The best kind reminds us that "there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness and stronger than strong fear."
I have a dear friend who is against fantasy of any kind. He will defend to the death — I’m speaking figuratively here, of course — the view that we as Catholics should not be reading, viewing, or otherwise consuming any content with mythical or magical origins.
His argument is based on the grounds that the things we watch, see, and hear have the potential to impact us powerfully. Since fantasy often incorporates elements of magic — or even the demonic — it can be dangerous to invite such things into our hearts.
I don’t disagree. Some fantasy — the kind that glorifies the dark or demonic — is extremely dangerous. But avoiding Harry Potter because it features witches and wizards, or The Lord of the Rings because it has magic and Satan-like villains, misses the point entirely.
As a fantasy author myself, I might be a little biased. But I believe that reading fantasy is good for the soul — precisely because the stories we consume carry power.
Anyone who reads fantasy knows that it’s not real life, and because of that distinction, fantasy is able to transcend the physical world around us, and reflect deep truths that are otherwise difficult to name or understand.
Fantasy gives us the images we need to describe complex spiritual realities. Classic epic fantasy, for example, is a great allegory for the journey of a soul on its path to sainthood. It generally starts with a mission or call, has life-or-death battles against some dark force, and ends with the hero ultimately conquering darkness and saving the world.
God has called each of us on a mission, and our battles against temptation and sin (something that the Church accurately calls spiritual warfare) truly are life or death. Ultimately, we all dream of conquering evil and attaining heaven.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. G.K. Chesterton, a popular Catholic author, frequently praises fantasy throughout his work.
“Fairy tales are not responsible for producing in children fear,” Chesterton says, “or any of the shapes of fear. Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of the bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of the bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
Avoiding something because it deals with dark themes or ideas is actually more dangerous than exposure. By avoiding darkness in stories, we are desensitized to it. We forget what it looks like and how to recognize it in our daily lives — or forget to look for it at all. In extreme cases, we can even be led to believe that such darkness simply does not exist. The horrors found in fantasy already exist in the world in one form or another. Darkness is real. Fantasy reminds us of this reality and helps us to realize that ultimately, the things of God will triumph.
In Chesterton’s words: “Fairy tales accustom people to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, and that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness and stronger than strong fear.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter if the author of those fairy tales is Catholic, although that certainly helps. Fantasy reveals deep truths about the human soul and the nature of good and evil. Whether or not someone believes in God, the author of those truths, does not change the fact that they have been written into the core of who we are. Even an atheist author can produce good works that reveal truth, because these truths are central to how most people understand the world — whether they recognize the Christian origin of those truths or not. On top of this, many fantasy themes and motifs are Christian at their core. These things combined result in stories that can be interpreted and understood through a Christian worldview, regardless of the intent of the author.
I’m not saying that the intent of the author doesn’t matter. Author intent can be dangerous — especially in fantasy stories that make dealing with the devil or his minions look desirable. What I am saying is that, while careful discernment is needed, you shouldn’t disregard a good book on the basis of its author’s beliefs or on whether or not it contains magic, darkness, or any other feature that triggers a strong aversion.
Reading fantasy gives us a chance to step outside of what is known and explore instead the ways in which the human experience can morph a world that is not our own. Fantasy shapes our understanding of good and evil, and gives us stories to explain the spiritual battle for our souls, so that next time, when we sign the cross on our breasts and fold our hands, we will know not only that we are entering into battle, but that it is a battle that can be won.