I brouse online sometimes, and today, seeking a fun topic, I asked Bing if fantasy has seen a resurgence. At least according to the sites that come up highest in the search engine, the last decade has in fact seen a strong increase in fantasy on streaming platforms like Netflix, as well as in comic books.
Sounds like fun to me. I’m going to discuss my childhood love of fantasy, I’m going to talk about why there has been a resurgence, and then I’ll discuss the good or evil of fantasy. Strap in, this may be a bumpy ride.
Curtis, Get Your Head Out of the Clouds
I’m afraid I was a very fanciful boy. My teachers (who were kind and believed intelligence was a gift) said I was “imaginative” and “creative.” My family (other than my sister and one or two of my uncles) said I was weird, that all that reading would warp me. “Weird books make weird kids, and nobody wants to be weird.”
I loved cartoons way too much. I copied the lisp of some cartoon characters (I was told it was cute), till when I was six, I was put in special education classes and learned to be ashamed of it. Since then, I’ve tried to speak more or less like a normal(ish) human being. One of my earlier memories was going to the first Star Wars‘ initial release. It was amazing, but my attention span wasn’t really good enough for it. I did better with the comic books.
But my love was really a shallow thing. Story meant little to me till I was introduced to The Chronicles of Narnia. Before that I mostly just loved exciting fight scenes, the “zap” of a laser or blaster, the clash of a sword. I wanted perfect heroes, like Superman was back then. No flaws, utterly capable, always winning, rarely ever being out fought or out thought by the bad guy. C. S. Lewis introduced me to the love of story, as well as some Bible stories. Then I read Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander, and I believe that was when I first began to honestly “grow up.” I learned the good guys don’t always win. Sometimes the good guys even die. Worse than anything, sometimes the good guys become evil. If Gwydion could be betrayed by one of his men, if Boromir could slip for a moment beneath the sway of the one ring, if Susan at the end of Chronicles of Narnia could end up “left behind,” what did that mean for me?
The Satanic Panic kept me from D&D till I was 19, but it took a while for me to begin to fear fantasy itself. In my mind and heart, I made a distinction between Lewis, Tolkien, and Alexander, and the other stuff that was “evil.” But then I heard a sermon or two on the evils of rock & roll, and a sermon about these verses: “Proverbs 28:19 The one who works his land will have plenty of food, but whoever chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty. Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty.” “I Timothy 4:7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.” And magic, the source of so much of fantasy, was unequivocally condemned by the Bible. I had loved wizards like Gandalf and Ged from Earthsea, I had started writing my own fantasy stories, starring an analog of myself as a mysterious doomed mage, and suddenly the church was telling me I was evil. For a long time, I felt like the love I had naturally felt for fantasy must be a flaw. I quit writing (it was a waste of paper) and became as coldly logical as I was able. I was preparing myself, I thought, for the harsh realities of reality. I was going to become like Spock.
I’m not trying to write a discourse on my psychology, or my journey in life. Still less am I attempting to convince you to believe or disbelieve the scriptures I quote. The topic is fantasy itself. I’ll return to this trial by fire later. Suffice it to say, like all other fashions, fantasy has swings. One year it is popular, and the media touts its return. Then some years later it is scorned, and all that is wanted is “realism,” and “escapists” are looked down on with Puritanical frowns. And in my own life, I have had mood swings. But it seems when I am healthiest is when I most love fantasy. When I am most angry or most dead inside is when I don’t want it at all. Or food. Or sex. Or sleep. Or anything.
The Resurgence of Fantasy
The current resurgence of fantasy, depending on who you talk to, can be traced to the popularity of Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things, and Big Bang Theory.
Celebrities have been coming out as D&D players almost as fast as they come out of the closet for being gay. The list goes on and on like Speed Racer. Stephen Colbert, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Vin Diesel, Will Wheaton, Drew Barrymore, Matthew Lillard, and intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates are just a partial list.
And the various podcasts and web series have promoted several games told as stories, like Critical Role, The Glass Cannon, and Oklahoma’s own Red Dirt D&D, allow us to enjoy a story crafted as much by chance rolls of the dice as by a DM.
Truly we live in heady times.
Is Fantasy Good or Evil?
My predilection is to announce that fantasy is good. Unequivocally good. But then, doesn’t an alcoholic believe his booze is good? Doesn’t a meth head believe his drug is good? Is there a difference between fantasy and drugs? And if so, what is that difference? Is this my real life, or is this just fantasy?
The Christian Church, for all the stories about miracles, angels, and demons, seems very interested in keeping our minds well-grounded in the real world. Don’t rebel against the lord, accept your fate with patience. Don’t read poetry and go to plays. Go back to the field and get your work done. Don’t look at that beautiful woman over there, go home to your angry, homely wife and endure her wrath with patience till morning, when you must get up early, read your Bible, pray to God for blessings you neither deserve, nor are allowed to want, and then go back to work for a lord who is likely raping your daughter, stealing your money, and sending your son off to an unjust war. But you are the one who will burn in hell if you even think an evil thought toward them. Maybe I paint the picture too simplistically. And frankly, you do have to stop reading and start doing chores at some point. The world really will go to hell if nobody is cleaning the toilets or working the fields.
Ok, enough about what I think. Let’s share some wiser folk’s thoughts. Desiringgod.org has this to say: “The garden of Eden was in every way a garden of real delights. Adam and Eve enjoyed the unfiltered fullness of the presence and fellowship of…God, whose radiant glory emanated from every wonderful thing he had made and given to them. And then the satanic serpent showed up and presented them with a fantasy where the ecstatic good was cast as flat and boring, and evil was cast as attractive and intriguing. Our progenitors allowed themselves to be tragically charmed, and they believed the lying fantasy. When they did, their garden of joy — and ours — became a dreary wasteland of monotonous misery.
“And since that time, every fantasy that has put a charming, attractive face on evil and deceived a human being has replayed that tragedy. The fantasy markets itself as a garden of delight when it really is a desert. And it robs us of the beautiful good, alienates us from God, and leaves us desolate.
“We must come to terms with this truth. Evil fantasies are perversions of the real good — the good we are designed to really enjoy. In creating them, we use our God-like imaginations in a satanic way, fantasizing a world in which we rule as God and indulge our selfish ambition, greed, anger, hatred, violence, covetousness, sexual lusts, and indolence…They accustom our spiritual taste buds to fictional evil and addict us to the drug of titillation till we lose the taste for good and end up with nothing real.”
Essentially, our thoughts are prone to be evil, according to…well…lots of different beliefs. And if we just allow our thoughts to run wild, we will end up being serial killers, male chauvinist pigs, or worse, Democrats.
I don’t mean to mock anyone here. I am mainly just lashing out in the bitterness of my own heart. Because on one hand, yes, I do think we have to fill our minds with positive and healthy thoughts, but I also think this can go too far sometimes. If I have to castigate myself for every “bad” thought I have…isn’t that itself a wicked thought?
Can’t I just love Jesus in peace?
What does psychology say about fantasies? Psychologytoday.com says: “Indulging in fantasies may seem like a waste of time, but they are far from frivolous. Most fantasies serve a specific purpose: They can be entertaining, distracting, frightening, or, in the case of sexual fantasies, arousing. Fantasizing about specific goals can foster creativity, help someone better understand their wants and needs, and even enable them to plan for the future.
“When people attempt to turn their fantasies (especially their sexual fantasies) into reality, it’s critical that everyone involved consent to the activity. Other than that, however, most fantasies remain just that—fantasies. Left unspoken, they cannot harm others just by existing in someone’s mind.”
Psychology Today doesn’t tell us what the purpose of fantasies are. Honestly, I wonder if anybody knows. But there is a strong correlation between daydreaming and the ability to solve problems. So, while fantasies can be dangerous, they are also an essential part of being human.
One of my heroes, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote a very insightful essay on the efficacy of fantasy. It is entitled “On Fairy Stories,” and I recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand this topic.
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. There are, however, some questions that one who is to speak about fairy-stories must expect to answer, or attempt to answer, whatever the folk of Faërie may think of his impertinence. For instance: What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them? I will try to give answers to these questions, or such hints of answers to them as I have gleaned— primarily from the stories themselves, the few of all their multitude that I know.”
According to Tolkien Fairy stories are “said to be (a) a tale about fairies, or generally a fairy legend; with developed senses, (b) an unreal or incredible story, and (c) a falsehood. The last two senses would obviously make my topic hopelessly vast. But the first sense is too narrow. Not too narrow for an essay; it is wide enough for many books, but too narrow to cover actual usage. Especially so, if we accept the lexicographer’s definition of fairies: “supernatural beings of diminutive size, in popular belief supposed to possess magical powers and to have great influence for good or evil over the affairs of man.” Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom. The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil’s tithe.”
As for the origin of such stories, Tolkien tells us that “I shall therefore pass lightly over the question of origins. I am too unlearned to deal with it in any other way; but it is the least important of the three questions for my purpose, and a few remarks will suffice. It is plain enough that fairy-stories (in wider or in narrower sense) are very ancient indeed. Related things appear in very early records; and they are found universally, wherever there is language. We are therefore obviously confronted with a variant of the problem that the archaeologist encounters, or the comparative philologist: with the debate between independent evolution (or rather invention) of the similar; inheritance from a common ancestry; and diffusion at various times from one or more centres. Most debates depend on an attempt (by one or both sides) at over-simplification; and I do not suppose that this debate is an exception. The history of fairy-stories is probably more complex than the physical history of the human race, and as complex as the history of human language. All three things: independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, have evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story. It is now beyond all skill but that of the elves to unravel it. Of these three invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) also the most mysterious. To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back. Diffusion (borrowing in space) whether of an artefact or a story, only refers the problem of origin elsewhere. At the centre of the supposed diffusion there is a place where once an inventor lived. Similarly with inheritance (borrowing in time): in this way we arrive at last only at an ancestral inventor. While if we believe that sometimes there occurred the independent striking out of similar ideas and themes or devices, we simply multiply the ancestral inventor but do not in that way the more clearly understand his gift.”
Story is itself a kind of fantasy. Fantasy is often little more than our efforts to make sense of a complicated world. Tolkien continues to explain the “use” of fantasy.
“I will now turn to children, and so come to the last and most important of the three questions: what, if any, are the values and functions of fairy-stories now? It is usually assumed that children are the natural or the specially appropriate audience for fairy-stories. In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: “this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.” But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: “this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy”; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios. Adults are allowed to collect and study anything, even old theatre programmes or paper bags. Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk. I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large. Actually, the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history.”
He goes on to explain that many of these stories were not originally for children. Many in fact were very much NOT child friendly. We have been coming back to this understanding in the last decades.
Tolkien goes on to explain that Fantasy provides us with an escape from the harshness of real life, and a consolation for the drabness that surrounds us.
“I will now conclude by considering Escape and Consolation, which are naturally closely connected. Though fairy-stories are of course by no means the only medium of Escape, they are today one of the most obvious and (to some) outrageous forms of “escapist” literature; and it is thus reasonable to attach to a consideration of them some considerations of this term “escape” in criticism generally. I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.”
I feel I have no skill to add to Tolkien’s words. This is what persuaded me that there is no harm in fantasy itself. The harm is in staying there too long. In choosing to harm others by neglect rather than shut the book and do the chores. But the person nagging you to shut the book is, I think, at least as guilty, and in the end, only God could really tell us who is right or who is wrong.
If you love fantasy, just please be sure that there are at least a few people in your life who are more important to you than your fantasies. If you don’t love fantasy, please be sure that your condemnations of fantasy enthusiasts are more about the good of that person, and less about your inability to understand their tastes.
I hope you enjoyed. Please comment and let me know what you would like to read next. Till then, make mine Marvel!
I just read from a fire hose (of ideas) !!!
But I think the line I live the most is:
“… it seems when I am healthiest is when I most love fantasy…”
So chance that! And maybe tell us more about that mysterious doomed mage…
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That doomed mage was way too infuenced by Tolkien. I have recently found some of those pages, which I had thought long last. Not great stuff, but I might be able to fix the poor guy with some work