What Is “Good” Fantasy? (1 of 3)

From the start, I admit that I am a little leery of answering this question. Qualifying something by using the word good is similar to saying a building is strong because it’s dog–to most people it doesn’t mean anything. Or if it does mean something, then it probably means something different to you than to me. This is the reality of our relativistic worldview. In a response to the question of moral relativism, G.K. Chesterton uses an reductio ad absurdum to illustrate the limitations of moral relativism:

“Whatever we may think of the merits of torturing children for pleasure, and no doubt there is much to be said on both sides, I am sure we all agree that it should be done with sterilized instruments.” 

Absurd? Yes. Brilliant? I think, once again–Yes. Whether we want to admit it or not, people live and move and breathe based on the conclusions that we make.  To lean on Chesterton once again, I believe that “the human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions,” and that:

“In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.”

Now, believe it or not, the point I am trying to make is actually not solely philosophical. In truth, the point I am trying to make comes more or less from a simple pragmatic question that many people ask before cracking the cover of a book: “is this book going to be any good?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m a busy person. I have a wife, two active kids, I teach, volunteer at church, and try to keep up to date on other important matters (like finishing the 3rd season of Sherlock). Safe to say, I, like you, probably don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to poor literature. On top of that, I believe that a good book is a piece of art; and like a piece of art, that book can change or solidify my worldview–help me see the world from a different perspective. Or maybe just give me a good laugh. Either way, I want to share good books with other people hoping that it will also change how they see the world.

We all have an understanding of the word good. All of our minds have come to a conclusion of what constitutes the qualities of good. Let’s just say that when I first meet my wife my idea of a good valentine’s dinner was a little different than my wife’s  idea of a good valentine’s dinner. Fortunately, with a little discussion, we have arrived (okay, I have arrived) at the understanding that Shake ‘n Bake Chicken and hard French Bread does not constitute a good Valentine’s Day dinner. In fact, I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that this understanding has probably contributed to a much happier marriage! 

With all of this said, I want to spend the next few posts explaining what I see as good fantasy using the following definition that is in large part borrowed from George MacDonald:

Good fantasy is such that uses the readers imagination to help recognize the wonder and mystery of our world which draws us to a higher law than the one which we create ourselves—MacDonald refers to this as the “wise imagination.” In Dish of Orts, he writes:

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect).

shake 'n bake
Say no to shake’n bake

Author: Josh Withrow

I want to help people creatively tell their stories by giving them the tools to engage other people with captivating ideas. My 14 years of classroom teaching and my master's degree in English Literature give me the experience to make my classes both creative and informative. People don't need a degree to enjoy learning -- but sometimes a little guidance goes a long way.

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