Recently I read an article at Tor.com, “The World is a Weird, Dark Place — Fantasy Helps Us Make Sense of It,” by Jonathan Robb, that sparked my thinking about truth and reality in fantasy. In the article Robb praised the works of George R. R. Martin, first by giving his own history with fantasy. He was introduced at a young age to C. S. Lewis and the world of Narnia, then went on to J. R. R. Tolkien and other established fantasy writers. The thread he saw which these books all shared was their good versus evil trope.
However, as he grew older, he realized that the world around him did not fall into the neat camps of good and evil. “Good people” could let someone down and “evil people” could do heroic things.
As shades of grey entered my real world, my fantasy worlds started to suffer for it. I continued to digest authors of similar ilk to Eddings—David Gemmell, Raymond E. Feist, and Robert Jordan—those writers who adhered to the familiar rules of fantasy. In their universes there was always a dark lord, or dark army, to pit oneself against. It was pretty clear—the heroes usually just needed to attack the evil-looking creatures of the night attempting to kill the innocent villages in order to win the day.
But this no longer squared with what I was exposed to in the real world. Those identifiable attributes that marked someone as Good or Evil simply didn’t hold up. No one could live up to the title of hero—so that either meant there were no heroes, or it was far more complicated than I’d been led to believe.
Along came George R. R. Martin and his world in Game of Thrones that seemed to reflect the Tor writer’s own understanding of the world: good and evil aren’t actually cut and dried.
Fantasy has always helped me understand the world, from the metaphors it employs, to the parallels with our own world, to the thoughtful exploration of its themes—one of the most important being the struggle between good and evil. . . I’m thankful, too, to the worlds of George R.R. Martin for helping me understand the profound depths and messiness of the same concepts, and that being a hero or a villain is never that straightforward—a realization that’s surprisingly reassuring, in the end.
Writers often hear instruction that characters in fiction, even the villains, need some redeeming qualities, because reality shows us there aren’t characters of pure evil or pure good.
Even in Christian fiction, the cry seems to be for fiction that reflects reality, even when the story is supernatural or science fiction or fantasy. The reality factor is the idea that the story reflects the world as we know it in some way. And certainly what we know is something of an odd mixture of good and evil, as Jonathan Robb noted in his article. There are no Mordors run by evil-eye rulers that hold the world under its control by making war on Gondor There are no Rangers who roam the world to fight for the right and protect the hapless hobbits who are clueless of the conflict raging around them.
Or are there?
In truth, the fantasies that show the fight between good and evil are less apt to depict reality as we see it, and more apt to depict truth as we know it from Scripture—the truth of the spiritual world.
From this perspective, George R. R. Martin may be writing the reality we are familiar with, but is he neglecting the truth that defines the world? Why does this matter?
For one thing, fantasy readers—Jonathan Robb included—resonate with the truth that there is good and evil and that there is a war between these opposing factors. Young readers may not know or care that the “black and white” of the world they are seeing represents a world inside their hearts, and a war raging in the spiritual realm. They just know they “get it,” that they want to be on the side of the good, that they understand what’s at stake for the world if the evil should win.
I believe that’s no less than the eternity God has set in our hearts or as others have phrased it, the God-shaped vacuum in each of us. We are drawn to the truth, to the clear explanation that there is a good ruler, a right way, a guardian-king, and we can side with him.
But writing fantasy and supernatural that cares more about reality than truth, changes the paradigm and brings up a series of questions. Does fantasy always reflect the spiritual world? Should supernatural suspense always reflect the truth presented in the Bible? How does an emphasis on reality affect our view of the truth?
For instance I read a book this past year in which a character found a portal into hell which she entered to bring a character she didn’t think belonged there back to this world, even at the risk of being trapped there herself. Was there truth in this story? Was there even reality? Or was this simply a story about pretend people in pretend places doing pretend things?
If the latter, has that type of fiction lost a grip on both reality and on truth?
I find it interesting that in a world in which most people believe humans are good, the books (and TV programs) that have become so popular are the ones that show good people doing rotten things or evil people doing noble deeds. Instead of ascribing to the Bible’s explanation, that we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God, however, we simply excuse or dismiss or blame others for the evil that we see in all of us. We like the anti-hero because he gets the job done. We chastise the good guy for his failure—he should have stayed the course, but in the end, he let us down. Not because he’s evil. Clearly he wasn’t or we would not have believed him to be a good guy at first.
In short, the lines have become blurred between evil and good, and the public seems to like it so.
How are Christians to respond? Some people would suggest that we should stop consuming fantasy and supernatural fiction. Some say fiction is nothing but entertainment and a discussion about reality and truth has no place when talking about any type of speculative fiction. Others might conclude that Christians have an opportunity to make a statement by our viewing or reading habits and by our writing, to hold the line for truth: actual good and actual evil exist.
In the great fantasies, truth and reality merge. Perhaps today we have learned to settle for one or the other instead of looking for stories, or writing stories, that accomplish both.