What is “Good” Fantasy? (2 of 3)

Jeffrey Overstreet is one my favourite film critics. Along with being the author of Through a Screen Darkly and the fantasy series Auralia’s Colors, he writes extensively for Patheos. com. Ever year when the Academy Awards rolls around, he has a few disparaging words for one or two of the movies that are chosen as the “Best of” for the year. Some people disagree with his critique of certain popular movies based on the fact that the movies are popular and did well in the box office. One of the reasons I trust Overstreet’s movie judgement is because he doesn’t shy away from these comments by trying to convince people that he isn’t some stuffy movie critic. The truth is: he isn’t a stuffy movie critic. But, he is a critic that enjoys movies and enjoys writing about them. When he responds to the “this movie is popular so it must be good” comments of his readers, he often uses the analogy of a restaurant critic. He goes on to describe how much money McDonalds makes every single day around the world, and then ask

s the rhetorical question: “does that make them the best restaurant in the world?” Of course not. Likewise, the numbers at the box office aren’t always a true litmus test to a good movie. Granted, movies, like books, are art (or at least they should be), and art is viewed or read by the public, which means that it must connect with people. But, box office totals should not be the test for greatness…or even goodness for that matter.

My other favourite film critic is  Steven D. Greydanus. His blog, Decent Films Guide,  strives to look at movies as both art and a vehicle of moral understanding. Like Overstreet, Greydanus often critiques movies for their artistic qualities along with their virtuous ones. Greydanus even goes as far as to assign movies a moral and spiritual value(link to explanation). Fortunately, these values are based on more than just how many swear words, deaths, or nude moments there are in the movie.

In fact, Greydanus and Overstreet alike attempt to do what I am attempting to do with fantasy: define what is “good” in terms of goodness and not just popularity.

I would like to offer up two major road signs to look for when trying to decipher the goodness of a fantasy story: symbolism and transcendence.

1. Symbolism


As quoted in my previous post, George MacDonald used the phrase “wise imagination” to describe what he saw as the product of fantasy that abides by a higher calling. MacDonald believed the imagination could be used to direct people to understand more about God and stressed the use of symbolism

 because it refutes the reductive nature of rationalism by asking readers to look beyond the materialistic world. For MacDonald, imagination serves as a conduit of spiritual truths: his most important message is that imagination is something that allows humanity to approach a loving God for the purpose of having a relationship with Him. MacDonald uses symbols in his fantasy as a way to demonstrate the spiritual growth of his characters, and in turn, uses these symbols to foster the moral imagination of his readers. MacDonald trusts the symbolic to carry his message of the moral imagination, and he believes that some truth that comes from intuitive experiences cannot be grasped by mere rationalism. In contrast to rationalism, with its wariness of emotional and experiential understanding, MacDonald regards the wise imagination as the primary means to wisdom.  He thinks of the wise imagination as being open to the divine: “The imagination is the light which redeems from the darkness for the eyes of understanding” (Dish of Orts 14).

Symbolism, then, is critical for fantasy because fantasy deals in the fantastic; therefore it must use the imagination, and the imagination requires a person to accept certain truths without relying on a materialistic explanation. In essence, when we allow ourselves to look for truth outside of rationalistic thought, then we open ourselves up to the possibility of transcendence.

 2. Transcendence

I often say to my students that we do not want to become narcissistic readers. By that I mean we don’t want to judge the truths of a book based solely on our own experiences. Indeed, we want to have our minds expanded by the truths of a book and not have the truths of a book rejected because we don’t understand them. It reminds me of the Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Grapes. As the story goes, the fox sees some tasty grapes handing overhead and he makes several attempts to reach them. After a number failed attempts, the Fox proclaims that the grapes must be sour. Understandably, we all read with certain presumptions about life and the world around us–there really is no getting around this–but, if we reject material solely based on whether we understand it or not, then we surely have a very small view of the world. This is why transcendence is so important in fantasy.

Romantic thinkers such as Coleridge and Wordsworth helped MacDonald form his belief that Nature is a transcendent symbol that points people to the divine, and that these symbols are understandable with the help of the imagination. This view of Nature is most often attributed to Wordsworth whom MacDonald lauds as “the high priest of nature” who “saw God present everywhere” (Orts 246).   MacDonald understands Nature as a divine revelation that can be recognized through the imagination, and writes that “the human imagination has no choice but to make use of the forms already prepared for it, its operation is the same as that of the divine inasmuch as it does put thought into form” (Orts 7). Nature then, according to MacDonald, carries with it the inherent symbolism of transcendence.

The wise imagination therefore is the ability to see our position in a transcendent world where we concede that there is knowledge and experience outside our own rational understanding.  This is an imagination that enables us to acknowledge that true wisdom is a combination of experience of the mind and purity of the heart.

I think the goodness of a story comes from its ability to help us become not only better readers, and better thinkers, but ultimately better people. In a world that is very skeptical of moral absolutes, I think it is important to approach stories with joyful anticipation and critical minds. In essence, like Jeffrey Overstreet, we must not be afraid to determine “good” fantasy based on criteria other than popularity.


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