Fantasy: Help or Hindrance?

Elijah Wood as Frodo

Elijah Wood as Frodo

My friend Alan Paskow, who is struggling with cancer, queried me about my post on Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” wondering whether the poem wasn’t just an insubstantial fantasy. I’ve been writing about The Lord of the Rings as a fantasy perhaps indulged in by a World War I veteran who wasn’t willing to face up to the meaninglessness of the war (see previous entry). And I certainly used Lord of the Rings when I was growing up to escape from the nasty emotions triggered by the desegregation lawsuit brought my family and others against the Franklin County Board of Education (described here). I am a far way from settling the pros and cons of fantasy in my mind, but today I will take the first of what are sure to be many stabs at this issue.

I was in full retreat from the world when I started reading Lord of the Rings. As I’ve mentioned before, desegregation stress may have caused a case of mononucleosis in seventh grade.  I stayed home and read, grabbing every fantasy work I could find.

Which was hard to do in those days, when there weren’t very many of what today are called sword and sorcery novels. Today you can find shelves of them in almost any bookstore, but back then there were C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and that was about it. I did manage to find The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, an author that Lewis cites as a major influence. I also read and enjoyed books like Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, and The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter, but they didn’t have magic. If the Harry Potter books had been around, I would have devoured them as kids today do.

So Tolkien was about it, and I read him over and over. I felt like an outsider doing so since no one else was reading him (I envy the Harry Potter readers their communities). I knew that I felt alive and vibrant. The hobbits were enough like kids that I could relate to them, and I was impressed with how they start off silly (splashing in the bathtub) but grow in stature until, by the end, they have become knights of Rohan and Gondor and have gone head-to-head with Sauron. I was inspired by Frodo’s quest, I understood how he could feel weighed down by responsibility, I went through his moral struggles about what to do with Gollum (I got a major ethics lesson from their interchange), and I was moved by his friendship with Sam.

When Gandalf “dies” and Frodo determines that he must set out on his own, I understood at some level that my own childhood along with its dependence on my parents, was ending.

Yet in other ways the book didn’t confront me with the moral quandaries that later books would. No one has any compunction about slaying goblins, for example, and Gimli and Legolas even have a killing contest at the Battle of Helms Deep.  The world is fairly easily bifurcated into good and evil.

Contrast this with, say, Catcher in the Rye, which I read three years later. I mention Salinger’s novel because I hated it and wanted to go running back to fantasy fiction.

I will explore my aversion in a later post—I’ll just say here that Holden Caulfield was way too real for me—but I mention it because of the way that fantasy became associated with holding on to childhood. It is as though what had been a support became a kind of impediment.

As I say that, the Bronte family comes to mind. They were impressively precocious children, writing hundreds of stories and poems about their invented world of Gondal. They had a devil of a time negotiating the real world when they grew up, however.

I am no longer drawn to fantasy literature as I once was, so maybe I have indeed put away childish things. Even “The Highwayman” seems flat, although I still invoke it.

Freud tells us, however, that we never give up what we loved as children. We just find substitutes. My substitute is adult fiction, which, after all, also involves invented worlds. I have a special fondness for magical realism, works like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children and Beloved. When my friend Rachel Kranz creates a New York psychic, first in Leaps of Faith and then in the novel she is currently writing, I am able to imagine, as I did when a child, that the world is less matter of fact and more mysterious than people think.

These books are like bridges that allow me to travel back to my childhood sense of wonder while still remaining in touch with my adult self. Our reading needs become more complex as we get older because we are more complex. But we are still fed by fantasy.

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  1. Anne
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Hey Robin! I read “The Hobbit” whilst recovering from mono, too, but in eighth grade not seventh, & I’m not quite inclined to pursue too closely what may have triggered that week of illness & its months of recovery. I meet my first class today–“Coed Tennis”! I enjoyed your thoughts on fantasy & hope to respond to other posts, too, this academic year. Elena, by the way, has a blog now, also, from her semester of public health training in South Africa. Would you like the address for that? Hello to Julia!

  2. Anne
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    P. S. I just remembered that whereas I always felt at least a little lost reading “The Hobbit,” I had no such trouble with another fantasy I happened on during my months of mono: “The Eve of Saint Agnes.” I still find its imagery impressively vivid & its plot intriguingly similar to but also different than “Cymbeline.”

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    How wonderful to get this post, Anne! [Anne is a close Carleton friend, married to my Carleton roommate. Anne and John and Julia and I all got married on graduation day–Anne and John before commencement, Julia and I after, which must be some kind of record.] “Eve of St. Agnes” is one of my favorite fantasy poems, one which does not pall as I get older. “Ah, bitter cold it was!” Now I have to go out and read “Cymbeline,” one of those Shakespeare plays that so far has escaped me (though I know the lines “Fear no more the eat of the sun” and “Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney sweepers come to dust.”

    Tell John I found my long-lost tennis rackets, which I thought I had lost at your house, by the way. They were hidden away in the Maine cottage. Enjoy tennis, a passion for me second only to reading. I would love to see Elena’s blog. Our children, raised in strange countries, have become true citizens of the world.

  4. Barbara
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I think fantasy gives us an extra degree of separation/safety for dealing with threatening issues. It’s safe to ponder what an elf might do because, after all, we’re not elves! I had not expected to enjoy “The Mists of Avalon” but loved it because Morgan keeps annoying everyone by saying “Done is done!” (just like an economist saying “sunk costs are sunk!”) while confronting the “new age religion” of Christianity. At the time it was easier to embrace a fantasy feminist critique of patriarchic institutions than confront them in my own life.

  5. Rachel Kranz
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    I loved magic & fantasy as a kid–I’m surprised, Robin, that you didn’t know about “Half Magic,” & the other 6 books in the series, as well as all the books by Zilpha Snyder & a bunch of others, as well as the Narnia books (Tolkien & C.S. Lewis were friends) though many of the ones I loved may have been “girl books” & Tolkien was definitely “boy.” I found the images in “Two Towers” and the first book’s idea of Gollum so scary & disturbing that I just stopped & never went back…

    As an adult, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” has got to be my best TV watching experience ever–I keep comparing its epic scope & depth & magic to Shakespeare, who also wrote “fantasy” in the sense that almost all of his plays were set in other countries, and the rest (except for “Merry Wives of Windsor”) were set in other times. And my favorite playwright is Brecht, who also went elsewhere to talk about now. Brecht talks about making the strange familiar & the familiar strange as a lever to political vision–the otherness means we can see our own world more clearly, without the burden of dailiness–and when I think about “Beloved” (and my own writing), I think how important that otherness is to overturn the tyranny of ordinary reality & let us really see. Magic realism is “real” because it’s the best way to tell the truth about our world, & I certainly felt that way about “Buffy.”

    I wonder if there are two types of fantasy–or two uses of the same fantasies? Escape & return? I tend to prefer fantasy that returns me immediately to daily life (if I want escape, I go for romantic comedies, or other types of romance), but the double-edgedness of fantasy (“Beloved” vs. Tolkien?) is certainly an interesting topic to explore…

  6. Robin Bates
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I want to explore this escape/return distinction, which strikes me as very promising. And to keep probing what happens when we pick up a book. Of course, all fiction is fantasy, even realist fiction. In one way, it’s Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”–as soon as we consider something to be “story,” we are transported into a whole different set of assumptions and expectations, which frees us us from this “tyranny of ordinary reality.” But where a story’s power to do that comes from, I can’t figure out. It feels magical. Maybe it traces back to our childish enchantment with stories. It’s as though, when we enter a “story,” we switch something in our brains and stand momentarily in a different relationship to the world. And then, as Rachel says, we return.


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