By Jill Richardson
I admit it—I saw the Lord of the Rings movies before I read the books (now multiple times). In that theater, shortly after 9/11, when the pain was still raw, the fear still thick, the sense of shock that our familiar world was obliterated still overwhelming, I fell in love with the characters, the story, and the words such as Gandalf’s timely reminder:
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Many people wonder, why read fantasy? Isn’t it just escapism? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with this world, rather than events that aren’t even real? Especially in times that seem to require a focus on grim reality.
Yet something deep stirs in you when you read about dragons and fairies and other worlds where battles are fought and wrongs are righted. Perhaps that “something deep” is a response to fantasy’s ability to tell a story that can be our own—a story that reflects serious beliefs and values in its pages of “escape.”
What is the purpose of reading (and writing) fantasy? Here are at least four.
To combat unbelief and cynicism
One hallmark of the Millennial generation is cynicism. Constantly courted by ads and pollsters, this generation is wary of being marketed to, and distrust is their default. This has its good and bad points.
Fantasy, with its emphasis on heroes and battles for good, enters that cynical atmosphere with a new conversation. Maybe, there is such a thing as a hero who isn’t self-serving. Maybe there is, as Sam argues, good in this world worth fighting for.
“Even a lowly Hobbit can change the course of the world by destroying the Ring. That is the appeal of fantasy. In our modern world where politicians prove corrupt, large corporations rip off consumers, and terrorists kill ordinary people going about their daily lives, the traditional quest fantasy provides an antidote to cynicism.” (Rowena Cory Daniells)
To bring hope
Fantasy is hardly escapist, when you think about it. Awful stuff happens. Hundreds die on Pelennor Fields. Hermione must choose to lose her parents forever. Thorin and both his heirs die.
But in the end, life goes on. The hero wins. Though what has happened won’t be forgotten, there is a sense that it was not for nothing—good did triumph. Life will be better.
“Fantasy does not deny or diminish the existence of sorrow and pain. The possibility of failure is absolutely necessary for the “piercing sense of joy” one feels when victory is finally won. Fairy tales all offer the hope that a happy ending is possible—and we need to believe this. Fantasy denies ultimate despair. It holds out the hope for a better world and signposts the way.” (Kate Forsyth)
To give us weapons for our own battles
Life is tough—but then we see the intelligence of Bilbo, the quickness of Pippin, the courage of tiny Merry, the loyalty of Sam, the calm wisdom of Hermione, the persistence of Harry. With that sight? We realize that those are tools accessible to us.
When a writer creates a hero who is afraid or feels unequipped, that hero looks a lot like me. To witness that hero’s struggle and the ultimate victory over not simply a tangible enemy but over oneself is to believe we can stoop down and pick up our own sword or bow and take on our own fears.
To show the world as it was/is meant to be
Tolkien famously defended fantasy by saying that there is nothing wrong with a prisoner who wishes to escape his prison. By that argument, this broken world is our prison, and looking elsewhere for a portrait of what our world was meant to be is the most normal, sane thing one can do.
“I coined the the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. It is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole chained nature feels a sudden relief as if a limb out of joint has suddenly snapped back. It perceives that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature was made.” (J.R.R. Tolkien)
Against all odds, good, love, and peace win. The underdog triumphs. Is this escape? Or is it the world as it was intended? Good fantasy brings us back to the beginning and invites us to participate in the renewal of what was always meant to be.
Writing prompt: Dorothy knew she had been told to follow the yellow brick road. But the girl who had run away from her overprotective old aunt had no intention of listening to a woman who rode in a bubble. She looked at the red bricks intertwined with the yellow ones. They looked interesting . . .
Jill Richardson is a writer, speaker, pastor, mom of three, and author of five books. She likes to travel, grow flowers, cause trouble, and research her next project. Her somewhat unnatural love for hobbits and elves comes from her time as a literature teacher and as a lifelong reader of great stories. Her passion is partnering with the next generation of faith. She blogs at http://jillmrichardson.com/.
Hobbits, elves, dwarves, dragons, and wizards? Are epic-sized adventures just for fantasy? Or can they happen to you, too? Tolkien’s famous and immortal characters of Middle Earth are great for film, but the surprising thing is, they’re more real than you think. Within every “average” teen there’s an epic adventure waiting to be discovered—and this book just might help you discover yours. Look at the lives of your favorite characters, compare them to how God sees their journey, and see how you, like Bilbo, might find out, “There is a lot more in (you) than you guess.”