The Cultural Value of Fantasy
Thank the Lord of the Rings films for it. Or thank the Harry Potter books, if you feel so inclined. Whatever reason behind its rise, fantasy is going mainstream for the first time. No longer is it relegated to the realm of geekiness; no longer are fantasy novels only for those needing a break between playing computer games, reading Greek mythology, or smoking pot. Nowadays, a fantasy novel is just as acceptable in the hands of a forty-something working mom as in those of a computer nerd. Let’s face it: like never before in our culture, fantasy is cool.
For those of us who loved The Lord of the Rings for years before the films came out, who’ve been reading fantasy since we could read at all, the cultural obsession can seem slightly annoying. Duh, fantasy is great. We knew it from the beginning, after all. But as Christians, we should be pleased that fantasy — in the form of books and movies both — is becoming popular in our cultural environment. Why? What cultural value does fantasy have? What positive purpose can it serve?
Fantasy can be a powerful and well-balanced didactic tool. It’s a simple fact — for whatever reason, the general populace will accept positive content in fantasy books and films that it won’t accept in other fiction. In our modern cultural and political climate, what film could possibly include (at a very climactic and pivotal point) the line, “Stand together, men of the west!” — and win eleven Oscars for its trouble? Return of the King did, just last year. Critics howled when The Passion of the Christ showed extreme self-sacrifice up-close-and-personal. But it didn’t seem to bother them when Frodo and Sam both sacrificed their all to save their fellows . . . rather, they felt stirred by the image. Of course, the critics probably didn’t even realize that Frodo and Sam’s sacrifice was inspired by the one Mel Gibson showed the world in his film. But that doesn’t change the fact that they — and millions of people around the globe — were exposed to true Christian values and themes through the Lord of the Rings films . . . themes they would very likely have rejected had they been portrayed through another type of story.
There’s just something about fantasy that makes people let their guard down. Whether it’s the adventure, the imagination, the novelty, or just the fun of exploring a new world, people who are in general hostile toward Christianity are willing to accept its principles in fantasy literature and film. And they like it. The biggest movie of 2002, Spider-Man, preaches strong family values, responsibility, and self-sacrifice, completely contrary to the usual film fare of “me first” and completely in line with Christian virtue. Signs, the sixth most popular film of the same year, included strong themes of Providence. (Notably, films two, three, and four of the same year were also fantasy films: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Talk about fantasy becoming culturally acceptable.) Would crowds have liked these movies so much if they hadn’t had that fantastic element? Would they have been willing to say “cool” and swallow the message along with the glittery surface? I can hardly imagine so. Lord of the Rings is, of course, the most strongly Christian film mentioned here, yet one could hardly fail to be moved by its portrayals of courage, self-sacrifice, and good and evil. Even people who don’t believe that good and evil exist are easily drawn in. It seems that the story stimulates something deep within their very being . . . some foundational awareness that right and wrong are real, and which one you choose really matters.
Of course, not all fantasy literature contains the same strong Christian foundation and inspiration that Tolkien’s work does. And, of course, some of the fantasy out there takes its didactic purpose too far, becoming overbearing in its message in the sadly typical Christian preachy-lit style. But the simple fact that audiences are willing to accept Christian themes and messages (when tastefully portrayed) in fantasy stories much more easily than in non-fantastic settings should encourage Christians to get busy and start producing quality literature and film that will get their message out there. The fantasy surface opens a door and makes much possible.
Even more basic than preaching morality in a tasteful and acceptable manner, though, fantasy literature pulls strings deep in the hearts of its readers. It awakens in them a profound desire for something beyond their own mundane reality, something deeply true and infinitely important. This is, I think, at least part of why fantasy is so popular in our society today. In a world of political sniping, weapons of mass destruction, and the disintegration of family life, people long for a world in which good and evil are clearly delineated and true heroes rise above the crowd. Even more, they long for something less specific, something they cannot place, yet find at least echoed in fantasy literature. Anyone reading this essay very likely knows exactly what I’m talking about . . . it’s why we love fantasy so much. C. S. Lewis discussed this desire for something other than our own reality and the role of ‘myth’ or certain types of fantasy in awakening it; he said that it is in actuality a desire for heaven and that its very existence is an argument for the existence of heaven.
According to Lewis, no desire is without fulfillment: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” In awakening this desire of which Lewis writes here, fantasy literature has the potential to point its readers toward that desire’s only true fulfillment — the spiritual reality of the Christian God and the proper end of man. It can help seekers find the key. This, then, is perhaps the greatest value in fantasy literature. Not all fantasy points people to the truth; in fact, some may lead them away from it. But the genre itself attracts people precisely because it awakens their desire for Truth. If only more fantasy would actually give it to them!