Why Fantasy Matters

“In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect.”  (George MacDonald, Dish of Orts)

The Victorian fantasy author George MacDonald believed that the most important message he could communicate about imagination was that it is something that allows humanity to understand God more deeply. In the Victorian era, as well as today, the powers of the imagination are viewed with misunderstanding or wariness, yet MacDonald regarded the wise imagination as the primary means to wisdom. MacDonald, as well as a long line of other fantastic fantasy authors, have struggled to redeem the genre that is often seen as frivolous escapism. Contrary to this belief, I believe good fantasy–the fantasy that points us to truth–often clings to our minds more easily than static rules or guidelines. As a middle school teacher, I often remind my students that the  fantasy novels are not factual but can still hold truth.  Madeleine L’Engle writes, “truth is what is true, and it’s not necessarily factual. Truth and fact are not the same thing. Truth does not contradict or deny facts, but it goes through and beyond facts. This is something that it is very difficult for some people to understand. Truth can be dangerous.”  

Skepticism and Rationalism place the observations of the mind (logic) above the observations of intuition (imagination), but the wise imagination appeals to both reason and intuition in an attempt to nourish the moral imagination. The term moral imagination originated with Edmund Burke and describes the theoretical position that any life-shaping education must include the imagination. This understanding of the imagination was largely shaped by the thinking of Romantic writers such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Novalis, and is grossly overlooked in our culture today that almost exclusively relies on facts to determine what is true. Our imaginations can be taught to observe truth beyond facts.  The author Vigen Guroian writes that our “imaginative powers are innate. But they must be exercised properly, like muscles in the body, lest they either atrophy or grow grotesquely.”

Good fantasy often communicates a sense of awe about the mysteries of the world and challenges readers bravely to explore the darkness through the strength of their own moral imagination. George MacDonald writes, “the best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him” (Dish of Orts).  Our “wise imagination” then proceeds from and therefore reveals our divine likeness, and opens our eyes to the vision of the divine in both nature and humanity. Fantasy therefore provides a connection between the reader and God and directs the reader’s vision towards a divine source of Beauty and Truth.

A few good words:

Why We Need Fairy Tales and Fantasy by Justin Taylor

On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien

Quote About Fairy Tales by C.S. Lewis

Why Christians Should Read Fiction by Dr. Russell D. Moore

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