One popular television show, entering its third season in 2013, is Once Upon a Time. Its episodes feature many of the familiar fairy tale characters we’ve grown up with. Chock-full of lots of magic and romance, deception and adventure, the show’s popularity proves that the genre of fantasy still captures the imaginations of young and old alike.
The Christian world sometimes (or perhaps often) frowns upon fantasy literature. Shouldn’t we just stay in the world that we see before us? Why do we have to delve into the contrived worlds of someone’s mind? Why elevate and even celebrate magical, mythical creatures–and magic itself? Why present evil in any form in literature or entertainment media?
Fantasy literature has thrived from earliest times, in works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Those stories, as much of fantasy literature, sport mythical creatures and magical beings. A fantasy is told even in the Bible. In Judges 9, Jotham tells a fantastical story of trees that ask other trees to be their king (Judges 9:8-15). Just like the story in the Bible, these tales prove useful in telling a greater truth, or in helping us mere mortals to think through the mysteries of life.
We are storytellers. We love to listen to other people’s stories. We grow up reading fantastical tales–they fuel our imagination and satisfy our desire for adventure. Fantasy, in particular, speaks to our dreams and deepest desires. We cheer for the hero, and we thrill to see the evil Queen vanquished. Fantasy literature contains many universal elements. Not all will have every one of these features, but the universality of these themes points to a deeper message in the stories themselves that Christian readers can appreciate.
Fantasy Literature uses magic. CS Lewis introduces magic in his Narnia series when we first see Uncle Andrew’s magical rings in The Magician’s Nephew. Those rings transport Digory and Polly into other magical worlds, including one called Narnia, where a lion is singing the world into existence. Some of fantasy literature doesn’t necessarily contain magic, but perhaps characters have super-human powers and abilities. Magic might not be used for evil purposes; magic or magical powers might rescue someone, remedy a situation, or change overcome evil with good.
Is the use of magic wrong? Of course, as the Bible explicitly tells us. However, we are talking about fantasy literature. It is not real, and we understand that from the outset (the talking mice, walking trees or wise mirror might give us the first clue). It is not meant to be taken as real. Grownups can tell the difference between what’s real and what is fantasy; very young children cannot. It is part of human development to begin to distinguish between what’s real from what is not–the concrete from the abstract. That’s why children clap their hands to revive Tinkerbell!
Just like Cinderella, there is something deep inside ourselves that longs for some magical cure to our problems. We are unhappy; we daydream our way out of our unhappiness. Cinderella gets a fairy godmother–someone supernatural–the “hero” who wipes away all her woes. Don’t we long for a time and a place where every tear will be dried? Don’t we ache for someone who will one day bring us a new heaven and a new earth? (Revelation 21:1-2) This does not equate magic to God’s kingdom and to our Savior. Rather, it points out the longing in our hearts for that ultimate act, that eventual and long-awaited triumph, whether or not we know it as such.
Fantasy Literature contains a hero. Fairy tales and other fantasy legends are rich with the depiction of the hero or heroine. As in Sleeping Beauty, the hero is the one who rides in on the beautiful horse and saves the day. Or the unlikely small hobbit who risks everything to carry the ring to the fires of Mount Doom (or, as some may argue, the faithful Sam who carries Frodo part of the last leg of their journey and vows to never leave him).
The archetype of the hero makes for fascinating study. He may or may not be perfect, yet he uses his skills and his passions to rescue the one who needs saving. Despite the odds, he ventures on a quest to find his foe in order to fight him, and he usually finds out important things about himself while on his long quest.
Joseph Campbell authored what is considered to be the seminal work on the archetype of the hero in world literature, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lucas credits Campbell’s work as one inspiration for his epic Star Wars heroes. In an often-quoted passage, Campbell says, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Again, the archetype of the hero–the one who rescues, who rises above other mere mortals, who restores hope or makes everything better–speaks loudly of the yearning of mankind. That desire, buried deep in our hearts, is our longing for a savior. Heroes universally resonate with us because we have this built-in hunger for a savior who will rescue us from the evil around us, who will make everything whole again. And that universal longing was planted in our hearts, and promised to us, as long ago as Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15).
Fantasy Literature contains mythical/magical creatures. Some of them talk, like Aslan the lion or Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Some display magical powers, like the genie in Aladdin’s tale. Some are purely other-worldly, like unicorns, wraiths, elves, or chimeras. These spring out of the imagination of the writer or rely on old myths to tell new stories. The genie, for example, is another version of the Djinn, or Jinn, which are referred to in the Qur’an as spirit beings. Of course, we know the genie from the bottle in the Aladdin story, and even CS Lewis refers to Jinns in his Narnia series while describing the origin of the evil witch from Charn, who turns out to be the White Queen.
Christian readers might ask, does the existence of mythical, magical creatures make the story evil, to be avoided? Again, the answer remains the same for all of fantasy literature. The make-believe world springs from the author’s imagination, which knows no bounds, and speaks of the creativity of the human mind. That there are mythical, magical creatures does not mean the story is evil. Their existence simply points out that this is fantasy, meant to entertain and perhaps inspire. And these creatures undoubtedly play a role in that story. They may frighten us, or they might foil the hero’s quest, or they might simply be entertaining for a brief moment in the story.
Fantasy Literature pits good against evil. Jeff Baldwin, in his essay “Twelve Trademarks of Literature,” says about this battle of good versus evil, “the dogma is the drama.” Since the beginning of time our stories have been filled with this epic battle. We want good to triumph over evil. We struggle with the downtrodden good guy who is beset with problems stemming from the evil that dogs him. We need to replay that epic struggle again and again. We cheer for those good guys who win, and we get a thrill when evil is finally defeated.
Why is the battle of good versus evil so universal? It is in our nature to want good to triumph, just as we want the hero to rescue the fair maiden or the vengeful bad guy to be beaten. We cheer when Gaston is defeated so that the Beast can turn into the prince we all know him to be, and so that he can marry Belle and be happy ever after.
More than just a happy ending, we are gratified by the struggle, that long fight, that rise and fall of every good story. In watching and reading those stories, we work out our own struggle of good versus evil. We can identify with that drama–that fight to overcome the evil power. If the story is not told well, we probably will not have enjoyed the ending. We are aware of our own nature that does evil, and that often distresses us (some of us less than others). So we like to see evil vanquished and for good to come out on top, because we want that to happen in our own lives (see Romans 7). The working-out of this epic struggle reminds us of the worthiness of good and the perversion of evil.
Yes, many evil stories spring from man’s mind and should be avoided, so I caution parents–and adults in general–to beware of stories that glorify evil and perversion, that take long periods of time to dwell on the macabre. We should not dwell on those stories; we are cautioned to run away from evil (Proverbs 2:9-15). Similarly, stories with a message that leads the reader to conclude that the evil in the story is actually good–those too are a perversion of the “dogma is the drama” theme. Run in the other direction!
The universality of themes found in fantasy literature, including fairy tales and epics from long past even up to today, is a reason to celebrate. It teaches us that in our hearts we long for the triumph of good over evil. It shows us that deep down we have a similar longing: we ache for a savior, that hero who will defeat death and rescue us from this world of sin and shame. Stamped upon our hearts is the universal, moral tale we all long to see resolved, even if some of us don’t realize it.
Some well-told fantasy tales (not in order of importance):
- One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (including the Aladdin story)
- The Epic of Gilgamesh
- Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales
- Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (which I always found a little creepy)
- Grimm’s fairy tales
- Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey
- Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book
- CS Lewis’ Narnia series
- George MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin
- Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur
- Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind series
- JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series
- Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy
- Spencer’s The Fairie Queen
- Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Legend series
- JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy