beaten. There will likely be great personal struggle, harrowing nights spent on Weathertop, and aimless tramping through woods trying to figure out what we are supposed to do. But there is hope. We can destroy the ring, we can defeat the White Witch’s army, we can vanquish Voldemort. We will come out on the other side changed, but we will make it out alive.
We don’t have to sit at the table and eat the tasteless crackers of of a task-centered reality. We can feast on magical meadows, honey-gold rivers, and bittersweet victories. Come drink of the fountain of fantasy until it transforms the world around you into “a world at once of wonder and of war” (Chesterton). Drink until you fall in love again with the mad, absurd, beautiful world around us. Feast on the bigness of life and death, good and evil. Give dragons, wizards, elves, and rings a chance to work their magic. Eat and be filled with wonder. I promise you, your world will never be the same.