I grew up in a very conservative household where God is the center of everything, and not a day goes by where I don’t feel some thankfulness for it’s privileges. I am a woman steeped in learning to make God my everything. I fail, again and again, and these past weeks have been a reminder for me that I am small and need His strength to hold me up. I learned young to walk by faith and not by sight, but that doesn’t make it easy. I had to fight to get what I wanted, and to say what I wanted to say. I was a bit of a mouse as a kid, not bold, and thin-skinned, so I got used to rarely being taken serious. I never fit in anywhere, I wasn’t cool and hated sports but I found solace in books. It was through books that I found and made friendships, because I had little else in common with others my age. I like animals, so I wrote about them. It wasn’t until later in my childhood that I stumbled upon The Rats of Nimh and realized you could write about anything you wanted. Suddenly writing made so much more sense to me. Nimh was very vivid, and it was amazing to me how O’Brien had made such a vibrant new culture using things he was familiar with and giving them a new perspective (from the view of a mouse!).
I knew I loved books and wanted to write them even at that time, but I hadn’t known why, and it was after I read that book that I realized what it was I liked about books. There were no limits to creativity in them! Sometime later, I fell upon Ella Enchanted, which I have now read a hundred times and still call it a favorite today. It was witty and brilliant, and although fantastical, its characters were relatable. It wasn’t long before I was devouring Redwall novels by Brian Jacques, and I remember paying special attention to the riddles and colorful descriptions as well as the characters with entrancing accents. I ate up The Lord of the Rings for dessert and snacked on the Thrawn trilogy by the brilliant Timothy Zahn after that. I read a little of Narnia, and discovered Mercedes Lackey’s fabulous Elemental books, each of which are cleverly retold fairy-tales. (I prefer her older ones now to the newer ones.) It wasn’t until college that I truly appreciated Arthurian literature. Each of those stories left their mark, and from them I learned that fantasy literature was as much a part of our culture as our history. Forgetting these novels was also forgetting pieces of our own history. Hidden in them were the values and beliefs of different men and women, spanning centuries. Sometimes it was a way to see inside history, from behind the curtain.
Still, during all the time, I was a good girl and never touched a Harry Potter book because 1) I was told there was witchcraft in it and 2) there was a rumor that the good guy never wins. [Note that at the time that I had heard that statement, the final installments of the series had not been published yet. I can only conclude the person who spread this rumor in my circle probably wasn’t well-versed in how book series work, or they would have known that the good guy usually doesn’t win until the last of a series anyway.] As an adult, I took assessment of what I had read in my life, and said, okay, what’s the big deal? Skeptical, I opened the forbidden novels ready to condemn every page of it, and found that it wasn’t that different from anything else I enjoyed.
My west-Michigan culture finds the idea of mixing these two things as odd, at the very least. Ridiculous, even. A waste of time. The mainly-Dutch community I belong to clings to its roots, but I hear little of its own history. They are a stubborn people, unwilling to let anything shake what they know. This is their strength, because it holds them fast to God’s word, but it’s also hard for them to respond to things outside this familiar zone, whether those things are bad, or even good. That is important to know- I don’t believe fantasy literature is neither good nor bad, except that like many other things it can be used right or wrong. It is different, and that makes it unfamiliar, so instead of trying to unravel the real reasons why it’s “bad” it is simply cast out. My refutation then is not to point out all the reasons it isn’t “bad” but all the reasons why I find it admirable.
Fantasy, firstly and most relatably, gives us a fresh look at familiar situations with a more potent, lasting effect. At times we reach a point where we experience something that, from the outside, looks like it should have obvious answers. From the inside, though, that same situation has a whole different feel to it than you had previously thought. Books are able to put us in someone else’s shoes. We can learn a different level of empathy from them. Fantasy books, furthermore, have the advantage of compounding issues with a different light shed on them, not just a different perspective. Sometimes that light is a symbolic one, so that an event can be reinterpreted in many different ways. The author is able to speak to her readers in a simple way, through a single event or person, while delivering a powerful message that pulls readers’ emotions to the surface. Authors know that your emotions can be an incredible force in calling you to action.
My favorite modern example of this is the Out of Time trilogy by Nadine Brandes. When we first meet the lead, Parvin, we learn that she has only one year left to live and she is distraught that she has wasted her life. Parvin seeks extraordinary changes in order to make her last year of life as meaningful as possible. The point of the series is to ask readers “If you knew when you were going to die, how would that change the way you live?” A simple concept. Maybe you could answer the question yourself in one sentence, and forget about it tomorrow. However, by using a dystopian spin on it, Brandes is able to throw in a wild amount of creativity to satisfy her creative itches and her reader’s voracious appetites, while drawing out their emotions for a lasting effect. She builds a new, sharply beautiful world where you can feel the cold and taste the air, and it makes you want to know it. Brandes truly wants readers to consider this question seriously, and you can feel that by the love and beauty she put into her words. By altering the world and characters to a visually impressive new world, authors are able to show rather than tell their readers. Readers gain a fresh view of a difficult situation and a deeper understanding of many sides of a problem when their imaginations are impressed.
Most of us can agree that there is no set definition of art anymore. Perhaps you might say that any work or effort composed of any substance (formed or unformed, physical or nonphysical) that produces an emotional response by an audience is art. That’s a pretty broad, whimsical definition (and scary- I’m really scared of my own answer there). Personally, I like to view art as something that the maker worked over, with great effort, in order to produce something pleasing to his or her audience. [By work I mean blood, sweat and tears were poured over it. Writing isn’t always done by stereotypical weirdos slouched in coffee shops for hours or people who sleep all day long.] In the modern world my definition is likely under some debate. Take it how you like, but the bottom line is this: if one considers a thing that demanded work in order to produce a response from viewers a work of art, then fantasy literature can be considered a work of art.
I recall as a child a situation where the small school I attended put together talent shows every other year. Even then, I was bent towards the art of creation with words, and I desired to weave tales. Yet, every time this talent show was put together, I was automatically sent to the piano without question. Other children could recite poems or Bible verses, but I was too afraid to stand up front by myself, and I was taking piano lessons, so naturally, I was assigned a talent called Pianist. Even though my heart yearned to make stories and I begged to write for the talent show instead, I was assigned a talent. That changed me- it changed how I looked at fantasy literature in particular. I learned then that since you can’t present (any) literature to a live audience, it wasn’t considered a worthy enough talent nor is it socially acceptable. With time, however, I became more convinced that fantasy was the highest form of literary artwork and because of that, it was considered unacceptable. Perhaps, I thought, that was why I couldn’t share it. It was far too imaginative, and therefore had to be contained. Not only was it story-telling, it was world-building. You created your own rules, it was virtually limitless.
Fantasy allowed me to exercise a level of creativity broader than any painting. The pages were born of inky tears and reddened fingers. I couldn’t sleep. We writers lie awake with pounding hearts and fingers stretching to grasp a pen day or night. Days, weeks, months, spent twisting, twining words into structure. Tell me that not one piece of poetry doesn’t sing to you, or that you haven’t felt that you were that hero at least once in your life, only because you understood just one emotion he felt in Chapter 6. A person may view a beautiful painting, and a reader may absorb a book of imaginative lands. We weren’t given imaginations to throw them away. I honestly believe there’s a way that these two things can be bridged: fantasy and Christianity can work together. God, the greatest Artist of All can do the impossible and we are made in His image to carry out impossible tasks through Him. Fantasy is artistic proof that the impossible can and does happen. God gave some of us a talent for art in order to remind us of His beauty and His ability to do the impossible. I believe that if an artist can paint a landscape entirely born of his mind, a writer can paint a work born entirely of his mind, too. It took me a long time to emerge from shadows, and I’m only just growing accustomed to sharing my writing in snippets, but it will always be alive in me even if not on paper.
As a Christian, I believe that I am created in God’s image and given a special purpose, to live for His glory. I also believe that I am not meant for this world. As shown through Genesis to us, when God created man, he meant for us to live in a perfect paradise, but sin changed everything. Fantasy literature is a way of reminding ourselves we were meant for more, and one day we will have it. It’s a common theme among many fantasy stories that Character X knows he is different, and someone guides him into the truth: that he belongs to a different culture, a different world, or was meant to achieve something grand, etc. I believe that this, even in non-Christian fiction, is a subconscious way that we try to justify our own insecurities about fitting in and becoming who God wants us to be. I don’t think God wants us to feel that we fit in anywhere, because He wants us to yearn for more and something greater than what we have here. It is my belief that God placed in us a desire for our Home (Heaven) and fantasy writing is an outward expression of an unrecognized yearning for that paradise we lost. Of course we don’t fit in! We were never created for this broken earth, but were created for glory.
By creating whole new worlds, writers are creating and giving someone a tiny glimpse of our imperfect idea of perfection, deepening that desire in us for true perfection. Bilbo from The Hobbit never quite fit in where he was, he was a different sort of hobbit who yearned for the extraordinary. He experienced adventures because he was brave and had a desire to be and do more, but when it was over, I always found it so intriguing that of all the places he could choose to go, he chose to go to the Elves. Why did Bilbo choose the Elves? I believe it is because the Elves embodied a heavenly aura of attaining perfection, and in his heart, Bilbo was unsatisfied with the limitations of his own world. Although unaware of the true, terrible power of the Ring, he understood that he was meant for something bigger. Many of us can relate to that, and that is how fantasy literature speaks to us. We can understand striving for perfection, because that desire was put in us for a purpose. Fantasy literature allows me to work out what my imperfect mind considers perfect, and how that relates to God’s sovereign perfection.
Fantasy work is one of unique perspectives and difficult questions. Just because something does not automatically make sense to you doesn’t discount it as worthy of thought. Fantasy novels are worth our time because they are a gentle way of showing us our faults and that we were made for more. Yes, they provide respite for a short while from life, but it is more than that. Jesus knew we needed word-pictures because we are forgetful and weak, and he gave us parables. In our own shortcomings we can share our burdens through literature. Through fantasy I see more clearly our failings and perseverance, our ugliness and beauty, and our broken world juxtaposed against the Home I long for, and the desire to be as God meant us to be.
Elizabeth Koetsier lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan and has been writing ever since she can remember. (Really, her earliest memory is of turning spelling word sentences into stories, probably in first grade or before.) She loves fantasy and science fiction literature, mythology, Reformed theology, and her crazy cat, Jemma. Elizabeth works at Tekton on the maintenance team and can be found at www.theinklizard.blogspot.com.
Banner photo copyright Linda Bergkvist.