Every believer who reads fantasy has heard these, and other, objections. Some of them have been ably handled by others on this blog. Yet you know something deep stirs in you when you read about dragons and fairies and other worlds where battles are fought and wrongs are righted. Maybe, though you’re not sure how to explain your reading choices when presented with these statements.
Perhaps that “something deep” is a response to fantasy’s ability to tell a story that can be our own—a story that reflects serious theology, beliefs, and values in its pages.
What is the purpose of reading (and writing) fantasy? Here are at least four.
To combat unbelief and cynicism
One hallmark of the Millennial generation is cynicism. (I’m not labeling—they freely admit to this.) Constantly courted by ads and pollsters, this generation is wary of being marketed to, and distrust is their default. This has its good and bad points.
Author Terry Pratchett explains:
For most of the latter part of the 20th century, writers have responded to a sense of alienation and existential angst by focusing on the grim, the grungy and the grotesque. It should come as no surprise then, that heroic fantasy fiction has had a slow, inexorable rise in both popularity and critical recognition.
Fantasy, with its emphasis on heroes and battles for good, enters that cynical atmosphere with a new conversation. Maybe, there is such a thing as a hero who isn’t self-serving. Maybe there is, as Sam argues, good in this world worth fighting for. For a Christian reader, this is an antidote to cynicism as it calls us back to a theology of real right and wrong and sacrificial action. Fantasy can bring Christian beliefs into the secular discussion more effectively than any Christian living book because it’s a common language with those who don’t believe.
Even a lowly Hobbit can change the course of the world by destroying the Ring. That is the appeal of the tolkienesque fantasy. In our modern world where politicians prove corrupt, large corporations rip off consumers and terrorists kill ordinary people going about their daily lives, the traditional quest fantasy provides an antidote to cynicism. (Rowena Cory Daniells)
To bring hope
Fantasy is hardly escapist, when you think about it. Awful stuff happens. Hundreds die on Pelennor Fields. Hermione must choose to lose her parents forever. Thorin and both his heirs die.
But in the end, life goes on. The hero wins. Though what has happened won’t be forgotten, there is a sense that it was not for nothing—good did triumph. Life will be better.
Kate Forsyth tells us,
Fantasy does not deny or diminish the existence of sorrow and pain, as so many people seem to think. The possibility of failure is absolutely necessary for the ‘piercing sense of joy’ one feels when victory is finally and with difficulty won. Fairy-tales all offer the hope that a happy ending is possible—and we need to believe this. Fantasy denies ultimate despair. It holds out the hope for a better world and signposts the way.
The reader who gives up on hope gives up on faith. (“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” Hebrews 11.1) The reader of faith understands that the offer of hope in fantasy does indeed signpost the way to a larger discussion of hope and its real-ness. Is there a selfless hero in this world who powerfully proves that, even while awful stuff like Ebola and ISIS and hunger and human trafficking happen, a better world is possible? Yes—the One who defeated death and gave us the keys to drive his kingdom forward in our frightening world.
To give us weapons for our own battles
Life is tough—but then we see the intelligence of Bilbo, the quickness of Pippin (who has ADHD all over him), the courage of tiny Merry, the loyalty of Sam, the calm wisdom of Hermione, the persistence of Harry. With that sight? We realize that those are tools accessible to us. Every day.
It’s easy to say that we don’t fight epic battles, but it is also untrue. We fight the most epic of all—the one against the powers of darkness. When we see the unlikeliest of heroes prevail, we are more apt to trust in the words of Paul (1 Corinthians 1.27) that God “chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” Fantasy heroes, flawed but willing, can help bolster our own willingness and faith for challenge.
To show the world as it was/is meant to be
Tolkien famously defended fantasy by saying that there is nothing wrong with a prisoner who wishes to escape his prison. By that argument, this fallen world is our prison, and looking elsewhere for a portrait of what our world was meant to be is the most normal, sane thing one can do.
I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’ (good destruction): the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. It produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole (chained) nature feels a sudden relief as if a limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. (J.R.R. Tolkien)
Against all odds, good, love, and peace win. The underdog triumphs. Is this escape? Or is it the Kingdom as God created it and as Jesus came to return to us? Good fantasy brings us back to the Garden and invites us to participate in the renewal of what was always meant to be.
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Jill’s love for hobbits and elves comes from her time as a literature teacher and as a lifelong reader of great stories. She also loves an epic challenge and a chance for grace wherever they exist. Jill is Pastor of Discipleship at Resolution Church in Illinois. She is the author of the young adult devotional Hobbits, You, and the Spiritual World.