In a fascinating, slim volume, The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy, Harvey Cox, a Professor of Divinity teaching at Harvard fr0m the mid-1960s to 2009, made an eloquent prediction that it was time for festivity and fantasy to come back into a place of value (as it had been in the medieval world, before Cartesian logic and scientific method ruled for some centuries).
Cox was echoing what J.R.R. Tolkien had written earlier in a powerful essay, “On Fairy Stories” (written 1938, published 1947 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams). Tolkien called it “sub-creation” – noting how the literary invention of whole imaginary worlds, as in fairy stories, is a mirror of that God did in creating the world. Cox took up this case when he wrote:
Fantasy is the richest sources of human creativity. Theologically speaking, it is the image of the creator God in man. Like God, man in fantasy creates whole worlds ex nihilo, out of nothing.
—p. 59, Harvey Cox, in The Feast of Fools (Harvard University Press, 1969)
In the early pages of Feast, Cox lays out his case:
Though we have no annual Feast of Fools, the life affirmation and playful irreverence once incarnated in that day are bubbling up again in our times . . . rediscovering the value of two components of culture both of which were once seen in the Feast of Fools. The first is the feast or festival . . . the other important cultural component is fantasy and social criticism.
In a success and money-oriented society we need a rebirth of unapologetically unproductive festivity and expressive celebration. . . . We need a renaissance of the spirit and there are signs that it is coming.
Cox’s book is a wonderful work (from which I quoted a different, equally thought-provoking passage in A Guide to Fantasy Literature).
Surely he is pointing to a key to understanding the role of fantasy literature: to celebrate (unproductively and unapologetically!) just how creative we can be in our storytelling . . . and yet to do it in a way that makes us even more amazed at the world beyond those fantastic ones that we return to, each time, after celebrating our various feasts of fools.