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The Place Of Hope In Speculative Fiction

I find Chesterton’s perception of “modern fiction” — stories written in a realistic style nearly a hundred years ago — eerily similar to stories written in a realistic style today. When the imagination is separated from spiritual reality, it seems to stall on the bleak and the horrible.

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton, one of the important influences on C. S. Lewis, oozed opinion on any number of subjects, not the least of which was stories, particularly fairy tales. His contention was that “modern fiction” colored the world with gray.

Modern literature takes insanity as its centre. Therefore, it loses the interest even of insanity. A lunatic is not startling to himself, because he is quite serious; that is what makes him a lunatic. A man who thinks he is a piece of glass is to himself as dull as a piece of glass. A man who thinks he is a chicken is to himself as common as a chicken. It is only sanity that can see even a wild poetry in insanity. Therefore, these wise old tales made the hero ordinary and the tale extraordinary. But you have made the hero extraordinary and the tale ordinary — so ordinary — oh, so very ordinary. (from Tremendous Trifles)

Only in fairy tales did hope ascend.

For the devils, alas, we have always believed in. The hopeful element in the universe has in modern times continually been denied and reasserted; but the hopeless element has never for a moment been denied…. The greatest of purely modern poets summed up the really modern attitude in that fine Agnostic line—

“There may be Heaven; there must be Hell.”

The gloomy view of the universe has been a continuous tradition; and the new types of spiritual investigation or conjecture all begin by being gloomy. A little while ago men believed in no spirits. Now they are beginning rather slowly to believe in rather slow spirits. (from Tremendous Trifles)

I find Chesterton’s perception of “modern fiction” — stories written in a realistic style nearly a hundred years ago — eerily similar to stories written in a realistic style today. When the imagination is separated from spiritual reality, it seems to stall on the bleak and the horrible.

It fits with what we know. Life is … not as exciting as we wish. And the consequences of our actions and choices are more dire than we expected. Then waiting at the end is … the end.

How different for the person who sees spiritual realities as more real than physical realities. The here and now is the prelude, not the main act, and most definitely not the final act.

What happens here is better because with it comes Promise. And Hope.

The one point I disagree with Chesterton on when it comes to story is his view of the protagonist of a fairy tale:

Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is — what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is — what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos. (from Tremendous Trifles)

the world has also gone mad

As I see it, a Biblical worldview says the soul is “sick and screaming” but that the world has also gone mad, though at times it may appear dull.

So the problem a fantasy deals with is — what does a soul sick and screaming do in a world gone mad? Certainly painting it in those terms, such a story does not appear to traffic in hope.

But I suggest the solution to the problem offers the truest hope — such a soul can do noting to right the world. He must trust in someone greater than himself.

The idea that the soul is healthy, I think, is perhaps the cruelest of concepts, one that leaves the reader, knowing himself to be less than whole, wanting.

As I see it, then, there are two kinds of stories that lead to hopelessness — ones that are realistic about the physical world but not the spiritual, and ones that falsely infuse hope in a healthy soul.

How do you see it?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Sherwood Smith
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Sherwood Smith

There is a fascinating chapter in Chesterton’s ORTHODOXY called “The Ethics of Elfland” where he talks more about this.

Galadriel
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Yes, I definately see that. Even in my favorite TV show “Doctor Who,” you really get the sense that the main charactter needs an answer to the world, but nothing will give it to him.

Krysti
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Chesterston may prefer a hero who is a type of Christ. Not as perfect as Christ, of course; but one who, when plopped into the center of a universe gone mad, begins to bring order to it, tries to make sense of it, and by his journey, arrives at or creates peace. A better ideal would possibly be the first Adam, who was flawed and sinned, yet was at heart a fundamentally decent guy who desired to please God. Or Noah–
I don’t believe that every story has to begin with a crazed protagonist plopped into the middle of a world gone mad, and then going nuts searching for the meaning in it. I’ve read stories like that. I hate them. I especially hate the existentialist modern versions that insist on making the statement that “there is no meaning to the universe.” How horrid!
Actually; to be scrupulously fair: I’ve only read two like that. Vanity Fair, and another much more recently published novel that was so horrible, I promptly forgot the name. It was billed on the fly-leaf as something along the lines of a “strangely endearing story fraught with hope. Mostly, it was fraught with totally incomprehensible dreck. ICK.
I decided I didn’t care who reads junk like that; I wouldn’t be any more. When I realize I’m holding a book like that in my hands, I reshelve it and move on.

Kessie Carroll
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Kessie Carroll

So the problem a fantasy deals with is — what does a soul sick and screaming do in a world gone mad? Certainly painting it in those terms, such a story does not appear to traffic in hope.
But I suggest the solution to the problem offers the truest hope — such a soul can do noting to right the world. He must trust in someone greater than himself.

I suppose you’re right, if you’re telling a redemption story. It works fine in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But stopping there misses the rest of Chesterson’s thought, which was thus:

In the excellent tale of ‘The Dragon’s Grandmother,’ in all the other tales of Grimm, it is assumed that the young man setting out on his travels will have all substantial truths in him; that he will be brave, full of faith, reasonable, that he will respect his parents, keep his word, rescue one kind of people, defy another kind, ‘parcere subjectis et debellare,’ etc. Then, having assumed this centre of sanity, the writer entertains himself by fancying what would happen if the whole world went mad all round it, if the sun turned green and the moon blue, if horses had six legs and giants had two heads.

He’s talking about the hero having basic morals. Sure, we know the hero is a sinner, but we want to root for a Good Guy, and we expect the hero in a fantasy story to be a Good Guy. Or at least be some kind of anti-hero, where he’s dark and broody, but still does the right thing in the end.
 
Talking about sharing Hope, well, if we’re in the shoes of a Good Hero who has to confront evil and monsters, and overcomes them by sticking to his moral code, doesn’t that convey the hope that Good will win in the end? Very often in our corrupt world, Good doesn’t seem to ultimately triumph. That’s why we need stories with happy endings. To convey the hope and comfort that there is Justice and Good beyond this world, and someday everything will be put right.
 
Sure, we know the hero is a sinner. He won’t always follow his moral code. He’ll break it sometimes. But that’s what keeps us reading. We all fall in the mud, and we want to see the Hero get up and keep going, with the aid of Grace or magic or however else the story is set up.
 
Starting with a sick and screaming hero and introducing a sick and screaming world–well, you wind up with Thomas Covenant.

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