Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Monday, October 02, 2006

more on fantasy

Tolkien says it well (I like his essay "On Fairy-Stories" so much more than I like his novels!):

"If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. . . . If written with art, the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms. But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people."

For "fantasy," read "imagination" but also "strangeness." For "recovery," read "defamiliarization." And for "consolation," read "grace." For Tolkien, as for Chesterton (more on him another time), fantasy's primary value is spiritual: it offers a kind of hope that realism frequently cannot, by virtue of its imagined flights (escape!) and its promise of something better.

There are fantasies that end with the death of the hero (Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy is a surprise entrant in this one), or with separation (think His Dark Materials), or loss (I think they all do this). But the impulse to continue to invent, to imagine, to tell another story, that is implied in the best of fantasies, is profoundly optimistic even in the face of loss.

One thing that makes for bad fantasy, then, is loss that doesn't matter, or consolation that feels unearned--too easy, too quick. I have to admit I can feel this way about C.S. Lewis's fantasy novels: Aslan's death lasts only a few hours, and isn't even known to most of the characters, after all. And to refer to death as "the holidays," as he does in The Last Battle, seems to cheapen the deaths that have led up to this end. But again, more for another time.

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