Fantasy, Because Reality Is Unsatisfactory

Lothlorien from “Lord of the Rings Trilogy”

After four weeks of teaching my British Fantasy course, I can report on some of the insights my students and I are having concerning the importance of fantasy on our lives.

If literature, because it is at one remove from reality, gives us a safe space in which to examined difficult and painful issues, fantasy gives us an added layer of protection. So far in the course we have seen each of our authors turn to fantasy in order to cope with unsatisfactory realities.

For instance, we traced The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to traumatic childhood experiences in C. S. Lewis’s childhood (his mother died when he was young and his father was not much of a father) and Lord of the Rings to the World War I trenches. The bitter cold in The Eve of St. Agnes can stand in for Keats’s illness, and the death of Arthur Hallam is always in the back of Tennyson’s mind, whether he is writing about Arthur, the Lady of Shalott, or the Lotos Eaters.

I am careful, of course, never to allow my students to reduce the work to biographical or historical context. There are hundreds of different ways that authors can respond to trauma. But because I want my students to understand that fantasy has more to it than fairy dust and magic, I stress the way that it can be a powerful means for authors (and for us as readers) to find our way through a challenging reality.

Here’s one way that fantasy works. It is no surprise that Tolkien would be appalled by humanity and the corrupting influence of power after having fought in World War I and lived through World War II. Humans therefore don’t show up very well in The Lord of the Rings. Isildur starts things off badly when, instead of dropping the ring in Mount Doom after he has defeated Sauron, he keeps it for himself. The nine human owners of the lesser rings become the Black Riders and Boromir is corrupted by his desire for it.

To compensate for the limitations of humans, Tolkien turns to hobbits, which provide him with a fantasy alternative. Hobbits are enough like humans that they can stand in as surrogates for us, but they don’t carry all the baggage.

The same is true of the talking animals in any number of fantasy works. In the class we talk about how children love animal characters because, once again, they provide easier-to-understand surrogates for humans, who are too complex to grasp. When the Pevensie children travel through the wardrobe and find themselves associating with satyrs, beavers, and talking lions, it seems a safer emotional space that trying to figure out volatile humans—humans, for instance, like their traitor brother.

For similar reasons, nature plays a special role in fantasy. I have one student, Nick Brown, who has been exploring the role of Tom Bombadil, who plays a confusing role in Lord of the Rings: he is a green man nature figure who seems to precede human (and elf and dwarf) history and is impervious to the power of the ring. Nick sees Tom as standing in for pre-history. Nature appears benign, a Garden of Eden, when it appears in fantasy literature.

Or at least it does so in fantasy written since the industrial revolution. Before then, Nature can be ominous, as it is in Midsummer Night’s Dream. There it is a reaction against an overly ordered Elizabethan society, and it is not a tame reaction. It may be that C. S. Lewis’ Aslan is not a “tame lion,” as we are told repeatedly, but Aslan is tamer than Puck and the workings of anarchistic desire, which can cause lovers to turn against partners, men to attempt to kill each other, high class ladies to fall in love with asses, and fairies to unleash killer rainstorms. Nature becomes sentimental and associated with children only when we can control it through science and technology.

One should always define fantasy oppositionally, I tell my students. Which is to say, it is not something in and of itself but is always defined against some unsatisfactory non-fantasy reality. I’ve mapped out for my class three approaches to fantasy—the historical, the psychological, and the spiritual—and in each case we look for the contrasts. How is a particular fantasy caught up in its historical moment, how is it a psychological reaction, how does it suggest some spiritual alternative to (or deeper reality than) the lives we are living?

We also talk about how fantasy can be either reactionary or progressive (and occasionally both). Sometimes it represents a longing to crawl back into an earlier golden age or into childhood and avoid the responsibilities of the modern world and adulthood. Sometimes it is a means of articulating a protest against an oppressive system in order to imagine a concrete alternative, albeit in coded form, that readers can strive for.

I’ll have more to report as the semester continues on. At the moment, however, I can report that we are having a blast.

This entry was posted in Keats (John), Lewis (C. S.), Shakespeare (William), Tennyson (Alfred Lord), Tolkien (J.R.R.) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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