Many skeptics relegated fantasy to the dusty attics of their childhood. In their minds, it is at best escapist entertainment empty of real meaning or at worst mind numbing wish fulfillment that leaves one out of touch with reality. And to be honest, fantasy does explore and extend our most fantastical dreams and plumbs our worst nightmares. But is it escapist? And is that a bad thing?
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” J.R.R. Tolkien
Is Fantasy Escapist?
Fantasy has its roots in myth and legend – in other words, in the religious beliefs and imagination from diverse cultures from around the world and across the ages. In the last 200 years or so, empirical naturalism has made increasing strident claims that science is the only way to understand ourselves and the world we live in, a view that seems to be supported by technological advances. Yet the horrors and challenges of the twentieth century put a large dent in claims that science can solve all problems. From the late twentieth century there has been a growing trend to seek meaning beyond materialist explanations of the world. At the same time, there has been a revival of an interest in fantasy to some extent stimulated by popularity of the Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ Narnia series in the 1950s and 60s.
For me reading and writing fantasy is exciting and fun. It allows my imagination to expand and soar. I write secondary world courtly intrigue. I draw on my knowledge of and further research into languages, cultures, history, geography, psychology, technology, skills and crafts to build a rich, layered textual world. I can explore how people and how societies work and interact. And while the world has fantastical elements, it is consistent with its own rules. I love the flexibility and the richness of fantasy. My books include elements of romance, suspense, mystery and hope.
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” G. K. Chesterson
Fantasy provides an opportunity to explore the big questions of life as well as some our more perennial problems. J. Shea in his article “How do we take fantasy seriously?” suggests such questions are better dealt with in realistic fiction without the chaff of fantastical elements. While realism is one way to tackle such issues, I believe that fantasy provides another fruitful and engaging approach at a metaphorical and emotional level. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings raises questions of how we wield great power (if we embrace it, will it destroy us?) and how to respond to challenging times. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi brings into focus the nature of reality, spirituality and experience. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia’s series gives a different view on those questions. Rowling’s Harry Potter also ponders the use of power as well as critiquing, often with humour, the antics of the press and government. While I don’t always agree with the ideas and world view a work presents, it usually leaves me with something to mull over.
Finally, fantasy reminds us that is there is meaning beyond the material world. We are more than a bunch of atoms. For me, fantasy can be imbued with Christian themes of hope – that people matter, that things happen for a reason, that even the best of us is flawed yet the worst of us is not beyond redemption, that forgiveness is free, that lives do change, that we can be more than we are, and that we are not alone.
“This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Aslan in C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
About Jeanette O’Hagan
Jeanette O’Hagan lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband Tony and two beautiful children. She has returned to her love of writing after various careers as medical practitioner, theology lecturer and full-time mum. She blogs and is currently writing her fourth manuscript in the as yet unpublished Akrad series. She writes poems, short stories and non-fiction pieces and is studying a Masters of Arts (Writing). Jeanette loves reading, art, travel, catching up for coffee with friends and communicating God’s great love for each one of His children.
Photos copyright Jeanette O’Hagan 2014