Have you ever come across a saying that jumped inside your mind, made itself at home, and informed your thinking from that day forward? This happened to me several years ago when I read a quote by Neil Gaiman that rephrased G. K. Chesterton’s words from decades earlier. It helped me understand the unique strengths of the fantasy genre.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
When we write fantasy, we’re creating an imaginary world. But the truths we tuck inside are anything but imaginary. Dragons can be beaten, and dark lords can be toppled. Love and courage can defeat injustice and misery. The tiniest light can shine amidst seemingly impenetrable darkness. And all this reflects the hope that exists in the real world.
While some authors challenge the idea that good wins in the end, it remains the predominant takeaway in fiction. The definition may change depending on the author’s worldview, but his basic goal is to promote his vision of goodness through storytelling. Fantasy offers advantages in delivering these themes, and capitalizing on them will produce three memorable results.
1. Lending Larger-than-Life Stakes to the Everyday Struggle Between Good and Evil
The most familiar fantasy trope is a common man embarking on a transformative journey across kingdoms, experiencing perilous adventures, and undergoing rigorous magic instruction—all for the goal of conquering the powerful dark lord.
Though I don’t meet many dark lords in northeast Ohio, massive systems of injustice surround me. Often, I let them go unchallenged because I’m only one man, and my influence is limited, right? But the soul of the entire fantasy genre would contradict me.
Fantasy urges us to notice the change that ripples outward when a few people devote themselves to one mission. It recasts ordinary men and women as heroes and heroines battling the forces of evil—thus serving as an inspiration and a call to arms. Other genres may be able to prompt people to action, but only fantasy displays an epic panorama of the possibility and inevitability of good triumphing over evil. We can use this to encourage readers and show them that any effort to uphold good is not in vain.
2. Cultivating a Renewed Appreciation for the Ordinary
Anytime I watch a documentary about the complexity of creation—even a detail as simple as the lifecycle of an earthworm—I’m reminded of how much beauty we overlook because daily stresses have dulled our senses. Fantasy reawakens our imaginations so that wonder seeps in.
Think of the lamppost in the middle of Narnia. We all pass hundreds of lampposts on our drive to and from work each day but never give them a second glance. When we encounter one in a forest under the spell of an eternal winter, however, it suddenly becomes mesmerizing.
This illuminated perspective is a special trait of fantasy. And it goes deeper than lampposts. Consider the hobbits in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Although they’re a fantasy race, they feel homely. Why? Because, like us, they’re the ordinary among the extraordinary. Yet they play significant roles in ending Sauron’s reign over Middle-Earth. Fantasy proves that even the humblest people are capable of astounding feats, and the mundane can be enchanting if we look with the right eyes.
Inserting ordinary objects into fantastical settings helps reframe readers’ perceptions. Wardrobes and cupboards aren’t particularly remarkable—until they’re portals to other worlds. Street girls who are scrabbling to survive seem unimportant to world events—until they’re facing down the villain.
When we’re building new worlds and the magical elements within, we need to remember that only the setting is fantasy. We’re highlighting themes with the power that’s inherent in a wonder-filled view of the commonplace.
We choose what sits in this place of focus. That is a tremendous gift. Let us wield it wisely.
3. Breaking the Veil Hanging Over Familiar Truths
Most of our beliefs relate to our immediate environment and circumstances. But many truths have fallen underfoot because we’ve stood too close for too long. Fantasy pushes readers away from normalcy and comfort, providing the opportunity to confront them with truths they’ve lost sight of or refuse to accept.
We’re far too accustomed to truth when it’s dressed in plain clothing. Sometimes reality needs to be draped with the cloak of fantasy for us to see the beauty and the ugliness. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly bring Queen Jadis back to London (quite by mistake, of course), and her unearthly nature clashes with the humdrum of city life. For a few minutes, we glimpse how tyranny operates. Strip off the status quo, and we’re left with a raging queen who does as she pleases—because she can.
The Harry Potter series also comes to mind. It’s not Christian, but the idea that “life and death is in the power of the tongue” is a biblical principle (Proverbs 18:21). The magical twist the series gives to words reminded me that every time I open my mouth, I’m either doing harm or good. I cannot endorse the books without caveat, but as a reader, I was struck by this truth (partly because I was looking for it).
Under the pen of an intentional author, fantasy forces readers to wrestle with truths that have been shrouded by familiarity. For example, the magic system in Fawkes distances readers from their conclusions about Catholics and Protestants, allowing the author to portray those denominations and their interaction with God from a new angle.
The Heart of Fantasy
With each scene we write, we plunge readers into the unknown, where they’ll hopefully recapture truths they’ve forgotten or abandoned and return with clearer eyes. This circles us back to the beginning and the trueness of fairy tales.
Our work is not about the dragon or the magic system or the worldbuilding. Those facets make fantasy breathtaking to read and write. But the genre has a greater value than that.
In exploring strange and unique lands, we begin to reconnect with the wonder of home. By understanding foreign and exotic races, we assess our own humanity more accurately. Through gazing at the glimmer of a fairy’s wings, we revive our childish imagination and awe of nature. When trembling before otherworldly pantheons, we feel a tiny portion of God’s transcendence.
Most of all, when we see a star twinkling in pitch blackness, we find hope to keep fighting.
Dragons can be beaten, after all.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.