Imago Dei and the Redemptive Power of Fantasy - Part 4

Sep 10, 2012

Where did the concept of fantasy originate? For that matter where did the concept of fiction come from? Ancient man had sacred texts, but they certainly did not consider them “fantasy.”

According to Gene Veith, it was the Bible that made fantasy possible in the first place. While the Greeks emphasized imitation, the Bible emphasized creation. The universe is not an imitation but a creation out of nothing.  This concept helped to provide the conceptual basis for creating stories, fiction.

Furthermore, after Christ, the early Church took a position regarding pagan mythology that further opened the way for the concept of fiction. The pagans had regarded their mythology as sacred and real. But the early church fathers insisted that the pagan myths were not historically true. Rather they were only stories. Myths are not imitations, they are creations; they are fantasy. But just because the stories were not true, did not mean that they were not still useful. As long as the stories were understood to be fiction, they could be read with delight and profit.

The Fathers also included works of mythology in their educational curriculum. Fiction as an imaginative realm, separate and distinct from the “real” world became conceptually clear. This new category of fiction was not unrelated to the external world; the relationship was thematic or symbolic. Myths and fantasies offer idealized examples that can clarify actual human experience and symbolize moral or spiritual truths. The early Christian attack on mythology opened up a space in which fantasy could develop. And Christian authors from Dante and Spenser to Lewis and Tolkien have used fantasy to teach spiritual truths.

Bruno Bettelheim discusses how important fairy tales are for creating a moral education. Because life is so bewildering to a child, Bettleheim asserts, he needs ideas on how to bring his inner house to order and on that basis be able to create order in his life. He needs a moral education which subtly conveys to him the advantage of moral behavior “not through abstract ethical concepts but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful to him.” Bettleheim continues: “A child’s moral choices are not based on right versus wrong as much as who arouses his sympathy and who his antipathy. The questions the child asks is not Do I want to be good? But Who do I want to be like?”

Again, we see this pattern in the Scriptures.

The Old Testament is full of Hero Stories. We are given heroes to emulate and villains to despise—because children are taught the attractiveness of virtue and the repulsiveness of evil not so much by abstract precepts but by rooting for virtuous heroes and being inspired by a good story to emulate their behavior. It is not the fact that virtue wins but that the child finds the hero attractive and identifies with the hero in all his struggles. Good fantasy does more than simply teach virtue.  Moderns deny the existence of any kind of transcendence, but more than that, they can’t even imagine it. Good fantasy can open us up to the transcendent.

CS Lewis experienced this reality when reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes before he was converted.  “I did not know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness…. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.” 

Lewis was an intellectual, but he was not persuaded to Christianity by reason and logic. It was his imagination that opened the door.

Furthermore, reading good fantasy saved Lewis from the dangers of dark fantasy. He continues about reading Phantastes: “I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist deep in Romanticism, and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and that of perversity.” There was an invigorating joy, innocence, and even a kind of new romanticism in MacDonald’s myth that had the unmistakable ring of truth. Lewis says, “I would have been shocked in my teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness.”

While Bettelheim argues that fairy stories are an essential part of a moral education, Doug Wilson argues that fairy stories are a fundamental part of a Christian education. Wilson devotes a whole chapter to fairy stories in his book Future Men.  He argues that boys, in particular, need these stories as part of their training to become warriors for Christ. He starts off the chapter with a quote from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: ”Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”  Wilson argues that this quote is a standing rebuke for there are many Christians who argue for the superiority of “true books and are suspicious of great works of imagination, like Narnia and Lord of the Rings.” Wilson maintains that these Christians are arguing that “our sons need to be strong on drains and weak on dragons.

The irony here is that the Bible, the source of all truth, says a lot about dragons and giants and very little about drains and exports.” Like Eustace we don’t recognize our surroundings because we have been reading the wrong kinds of books and this in turn causes us to misread the Bible. Echoing Edith Nesbit’s thought, Wilson insists that modern education is killing our sons with “soul-deadening, imagination-killing factoids.”  But, he says, if our sons are to be prepared to encounter the world God made, then their imaginations must be fed and nourished by the stories of the Red Cross Knight, Sam carrying Frodo, Beowulf tearing off Grendel’s arms and Trumpkin fighting for Aslan while still not believing in him. Fairy stories, he states, make virtue, not just right, but lovely—which is the same thing Bettelheim points out.

He further argues that this type of story is not only allowed by scripture but required by it. He concludes, “The Bible cannot be read rightly without creating a deep impulse to tell stories which carry the scriptural truth about the kind of war we are in down through the ages.” After all, the Bible is a book about fighting giants and slaying dragons.

In fact, the Gospel itself is a story of a dragon-fight. The story of Christ and the Church is the story of the prince rescuing his princess from the dragon. So, in that sense, the Bible is a true fantasy story.

After addressing objections to fairy stories, Tolkien turns his attention to the uses of fantasy—this is the most fascinating part of the essay. The first use of fairy stories is Recovery. Fairy stories allow us to see the world anew. Another Inkling, Owen Barfield, said, “The obvious is the hardest thing of all to point out to anyone who has genuinely lost sight of it.” Tolkien, arguing along similar lines, says, that instead of being jaded and bored and even despairing because all lines must either be curved or straight or because there only three primary colors, “we should look at green again and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon and then perhaps suddenly behold like the ancient shepherds sheep and dogs and horses and wolves. This recovery fairy stories help us to make.” Fairy “stories deal largely or (the better ones) mainly with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting.”

In the end, the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series—the two most popular works of fantasy of all time--are really simple stories about good versus evil and friendship and self-sacrificial love. And yet, these very simple and fundamental themes are made extraordinarily potent by their fantastical settings. Those invisible themes become visible; internal struggles become externalized. The invisible struggle of good against evil that each of use daily engage in, is seen anew—with clashing swords or dueling wands.  We are reminded that even against overwhelming, insurmountable odds, good will triumph. That despite how invincible the enemy appears, his overweening pride makes him so vulnerable and so blinded to true goodness that in the moment of the enemy’s greatest triumph are also the seeds of his very defeat. We are reminded that we don’t need to be great men to defeat evil, just faithful persevering men. We are reminded that ultimately self-sacrificial love unto death will save the world.  These simple truths we see anew in the world of fantasy.

The second use of fantasy according to Tolkien is Escape, one of the main functions of fantasy. While others use escape as an insult, Tolkien insists that it is a virtue. He does not accept the tone of scorn with which the word escape is now used. He maintains that escape is very practical and may even be heroic. “Why should a man be scorned if finding himself in prison he tries to get out and go home?” He argues that people are confusing the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. The modern world—rationalistic, materialistic, naturalistic, with  no appreciation or even acknowledgment of the transcendent--is a prison. It is good to escape it and to be reminded that it is not our true home. 

Tolkien reminds us that the things we think of as real are not permanent. Fairy stories deal with the permanent. This is an age of “improved means to deteriorated ends,” says Tolkien. Fairy stories produce “the desire to escape not indeed from life but from our present time and self-made misery.” The final use of fantasy is what Tolkien calls Consolation. He believes that the true form of drama is tragedy, but that the true form of fantasy is something else entirely. In a tragedy, the main character begins in humble circumstances, is exalted (falsely) and then is brought low again—usually dying after losing everything. 

In a comedy, the structure is flipped upside down: the characters go through suffering, often a death penalty of some sort, and then end in happiness. But not just any happiness, comedies usually end in a wedding. Fairy tales have a comic structure; and they end either with the reconciliation of a child to parent (like “Hansel and Gretel”) or with a wedding (like “Sleeping Beauty”). Either way the characters live “happily ever after.”   Bruno Bettelheim argues that this ending of the prince and the princess getting married, inheriting the kingdom, ruling it in peace and happiness, symbolizes to the child the highest form of existence.  He admits that the ending is deeply satisfying to a child, but he misses the spiritual significance of this.

This ending is so satisfying because it is the ending of the story we are in right now. It is, as Peter Leithart calls it, the Deep Comedy of the Gospel story. For we are born under a penalty of death, but the son of the King has lifted the curse (like in “Sleeping Beauty,” this death penalty has been transformed into a sleep), and our story ends with a glorious wedding, when Christ takes us for his bride at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. That’s why the ending of a fairy tale is so deeply satisfying—because it points to a profound spiritual truth. But not all fairy stories end with a wedding; they do however all end with a happy ending. Tolkien calls this the consolation of a happy ending.  And so while tragedy is the true form of drama, Tolkien maintains that the true form of fantasy is the eucatastrophe.  This, says Tolkien, is its highest function. 

The thing that fairy stories do supremely well. The eucatastrophe is the sudden joyous turn. It is a sudden and miraculous grace. It is the denial of universal final defeat! It gives us a “fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” And therefore these stories are not escapist. These stories present the ultimate reality. According to Tolkien, the “peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’“ The first answer to that question, is if you built your fictive world well enough, then yes it is true in that world, but in the eucatastrophe we see that the answer may be greater—“it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world,….one facet of a truth incalculably rich.” “The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories.  They contain many marvels… [but] among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.” “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe  of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy.”

Tolkien says about the Gospel, “There is no tale told that men would rather find was true and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”  This story is supreme, and it is true.  “Art has been verified, God is the Lord of angels and men—and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused.” We love the other worlds, the land of Faerie; we love the resolution to the stories, but we can’t live there. So we return to our own world, not discontented, but joyfully anticipating the resolution to our own story, the one we are living in this life. And we can return to our world, joyful, because we know the end: one day our prince will come and we will live in the Resurrection happily ever after.

Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford has an MA in English literature from the University of Louisiana, graduating Phi Kappa Phi, and has taught in various Christian classical classrooms for over 20 years.  She is currently teaching the Great Books online to high school students at the Harvey Center for Family Learning and recently joined the online faculty of the Circe Academy.  She’s also the co-star of the popular Circe podcast “Close Reads.”  She has a particular interest in myths, fairy tales, and understanding literature through the study of mythological archetypes and biblical typologies—as well as a mild obsession with the influence of Celtic fairy stories and Celtic Christianity on the development of British literature.  She also has a more than mild obsession with Wendell Berry.​​

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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