November 9, 2008

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: One Reason We May Love Fantasy More Than Reality

I recently finished the fantasy classic, WAR FOR THE OAKS by Emma Bull (1987). A marvelous read – the more fun because my parents, brothers, sisters, wife and in-laws all grew up in various parts of Minneapolis and I knew most of the places where the battles took place – the assumptions of virtually all fantasy writers crystallized some thoughts floating around in my head.

The quote that started it all: “The message of the [brownie] clean apartment, the bread, the mended jacket was, ‘The irritants are gone, the mundane details are taken care of. The important matters are left to you.” This is as clear a definition of faerie stories as I’ve ever heard. I do not doubt that C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and J.R.R. Tolkien would have agreed wholeheartedly.


The message of a life in Christ is exactly the opposite. The quote above might be re-written: “The message of cleaning house, baking bread and mending jackets was, ‘The irritants are here, you need to take care of the mundane details. The important matters are given to Jesus Christ.'”

I think this is why we love fantasy – WE, the mundane, mortal hobbits, Pevensies, Eddi McCandrys, Thomas Covenants, Lyra Belacquas and Despereaux Tillings – can play a decisive role in what happens in the world and universe at large. Great events depend from the lives, thoughts and actions of small people.

But the facts speak loudly otherwise. Even the great are mostly forgotten and the reality we live seems at times short and desperate. Who REALLY “Remembers the Alamo”? Is the “day that will live in infamy” still living there or has it been moved out by more horrible days – or was it evicted in September of 2001 or by some other newer event?

The message of the Gospel is that while we must deal with the mundane, God has taken care of the important matters once and for all.

“Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” I Peter 5:6-7


Paul said...

A few comments, probably not in any logical order:

While it's true that Thomas Covenant's actions play a decisive role in what happens in the world of his chronicles, the reality of that world is questionable, and Steven R. Donaldson (Covenant's creator, for those reading this who haven't heard of the books) has said on many occasions that what's really important is the role Covenant's actions play within Covenant himself.

Fantasy is not only the oldest genre in fiction, it's the oldest genre in all of literature. One reason for its staying power might be that it tells us in a way no other literature can that our lives are more significant than the mundane, everyday humdrum suggests. Rather than telling us to ignore the everyday, it may be encouraging us to realize that the everyday should not consume us, that the true gravitas of the world lies beyond the everyday, and that we can participate in it when we open our eyes to the wonder.

My own reading of fiction is not as a means of escape from the world, but as a way of seeing the world anew. Using the everyday as the setting for seeing the world anew (and I don't mean by using postmodern language tricks that are more about storytelling than they are about the story) is just plain hard. On the writer's side, the easy way to make the world seem new is to, well, make a new world. On the reader's side, it's easier to glimpse new possibilities in fantastical worlds than in the one where we actually live.

William said...

I'm not sure that Lewis or Tolkien would entirely agree with the quote. They both wrote about the appeal fairy tales and fantasy had for them, and they stressed not the hero factor, but rather the sense of wonder and joy breaking through into the mundane world. Modern fantasy (generally non- or anti-Christian) tends to stress the "Me" factor, and the sense of wonder sometimes dwindles to a "Wow, that's neat" level. In Christianity, neither the "important things" nor the "mundane details" are really accomplished by us--but we get to participate in both (often against our will).


Valid points all around...but...

1) I never read the Unbeliever Chronicles as anything but pure fantasy; never read Donaldson's commentary. I enjoyed them immensely...but my overall impression (though I've only read the first six books once) was that Covenant made a huge difference in The Land where Here he lived a life of quiet depseration, more akin to a typical person's life (complicated by any debilitating disease). That inability to glimpse the "new" in the "old" world is more like a desire to experience something new for the excitement. Few if any novels have opened my eyes to anything but enjoyment. Any author who tries to "say something" -- at least for me -- loses me immediately. I think Tolkien and Lewis wrote for joy -- and what God directed them to through the circumstances of their lives and their imaginations.

Also, I know Lewis' work (especially) and Tolkein's and agree neither of them looked at their characters as "heroes" -- but even Lewis, in the end, suggested that the Narnia on the hill was not the "true" Narnia, but rather a pale reflection of the "real" Narnia, though he never said what real Narnia was.

Also, when I was thinking of the "important things", I was thinking strictly of the work of Salvation. Of course we paricipate in every lesser work of God! It's why He made us. But the MOST important work was the one only He could do. And that is the work we no longer have to think about. It's been done.