The Startling Reality of Fantasy

Nerd alert: my favorite genre of fiction is fantasy. Anything to do with magic, mystical creatures, and building make-believe universes captivates me. Maybe it’s because my real life is so real, and I am frequently ministering to people at extreme moments in their lives, I delight in getting lost in something completely fake.

Case in point: several years ago my wife and I went to the movies (a rarity for us, partly because movies made today are terrible displays of gratuity and wokespeak propaganda). We saw the award-winning film Manchester by the Sea. It’s a gut-wrenching story of a man suffering from a devastating loss and still trying to live through his epic depression. There’s a long scene in the movie when he goes to identify the body of his brother, then talks to the doctors about what he should do next (call the funeral home, make arrangements, etc.). I leaned to my wife and said, “I have been that guy in the background. I could answer all his questions. This is too real. I am not enjoying myself.” And if I weren’t such a cheapskate wanting to get my money’s worth, I would have walked out—not because the movie was bad (it was actually pretty good), but because I don’t go to the movies to have a good cry and learn something about myself. I go to get lost in fiction and be entertained.

Another case in point: another day, another movie theater. It was my birthday, and the newest King Kong had just come out (the one with Samuel L. Jackson). We got some chicken wings at BW’s, and then I brought out my inner ten-year-old and fist pumped when a giant gorilla smashed a helicopter into a mountainside. I leaned to my wife and said, “I’m having a good time!” Of course it was a terrible movie by any standard, but I wanted to be engulfed in something that wasn’t real (or as I said then, “I want to watch a hundred-foot-tall gorilla smash things while Samuel L. Jackson swears at it.”). Rock and roll.

The ironic thing is, fantasy is a genre that is perhaps more “real” than the most verisimilitudinous fiction, precisely because fantasy doesn’t cram its agenda down your throat. It still has an agenda (you literally can’t avoid that if you are a human being), but it invites you into its experience within the safety of a make-believe world of wonder. That’s why Star Trek: The Next Generation was so successful: it invited you to grapple with real moral issues within the safety of a fictive universe. Within that safety, you can consider the story’s “real-life” implications without the distractions of cultural-normativity breathing down your neck and distracting you. “Real” fiction is a screaming protestor with a crude poster board. Fantasy is a calm conversation over a crackling bonfire.

So Frodo and Sam walk a thousand miles to save the world. How far would you go? Harry Potter sacrifices his own life for his friends, only to pick it up again. Jesus, anyone? Edmund Pevensie betrays his siblings to the White Witch. Do you have your priorities straight? Daenerys Targaryen trains dragons … actually, skip that one—Game of Thrones is pornographic street trash (whose author will drop dead of a heart attack long before he finishes the series).

My favorite fantasy author alive today is Brandon Sanderson. Not only is each book series uniquely magical, but many of them are somehow (we don’t know how yet) connected magically. There are fascinating creatures, terrifying enemies, and epic battles of good vs. evil. But within the safety of a universe that doesn’t exist one can still be invited in to consider the “real life” implications of what the characters are going through. I commend his work to you (especially Mistborn and The Stormlight Archives), and a final case in point that I read last night from the book Oathbringer (and which is really the whole reason for this article):

Two characters are talking. One of them claims she wants to change the world. The other answers thus (and I’m paraphrasing):

There are three kinds of men in the world. The first sees a boulder rolling down the hill toward humanity and runs out in front of it with his arms out, trying to stop it. He ends up squished. The second runs alongside the boulder and brags to everyone that he made the boulder roll. He ends up getting everyone else squished. The third studies the boulder, then exerts just enough force to change the trajectory of the boulder and saves the world.

Which one are you?