I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.
So says King David in Psalm 27:14. It’s a statement of hope. With enemies encircling him and war rising against him, in the face of abandonment, David turned to God and found hope.
Another term might be inspiration, the courage to go on. I’ve thought about this subject recently because of a post Mike Duran wrote at Decompose regarding inspirational fiction. [Please note, Mike’s article was the catalyst for my thoughts. I am in no way attempting to write a rebuttal or a critique or a spin off of his thoughts. I am merely crediting him with the inspiration — pun intended — for this article. 😀 ]
Instead, when darkness surrounds us, our instinct is to search for some source of light, even the brief flicker of a match. We want to be oriented aright. We want to be assured of our path. We want to be warned of the obstacles in front of us. Most of all, we want a glimpse of our destination.
J. R. R. Tolkien famously expressed the role of fantasy in serving as a light in the dark in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories”:
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. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
The question that comes to my mind, however, is whether or not people in western society today are escaping, not to home as Tolkien stated in his metaphor, but to inspiration, or hope, itself. Has the end destination become the land of escape?
Fantasy — stories exploring the struggle between good and evil — has the framework in place to show readers “home.” But if, instead, its stories do not deliver truth, I suggest they merely offer hope in hope.
Further, I believe that fantasies delivering false hope are worse than those offering no hope — true dystopian stories.
Fantasies need to tell the truth about both good and evil. What would The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe be without the witch?
The White Witch was important because she showed evil on many levels. She showed the seduction of power and pleasure in her relationship with Edmund. She showed how the grip of fear and suspicion could lead to compromise when she intimidated Mr. Tumnus the Fawn. She showed how forestalling Christmas forestalled the coming of new life and the renewal of the world. She showed how her own desire for personal power led to a disregard for life.
In other words, she was an accurate portrayal of evil.
Enter the Lion.
Aslan was equally an accurate portrayal of good. He the self-sacrificing forgiver who had power to save was the hero who brought life from death.
In these accurate portrayals, C. S. Lewis created true inspiration. He painted the home to which we must escape if we are truly to come free of prison.
Inspiration was an important aspect of fantasy for Tolkien as well. As N. Lund stated in his essay “How to Read Tolkien: For Enjoyment, Escape or Edification? Or perhaps all of the above?”:
Tolkien asserted that fairy tales (fantasy) depend upon “consolation,” which he defined as “the happy ending.” Tolkien and Lewis coined their own term for this: “eucatastrophe” (literally, the “happy disaster” or “happy sudden turn”). Tolkien stated that the greatest eucatastrophe, and the model for all eucatastrophes, was the resurrection of Christ from the dead. It is the moment of joyful surprise at unexpected deliverance from evil. In attempting to explain this critical element in fantasy, Tolkien then employed the New Testament term “evangelium,” which means “the Gospel.” Tolkien asserted: “in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater — it may be a far-off gleam or echo or evangelium in the real world.” He concluded: “The Christian may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”
As I see it, few people today deny that the world is dark. Consequently, many writers offer hope. The problem is, believing harder doesn’t change the dark. Believing that the dark isn’t actually dark doesn’t change the dark. Believing that I can see in the dark, doesn’t change the fact that I can’t. Only one thing can deal with the dark, and that’s light.
Christian fantasy is situated to offer true hope, real inspiration, not false or pretend or temporary escape that leaves us still imprisoned.
I embrace inspiration because I agree with Tolkien: even the small inspiration of fiction points to the ultimate inspiration of the resurrection, the means to the ultimate escape to the ultimate Home.