Middle Grade Monday – Guest Post – On the role of fantasy in everyday life
Everyone in Moorvale believes the legend: The brave knight Tristan and the famed wizard Vithric, in an epic battle decades ago, had defeated the evil Nethergrim and his minions. To this day, songs are sung and festivals held in the heroes’ honor. Yet now something dark has crept over the village. First animals disappear, their only remains a pile of bones licked clean. Then something worse: children disappear. The whispers begin quietly yet soon turn into a shout: The Nethergrim has returned! Edmund’s brother is one of the missing, and Edmund knows he must do something to save his life. But what? Though a student of magic, he struggles to cast even the simplest spell. Still, he and his friends swallow their fear and set out to battle an ancient evil whose powers none of them can imagine. They will need to come together–and work apart–in ways that will test every ounce of resolve.
Matthew has been kind enough to write a guest post for us on the role of fantasy in everyday life.
“You’re dreaming your life away.”
So goes the common opening, the knife edge of an argument inveighed against the dreamer. It carries with it both an assumption and a plea; that by dreaming we retreat from the world, and that by entertaining fantasy we miss the essence of life. The assumption is incorrect, and the plea smacks of jealous presumption. Fantasy is more than simply healthy, it is needful to health. It is grist for the mind’s milling on the question “What would I do if…?”. In seeming to step away, we can come into a truer awareness of ourselves, what we care about most and what we mean to do with the time we have. In leaving, for a while, the confines of our world, we can then return, and when we do we might see with fresh sight that what is heroic, what is elegiac and courageous in life is neither distant nor unreal. It is only in departing that we can see the splendor of home.
Play is natural. We are not the only species that partakes in it. Considered from the most pragmatic of angles, the capacity to play is necessary to the healthy development of the young, and the continued health of the mature. The paradox, though—one I find humorous—is that play ceases to be play once it is done for purely pragmatic reasons. Cast your mind back to your childhood, and recall that time you figured out that the grownups had set something up as educational when you only wanted it to be fun. No kid wants to slay the Math Dragon, once he sees the shadow of his teacher pulling the strings behind it. Why is that so? My answer is that play must come with a sense of autonomy. This is both good and necessary, and a reminder to the parent: the challenges faced by your children will all too soon be not of your making. Better let them rehearse while they can.
Every conscious human drifts off into fantasy from time to time. The most hard-headed, practical person in the world might entertain herself with thoughts of what she might do with more money, more power, or the affection of someone she desired. The question is not, then, whether fantasy is healthy, but rather what sorts of fantasies are healthy. If Harry Potter was about nothing but fulfilling the callow desires of a brat, those books would have been rightfully ignored. Have you never felt as Frodo did—that there is something you must do, and must you keep trying to do it even though you do not know how to find the strength to carry on? If you have not, then you are blessed, and may your life continue smooth, but if you have read The Lord of the Rings, then you might be better armed to face such a challenge if it comes, for you have asked yourself the question “What would I do if…?”. None of us want to suffer in our lives, but all of us will. None of us want our children to suffer, but all of them will. Get your head out of the clouds, say the practical, for life is hard. Show me the fantasy that says life is easy, and I will promptly pitch such a worthless work into the trash. What fantasy can do is help you see the right and wrong, the tragic and comic of your own life by first seeing those ideas in the abstract.
We humans have a great deal in common with each other because we all share a common origin. The styles of art created by the peoples of the world may be dazzling in their variety, but they share something essential—the fact that all the peoples of the world make art. The languages of the world are similarly wondrous in their dissimilarity, but that dissimilarity is not half so wondrous as the binding similarity—humans have the capacity for language. Similarly, the need for narrative is something essential to our natures. I have read accounts of the stagings of the ancient Greek plays. So it is said, the audience, seated out on open steps under the sky, wept and wailed at the tragic turns of plot, howled in derision at the villains, and laughed like thunder at the jokes. Could any of us, insulated by technology from so much of nature’s bite, say that our lives are more real than theirs were? They lived on the edge of death every day, and yet they could slip into the world of gods and heroes without regret, without thinking they were missing something real. I think I am fair in drawing out from the criticisms of fantasy the notion that it is frivolous, that to engage in it implies missing what is truly important. Allow me to stand that assumption firmly upon its priggish little head. First you need air, then water, food and shelter—and then a good story. It’s all the other stuff that doesn’t really matter much.
If you are perceptive and quick of mind, you might yet see another argument lurking near that I should flush from cover and spear down dead. That argument takes this form—story yes, but fantasy no. Even if play and narrative are essential parts of our natures, why then allow such play to take place in Neverland? Why not tell our children swashbuckling tales of insider trading, restrict the flights of their fancies to that permissible within the bounds of aeronautics, and give them police procedurals to pore over with a flashlight in their beds? Part of that is addressed above—that if fantasy is the sort of story we want, then the good fantasies will give us access to the field of right moral action. There is more to it, though, than a question of the dreamer’s autonomy. There is also the particular sense of eerie unfamiliarity that fantasy imparts to ordinary life, the sort of unfamiliarity that engenders an evergreen awareness of, as Jeff Mangum sings so brave and sweet, “how strange it is to be anything at all.”
In the character of Thomas Gradgrind, Charles Dickens evoked the pedagogue obsessed with Fact and intolerant of Fancy, unwilling to let the slightest imaginative ray light up the world of his children. In trying to squeeze out what he thinks is idle thought, though, Gradgrind succeeds only in strangling the mental lives of the people he loves most. By considering the magic “if” within a fantasy, the reader can come to understand that the themes of any good story are the themes of his own life. It is all too easy, living in the real, to drift into the delusion of moral insignificance, that hobgoblin of post-modern thought. A good fantasy snaps you back to the truth—you are the hero of the story of your life, so now will you, hero, prevail against the all-surrounding dark? Thinking about Spiderman helps us think about the nature of power. Thinking about Severus Snape helps us think about the difference between appearance and essence. The pieces of a good fantasy can be torn down in the mind of the reader, rearranged and assembled to form the structures of virtue that will serve a future situation. Even if you restrict your concerns in life to the most Gradgrindian, you will still be faced with this: it is only through imagination that new ideas can be conceived and new things can be made.
There is a power in fantasy, the power of a narrative to situate us momentarily outside ourselves. By doing so, we can return to our lives with the shock of the unfamiliar. By seeing the struggles of right against wrong, justice against injustice, hope against despair in another world, we can look back to our own, and see that those virtues and vices are as real here as they are anywhere. If your life is not a heroic story, what then is it but a series of meals followed by a funeral? What fantasy can teach us is that our lives are stories, and if we persevere, dare and hope, they can be good ones.
About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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