The Dangers of Fantasy

tolkien                Fantasy has always been my genre. At the age of 5 or 6, I fell in love with the legend of St. George and the dragon. From then on I was hooked. I enjoy all things fantasy with a lot of science fiction thrown in for good measure.

                For years fantasy has been gaining respect and popularity as a genre. At first I was amused and pleased by this trend. However, as the trend has continued I have grown more concerned.

                See, I have grown up. I still love fantasy, but I know now that fantasy is not all there is. Beyond that, I have begun to recognize the dangers of fantasy as a genre – especially the dangers of long-term exposure. It disturbs me to see it become mainstream to indulge the escapist tendencies associated with the consumption of fantasy. As I am in the midst of growing out of it, I see more and more people succumbing to the draw of virtual reality.

                Even more disturbing is the number of Christians who have jumped onboard the fantasy fan-wagon – blissfully unaware of the dangers. Christians have found all kinds of ingenious ways to justify their new-found fantasy obsession. They appeal to the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis as paragons of Christian fantasy authors. They have even developed a Christian theology/philosophy of fiction and fantasy.

                In the following blog posts I attempt to challenge some of this mainstream Christian thinking. No, I am not a published fiction author. No, I am not a professor of literature. I am a pastor and student of the Bible who can speak from the depth of personal experience and from years of personal reflection on the ethics and meaning of the fantasy genre.

                I deal mostly with the ideas of Tolkien and a smattering of Lewis. I have not gone into great depth, but I have tried to suggest numerous avenues of further thought. I focus mostly on the medium of the fantasy novel, but this is purely for the convenience of writing. Most of what I say applies to television, movies, graphic novels, video games, etc. Furthermore, a lot of what I say applies to science fiction and even to fiction in general.

                The most common negative reaction I anticipate receiving is that I am taking everything too seriously. It’s just fantasy. It’s just fiction. I hope the inescapable seriousness of fantasy will become clear through what I have written, but in case it is not clear, let me point out that Christians love to speak from both sides of their mouths when it comes to the subject of fantasy. They try to justify and value it by exploring the meaningful themes of many works of fantasy. At the same time, they try to excuse the problems of fantasy by claiming it is just for fun. I am mostly engaging with the one side that tries to justify fantasy, but I think it will become apparent that there are also dangers in trying to enjoy fantasy just for fun.

                Before jumping to counter my ideas, my suggestion is to read all of my posts. Lastly, I want to remind you that I love fantasy. What follows are not the ruminations of a fantasy-hater. All of it has come from one who has spent decades living in fantasy worlds.

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24 Responses to The Dangers of Fantasy

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  7. Bill says:

    Alright, I have read the series. I’ll do my best to go through and comment on each post to the overall topic of that post. In this post, the only “danger” you identify is that of escapism (though you seem to see plenty more given your language and tone). To that I would respond with Lewis and Tolkien who point out that those who are most concerned with escape are jailers.

    • Your Lewis and Tolkien quote makes a great sound byte, but has little substance. The word “jailer” assumes what the statement is trying to prove — that by denying people imaginative escape you are trapping them unjustly in an undesirable prison. Could it not be that the prospect of “escape” is the bait to the trap of the real prison? All I am saying is that the quote from Lewis and Tolkien assumes a certain perspective, and thereby begs the question.

    • Just think the Matrix…

  8. Bill says:

    Certainly if taken as an argument, the quote would beg the question. It is (and originally was) meant as an alternate perspective on the criticism (which existed then as now) that the fantastic was escapist. In either case the point must be argued. Escape could be either good or evil and the prevention of escape would be correspondingly evil or good. I think the value here is that it challenges the unproved assumption that escapism must be bad. Now both positions can be argued.

    • I generally agree with you, except that reality has the distinct advantage of actually being real. All people absolutely must and should live in the real world. It is self-evidently good, right, profitable, wholesome, etc. to live in the real world. A person would not be sinning or even necessarily “missing out” by never reading a fantasy novel because a fantasy novel is a contingent, subordinate, and unnecessary “reality.” Therefore, the onus must first be on the escapist to prove the goodness and profitability of “escaping” the world in which we all must and should live.

      • Bill says:

        But there is plenty in the the world from which escape is good. A prisoner unjustly locked up is right to escape (both physically and mentally) even if that escape can only be effected for a brief time. Also, I would challenge the assumption that an escape into fiction (of any sort) is ipso fact an escape from reality. Insofar as the fiction has been created (or sub-created) it is real. The worlds and scenarios it describes may not be real but the fiction qua fiction is a real thing, it is a real story and the experience of it, while possibly a mental escape from physical circumstances is not necessarily an escape from reality.

      • What is it that you mean by the “real” experience of the story? Do you mean the physical sensation of the book in one’s hands? Do you mean the eyes passing over the words on the page? Do you mean the mental processing of words into meaning?

  9. Bill says:

    I mean the narrative, the story, as it is an ontic contstruct.

    • Yes, I assumed as much. But how is such a thing experienced? What is the nature of one’s experience of such a construct? For example, why do I enjoy a story? Why do I care that Jack and Jill fall in love and get married?

      • billhoard says:

        We experience story through the imagination, a faculty (I believe) of both mind and soul. You care about Jack and Jill (if the story is even half-way decent) because they have gained a degree of existence and have become your concern.

      • Jack and Jill have never gained a degree of existence and never will. They will never actually exist. They are merely ideas. Why should I care if Jack (a person who does not exist) ends up together with Jill (who does not exist) in a long term relationship (which does not exist)? Why should I become emotionally attached to made-up people?

        My subjective experience (emotions, etc.) of the story may be very real, but the story world is most definitely not real. Why would I become emotionally involved in something that is not real?

      • billhoard says:

        It’s odd, you say that and yet if Jack and Jill had no existence how could we be talking of them? We cannot speak of what is not. Certainly not in positive terms. Furthermore your questions in themselves would seem to argue that, in fact, we do care about Jack and Jill. So if we would not unless they had no existence, and yet we do, does it not follow that they do in fact have some degree of existence?

      • Yes, I know, we can go around in philosophical circles here — an exercise that is unprofitable. I can speak of Jack and Jill just as I can speak of a logical contradiction, nothing, or non-existence. The things themselves do not exist, but the idea of them can be thought of without granting them any degree of existence whatsoever. To think of something does not call it into being. That is the boundary line of sense and sanity.

        The point is that the experience of Jack and Jill is not real in the sense that nothing real has been experienced. The subjective sensations of the reader may be real (e.g., the reader may shed real tears, like I did as a child when reading Where the Red Fern Grows), but those sensations are not felt in reaction to reality. In that sense to become involved in a fiction in this way is to “step out of” reality — to “escape.”

        In fact, it is often the realization that the secondary world is not real that makes the pseudo-experience so much fun. If it were real, it would ruin it.

  10. billhoard says:

    You seem remarkably close to materialism there. I think you need to recognize a distinction between “real” and “having existence”. Jack and Jill are remarkably different from a logical contradiction or “that which is not” (what Augustine would have called “pure sin”). Positive and negative statements can be said about them without contradiction (Jack fell down and Jill did not fall down). That is not true of a logical contradiction or of “that which is not”.
    I also find it interesting that you equate stepping out of reality with “escape”. I can escape from my room or I can choose to leave my room for the delight of the dining room. Those two things are not at all equivalent. A story offers new (often delightful, often beneficial) experience. I’m not really clear on your definition of “real” so I will refrain, for the moment, from insisting that it is real.

    • “Escape” is not my term. It is the term generally in use. I use it only as such. In the world of literature it is often, but certainly not always, used in a pejorative sense. I think you are reading too much into it from its other meanings to say that “escape” by its definition is positive. That’s like saying “wicked” always means bad.

      I understand the distinctions you are trying to make, but again, I am not interested in philosophical hair-splitting. The fact is that Jack and Jill are not real (and no, I do not see the need to define “real”). Everyone understands that Jack and Jill are not real. If I were to start speaking to Jack all of the time, then I may be institutionalized — for the simple reason that I am speaking to someone who is not real. If I cry when in the story Jack dies, most people would consider me to be normal (if perhaps overly emotional) — even though no one has died and no death has occurred. When I cry, both I and everyone else understands that I am crying at something that is not real. I have suspended disbelief or entered into secondary belief. Most people think that as long as I am aware in the back of my mind that Jack is not real, then I have not lost my mind. The more I forget about that awareness, the closer to insanity I get.

      Anyway, that was mostly me meandering, sorry.

      • Bill says:

        I think you are equivocating with the term “escape” then. Of course you are right that society uses the term in two literary senses: to explore a fantastic secondary creation, and to avoid awareness of the real world. But without making that distinction in your initial post, you have condemned “escape” only in it’s second sense (and yes, I think that there are legitimate uses of the second sense as well) but have sneaked in condemnation of the first sense.

      • Perhaps I have equivocated somewhere along the line. I have gotten kind of lost in this particular chain of discussion. I think any equivocation was unintentional. Where I was trying to end up was that the two definitions of “escape” are the same at their core. The second is simply a pejorative take on the first. I think even you would agree that there are boundary lines past which escape of any sense is no longer healthy (e.g., living alone entirely in a fictional, full-sensory VR world). It is unhealthy escapism that I was giving passing negative reference to in the original post, wherever you think the line should be drawn.

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