The Fantasy Tale: An Observation

 

I love fantasy tales. This section of Always Rejoicing contains my thought on some of my favorite fantasy tales. Consider that, for most of us, the first literature we encounter is commonly called a Fairy Tale such as Cinderella. This site is about Joy. It’s about the things that point to Joy and to Heaven. Fairy Tales and Fantasy have a way of pointing to Joy. They have a way of helping us understand Heaven.

That’s because Heaven is, for many, a fantasy. However, Fantasy has its roots firmly planted in Reality. There are many qualities that make a story a Fantasy. But any story that has talking animals is, basically, indulging in a fantasy. So, by that definition, Animal Farm is a fantasy. Yet Animal Farm helps us understand the Reality of our world.

Another element of fantasy is the wondrous machine. Included in this would be the famous time machine. Space ships are also included—but they will be fantasy for not too many more years. What you might not realize is that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged also contains wondrous machines, including the steel alloy that one of her characters invents. Those who have read it should now realize other elements of that story that are wondrous machines. ‘Nuff said…I don’t want any spoilers for those who have not read it.

The use of magic is probably the most frequent quality that identifies a fantasy story. Diana Gabeldon’s Outlander stories include a sort of magic. She structures it in such a way that it almost appears to be a real scientific quality. The Harry Potter stories are probably some of the best know magic tales. What we don’t often recognize is that the fantasy story does not work well if the magic or wondrous machine or talking animals are the focus of the story. There must be something else for the story to work.

That quality is called the “plot”. The fantasy stories that are best are the ones that employ the “quest” as the foundation of the plot. If you read my story about the Stone Circle you’ll see that the protagonist experiences events, but he does not actually do anything. However, if I told you that the story was chapter one of a novel, you would immediately see that there are many options for a quest plot. That’s why we love stories like The Oddessy. We enjoy reading about the hero and his quest.

That brings me to the first point of this essay. I have read many critics of the fantasy tale which complain bitterly that the author has ‘borrowed’ from stories like Lord of the Rings to tell his/her tale. They say that these ‘borrowed’ elements detract from the story. The critic wants a new story with new elements. Or the critic complains because vampires don’t work the way the author portrays them. Or the story contains elves that look exactly like elves in LOTR. Or—worst of all—they are upset because the hero meets a mentor who teaches the hero the things needed to accomplish the quest, just like in Star Wars.

What I think these critics do not understand is the foundation of the fantasy quest story. That’s in spite of the fact that Joseph Campbell’s works, including The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth tell us exactly why these stories seem to be similar. They also explain why vampires in one story are different from vampires in another story or that the dwarves or elves seem the same. (What qualities must a creature have vs. an author’s concept of how that creature might work.) Or why the protagonist meets a mentor who teaches him how to accomplish his quest.

What I’m actually saying is that a genre of fiction must produce certain qualities to satisfy the requirements of that genre. And when a critic complains because a story does not meet his/her criteria my first question is, “Do you understand the genre?” Complaining because a dragon can or cannot fly, because the hero meets a mentor, because the elves look like elves in another story, et cetera, reveals that the critic does not know what he/she is talking about. Would you complain because the hero in a “Western” rides a horse or uses a pistol or seems to be much like John Wayne?

Please do not misunderstand me here. I do not subscribe to all the nonsense that Joseph Campbell offers in terms of theology and religion. I do think he has a valid and very useful point about how the concept of the hero on a quest works. Shakespeare employs these ideas in many of his plays. Some of the best King Arthur stories follow these ideas. I think these hero concept ideas work even in the detective mystery story, the straightforward drama, even romance novels.

Finally, I’d like to address the idea that stories that involve magic are inherently evil and Christians should avoid them. To understand this, one needs to understand exactly what “magic” really is: it is the manipulation of the elements of this world in order to achieve a personal goal. For example, if I employ a magic carpet to carry me from my home to the store then I have used magic to accomplish a personal goal.

But,” you say, “the Bible tells us that sorcery is a sin.” And I must agree. It does say that. My answer starts with a question: “What’s the difference between using an automobile to go to the store and using a magic carpet to go to the store?”

Magic is a technology. By saying the right combination of words one can manipulate the environment. We, in the ‘modern world’ use what we call Science and Technology to manipulate our environment. What, I must ask, is the difference between a crystal ball and using Skype?

In these fantasy stories we can easily see how magic is extremely difficult to use “for good only”. In fact, that’s one of the main ideas of LOTR: many want to use the ring for good, but we see that it would only end up being used for evil. While that idea is not so clear in the Harry Potter stories, we easily see it in the King Arthur stories.

And that brings me back to my question about the magic carpet and the automobile. What the fantasy story can do is show us how a technology, magic, is very very dangerous. The problem is that sorcery is sinful, not because of what it is, but because of what we are.

So, yes I do enjoy Fantasy. An author can make racial comments about elves and dwarves without sounding ‘politically incorrect’. And magic can be a comment on science and technology. But mostly, it’s just fun to read about imaginary worlds–or our world with imaginary elements added. It’s fun to read about how the ‘farm boy’ struggles with impossible obstacles to rescue the damsel in distress. We cheer for Luke Skywalker, just as the ancient Greeks cheered for Jason.

And, no, I have not really dealt with the question of the Bible and Magic. That’s far beyond my intention here. I do intend to discuss it in my comments on my favorite fantasy tales. For now, let me ask this question: Should one read or watch a story about lust and adultery; is a story about a swindler or murder sinful in and of itself? Be careful how you answer this…for the Bible contains these types of stories.

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