There was a time in my childhood when my family was involved in an extreme religious group of the evangelical persuasion. My parents cut all ties to them many years ago, for the better but my memories of those years are both rich in fantastic elements of apocalyptic book Revelation from the King James Bible and the devastating news my mother broke to me one day as she packed up eight books that I dearly loved and shipped them out of the house. The first seven books were C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and the eighth book I remember was a Golden edition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. All books of fantasy and talking animals were forbidden by the religious group we had just joined.
I was heartbroken. I know there were other books that made their way into those bags and disappeared from my life but losing the three bears and the four kings and queens of Narnia left a deep impression. While my parents tried to fill the void left in our library with the modern equivalents of the lives of the saints, using bibliographies of people like Fanny Crosby and Eric Lindel, introducing me to missionaries like Brother Andrew and reading me the Old and New Testament, I never forgot the four kings and queens and the three bears.
Fantasy is inherently subversive. At its heart, the fantastic elements inherent in fantasy disturb if not completely overturn the status quo. That’s why we call it fantasy and not reality. Heroes of fantasy are not by-and-large submissive followers of the Grand Leader up top. Think of one of the best known characters in modern fantasy, Frodo Baggins. He is not a character upon which to raise quiescent masses. He is the “normal” character in the epic, for all that he is a hobbit but he consistently shows the achilles heals in the ruling powers from one end of Middle Earth to the other. From Galadriel and Gandalf who both find themselves refusing the ring to save themselves, to Thorn who craves the ring but it thwarted by his tortured son Fariden, we are reminded that of what concentrated power can do. Ultimately, with Sauron’s defeat, we are reminded again, as Galadriel and Gandalf had said when they each refused the ring, that not even the best of us should hold so much power even with the best of intentions.
Fantasy lights the imagination and lets us free to imagine the world in ways it has not yet become. We fantasize over our dream job on the drive home Monday night. A bride fantasizes over her perfect dress. We should dream of a world where hunger is eliminated. Fantasy exercises us in imagination. What would it be like if my dog could actually speak to me? What if I could build a “flying machine” in my dad’s garage and fly across the corn fields? What if I asked the man drinking coffee alone out on a date? Who knows?
If we never imagine, we can never take action. If we never take action, things stay the same, till someone else acts upon us.
In a few short years, my parents led my family out of that restrictive religious organization. I remember the day in the bookstore I saw a beautiful new set of Narnia Chronicles siting on the display. They brought back memories of climbing in my mother’s lap, lion kisses, dressing up in fur coats and shaking in fear over the fate of a fawn named Tumnus. I turned to my mother and she must have read the plea on my face. She spoke with my father and he bought the entire set right there. Then we went home and my father read aloud to the family, each night after dinner for more than a year. It was healing.
Eventually, we also read all the Harry Potter books together. My father may still have bruises from where we jumped him when he stopped reading in the middle of the Chamber of Secrets to give his voice a rest.
Fantasy is subversive. It can heal us, grow us and change us. No wonder that organization tried to forbid us to read fantasy.
Which is exactly why we should keep reading it.