What is “Good” Fantasy? (3 of 3)

When the Fellowship of the Ring first came out in 2001, I grabbed my best friend at the time, and we drove down to the local theatre to watch what has now become one of Peter Jackson’s greatest movies. I had read all of the Lord of the Rings books when I was young, and I had anticipated the movie for well over a year. When the movie ended, and we left the theatre on that cold December night, something inside of me came alive–apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Driving home, Sam and I made a pact that we would see the next movie together. Indeed, the next December came, and Sam and I were once again watching Tolkien’s work come to life. And once again, I left that theatre with a strange life in my imagination. Then there was Return to the King. The glory of Aragorn, the friendship of Sam, and the devastation of Sauron. Aside from the deletion of Sharky and the scourging of the Shire, I was pleased with the movie, but I felt different that night as I left the theatre.

elves

Truthfully, I felt like I had ended a three year relationship! I was disappointed, and a little hopeless, but I couldn’t shake a strange yearning that was connected to the last scenes of the movie. Like Sam, Pippin, and Merry, I felt like I was watching all of the magic of the elves leave Middle Earth. Every part of me wanted the magic to stay, and every part of me wanted 

to be part of that magic. Something inside of me had come awake, and it felt like it was now leaving me. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest manifestations of truly great fantasy. And like Tolkien, his predecessor of fantasy George MacDonald, is a master at awakening the moral imaginations of his readers. 

One of the fundamental ways that George MacDonald awakens the moral imagination of his readers is through the use of symbolism.  As the author Rolland Hein explains, MacDonald uses symbolism to create a reality that is “more ideal and more unified than that of daily life” (Harmony 57).  MacDonald believes that a person who imagines the world rightly is imagining God.  “Our imagination is made to mirror truth,” MacDonald writes in his Unspoken Sermons series, “and when we are true it will mirror nothing but truth” (Series Two 113).  Hein aptly notes that MacDonald “imaginatively created fictional worlds in which moral and spiritual realities were accentuated” (55).  MacDonald’s more virtuous characters show the benefits of a well- developed moral imagination, while his less virtuous characters portray the effects of a lack of moral imagination.  Ultimately, MacDonald’s characters direct readers to a greater understanding of the human struggle to regain harmony with a transcendent God.  Hein argues that MacDonald uses the fairy tale form to best achieve this purpose. For MacDonald, symbols portray spiritual truths, and his “images function as symbols when they convey divine meaning and grace to the sensitive reader” (Christian Mythmakers 59).  Vigen Guroian also comments on our participation with these symbols:

If a symbol is real and belongs to the ontology of being, though the mystery remains, the fact is that children belong to that ontology and are participants in the symbolical, semiotic, and sacramental universe that God has brought into existence and sustains from “moment” to “moment.”   Children are already “literate,” which is to say equipped to read out the meaning in a meaningful world. [The] [t]rouble is we neither trust in this nor attend to introducing them to the world properly. Imaginative powers are innate. But they must be exercised properly, like muscles in the body, lest they either atrophy or grow grotesquely.

MacDonald situates his characters as participants in a greater story, and allows his readers to use their innate imaginative powers to understand the symbols embedded in a microcosmic story that direct them to a macrocosmic story. Ultimately, MacDonald’s fairy tales employ the symbolic to mimic the grand creativity of Nature and of God.

Like many authors, MacDonald found the fairy tale to be the “perfect vehicle for exploring our confrontment with the unknown” (Mendelson 33).  And through the exploration of this unknown, MacDonald’s stories continue to inspire a sense of awe in his readers that allows them to participate in their own childlikeness so that they may struggle with the mystery of their own reality—and be amazed.  The rationalism of MacDonald’s day relegate the imagination to the furthest corners of acceptable means of knowing, but George MacDonald diverged from this worldview to instruct his readers to marry both reason and imagination so that the grandeur of God is fully realized.

Although this may seem very nebulous, it can be achieved by looking at a piece of fantasy with a different perspective. As an example, I want to explore the Grimm’s version of Snow White by using a moral reading.

Snow White often gets criticized for being discriminatory towards women (to be honest, I can see why a story about one woman doing chores for seven small men while evading a jealous step-mother might lead people towards this conclusion), but a closer look at the Grimm’s Snow White from outside a feminist perspective reveals a virtuous, not passive, Snow White.  If the use of the words “fairness” and “beauty” are extended beyond their physical meaning, a different Snow White is revealed.  For example, Snow White’s physical countenance is unaffected by the perceived death brought on after eating the queen’s poison apple.  Snow White’s “fresh and alive” appearance after death draws Christ-like comparisons with the Pauline references to Christ’s resurrection: “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” and, “Oh, death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55).

Comparing Snow White’s awakening to Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection gives Snow White’s “passivity” a greater power than any other character in the story: power over death.  And while it is noted that Snow White never truly dies, the symbol of her fairness being upheld in her supposed death is enough to make the Christ-like comparison; for it is her fairness that prompts the dwarves to honor her with a glass coffin, and by her loveliness the prince pledges an eternal vow to “honor and cherish” the seemingly deceased princess.  Honor, love, and devotion are precipitated through Snow White’s fairness, even in death. This fairness does not suggest a passive woman; instead, it reveals a woman whose post-mortem virtue actively affects those who are in contact with her.  Ultimately, while a feminist reading of Snow White provides insight into a possible patriarchal and matriarchal imbalance, this kind of reading hinders one’s ability to interpret virtue—even possible virtues like humility and service.

This fairy tale is just one example of how looking for “good” fantasy can help sharpen our eyes to the goodness and wisdom that can be found withing fantasy.

Obviously, not all fantasy is created equal. There is no doubt that our relativistic view of truth and goodness has

gandalf

distorted what we need from a fantasy story. I believe that our modern fascination with fantasy (from Marvel to Middle Earth) is really just an echo of a greater need to belong to a world that transcends ourselves. Although we do not have the advantage of having a Gandalf or Aslan to physically guide us through our perils, we can take the truths that burst forth from these stories to better see the world the surrounds all of us.

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.

1 thought on “What is “Good” Fantasy? (3 of 3)”

  1. “I believe that our modern fascination with fantasy (from Marvel to Middle Earth) is really just an echo of a greater need to belong to a world that transcends ourselves.”

    I agree. We are seekers, perhaps finding much of what we (in the U.S.) spend much of our days pursuing to be temporarily useful but not going deep enough into who we are. We do what we have to if we’re responsible members of a productive society. For many of us though, this can feel like what Solomon laments in the book of Ecclesiastes: a chasing after the wind. No matter how important being responsible even when it hurts can be, we cannot deny –at least not permanently — a hunger for something more, something that won’t leave us unsatisfied. I personally find delight in the beauty of transcendent imagination in stories that MacDonald wrote. And in others’ works. There is a release from our mental tethers to reality through fantasy. So, in my point of view, this is the beginning of transcendence. I love how Macdonald didn’t fear imagination, though it could be abused. Instead, he loved it as a gift — as you state here he loved it as a gift from God. And it’s quite clear to me that he loved God.

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