Guest Post: The Treatment of Mythology in Children’s Fantasy

The Treatment of Mythology in Children’s Fantasy


By Dave Berry

The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, Vol 9, No 3 (2005)

Introduction: Fantasy stories trace their roots back to far older tales: the myths and legends of various cultures, which grew from oral storytelling in the days when myths were the only explanation for the mysterious workings of the real world. To a fantasy author mythology is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the themes and characters of myth have enthralled audiences for hundreds or even thousands of years, and they are likely to retain their appeal for many generations to come. On the other hand lurks the problem of creativity: how can a writer come up with new variations on stories that already exist in hundreds of different versions?

In the present day, when readers place great emphasis upon originality, fantasy stories distinguish themselves by the degree to which the author employs or abandons the conventions of mythology. Writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien closely adhered to the tradition of European myths. Catherine Anthony Clark followed the myths of another culture, that of native North America. Welwyn Wilton Katz set off in another direction altogether: turning the Arthurian legends upside down, rewriting the stories instead of building on them. All these approaches create fantasy from the same ingredients, but according to different recipes. The resulting variety of flavors keeps readers coming back for more.

A fantasy author’s first decision is also the most important. What rules govern the work? Should the fantasy world be a charming, lighthearted place like Neverland or Oz? Should it be grimly realistic and touched with tragedy, like Middle Earth or Prydain? Should it intrude upon the real world or remain separate from it? Fantasy runs by its own internal laws, established by the author. Tolkien and Lewis largely allowed tradition to set the rules for them. Tolkien followed the guidelines of ancient Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, mingled with a bit of provincial English folklore (for the hobbits) and Christian doctrine (for Sauron, the great destroyer). Lewis used the medieval English and French romances—Narnia itself springs almost directly out of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France—with a strong twist of Christian symbolism. This English literary tradition rises with Beowulf and continues to the present day. Other, more modern writers sought out mythology from other sources: Ireland (O. R. Melling), Wales (Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper), and North America (Catherine Anthony Clark), to name a few.

Click here to read this article from La Trobe University

How George MacDonald Has Affected Our Lives by Teresa Churcher

There are few moments in life which we remember with acute clarity.  There are even fewer moments in our life where we experience a frozen moment of time.  Some moments like this are pivotal for obvious reasons such as holding a new born baby or a first kiss.  When you are a child these moments can be anything from a loving embrace to a surprise A on a school paper.  For me, I only remember one as a child.  I was at the school library and I saw a book with an intriguing title that caught my attention: The Princess and The Goblin.   I was eight years old and I loved fairy tales but hadn’t yet attempted to read a volume as large as this.  Still I remembered the moment of reaching for the volume, taking it down from the shelf and feeling a sense of awe for THIS looked like a book really worth reading!  I borrowed the book (needless to say) and took it home and read it.  I don’t remember how long it took me to read it but I remember two things clearly.  I remember beginning the book and loving the illustration of Princess Irene in her starry bedroom and I remember the moment I finished it because I did something I had never done before or since.  Immediately after finishing the last page in the book, I turned back to the first page to begin reading it again.  I remember after that looking in my basement for a secret door which would lead me to a secret staircase but I never found it although I had dreams that I did.

Two years later at the same school library, I came across The Princess and Curdie.  I never found any other books by GM until I was in my early twenties and came across two paperback books with interesting covers at a book store.  I didn’t realize who the author was until I was sitting on the train on my way back home looking at my purchases and discovered it was the same author I had loved as a child.  So I then read Phantastes and Lillith.

Years later, I discovered more books by GM through a catalogue I received.  After that, when I had the internet, I decided to do a search on George MacDonald.  I found two websites (yup, only two then), one of them mentioned an email list to join to discuss his works.  I joined the community and gained so much more knowledge and insight into GM and his faith.  I eventually began corresponding with one of the other email subscribers.  One day, he told me of a dream he had where we were in a dark cave along with a bunch of children searching for Princess Irene’s ring.  He found it first and then tossed it to me.  Three years later I had moved from the US to the UK and married him.  Together we visited GM’s birthplace in Huntley.

Last year, I read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons and felt as if I have really come home to my faith.  I read all three volumes slowly and took notes and felt my spirit soar to new heights.  His views on God resonated and added new depths to my faith.  I consider George MacDonald to be a 19th century Christian mystic with a huge heart and a wonderfully wild imagination.

Read more by Teresa at:

In the Service of Freedom: Postmodernism in the Writing of George MacDonald (2 of 3)

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) Hamburger Kunsthalle

George MacDonald was greatly influenced by German Romanticism, and in particularly through the Idealism and creative imagination of Novalis. Novalis attempted to change his readers’ understanding of truth from looking at an object to expel truth to looking at the subject to understand the truth. MacDonald often paraphrased Novalis in his personal letters by writing, “The Realist is an Idealist who knows nothing of himself. Realism is crude Idealism at first hand.” MacDonald also related more closely to Novalis than Coleridge because of the willingness in German Romanticism to explore the spiritual.  MacDonald found life in the Spirit of the Christian faith through Romanticism, and his fiction testifies to a form of Christianity which is largely non-doctrinal.

With this understanding of MacDonald’s view of freedom, it is easy to see how his faith and idea of truth mingles with his fiction. In his fiction, MacDonald relies heavily upon his desire to lead readers into a genuine understanding of God, and his characters and stories are the vehicles through which he “preaches.” The effectiveness of MacDonald’s writing is due in part to his ability to encompass the entire spirit of a message through metaphor instead of simply communicating a didactic, static message. It is this metaphorical message—a truth received and realized within the reader—that MacDonald is primarily concerned with. One example of this metaphorical message is in the story The Princess and Curdie. Curdie is a young man sent out by the wise great, great grandmother on a special task that will test his spirit. Before Curdie can begin his task, he must first thrust his hands into the magical fiery roses in the hearth in order to burn off his calluses and impurities. Pulling his hands from the fire, Curdie realizes that he has the special ability to see a person’s character by shaking his/her hand. Curdie is then advised that people are not always what they seem—a piece of advice that MacDonald is careful to develop. The grandmother tells Curdie that beneath outward appearances of good and evil there is a more important distinction found in people’s ability to trust:

“One of the latter sort comes at length to know at once whether a thing is true the moment it comes before him; one of the former class grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth.”

For MacDonald, this image of understanding a person’s character suggests that life comes from an intuitive experience beyond the planes of rationalism. Instead of allowing rationalism to shake his belief in God because he could not explain the unseen, he accepted the unseen not as untrue but as another cosmic metaphor which needs to be explored but can never be fully understood. This is Coleridge’s Idealism. The lack of understanding comes from deficient human reasoning not from divine impotence. In fact, MacDonald even went as far as to say that “’The bringing forth into sight of the things that are invisible [is] the end of all Art and every art’.”  MacDonald’s fiction thrives on the symbolic because he believed that his writing mirrored the creativity of God. MacDonald goes on to say in the same essay that “hidden meanings are all around us” and that nature itself is a representative of God’s character.  “The meanings are in those forms already,” he writes as he explains that mystery and metaphor are a “divine utterance.”

This mystery for MacDonald was intentionally embedded into his fiction and was a focal point for MacDonald’s belief that meaning can be relative. In his Scottish Writers series, David S. Robb explains how MacDonald’s view of meaning plays out in his fiction as he explains MacDonald as an author “who believes that literature ought to have as much conscious meaning crammed into it as possible and that, furthermore, any worthwhile piece of literature must have within it much more meaning still, far beyond what the author was conscious of devising.” The recurring symbol of sanctification is in the picture of fiery roses and appears in both the Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. The roses are only handled by the wise and righteous grandmother, and only those whom she deems ready can be partakers of the purging and healing power of the roses.

The symbolic embedded into nature also extends beyond the fictional world for MacDonald.  In A Dish of Orts, MacDonald quotes extensively from an essay titled “Essays on some of the Forms of Literature,” written by T.T. Lynch. In MacDonald’s essay—given the same title as the Lynch essay—MacDonald draws comparisons between Biography and Fiction.  MacDonald writes, “Deep in the relationship between the life shadowed forth in a biography, and the life in a man’s brain which he shadows forth in a fiction—when that fiction is of the highest order, and written in love, is beheld even by the writer himself with reverences.” MacDonald continues to expound on the similarities when he calls biography “God’s fiction,” and explains that fiction is often a more dramatic telling of the often inward struggle told within human life—biography.  In other words, fiction is man’s exploration and retelling of God’s more cosmic story and a wrestling with the mysteries yearning to “arrive at something greater than what now [we] can project and behold.” MacDonald rejects the notion that a well-written biography is one which only contains the facts and dates of a person’s life; instead, just like fiction, biography is a genre which should be treated with reverence because of the successes and failures of a human life which are invisible to the reader. In essence, MacDonald accepts that a biography, like fiction, must also bear the burden of representing the symbolic. Further on in the “Forms of Literature” eassy, MacDonald quotes Lynch’s poetic explanation of those unrepresented in biography: “One biography may help conjecture or satisfy reason concerning the story of a thousand unrecorded lives… the milky luster that runs through mid heaven is composed of a million million lights, which are not the less separate because seen indistinguishably.”  MacDonald praises Lynch for his observation that a biography is a story about an individual and a story about how that individual connects in spirit with other individuals.

To Be Royal in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (2 of 3)

In my last post, I included the quote from Ursala Le Guin who had this to say about royalty in The Princess and the Goblin:

“A princess is a girl who behaves nobly; a girl who behaves nobly is a princess. Curdie the miner, being brave and kind, and behaving (or anyhow trying to behave) nobly and wisely, is a prince. The king is king because he’s good man. No other definition is allowed. This is radically moral democracy.”

Le Guin can make this statement because MacDonald is clear in what he expects of royalty. Throughout the novel, MacDonald intersperses definitions of
royalty by stating that “a true princess does…” and “a princess never…”. MacDonald leaves little room for speculation to what he means when he places teaching about morality squarely on the symbolic shoulders of royalty. Yet, there are two kinds of royalty found in this book: the true royalty of the king, the great grandmother, Princess Irene, and Curdie (who is accepted by royalty because of his royal behaviour), and the false royalty of the goblins who create their own monarchy as a rejection of true royalty. *As a special note–there is some great research into physical positioning of characters and their moral goodness in the story (example: great grandmother lives in the highest point of the castle while the goblins live in the depth of the mines).

With this said, I’m suggesting we can understand what MacDonald accepts as moral and good by understanding what he accepts as truly royal. This examination can undoubtedly be done in a number of different ways, but I will limit it to two types of examinations. Firstly, I will look strictly at the character dialogue and direct references that MacDonald uses to describe royalty. And secondly, I will look at royalty in relationship to a characters position to light. For the purpose of brevity, I will only focus on dialogue in this post.

Here is a list (I am using the Puffin Classics edition):

“Then she wiped her eyes with her hands, for princesses don’t always have their handkerchiefs in their pockets, any more than some other little girls I know. Next, like a true princesses, she resolved on going wisely to work to find her way back” (9).

[Conversation about Irene keeping her promise to kiss Curdie] ‘”Nurse, a princess must not break her work,'” said Irene, drawing herself up and standing stockstill. Lootie did not know which the king might count the worse–to let the princess be out after sunset, or to let her kiss a miner-boy. She did not know that, being a gentleman, as many kings have been, he would have counted neither of them the worse. However much he might have disliked his daughter to kiss the miner-boy, he would not have had her break her word for all the goblins in creation” (43).

[About Mrs. Peterson] “She made and kept a little heaven in that poor cottage on the high hillside–for her husband and son to go home to out of the low and rather dreary earth in which they worked. I doubt if the princess was very much happier even in the arms of her hug great-grandmother than Peter and Curdie were in the arms of Mrs. Peterson” (93).

[Mrs. Peterson’s conversation about the royal family] “‘But first, I may as well mention that, according to old whispers, there is something more than common about the king’s family; and the queen was of the same blood, for they were cousins of some degree. There were strange stories told concerning them–all good stories–but strange, very strange. What they were I cannot tell, for I only remember the faces of my grandmother and my mother as they talked together about them. There was wonder and awe–not fear–in their eyes, and they whispered, and never spoke aloud'” (185).

[Irene addresses Lootie after Lootie accuses her of “telling stories”] ‘Just as bad to say nothing at all as to tell stories?’ exclaimed the princess. ‘I will ask my papa about that. He won’t say so. And I don’t think he will like you to say so'” (195).

[The king addresses Irene after she tells him she made a promise to kiss Curdie] “‘Indeed she must, my child — except it be wrong,’ said the king” (231).

[Before the house is flooded] “The king, who was the wisest man in the kingdom, knew well there was a time when things must be done and questions left till afterwards. He had faith in Curdie, and rose instantly, with Irene in his arms” (234).

[Curdie saving the horses] “Curdie got on the king’s white charger and, leading the way, brought them all in safety to the rising ground” (236).

“‘I wish,’ said the king, when they stood before him, ‘to take your son with me. He shall enter my bodyguard at once, and wait further promotion'” (238).

[Describing the goblins after the flood] “But most of them soon left that part of the country, and most of them who remained grew milder in character…Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountains and even with the miners” (241).

What does all of this mean? 

So, if we start with the assumption that many fairy tales are built upon symbolism and metaphor, and build from that assumption with the Ursala Le Guin’s quote about true royalty being a symbol of goodness, then what we have in The Princess and the Goblin is a picture of what MacDonald’s sees as the essential virtues of goodness. This is not an extensive list, but here are a few that seem obvious to me (if you see any that I missed, please feel free to add).

True Royalty is…

Based on virtue not position (although the position is often symbolic of the virtue)

Honest and Truthful


Knowledgeable between right and wrong

Willing to trust and have faith

Willing to serve

Willing to lead

Willing to accept others’ shortcoming

Willing to be led by a “higher light”

In the third and final installment, I will discuss how true royalty in P & G is recognized by a person’s position to light (particularly that of the grandmother), and I will also discuss the goblin’s “royalty” and why that structure is different from the true royalty of the people
above ground.


To Be Royal (1 of 3)

To Be Royal (3 of 3) 

Try seeing it this way: Imagination and reason in the apologetics of C.S. Lewis

by Alister McGrath

Lewis - Imagination and ReasonFew would now dispute that C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century. So what is his approach to apologetics, and why has it been so successful?

Many Christian apologists have assimilated Lewis to their own way of thinking, presenting him in thoroughly modernist terms as an advocate of rationalist defences of faith. Yet to get the most out of reading Lewis, we need to approach him on his own terms. Here, I want to explore Lewis’s distinctive understanding of the rationality of faith, which emphasises the reasonableness of Christianity without imprisoning it within an impersonal and austere rationalism.

I came to appreciate this distinctive approach when researching my recent biography of Lewis. For reasons I do not understand, the importance of Lewis’s extensive use of visual images as metaphors of truth has been largely overlooked. For Lewis, truth is about seeing things rightly, grasping their deep interconnection. Truth is something that we see, rather than something we express primarily in logical or conceptual terms.

The basic idea is found in Dante’s Paradiso (XXIII, 55-6), where the great Florentine poet and theologian expresses the idea that Christianity provides a vision of things – something wonderful that can be seen, yet proves resistant to verbal expression:

From that moment onwards my power of sight exceededThat of speech, which fails at such a vision.

Hints of such an approach are also found in the writings of G.K. Chesterton, whom Lewis admired considerably. For Chesterton, a good theory allows us to see things properly: “We put on the theory, like a magic hat, and history becomes translucent like a house of glass.” Thus, for Chesterton, a good theory is to be judged by the amount of illumination it offers, and its capacity to accommodate what we see in the world around us and experience within us: “With this idea once inside our heads, a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them.” In the same way, Chesterton argued, Christianity validates itself by its ability to make sense of our observations of the world: “The phenomenon does not prove religion, but religion explains the phenomenon.”

For Lewis, the Christian faith offers us a means of seeing things properly – as they really are, despite their outward appearances. Christianity provides an intellectually capacious and imaginatively satisfying way of seeing things, and grasping their interconnectedness, even if we find it difficult to express this in words. Lewis’s affirmation of the reasonableness of the Christian faith rests on his own quite distinct way of seeing the rationality of the created order, and its ultimate grounding in God. Using a powerful visual image, Lewis invites us to see God as both the ground of the rationality of the world, and the one who enables us to grasp that rationality: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” Lewis invites us to see Christianity as offering us a standpoint from which we may survey things, and grasp their intrinsic coherence. We see how things connect together.

Lewis consistently uses a remarkably wide range of visual metaphors – such as sun, light, blindness and shadows – to help us understand the nature of a true understanding of things. This has two important outcomes. First, it means that Lewis sees reason and imagination as existing in a collaborative, not competitive, relationship. Second, it leads Lewis to make extensive use of analogies in his apologetics, to enable us to see things in a new way…

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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.


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


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.

What is “Good” Fantasy? (2 of 3)

Jeffrey Overstreet is one my favourite film critics. Along with being the author of Through a Screen Darkly and the fantasy series Auralia’s Colors, he writes extensively for Patheos. com. Ever year when the Academy Awards rolls around, he has a few disparaging words for one or two of the movies that are chosen as the “Best of” for the year. Some people disagree with his critique of certain popular movies based on the fact that the movies are popular and did well in the box office. One of the reasons I trust Overstreet’s movie judgement is because he doesn’t shy away from these comments by trying to convince people that he isn’t some stuffy movie critic. The truth is: he isn’t a stuffy movie critic. But, he is a critic that enjoys movies and enjoys writing about them. When he responds to the “this movie is popular so it must be good” comments of his readers, he often uses the analogy of a restaurant critic. He goes on to describe how much money McDonalds makes every single day around the world, and then ask

s the rhetorical question: “does that make them the best restaurant in the world?” Of course not. Likewise, the numbers at the box office aren’t always a true litmus test to a good movie. Granted, movies, like books, are art (or at least they should be), and art is viewed or read by the public, which means that it must connect with people. But, box office totals should not be the test for greatness…or even goodness for that matter.

My other favourite film critic is  Steven D. Greydanus. His blog, Decent Films Guide,  strives to look at movies as both art and a vehicle of moral understanding. Like Overstreet, Greydanus often critiques movies for their artistic qualities along with their virtuous ones. Greydanus even goes as far as to assign movies a moral and spiritual value(link to explanation). Fortunately, these values are based on more than just how many swear words, deaths, or nude moments there are in the movie.

In fact, Greydanus and Overstreet alike attempt to do what I am attempting to do with fantasy: define what is “good” in terms of goodness and not just popularity.

I would like to offer up two major road signs to look for when trying to decipher the goodness of a fantasy story: symbolism and transcendence.

1. Symbolism


As quoted in my previous post, George MacDonald used the phrase “wise imagination” to describe what he saw as the product of fantasy that abides by a higher calling. MacDonald believed the imagination could be used to direct people to understand more about God and stressed the use of symbolism

 because it refutes the reductive nature of rationalism by asking readers to look beyond the materialistic world. For MacDonald, imagination serves as a conduit of spiritual truths: his most important message is that imagination is something that allows humanity to approach a loving God for the purpose of having a relationship with Him. MacDonald uses symbols in his fantasy as a way to demonstrate the spiritual growth of his characters, and in turn, uses these symbols to foster the moral imagination of his readers. MacDonald trusts the symbolic to carry his message of the moral imagination, and he believes that some truth that comes from intuitive experiences cannot be grasped by mere rationalism. In contrast to rationalism, with its wariness of emotional and experiential understanding, MacDonald regards the wise imagination as the primary means to wisdom.  He thinks of the wise imagination as being open to the divine: “The imagination is the light which redeems from the darkness for the eyes of understanding” (Dish of Orts 14).

Symbolism, then, is critical for fantasy because fantasy deals in the fantastic; therefore it must use the imagination, and the imagination requires a person to accept certain truths without relying on a materialistic explanation. In essence, when we allow ourselves to look for truth outside of rationalistic thought, then we open ourselves up to the possibility of transcendence.

 2. Transcendence

I often say to my students that we do not want to become narcissistic readers. By that I mean we don’t want to judge the truths of a book based solely on our own experiences. Indeed, we want to have our minds expanded by the truths of a book and not have the truths of a book rejected because we don’t understand them. It reminds me of the Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Grapes. As the story goes, the fox sees some tasty grapes handing overhead and he makes several attempts to reach them. After a number failed attempts, the Fox proclaims that the grapes must be sour. Understandably, we all read with certain presumptions about life and the world around us–there really is no getting around this–but, if we reject material solely based on whether we understand it or not, then we surely have a very small view of the world. This is why transcendence is so important in fantasy.

Romantic thinkers such as Coleridge and Wordsworth helped MacDonald form his belief that Nature is a transcendent symbol that points people to the divine, and that these symbols are understandable with the help of the imagination. This view of Nature is most often attributed to Wordsworth whom MacDonald lauds as “the high priest of nature” who “saw God present everywhere” (Orts 246).   MacDonald understands Nature as a divine revelation that can be recognized through the imagination, and writes that “the human imagination has no choice but to make use of the forms already prepared for it, its operation is the same as that of the divine inasmuch as it does put thought into form” (Orts 7). Nature then, according to MacDonald, carries with it the inherent symbolism of transcendence.

The wise imagination therefore is the ability to see our position in a transcendent world where we concede that there is knowledge and experience outside our own rational understanding.  This is an imagination that enables us to acknowledge that true wisdom is a combination of experience of the mind and purity of the heart.

I think the goodness of a story comes from its ability to help us become not only better readers, and better thinkers, but ultimately better people. In a world that is very skeptical of moral absolutes, I think it is important to approach stories with joyful anticipation and critical minds. In essence, like Jeffrey Overstreet, we must not be afraid to determine “good” fantasy based on criteria other than popularity.


What Is “Good” Fantasy? (1 of 3)

From the start, I admit that I am a little leery of answering this question. Qualifying something by using the word good is similar to saying a building is strong because it’s dog–to most people it doesn’t mean anything. Or if it does mean something, then it probably means something different to you than to me. This is the reality of our relativistic worldview. In a response to the question of moral relativism, G.K. Chesterton uses an reductio ad absurdum to illustrate the limitations of moral relativism:

“Whatever we may think of the merits of torturing children for pleasure, and no doubt there is much to be said on both sides, I am sure we all agree that it should be done with sterilized instruments.” 

Absurd? Yes. Brilliant? I think, once again–Yes. Whether we want to admit it or not, people live and move and breathe based on the conclusions that we make.  To lean on Chesterton once again, I believe that “the human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions,” and that:

“In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.”

Now, believe it or not, the point I am trying to make is actually not solely philosophical. In truth, the point I am trying to make comes more or less from a simple pragmatic question that many people ask before cracking the cover of a book: “is this book going to be any good?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m a busy person. I have a wife, two active kids, I teach, volunteer at church, and try to keep up to date on other important matters (like finishing the 3rd season of Sherlock). Safe to say, I, like you, probably don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to poor literature. On top of that, I believe that a good book is a piece of art; and like a piece of art, that book can change or solidify my worldview–help me see the world from a different perspective. Or maybe just give me a good laugh. Either way, I want to share good books with other people hoping that it will also change how they see the world.

We all have an understanding of the word good. All of our minds have come to a conclusion of what constitutes the qualities of good. Let’s just say that when I first meet my wife my idea of a good valentine’s dinner was a little different than my wife’s  idea of a good valentine’s dinner. Fortunately, with a little discussion, we have arrived (okay, I have arrived) at the understanding that Shake ‘n Bake Chicken and hard French Bread does not constitute a good Valentine’s Day dinner. In fact, I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that this understanding has probably contributed to a much happier marriage! 

With all of this said, I want to spend the next few posts explaining what I see as good fantasy using the following definition that is in large part borrowed from George MacDonald:

Good fantasy is such that uses the readers imagination to help recognize the wonder and mystery of our world which draws us to a higher law than the one which we create ourselves—MacDonald refers to this as the “wise imagination.” In Dish of Orts, he writes:

In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect).

shake 'n bake

Say no to shake’n bake

The Inescapable Reality of Fantasy

In case you hadn’t noticed, our modern culture is fascinated–some would say obsessed–with the fantastic. Vampires, magic wands, and mystical worlds pervade popular media, and in some instances have created a zombie-like kind of following. There are a number of different images that pop into a person’s head when he or she hears the word “fantasy.” For the young, fantasy may represent unicorns, and leprechauns, and pink and purple Care Bears. For the older audiences, fantasy may conquer thoughts of magic, and werewolves, and zombies (both the Walking Dead and Shawn of the Dead varieties). With broad understanding like these, it is easy to dismiss fantasy as just a pop cultural way to escape from reality. Tolkien addresses this issue when he writes: ”

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”On Fairy-Stories

C.S. Lewis address this same issue when he talks about how finding wonder in a tree in fantasy actually helps us see more wonder and beauty in a real tree. John Piper address this notion of beauty in Lewis when he writes:

“The created world is not an end in itself. It finds its meaning when people, created in God’s image, use it with a mind that knows God, and a heart that believes in and thanks God. …

I’m suggesting, along with Lewis, that of all the possible ways that God could have revealed the fullness and diversity of the supreme value of his being, he concluded that a physical world would be the best. The material creation was not God’s way of saying to humankind: “I am not enough for you.” It was his way of saying: “Here is the best garden where more of what I am can be revealed to finite creatures. The juiciness of a peach and the sweetness of honey are a communication of myself.”  “What God Made Is Good — And Must Be Sanctified: C.S. Lewis and St. Paul on the Use of Creation”

As cultish as some of the following of fantasy can be, fantasy does fill a craving to understand that there is more to this world than we can see. The symbolic nature of fantasy often points to universal truths about the depth of humanity, creation, and God, and these symbols can guide readers to see that the world as a mysterious and wondrous.

Like the parables of Jesus, fantasy can be harnessed to communicate deep truths about life in a way that is both griping and enjoyable. These stories have the potential of revealing a greater purpose for our lives by giving us a more cosmic view of the world. In essence, fantasy is not only a vehicle for good storytelling; it can also be used as an effective conduit of spiritual truths–a tool to foster spiritual wonder. Sadly, this is often not the case in much of fantasy.

By allowing ourselves to explore the fantastic, we are more prone to discover the wonders of this world. When we seek the symbolic truths of this wonder, we are exposed to God’s creative impressions on everyone and everything. When we experience these impressions, we are more likely to be personally changed, and more likely to communicate that genuine change to others. This is indeed the Gospel (the “good spell”) that is capable of enchanting us all.