I’ve often wondered why it is that, out of all the genres of books in the world, fantasy is such a powerful medium for teaching truth. How is it that reading 100 Cupboards can reveal the beauty and glory of creation in a way that I’ve never known before? How can traveling across the Misty Mountains with Gandalf and Frodo change the way that I live my life? How can I feel more at home in Narnia than in this world?
Fantasy is a genre that is slammed by many Christians, and on the surface, their criticisms seem just. God forbids for us to have anything to do with sorcery and magic. Therefore, they say, fantasy books that deal with magic are to be shunned. (I have worked through the idea of magic in fantasy, and have come to my own conclusions and convictions. But that’s an explanation for another day…) If these critics would read the stories for themselves in a new light, I think that they’d be surprised. When written by Christian authors, fantasy can bring us closer to God than anything else. In fact, in my own life, books in this genre have taught me more and brought me nearer to Christ than anything else except the Bible.
What is it about elves, faeries, and far-off worlds that hold such power over the reader? Countless times in my life I’ve lain awake at night, staring at the ceiling, wishing that I had been born in Middle-Earth or Narnia instead of our own world. They seem closer to home than Earth – as if I were created for those worlds, and not this one.
I believe that the reason faery tales are so powerful for the Christian is that they remind us that we aren’t home yet. There’s a very real reason why I long to be in Narnia, to go to Middle-Earth. It’s more than just a wish. It’s an aching, a desperate longing. It’s a feeling of homesickness.
C.S. Lewis described this feeling of not-belonging, of unbearable desire, in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:
It is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy…might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief.
And in the Weight of Glory, Lewis goes on to say,
Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will already be in us, but not yet attached to the true object… If transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must…bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy.
The reason that fantasy produces this longing in me more than anything else is simple: it takes me out of this world. Takes me one step closer, as it were, to my real home. It reminds me that I’m not there yet.
Also, faery tales can bring us closer to God by getting our preconceived ideas about Him and His truth out of the way. By bringing Biblical truths “into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations,” as Lewis puts it, “one could make them for the first time appear in their first potency.” Discovering temptation, courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice, loyalty and honor in a fantasy story makes them real in a way that nothing else can. Discovering God in another world, like Narnia, can help us to see Him in a way we never have before. There’s no Rennaisance-style, pale and solemn-faced Lord in these stories. He appears as someone who you’d want to know and love. He appears as He should, and as He is: full of glory, majesty, beauty, and splendor.
Lewis called the stabs of longing for something not to be had in this world “arrows of Joy”. The arrows come in different forms for each person. For me, the most common arrows that I’m hit with are from the worlds created by Tolkien, Wilson, and Lewis. But they’re not limited to these worlds. I’m stabbed with overwhelming potency each time I listen to the music for How to Train Your Dragon. I’m stabbed when I watch the movie Thor. My sister gets hit with the arrows of Joy from Hunger Games, and the movie Tron: Legacy. The arrows come in all sorts of forms, but they’re all shot from the same Archer.
This is why fantasy books are not only my favorite, but they hold such meaning and importance for me. When I read them, I feel that I saw a glimpse through a crack in the door, or for a moment smelled a breeze that blew in from my true country, the one I was made for. I long for the day when the door opens fully, and I can step inside. I want to be there. But until I am, the wanting itself is the greatest Joy I know.