Is fantasy “weird” and therefore a type of story only to be enjoyed by a niche group of readers? I, and others here at Spec Faith, have adamantly and repeatedly said no. (Most recently I did so in “Is Christian Speculative Fiction Weird?” at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.)
From time to time, I’ve justified my beliefs by pointing to the wide popularity of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories and, to a greater extent, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories. How can we explain “non-fantasy” readers reading and loving these books? How can we explain their continued popularity more than fifty years after publication?
I think Professor Michael D.C. Drout, an instructor at Wheaton College, identifies what Tolkien accomplished and few others have duplicated:
Although he did not know it at the time, Tolkien’s famous first line [in The Hobbit], “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” began the development of the key concept that would cause the success of The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien had created a character who could mediate between the medieval stories he loved so much and the world of his twentieth-century, middle-class readers. (excerpt from EXPLORING FANTASY LITERATURE: Course Guide)
According to Dr. Drout, Tolkien, and I would argue Lewis, created a bridge for contemporary readers to step into the realm of the fantastic. These writers tied their magical, mystical worlds to the world readers knew and recognized.
Interestingly, they did so in vastly different ways. Lewis used the now familiar device of a portal from the known world into the magical world. Characters living in familiar settings and circumstances were transported to a land where animals talked and mythical beings existed,
Tolkien on the other hand, created a character who was so believably and recognizably a middle class westerner, that readers related, though he lived Elsewhere, and was himself unique. The genius of Tolkien was that Bilbo (and later Frodo and the other hobbits) was different from us in ways that reminded us of … us.
He lived in his comfy hole in the ground, in the Shire tucked away from the rest of the world. How easy, then, for him to involve himself with his own cares and ignore the dangers of the greater world. He also loved his ease. His excesses were no more than others of his kind–six meals and a good pipe. But they were of paramount concern to him and to forgo enjoying them required great sacrifice from his perspective.
Hobbits, then, especially those in the lead roles, were easy to underestimate because they were so ordinary–like so many readers who would like to believe they might rise to the occasion if the need occurred, but would much rather continue in as much comfort and self-concern as possible.
Regardless of the method, the result of Lewis and Tolkien’s mediation was to usher readers from one world to the other, as if they, too, were entering into the mystical and magical.
Why haven’t successive fantasies, which apparently attempt the same mediation between the now and the imagined, found the same acceptance by readers? I suggest two main reasons.
First, many of the later fantasy worlds feel warmed over. They are by now as familiar as the contemporary world, and entering them holds no surprises.
In converse, I think some writers try so hard to create a world that is wholly other, they abandon the attempt to mediate between the imagined world and the one in which their readers live. In other words, these writers are leaving their readers behind.
In some cases, if the reader is brave enough or trusting enough, he might forge ahead and discover a world as rich and enticing as Narnia or Middle Earth. But will large numbers of readers take that leap of faith? I don’t think so. Thus, a niche is born.
If fantasy is to engage the public at large, I believe writers need to discover ways to mediate between the real and the imagined. But isn’t that similar to what the Christian should be doing as part of his witness–to shine the light on truths about this world and that of the hereafter?
The presentation of an eternal future with God, as truthful as it is, is hard for a starving man to grasp or to care about. Believers, then, must show our culture that God is not far off or interested only in someday. We must show that He bridged the gap.
Christ Himself, of course, is the perfect Mediator, between God and Man. His incarnation is the perfect example of ushering mankind–readers, if you will–into the transcendent world. He did so by modeling both Tolkien and Lewis’s methods. In a reverse of the typical portal story, He arrived from Heaven into this world, but He did so as a perfectly relatable Person, much like Tolkien’s characters.
In conclusion, we fantasy writers today need to discover how to mediate between our unique mystical, magical worlds and twenty-first century readers. Can we adapt Tolkien’s method or Lewis’s? Of course. In doing so we are simply following Christ’s true-to-life model. But here’s the key: the more successful we are, the less weird our stories will seem.
Who are other writers that you believe have successfully mediated between readers and their imagined world? How did they pull it off? Have they broken out of the niche of “weird” as a result?