Friday, August 11, 2006

In Defense of Fantasy

Modern fantasy is the step-child of the literary world. It gets no respect, even less love. Aside from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fantasy gets less acclaim than teen chick lit. This is because the literati view fantasy as nothing more than escapist entertainment, the literary equivalent of a trashy TV show.

Fantasy stories are a modern version of the ancient fairy tale and they function in much the same way. They instruct us in the nature of the world and how to live in it. As such, they are subject to many of the same misconceptions that plague fairy tales. One such misconception is that fairy tales and fantasy stories are for children. Don’t be fooled by the dragons, magic, and elves – fairy tales and fantasy stories are stories about life that use the unfamiliar to comment on the familiar.

J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings was adamant that adults have a greater need for fairy tales than do children. C. S. Lewis whose Chronicles of Narnia stories were more suited for children than were Tolkien’s writings nevertheless shared Tolkien’s view of the function of fairy tales for adults. One of Lewis’ essays even bears the provocative title “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said.”

And yet the belief that fantasy is not real grown up literature persists. Not long ago, Stephen King, in his column he writes for Entertainment Weekly chastised a literary reviewer for referring to a book as “Harry Potter for adults.” King insisted instead that “Harry Potter is Harry Potter for adults.”

C. S. Lewis was a man for whom fairy tales and fantasy was a guide all his life. We see a glimpse of Lewis’ view of fairy tales in the character of Eustace. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace is a boy devoid of imagination. He finds himself magically transported to the world of Narnia but doesn’t know how to live in that world. At several points throughout the narrative, when Eustace reveals his inability to live appropriately in this world, Lewis adds the comment that it is because Eustace has not read the right kind of books. By that, Lewis means books with dragons, magic and elves – fantasy books.

In several posts, I’ve mentioned an excellent biography of Lewis that I read recently: “The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis” (a link to the book can be found to the right). Towards the end of the book, the author, Alan Jacobs, includes a wonderful anecdote. Lewis is in the hospital following a heart attack. It is very near the end of his life. His condition causes him to suffer bouts of delirium. He is visited by an old friend, Maureen Blake, a music teacher who previously had found out that a very distant relative, Baron Dunbar of Hempriggs, had died and the subsequent investigation surprisingly determined her to be the heir. Here is Jacobs account of the meeting between Blake and Lewis.

"When she arrived at the hospital she was told that Lewis had not recognized any of his visitors that day. She entered quietly, clasped his hand, and said, 'Jack, its Maureen.' 'No,' he replied . . . 'It’s Lady Dunbar of Hempriggs.' Maureen was stunned: 'Oh Jack, how could you remember that?' 'On the contrary,' he murmured. 'How could I forget a fairy-tale?'”


At 5:23 PM, Blogger Karen said...

I read fairy tales to my children, and enjoy fantasy fiction. Why not? Here's an article about why fairy tales are important for children:

I still enjoy them. There is something soothing about being immersed in the strong archetypes and images presented in these stories, and I find that the best fantasy is based on these same themes. Bravo.


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