For some authors, fantasy is a good way to introduce a type of creative questioning, a way to shake up, or sneak by, conventional perception. C.S. Lewis noted that “the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say.” By writing fantasy stories, he suspected that he “could steal past certain inhibitions which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood.”

But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?

Ursula Le Guin wrote that some adults are uneasy with fantasy’s inconvenient tendency to reveal truths – to tell stories in which emperors have no clothes.

For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know that too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.

. . . Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.
– “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1992)

Some have challenged fantasy stories as frivolous, seductive, or just, in many cases, non-Christian. A spotty outbreak of religious opposition to the popular Harry Potter books was based on a belief that the fantastic allure of Hogwarts, the magical school, would tempt young gullible readers into a taste for witchcraft. This did not prove to be the case.

But what are we to make of the popularity of dark fantasy, the profusion of vampires and zombies and witches? Isn’t this clearly a type of fantasy that should be opposed?

Some adults worry that children will be scared by dark fantasy. As one mother posted on a blog in response to a question about spooky stories: “I’m not happy with spooky stories that instill fear in children. . . . Concentrating on stories that have a feel-good factor and are full of fun in my opinion are the best for children of all ages.”

But as Irish author John Connolly wrote in an online interview in The Independent (Children’s Book Blog by Rebecca Davies) about his series, Samuel Johnson v. The Devil, about a boy who discovers that his next-door neighbors are trying to open the gates of Hell, in response to a question, “Do you think it’s healthy for children to be scared by what they read every now and then?”:

I think it’s wonderful. Obviously, we don’t want to traumatize young people, but to have a scare followed by a laugh is great fun. On a more serious note, though, we as adults sometimes forget that horror fiction is a very useful way for younger readers to begin to negotiate the darkness and complexity of the adult world. It allows them to put form – vampires, demons – to formless terrors, and give names – ghost, werewolf – to the unnameable.

. . . It’s not flirting with the occult, despite what the odd religious lunatic may think. Kids are much brighter and more sensitive than adults give them credit for when it comes to understanding fiction.

Dark fantasy stories are essentially morality plays, confronting those fears or exploring the results of misguided action and trying to figure out what can be done to put the ghost to rest or get the vampire back in the coffin (or looking at what happens if we don’t).

The ultimate subversion of fantasy is that it encourages a creative, probing questioning. A few years ago, for instance, some readers were offended by Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials. Pullman’s trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) is critical of a corrupt church, called the Magisterium, a malevolent organization in Pullman’s series:

“For all its history,” [a friendly witch tells young protagonists Lyra and Will] “it [the Magisterium] has tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. . . . That’s what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”
– from The Subtle Knife

Indeed, Philip Pullman admits that he is an atheist. He was outspokenly critical of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories for their Christian-connected themes; Pullman felt that the stories were insidiously subversive in a way he disliked. So he wrote his alternative stories, a fantasy trilogy based on the open-ended question of Paradise Lost – the fall from grace, the loss of innocence, a paradise denied.

At the end, he offered no ready solution provided by religion. Instead, at the close of The Amber Spyglass, the young teen Lyra suggests that we need to rely on individuals to try to do the right thing:

“We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard . . .”

It’s not a bad message, but it could be seen as undermining the promise that we will be saved by organized religion. How dangerous are stories, if read by young readers (or adults, for that matter)? Pullman himself has said:

 “All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by.”

Do stories question authority? How often, for instance, do books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales.

As Madeleine L’Engle, a Christian and author of many fantasy novels for children, wrote in The Summer of the Great-Grandmother:

It’s a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.

Writer Robert Mittelstaedt noted about German author Michael Ende’s fantasy stories:

Fantasy, the free flow of associations is a method for dissolving conditioned thinking patterns, prejudices, and to investigate new ways of thinking. Conditioned thinking patterns give security but they can also be shackles to see things as they ought to be and not as they really are. Fantasy dissolves hardened patterns of thinking and perception but it also threatens the sense of security.

The key to opening the mind is to be able to imagine something else, to ask “what if.” But “what if” does not answer questions. It simply creates a portal, an opening to build the structure of a story on top of those questions.

When I read the Narnia books, for instance, I didn’t automatically swallow it hook, line, and sinker. Instead, I recall liking some of the characters more than others, and some of the stories better than others. I liked the friendly, soup-serving Mr. and Mrs. Beaver a lot more, I recall, than I cared for Aslan, who always seemed a bit pushy and heavy-handed, if intriguing.

Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are told. Children are constantly looking for signs that reveal what is true or false, right or wrong. Fantasy stories raise the question of Truth. But they don’t create it, and readers know that, because the worlds of fantasy are so clearly invented. Even more so than all the other branches of fiction, they are impossible worlds.

Still, they are powerful images. With the fresh eyes of fantasy, we learn to check twice to see if the Emperor is indeed wearing fine new clothes . . . especially if we’ve been told that he does by those with a vested interest in getting us to believe what they say.

Image from Alice in WonderlandClearly, there is much in fantasy that challenges the norm. In these stories, those in power are seldom in the right, at least not by virtue of their lofty position. The true salvation of the kingdom comes as often in a fantasy tale from the insignificant scullery-maid or the assistant pig-keeper as from the great king on the high throne.

The solution, in a fantasy book, often comes from the smallest one who asks the biggest questions.

[excerpted & slightly condensed from The Purpose of Fantasy, by Philip Martin, Crispin Books, Dec. 2014. Available in paperback or Kindle editions.]