Why this book?
This selection of a dozen books intends to hold up to the light what I see to be a penetrating philosophy of fantasy. These books show what fantasy does for us, why it is good for our souls. First, though, let’s take a moment to think about stories in general.
Stories do a couple of things. One ancient power that stories hold is that they organize important thoughts into a form we think the others in our tribe will pay attention to. Stories organize these images and happenings into a special shape, a story. This is a form that make us sit up and pay attention and remember the gist of the narrative. A story has a structure (most simply, a beginning, middle, and end) and a set of techniques (like the cue, “Once upon a time,” or rhetorical questions, like asking “And what do you think he saw in the back of the cave?” or the use of repetition, as in the three goat/troll encounters of “Billy Goats Gruff”).
And stories are meant to be a pleasurable way to pass the time whenever two or more people get together. To be good, a story needs to entertain. As E. M. Forster pointed out in Aspects of the Novel (1927), imagining the roots of story, if the teller faltered and the story became boring, one of the cavemen around the campfire would get annoyed and bash the teller on the head with his club. (As Stanley Kubrick elaborated in an interview, there are actually three things that might happen to a caveman telling a story to his friends: “They either fell asleep, threw a rock at him, or listened.”) While the rock-throwing option has become mostly a virtual one, that list touches on key elements of stories: we hope that they offer thoughts we want to share, keep the interest of others, and elicit some agreement.
Some stories, of course, that we tell are about real things that actually happened to us or occur in the world. We call those stories nonfiction. Then, there are all the fictional stories. The best of these stories stick with us a long, long time, even if they slip in with a Once Upon a Time beginning, signaling to us from the first phrase that they did not really happen.
A lot of popular fiction does try to worm its way into our minds with a certain plausibility. Many tales of romance or mystery or general fiction about families or friends or jobs or trips or other events rely on a sense of realism, a verisimilitude. There is also a branch of speculative fiction called science fiction, which also rides a horse of plausibility, telling stories not yet true but that we suspect could happen down the temporal way, stories about science and society. Significantly, an amazing number of older science-fiction stories about submarines or trips to the moon or voyages inside a biological human heart or gene manipulation or robots have actually come to pass or at come closer to reality.
In the broad sweep of made-up stories, though, the tales of fantasy are different. They represent a realm of stories that could never, ever happen. This is sad indeed for those who would like to live in a place like Narnia or Middle Earth or Hogwarts.
Fantasy is different from other types of fiction. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and “wonderful” here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off a small type of adventure fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries, where you mostly find books with sword-wielding barbarians, bushy-eyebrowed wizards wearing star-studded gowns, Arthurian knights galloping across medieval countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps a scaly dragon sailing overhead, perhaps a warty, axe-wielding ogre lurking in the shrubbery.
But fantasy is far more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, philosophical look at matters such as good and evil. While the forms of fantasy may vary from classical tales to magical realism to dark fantasy, they all share this basic questioning, and they do it in a way that reaches inside to a spiritual core. Think, for example, of the emotional, mythical heart of stories like “Beauty and the Beast,” or “Hansel and Gretel,” and you are on the right track. Such stories are different than romances or mysteries or adventure tales, although they may contain those elements also. Fantasy’s purpose is most often to seek and touch on some question of spiritually significant values. These stories often ask us to think about the nature of the desirable elements of Good and how to deal with Bad.
Certainly other forms of fiction also address some aspects of right and wrong. Mysteries and romances also take some stance on what is good and bad behavior. But fantasy takes these matters to a deeper place, reaching to a mythic, creative core deep inside us.
Someone said that the difficult thing about fiction is that it has to make sense. Fantasy makes sense, but it doesn’t show us reality. It shows us an inner truth, without any need to be any more real than an occasionally invisible hobbit with hairy toes. Instead, what happens to those hobbits tells us something important about our values. “I will take the Ring,” Frodo said, “though I do not know the way.” And he does his best, ever-plucky, until at the end of that tale, he admits:
“I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
At their core, fantasy stories are about what we believe about some matter of spiritual beliefs; they tackle core issues of good and evil, and how we should deal with it all. Of course, that might be a light-hearted version of it, as experienced by, say, Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, where the evil is just a mild case of boredom or a problem with a honey pot. In all cases, the authors of fantasy have picked this approach to fiction because it allows them to create rich expressions of values that could not be expressed in a more realistic style.
This is a very special approach to fiction. These are stories about a range of philosophical ideas and spiritual values quite central to us as humans. This is of course also why some of the classic works in notable cases were written by philosophers and religious thinkers, such as G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis. Other famous fantasy stories, from Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie to The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka to A Christmas Carol by Dickens form a set of literary works rooted deeply in philosophical and spiritual matters.
A story like Peter Pan, or The Boy Who wouldn’t Grow Up, for instance, is emblematic of a deep question about childhood and how we change as we grow older. Fantasy can create imaginative characters or places of images or magical events that represent and speak to those deep questions, as Peter Pan can act out a story of childhood personified, and fly to a place called Never Never Land where delights and fears of childhood are played out.
The easiest way to look more fully at this thing that fantasy does is by example. Consider the dozen works of fantasy gathered here. The dozen stories we’ll look at here show how the best of fantasy is typically and intentionally focused on considering our inner values, using highly creative ways to bring these issues to our attention. It would be hard. I believe, to find a similar set of deeply influential books in other branches of fiction. These twelve fantasy books touch deeply on spiritual, thoughtful questions of good and evil, right and wrong, and other invisible values important to us.
This is the core of fantasy. It is what fantasy does.
[from the introduction to:]