Modern Fantasy: The Heir to Apocalyptic
I’ve reached day 25 in my ongoing quest to recover from knee surgery and am told I can look forward to at least 3 more weeks of crutches and knee braces. It’s not been all bad. There are worse things than lying on a couch for three and a half weeks, waited on hand and foot while viewing countless episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Gilmore Girls -- there’s a combination that will give you mental whiplash. I know it’s gone too far when I find myself rooting for Lorelai Gilmore to just pull out her blaster pistol and blow Emily out of the hatch or wondering why Captain Adama and the Cylons can’t just talk out their feelings.
After all this, it’s no wonder my thoughts have turned apocalyptic. While writing my previous post in defense of fantasy, I decided such a defense was not complete without a nod towards apocalyptic. Scholars often note that one of the reasons ancient apocalyptic writings like the book of Revelation, Daniel, 1 Enoch, etc. are so difficult for us to understand is because we don’t write apocalypses anymore. It is a literary genre lost to us.
I suggest that is only partly true. The specific literary genre of an apocalypse has died out, but not without leaving an heir. I contend that the modern fantasy novel is a descendant of apocalyptic – they share a similar DNA. The stark dualism of good and evil, the thin veil between material and spiritual (or magical) reality, and the preference of communicating through symbols such as dragons and other mythical-type creatures inhabit the blood of each genre.
Andrew Greeley in his book God in Popular Culture recounts the major themes that can be found in many examples of modern fantasy and concludes by questioning how anyone can read works of modern fantasy and not see them as religious and theological novels.
Some scholars see the book of Revelation as having an escapist function not unlike that often attributed to modern fantasy novels. They say that those who read Revelation escape this harsh world by retreating into the imaginary world created by Revelation. There they gain a strength from that world that allows them to return to the real world and better deal with their problems.
In my doctoral dissertation, I argued for a slightly different approach, that is that the function of apocalyptic language is transformative. In other words, Revelation does not counsel a retreat from the real world into an imaginative one as much as it suggests that the symbolic world it creates is in a sense the real world. It attempts to transform our understanding of the world by getting us to interpret and experience it in a different way. One example: in a context where people experience the world as a place of suffering, injustice and evil, Revelation provides a vision of God seated on a heavenly throne – the message is that God is in control of this world even when your five senses tell you otherwise.
I suggest modern fantasy has a related function, though it plays out in a somewhat different way. The apocalyptic language of a book like Revelation argues that we have misinterpreted reality, that in fact the world IS different than we think it is. The apocalyptic language of modern fantasy suggests, I think, that the world CAN BE different than it is. By holding up the triumph of good over evil, the power of the spiritual world, and the quest for redemption and moral refinement, these works suggest that we can all be the heroes of our own story. We read The Lord of the Rings and feel that, just like Frodo, perhaps we too have the determination and moral focus to defeat the Lord of Mordor. In essence, modern fantasy is the language of hope.