Bear with me for a moment—because I am going to give you a nice long quote from CS Lewis, and while I could summarize it or just pull a few quotes here and there, I’d rather give you a nice big chunk. Imagine it like a hot, juicy steak. My writing will be the mashed potatoes—You don’t just want mashed potatoes, and you could probably just be filled by the steak—but eat ‘em both and it will be a good meal (or if you’re not a meat-eater, Lewis is the salad and I’m the dressing). This quote comes from Lewis’s essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”
The Fairy Tale
“It is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did.
All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations. Almost the same answer serves for the popular charge of escapism, though here the question is not so simple. Do fairy tales teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment— ‘fantasy’ in the technical psychological sense of the word— instead of facing the problems of the real world? Now it is here that the problem becomes subtle.
Let us again lay the fairy tale side by side with the school story or any other story which is labeled a ‘Boy’s Book’ or a ‘Girl’s Book’, as distinct from a ‘Children’s Book.’ There is no doubt that both arouse, and imaginatively satisfy, wishes. We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land. We also long to be the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl, or the lucky boy or girl who discovers the spy’s plot or rides the horse that none of the cowboys can manage. But the two longings are very different.
The second, especially when directed on something so close as school life, is ravenous and deadly serious. Its fulfillment on the level of imagination is in very truth compensatory: we run to it from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world: it sends us back to the real world undividedly discontented.For it is all flattery to the ego. The pleasure consists in picturing oneself the object of admiration.
The other longing, that for fairy land, is very different. In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven. Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new ‘dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.
This is a special kind of longing. The boy reading the school story of the type I have in mind desires success and is unhappy (once the book is over) because he can’t get it: the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind has not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story.”
(To read this full essay and other great pieces by Lewis, pick up On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature)
The Mashed Potatoes (or Salad Dressing)
I have an uncle who I love dearly, but any time we visit the family and the TV is on (which is almost always a given) he will walk over and watch what we are watching or flipping past. And for years, he has made the same comment (not quote—I don’t have THAT good of a memory) that I always expect: “I just don’t understand the appeal this unrealistic fantasy fake material on TV—it just doesn’t appeal to me, because, I mean, it’s not real.”
What is real? Is it merely what we personally experience? What we can perceive with our senses? What is scientific? Traditional? Cutting-Edge? What is reality?
The allegory that hovers in the air in any discussion of reality is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave—Quickly summarized, it is about a man who has been trapped in a cave all his life, hearing noises and seeing shadows dance across the wall—that is his reality. He is finally freed, and when he steps out into the sun, he finally sees it all—the sun, the trees, the lake. He tries to communicate the beauty to the others trapped in the cave, but they can’t comprehend his story, because the cave is still their reality.
The accusation “You’re stuck in the cave!” has been used by people of all philosophies (though perhaps not with those exact words). The atheist thinks the Christian is in a cave of fantasy; the Christian thinks the atheist cannot see the larger reality of God’s Story; the adherents of another faith think the first two are trapped in their own caves (and meanwhile the Unitarian-Universalist believes there is no cave—Everything is all real and true).
So let’s just say that reality is larger than what we can fit in a little 7-pound brain.
So perhaps reality is more than what we know, what we see, what we experience.
I love movies and shows that push the boundaries of reality. “Lost” is at the top of the list, pushing the fringes of science and faith, history and conspiracy. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is another favorite of mine, for it contains a battle-cry of anyone who wants to lead a procession of souls out of the cave (or barred-up city): “OPEN THE GATES!” More recently there are the shows like Grimm, Fringe, and Once Upon a Time. “Grimm” tries the typical cop show model, with the twist of fantasy coming to life, serving as the criminals of every episode. “Fringe” runs in every direction, changing the game every five minutes—and yet there are still moments in the show (like in “The X Files”) where characters who every day see crazy stuff exclaim, “There’s no way that could happen!” “Once Upon a Time” is different from all of the above (except maybe “Lost”, which makes sense as it has the same writers).
What Lewis writes about is the world of fairy, which is fantastic and utterly different from our world. In “Once Upon a Time” the evangelist prophet is a little boy who holds the gospel in his hands—a book of fairy tales. He proclaims that the city of Storybrooke is not-real, and that all the people in the town are actually characters from fairy tales. The real world is not this world. In “LOST”, towards the end, people begin living lives that are almost dreamlike (or nightmarish). Certain individuals have flashes of perception and realize the lives they are living are not real—their real lives are found in another world, another existence.
The difference between other shows and these two is that while our world has unique properties to it, some fantastical elements, the focus is that there is another world out there and that it’s hard to see things that way. It’s so easy to merely accept reality as that which can be seen, measured, studied, and recorded—but when one is willing to accept that there is something beautiful beyond, beauty invades our world and turns it anew. “It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new ‘dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”
Sometimes it is hard to watch “Lost” and not wish I could be part of the Dharma Initiative. I watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” and think it might be cool to be a pirate. I soak up “Doctor Who” and hope for a TARDIS of my own. But each time I come back to “the real world” and look around me. There is a mixture of disappointment and hope—disappointment that I can’t travel through time and space and hope that my life could be its own great adventure. I see these wonderful stories and hope and live my life to make a better story. (For more on that idea, read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller).
Yes, “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” and “Fringe” and “The Walking Dead” and “Doctor Who” are not “real” – but they expose us to truths beyond our reality, things that we may not learn at work, on the news, in a spreadsheet or a classroom. Not every “out there” story is the truth, but it can point to truths of a Story that is “out there”—and “right here” as well. Fantasy and Science Fiction and Fairy Tales can help us in our faith, help us realize that God’s reality is bigger than our own– and to try and see things His way may be challenging, but it is also beautiful, life-enriching, and redeeming.
What stories (TV, movies, books, etc.) have helped you see a reality beyond “real life”?
How can ascertaining the reality “out there” help us live our lives better?
Does this mean that Fantasy and Science Fiction are, by nature, always good to read and watch?
What role does Twilight take? Harry Potter? Star Wars?