Faith and the Fairy Tale: Can a Christian Gain from Fantasy?

No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The un-blushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women's magazines. (C.S. Lewis, "An Experiment in Criticism")

Luke faced the dragon. He smelled the sulfurous fumes from its nostrils. He reeled from the stench, from the heat that poured from its scaly, green body. Sweat trickled into his eyes. He raised a grimy hand to wipe it away. His legs felt like jelly. His shoulder ached. "You have no power here," said a voice in his mind. "Turn and run." And, for a moment, Luke was tempted, more sorely tempted than he ever had been.

But then the dragon made its mistake. The bloated lizard bared its long, sharp teeth in a lazy smile – as it pulled on the chain around Leia's neck. Luke looked down. He saw that the monster's heat had seared her bare shoulder. He saw the agony in his sister's face. He seemed to wake from a dream. Barely conscious of his aching arms, he twisted the lightsaber in his hand. With a hum, a stream of brilliant blue appeared. "Never!" cried Luke. He advanced on the dragon…

"There he goes again! Why can't he just preach the Bible?"

Should Christians have anything to do with fantasy? Should blood-bought believers read Harry Potter or tolerate preachers who use sermon illustrations from Star Wars or Superman? For some believers, fantasy is anathema to faith in Christ. For others, like myself, it strengthens that faith. The gap is wide, the chasm deep.

To conserve space, I'll use "fantasy" as an umbrella term to cover science fiction, horror, fairy tales, and other types of non-realistic stories. Through the years, I've heard a number of believers argue against fantasy. Here are a few of their major concerns:

There are only two sources of true supernatural/superhuman power – God and the Devil. Reading and watching fantasy distracts us from spiritual reality and truth, thus becoming a tool of the Devil.

Fantasies deceive people – especially children – into thinking they can fly, cast spells, travel through time, etc.

The Bible plainly declares witchcraft to be a detestable practice before God.
With the Harry Potter series, many have already distinguished between the "occult" and the "mechanical" use of magical powers. Harry, Ron, and Hermione make mechanical use of their abilities. As Anne Morse writes, "Harry and his classmate are born with the ability to perform magic – much as real life kids are born with musical or mathematical ability. Students at Hogwarts learn to cast spells, read crystal balls, and transform hedgehogs into pincushions – but they don't attempt to contact the supernatural world."
Morse goes on to quote from Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs to the effect that, for much of western history, magic was viewed as a mere means of "controlling and directing our natural environment."

As I talk with opponents of the Potter series, I'm struck by a great irony. Here are folks opposed to the use of "magic" who nevertheless send email and ride above the clouds in vehicles weighing several tons. To their untrained minds (and mine is certainly no better trained), all modern technology seems to work – well, by magic! Even computer experts and brilliant surgeons marvel at the wonders their own knowledge has wrought. It seems to me that one man's "magic" is another man's brain surgery. Why, then, should the mere mention of the word send otherwise intelligent believers scurrying for cover?

Granted, not everyone who hates Harry Potter is willing to think in such terms. Still, I'm less troubled by the attitude of some toward this particular series than by the contempt some believers have toward fantasy in general: "It isn't true. Therefore, it deceives."

Let's return to the thinking of that brilliant Christian apologist and master fantasist, C.S. Lewis. In his 1952 essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children," Lewis makes a startlingly relevant statement: "About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale."

He could be talking about any of a dozen anti-Potter diatribes, or the initial Christian furor over the Eastern philosophy in Star Wars (which now seems to have taken place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). He marks the basic argument against fantasy as giving children a false impression of the world in which they live and thus deceives them about that world.

This is not to say, of course, that, every now and then, some imaginative child won't act as though fantasy is reality. Lewis himself once recalled a child so taken with Narnia that he took an axe and chopped through the back of a wardrobe! We've all heard of kids tying bath towel capes around their necks and jumping out of windows. (I know of one boy who burst, Superman-like, through the kitchen window. He needed 13 stitches – I wear long sleeves, though, so hardly anybody notices.)

But what is the result of such acting out? Don't the painful results – parental discipline or physical injury – tend to more firmly ground the child in reality?

Nevertheless, as Lewis points out, both the fairy tale and the realistic story arouse longings – but which longings, he asks, are more dangerous? The truer-to-life story may suggest that a child can become immensely popular and successful. For a while, the reader basks in the vicarious glow of his peers' admiration, not to say envy. Such a story flatters the ego. It suggests earthly possessions just within reach. Invariably, however, we never get hold of these things – "things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance." In fact, the "realistic" has deceived us, and made us unhappier with life.

On the other hand, Lewis suggests that "fairy land" arouses longings for… we know not what. Fantasy stirs within us a dim sense of something beyond our reach. As Lewis says, "He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all woods a little enchanted."

As a hiker, I can attest to the truth of Lewis' statement. Lately, I've taken to walking the woods beyond a dam in our area. Some days, I'm just getting a bit of aerobic exercise, putting one foot in front of the other on a graveled path between stands of birch, maple, and pine. I'm conscious of my swollen ankle, my sweaty brow.

On other days, however, I'm hiking with Frodo on the way to Mordor. I pause a moment, shift the weight of the pack on my small shoulders, and look around at the fantastic shapes, the jagged remains of branches. A cloud crawls above the treetops, blotting out of the sun. I shiver with the sudden chill – and I wonder what might be stirring just beyond my sight, deep in the woods. In that moment, I'm transported. I'm walking "the wood between the worlds" and wonder enters my life.

For some, whether through upbringing, education, or environment, life suggests no more than… more of the same. What's more, just because a man is a Christian doesn't mean he senses more than he sees and hears. He may acknowledge God. He may read the Bible. He may even pray, but his faith brings him neither joy nor wonder. For others, life is shot through with joy. It has nothing to do with worldly wealth, success, or the admiration of the peer group. The joy breaks like lightning from above, illuminating the darkness for a split second.

For some, then, life merely states. For others, it suggests. So the question of whether believers ought to read fantasy becomes less about reality and more about what reality suggests.

To be perfectly honest, we can all live just as long and die just as happy if we've never read Tolkien nor heard of C.S. Lewis. What's more, I don't wish to suggest that reading fantasy is a necessary requirement for joy. Joy, the apostle Paul says, is the fruit of the Spirit. It isn't necessarily the result of reading fairy tales. What's more, I would bind no one's conscience in this regard nor put a stumbling block before anyone. Personal conviction is a much greater possession than a passion for fantasy! As Paul suggests, if your conviction is to leave Harry Potter alone, then by all means leave him alone!

I only wish to suggest that fantasy doesn't necessarily detract from faith in Christ. It may well enhance such faith – as stained glass enhances a church's window frames. Is there a place where wishes come true – a place where men really can leap tall buildings at a single bound, where beauty never fades, and death, if remembered at all, seems but a dream? Don't we believe there is such a place – that, indeed, there must be such a place? We call it Heaven, don't we? The ultimate escape. I humbly submit that, for some of us at least, fantasy wafts the aroma of Heaven.

Gary D. Robinson is a Christian writer living in Conneautville, PA. He's a frequent flier – sometimes even on a plane.

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  • Guest

    Fantasy, in the author’s sense, has always been a method of instruction. Well-written fantasy allows us to learn vicariously from the mistakes, glories, trials, and ethical dilemmas of the characters in the story. It is, or should be, a no-brainer that children like fantasy. It allows them to “become” a person which they are not “yet.” Certainly parents should be aware of the stories being read. Ideally, some stories should be read with the children (TURN OFF THAT D**N TV AND READ TO THEM). But they should not be prohibited from reading stories by Heinlein, Grimm, Asimov, Burroughs, Twain, Rowling, Brin, Niven, or Bradbury appropriate to the age.

    Fine, Harry Potter is not The Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia. That does not mean that a child has nothing to learn from it. My son won’t be allowed to read Potter for at least another three years, but he is reading Chronicles. He’s too young to wade through Rings, but not Unfortunate Events. And together we are reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Much too hard for him alone, but great as a family read.

    As my children’s consciences are informed by good reading and having their questions answered by my wife and I in light of Christ’s and Church instruction, their faith becomes more clear to them and their choices and decisions more faithfully made.

    Michael

    “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried”

    “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” – GK Chesterton

  • Guest

    I have always been a reader of any fiction with a certain restless frustration. Fantasy or suspense or whatever, non-fiction was always more adventure as well as instructive.

    No adventure is likened to pursuit of truth, to my mind and sensibilities.

    When I read aloud to my daughter up until about her sixth year – religiously, nightly – only then did the fiction come alive because my voice had to locate the truth underneath. I wept for the truth behind Christopher Robin leaving innocence behind. My daughter was more fascinted by my tears – my abrupt halt for loss of voice – than by all Pooh’s stories. She saw truth in her Dad’s sense of reluctant resignation to expectable tragedy. The non-fiction behind the fiction grabbed her more.

    I read Shakespeare only aloud, now. The poetry just isn’t, until my voice takes it up. It is the same with the Psalms. So, too, the words of Isaiah, Christ and Peter. And, sometimes – more often, really, as the years pass – my voice halts suddenly, and tears gratified and comprehending come to my eyes. (Of course, Isaiah is helped by Handel’s Messiah singing in my head to the words . . .)

    And, with the article’s author, I wonder just what is ‘age-apprpriate’ to any of us about what passes for fantasy-laden literature.

    I remain your obedient servant, but God’s first,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @mail.catholicexchange.com or …yahoo.com)

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