Fantasy Is A Crucial Answer To Reality
Taking inspiration from a Medium article about breaking addictive behaviors around social media, I recently set out on an adventure of my own. I stopped checking the news, and set sail on a sea of classic fantasy books.
Now, I get all the news I need from Narnia.
Wait, is that healthy?
How should I know? 🤷♀ I’m just a guy on a website. 👉 😜 👈
I can tell you, though, what is not healthy: all the 🐄 💩 and meanness that exists on the internet.* I am fed up with it, and with the fear factory supporting it.
*Sure, that stuff exists in ‘real life’ and not just on the internet. People just feel liberated to run with it in low-consequence online environments. And it doesn’t help, obviously, that certain mechanisms of the internet seem to nefariously amplify these crappy signals — almost as if our machines were haunted to show us the worst of ourselves and each other…
In my so-called real ‘off-line’ life (do I even have one any more??), I’m lucky enough to have a low natural exposure to human crappiness. And that’s how I like it. I’ve worked hard to cultivate that.
Why then, when I open a web browser, should I have to be inundated by it? I refuse to accept anymore the inevitability of that future, that present. This wasn’t the utopian internet ideal I signed up for when I got free dial-up access from the library in the 1990’s.
So, how are things in Narnia?
Things are going really great in Narnia, if I say so myself. Thanks for asking. Eustace Scrubb, having survived various and sundry adventures on board the Dawn Treader, with Prince Caspian, Edmund, Lucy, Reepicheep, and ‘the gang,’ is now back in a starring role in The Silver Chair, alongside new addition, Jill Pole, who in the chapter I’m about to read (“A Parliament of Owls”) is depicted riding on the back of a white owl through the air. Curious, and no doubt wholesome, antics are sure to follow!
But what about not-Narnia?
Though the revival of my youthful addiction to fantasy novels has actually been going on for a few months (quite swimmingly, I might add), it was one week after I stopped watching the news that tragedy struck in Christchurch. Instead of rushing back to the stress of checking the news, though, I managed to hold onto my distance. In fact, felt like I needed it more than ever.
It’s not that I think we should retreat from reality, just that it’s natural to want to, because there is something hiding there we really need.
Just as democratic socialist and fantasy author George Orwell supposedly said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” so too is fantasy — if not always a revolutionay act — (at minimum) a necessary relief and antidote to lies masquerading as truth.
Sci-fi fantasist Philip K. Dick offered another good backstop for determining the hard limit of delusion when he said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
So, you admit fantasy is escapism?
“Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
Hard to argue with that logic, “if you think about it.” Tolkien goes on to say, regarding the supposed conflict between fantasy and reality:
“Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; … On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make… For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.”
What’s the point of fantasy then?
What some might call mere escapism, imagination, or flights of fancy actually serves a much deeper purpose: that of instilling and nourishing resilience in persons and societies. Engaging with fantasy, whether as creator or reader, exercises mental and emotional muscles which enable us to discern truth from lies amidst their various and endlessly changing disguises. And it equips us with the simultaneous power and horror that if we can imagine it into being, we can experience it — at least on some level — as though it were real.
C.S. Lewis, himself having witnessed first-hand as a soldier the horrors of World War I, would later go on to write in his essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” [PDF], that, for a generation born to the atomic bomb:
“Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. […] For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime.”
What about the reality of evil?
If the power of evil — at least in part — is that it strikes fear into the imagination, freezing it into inflexibility, and atrophying the sense of wonder, then fantasy can be of therapeutic value in helping to re-awaken those faculties and incite rebellion against nihilistic surrender.
Will that stop another active shooter? Will that stop extreme weather events linked to Climate Change?
No, and no.
But also, maybe, and maybe…
For what is fantasy but a carnival disguise of hope?
If we can imagine an ideal clearly, down to the finest detail, we can surely take clearer steps in reality to embody it first in ourselves, and then in the world around us. If we can inspire new possibilities in one another using the beauty and might of an imagination that is not ruled by fear, hate, anger, or denial, then perhaps its possible to change — if only ever so slightly — the current of history as it flows around us, all from onboard the deck of the Dawn Treader far away in the East.
If all else fails, we could always try the Simpsons/Paul Anka recommendation when it comes to all the bad out there today:
Just don’t look!
Okay, now you’re just getting carried away…
Am I though? Okay, probably — but it’s too late to turn back now. We’ve come this far, we may as well finish the quest…
The psychologist and student of Freud, C.G. Jung — who, though not a writer of fantasy per se, decidedly was a trafficker in the realm of the fantastic — wrote in his Red Book (which he never intended for publication, incidentally), sometime between approximately 1913–1916:
“I have learned that in addition to the spirit of this time, there is still another spirit at work, namely that which rules the depths of everything contemporary… [It] possesses a greater power than the spirit of this time, who changes with the generations…
The spirit of the depths took my understanding and all my knowledge and placed them at the service of the inexplicable and the paradoxical.”
The Red Book is, therefore, his record of having explored what he called the “inner images” of his own mind and heart —the broad outlines of which any student of fantasy will certainly recognize.
Toward the Deeper Magic
Interestingly, Jung’s Red Book wasn’t published until 2009, but a close reading of Lewis’ 1950 “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” contains remarkably similar language. So much so that you have to wonder whether Lewis hadn’t read somehow Jung’s text above (perhaps published in some other form ), or if they weren’t both drawing from the same deep well of inspiration which transcends the ages.
The passage below follows and speaks about the sacrifice of Aslan (a Christ-analogue) on the Stone Table (an analogue for Mosaic Law written on the stone tablets on Mount Sinai) by the White Witch Jadis (presumably stand-in for Judas/amalgam with Satan in his role as ‘Accuser’), according to a ‘Deep Magic’ written on the Table at the beginning of time, which says the blood of all traitors belongs to her. When Aslan takes the place of Edmund, the Table is broken.
“It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
Her mistake was in not having broken through to the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time, or in Jung’s phrasing, the spirit of the depths, which melds sense and nonsense in the forging of ‘supreme meaning.’
Before we part, let’s go back once more — for good measure — to Tolkien (from ‘On Fairy Stories’), who was, no doubt, smoking the same ‘long-bottom leaf’ as Jung:
“The consolation of fairy-stories, [is] the joy of the happy ending… [T]his joy … is not essentially “escapist”… [I]t is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies… universal final defeat and … [gives] a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
I would say, then, in closing, that the goal and function of fantasy is, or ought to be, to go out — or inward (or frankly in any direction you can find it)— and to retrieve that joy, and bring it back from the mountain top, or from the bottom of the sea, and let it flower in this reality, and shape new outcomes here in this world.
It might all prove to be folly, but at least we will have tried. And if nothing else, it feels better than fretting over the headlines all day. (And it’s better than checking social media — that’s for damn sure!)
See you in Narnia!