On Fantasy

October 2nd, 2009

Let me begin with what may sound like a confession: I’m British, a Christian, a geologist, and I write fantasy. It’s the last that arouses the real interest and about which I get lots of questions. One of the most interesting is this: Why, as all the sales figures and surveys indicate, is fantasy so popular today?

But, first of all, I need to point out that “fantasy” is a word that covers an enormous sprawling range of literature. It isn’t all pagan tales with a strong dose of witchcraft. Some fantasy could be described as science fiction with a touch of the supernatural and some is openly Christian; I’m happy to have both of those descriptions applied to my own works. But the range of values and virtues portrayed in fantasy is so wide that to reject it all is akin to saying “all painting is evil.”

So why, in an age of triumphant technology, is fantasy so fashionable, particularly among the young? I see two factors in this: one to do with the loss of the frontiers and the other with the loss of idealism.

The Loss of the Frontiers

Let me explain what I mean by “the loss of the frontiers” with a fragment of autobiography. I began studying geology more than 30 years ago partly because I loved the idea of visiting wild, remote locations——of going to the frontiers.

Geology largely rewarded that ambition. In the course of academic and industrial research, I visited wildernesses where utter silence reigned, worked in mountains marked as blanks on even the best maps, slept in deserts where the stars were undimmed by streetlights, and battled through steaming jungles where one could easily be lost foreve

Today, a generation later, I find that much of that world has vanished. Now the wilderness echoes to the sound of vehicles, the white spaces are filled with contours, the streetlights are spreading, and with a handheld GPS you can’t get lost anymore. Tourists stand gawping along the frontiers of yesteryear.

I believe this taming of the world and the loss of the frontiers is widely sensed. The children coming into adulthood in the West today are the first human generation ever who face no frontiers. They look around them and see no undiscovered countries, no unreachable summits, and no uncharted seas. The best offered is the hope that a very, very few of them may, briefly, make it to Mars—a destination that, frankly, intrigues the mind far more than it enchants the heart.

And it’s not just places; things have been tamed. There can be now few creatures of any size that science has not labeled and catalogued. Most of the predators that were feared a few generations ago are teetering on the edge of extinction; they arouse our pity, not our fear. The cry of “There’s a lion in the street!” is now not a cue for terror but a call for vets and conservationists. Everywhere the frontiers have been reached and the result is a global claustrophobia that our young people sense even if they cannot name.

It’s this concern that fantasy touches. Fantasy offers worlds with unlimited vistas, unclimbed peaks, and unending seas. In its deep waters and brooding woods strange and terrible creatures still live. The far frontiers our world has lost are still to be found in the unending lands of fantasy. (Incidentally, this is one reason why the British have such a long tradition of fantasy literature; our own wilderness vanished centuries ago.)

The Loss of Idealism

If the loss of the frontiers is the first factor in the popularity of fantasy, the second factor centres on the loss of idealism. Let me again mention my own experiences here. I spent around eight years of my working life teaching at the American University of Beirut, much of it during Lebanon’s more troubled times. As a young assistant professor in the early 1980s, I was frequently a bemused—and sometimes scared—spectator of the noisy local skirmishes of the civil war. I learned little about who was fighting whom, let alone why, but I did learn that death and disaster weren’t the exclusive fate of the wicked. In fact, I was rather disconcerted to find that the wicked did rather well out of the war.

With the Israeli invasion of 1982, things moved up a notch; tanks and planes got involved. But the same injustice persisted; good people died and the wicked escaped. The Israelis were followed by the wellmeaning peace-keepers of the Multi- National Force, and then in February 1983, I was blown off my chair by the first of the suicide bomb attacks—the one that nearly leveled the American Embassy. A few months after that, my wife and I spent a few nights with our two infant sons in the basement as shells landed all around, and a few days later we were helicoptered out as the fleets of the West quietly vanished over the horizon.

All was incomprehensibility and confusion, but what was certain was that the forces of the good—or at least the well-meaning— had been defeated by a largely invisible evil.

Do I need to say that history since has reinforced the lesson? To try to make the world a better place is to risk being sent home in a body bag. Of course, orthodox biblical Christianity (not to mention church history) has always taught that God’s great settling of accounts doesn’t occur in this life. But the harshness of the way this world deals with injustice is still striking.

Now I feel that this view—that far from rewarding the righteous, this world simply stamps on them—is no longer the prerogative of cynical Brits of a certain age. It’s increasingly wide spread. Even our victories seem to have an expiry date on them: the West won the Cold War and got, not lasting peace, but 9/11. Disillusionment and pessimism are widespread, and idealism is only to be found amongst those of excessive faith or great naivete…or both.

Young people, particularly those from a Christian or post-Christian culture, are taught an ethic which says “right will triumph, evil will lose.” Yet as they grow up they see that, whether on the international, national, or local scale, this wonderfully reassuring equation doesn’t seem to work. In reality, in this life evil goes unpunished and good goes unrewarded.

I believe that this creeping pessimism about the state of the world is the second factor that gives fantasy its widespread attraction. In fantasy—at least in all popular works of the genre—things are very different. In fantasy, we’re offered a world where right triumphs: Sauron is destroyed, the White Witch is slain, and, however we view J K Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, we know that, in the end, Lord Voldemort will be defeated. In fantasy, too, the nature of the forces are clearer and neater; the boundaries of good and evil are plainly drawn; and heroes and villains are clearly distinguished. There are no Abu Ghraibs or collateral damage in Middle Earth.

An equal trait of fantasy is the way that the enemies come out into the open. One of the many emotions created in the wake of 9/11 is a bitter frustration that the enemy remains hidden and elusive. Orc armies are so much easier to deal with than Al-Qaeda. In the world of fantasy, the moral struggle is clearly defined and well lit.

It’s no coincidence that my first thoughts of the present fantasy cycle were born as I spent long Beirut evenings behind locked doors listening to the sound of machine gun fire. And it’s also probably no coincidence that the British boom in fantasy began when we had retreated from being a world power; our thankless experiments at making a global empire having taught us, to the point of national cynicism, that this world is a messy place where injustice is the norm. So we abandoned idealism for pragmatism, a quiet life, and the business of creating worlds where goodness did win.

My view then is that whether they express it or even recognize it, people today find the world both increasingly constrained and hostile to idealism. Fantasy’s allure is that it allows access to worlds of boundless frontiers where justice ultimately reigns—where goodness is repaid and evil penalized. The worlds of the imagination aren’t just limitless; they’re better, fairer, and more hopeful places.

An Increase in Demand

If these observations are correct then I think we can assume that the demand for fantasy is likely to increase, rather than decrease. On all scenarios for the future, the few remaining frontiers will be soon be lost and, short of God’s merciful intervention, this world will remain a place that continually fails to repay those who seek good. Fantasy is here to stay. And, I believe, Christians ought to get involved; after all the best way of driving out the bad is simply to make a better product.

But there’s more. As a Christian I cannot help but take the view that this longing for unlimited worlds and the utter victory of righteousness is an expression of that desire all human beings have, however much they may deny it, for that eternal kingdom over which Christ reigns for ever.

There’ll be no fantasy amid the new heavens and the new earth; there at last we won’t need it. But in the meantime the best fantasy fiction speaks deep into the hearts of men and women. To those who know Christ, it brings refreshment, and to those who don’t know him, it offers tantalizing clues that beyond the limited perspectives of this soiled and troubled world, there’s a place of infinite glory and eternal justice


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