"Can Fantasy Ever Tell the Truth?"

"Can Fantasy Ever Tell the Truth?"

Is that even a reasonable question after Tolkien? Not to mention MacDonald, Voltaire, and countless others, from the Golden Ass to Little Big?


  1. Read something about fantasy last night from First Things:

    ( http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/03/reading-literature-faithfully )

    As part of their sometimes puzzling emphases, Jeffrey and Maillet elevate fantasy literature to a height that I find troubling. The greatest literature of the Christian tradition has followed the Bible in its type of realism. Dante’s exposition of the fourfold method of biblical exegesis in his letter to Can Grande included the claim that poetry—at least his poetry—could be read in the same way, and Flannery O’Connor reiterated the claim in our own time. Their claims were based on the historical “givenness” of what they depicted—for example, the real men and women of the Commedia or O’Connor’s true-to-Georgia characters. Dante explored the kinds of meaning to be found in the literal or historical level.

    Fantasy, by contrast, generates its meanings from an invented world, albeit one with implications for the literal one we inhabit. I find that Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee necessarily lack the ontological gravitas of Dante’s Cacciaguida or O’Connor’s Misfit. Tolkien’s many admirers obviously disagree, but there are implications here about faith and the enchantment of fantasy that Christians need to take up seriously.

  2. Dear TSO,

    I'm so sorry the reviewer is troubled, but I fail to understand why he should be. Below, I address the most egregiously erroneous points in the short piece you have shared.

    And I would cite that the greatest literature of the Christian Tradition is, itself, the Bible in which we find both the book of Jonah--not highly realistic--and the Book of Revelation--again, not what I'd call a paragon of realism. What then of John Bunyan, and the whole school he has promulgated--shall we say that allegory is not fantasy? That would seem arbitrary.

    And to claim that Dante is "realistic" is absurd--how could he be as what he was writing about was never observed? Tolkien could be called realistic on the same grounds.

    As to lacking ontological gravitas? So, it is accessible to the ordinary reader--that is somehow a problem?

    Anyway, I enjoyed hearing from you and from the reviewer with whom I will continue to disagree in nearly every particular. That's one of those things that makes the world so interesting.

    Thank you and



  3. I find the review puzzling, too, because the reviewer suggests that after the long drought of escapism, fantasy is once again drinking from the deep well of reality and relevance. I'll be the first to admit that there's plenty of bad escapist fantasy (typically multi-book series that are copies of copies of copies of Tolkien), and that the culture surrounding fantasy fandom has a large escapist element, but it's become obvious to me recently that most fantasy, and all good fantasy, deals in some way with the limits and dangers of escapism. I suspect the reviewer is confusing subject matter he's finds personally interesting with quality.


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