You Cannot Pass
I love to read. I have found that when the TV’s off and a book’s open, I feel so much more relaxed, and the evening goes by much slower, which is great when you’re dreading returning to work the next day. And I don’t always just read Scripture, or theology books, or “devotionals”, I read literature. I have sitting on the shelf beside my spot on the couch several books: The Holy Bible (New American Standard), An Anthology of American Literature, An Anthology of English Literature, Moby Dick, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, The Lord of The Rings, and a few more. I leave those there so that every time the tube’s on, I see them and remind myself there’s probably something better I could be doing. Is it just entertainment, or is there something else in those pages?I love fantasy literature. I recently started reading the Lord of the Rings for what is I believe the fifth time. I’ve always preferred fantasy to so-called “main stream” literature. When I discussed my love of fantasy with one of my Christian friends in college, he told me he hated fantasy because it was “just a method of escaping reality.” I thought long and hard about this statement. Was I just pouring myself into childish make-believe because I was dissatisfied with reality? After much thought and study, I’m convinced that the opposite is true. Fantasy literature (or rather good fantasy literature) actually illustrates the most important themes of life more accurately than “main-stream” literature can.

To answer the question of whether fantasy is escapism- of course it is! All literature is escapism. There is an important feature of literature (memorize this) The map is not the territory. A piece of art cannot completely contain every detail of reality. Can you imagine trying to read a book where everything about a scene had to be described? Every single detail of every leaf of every tree, every thread of every sweater, every hair on every head would have to be described completely or it would not contain full reality. We can’t read a book where every character’s thoughts are traced, or every facial expression is written down. Literature is just a map of reality, not reality itself. This is illustrated best in the short story, “On Exactitude in Science” by Jorge Louis Borjes, which I will reprint here in its entirety:

“. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”

In this wonderful story, we see the absurdity of trying to produce a piece of art which is an exact representation of the original subject. Not only is it impossible, it is utterly useless! As a map is supposed to be a manageable and comprehendible representation of geography, so is literature to be a manageable and comprehendible representation of reality. Don’t misunderstand me, good literature does not need to be realistic, nor does it need to follow any of the conventions of modern realism, but good literature must speak to reality in some form. Where mainstream literature leaves us desiring more about our souls, fantasy literature is happy to confront us about our deepest longings. I can think of no other genre which so frequently deals with suffering, immortality, the soul, life after death, or destiny. Nor can I think of any genre that deals with man’s virtue or man’s struggles as readily and accurately as fantasy. Thinking back to The Lord of The Rings I can recall virtues and universal struggles found in all cultures of people: trust, honesty, companionship, endurance, justice, faith, courage, hope, redemption, temptation, failure.

As beings made in God’s image, we are designed with a desire to create beauty. Christians don’t have to only write cheesy allegory and bad life-lesson novels. Do you remember God’s instructions for the construction of the temple? There were objects in the temple that were only for beauty, such as the pillars which supported no weight, or the jewels which had no practical purpose other than aesthetic beauty. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that art is worldly, particularly in the area of fantasy literature. Think back to the harsh and unfounded attacks Christians made on Harry Potter and its author, J.K. Rowling. We are made in the image of the Great Storyteller. It is part of our nature to create wonderful stories for our pleasure. Those of us who love to create stories and write them down should know that God has blessed us with this ability and He is happy when we write. As creatures who have had our minds set free from the curse of sin, our imaginations should soar beyond the heavens.