Faith, Reason, and Fantasy

“The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil’s tithe. ”  So wrote Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” This single sentence in brief summarized the whole of the controversy in religious circles over the fantasy genre, one that continues to this very day.  This is evident by the number of articles published on this site’s sister publication, Catholic Exchange, over the issue of Harry Potter alone.  Tolkien mentions this controversy almost as an aside, as his essay is mostly on his own analysis of the genre as well as an articulate defense of it against more secular criticism.

It was the opinion of some literary critics then, and perhaps even still today, that Myth is a “disease of language,” and that engaging in the act of writing such mythical tales is comparable to “Breathing a lie through Silver.”  It is barely permissible for children to entertain tales of the fantastical, much less grown adults.  Fantasy not only makes a mockery of Reason, but destroys it.  Those who indulge themselves in such literature loose their own scientific curiosity for the natural world. They become more concerned with things of the imagination than with facts and truth and are less able to distinguish fiction from reality.  Tolkien says of these critics, “They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination. ”

The the religious argument against fantasy is comparable in quality to the secular.  Works of fiction such as the Harry Potter series are said to undermine the entire Judeo-Christian milieu of our culture.  The depiction of witches and wizards as heroes fighting against evil erode a child’s Christian apprehension towards the occult.  Children begin to see sorcery as something glamorous and good while they look upon non-magical world in disdain.  These stories paint a poisonous fruit in gold leaf, tempting our children away from the faith their parents gave them and into the arms of the devil.

Catholics should especially be able to see that such assaults on the fantasy genre from both the positions of religious fundamentalism and snobbish psychobabble are completely erroneous.  The Catholic Church, after all, finds itself condemned for the very same offenses.  Depending on whether you are a Protestant or an atheist, Catholic dogma will either dull your mind’s ability to think for itself or lead your soul to damnation.  This parallel between the criticisms of both Fairy Stories and the Church is  most glaringly exemplified in the work of Jack Chick.  “Chick Tracts,” are a series of anti-Catholic comic-strip  booklets, and their subject matter range from mere attacks on Church doctrine to such laughable prevarication’s as claiming that a Vatican conspiracy created Islam in order to kill the Jews.  An exception to the all but ubiquitous anti-Catholic bigotry is a tract titled “Dark Dungeons,” where players of the tabletop role playing game Dungeons and Dragons are depicted as being dabblers in the occult.

“Fantasy,” as Tolkien said, “is a natural human activity.”  It is not something that is opposed to our Faith or our Reason.  “On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.”  Man can both write and enjoy fantasy precisely because he is firmly grounded in reality.  We would not even be able to recognize fantasy as fantasy without a well ordered mind, just as we would be unable to recognize miracles as miracles unless we lived in a well ordered universe.  Likewise, as Tolkien wrote in a letter to his friend Milton Waldman, “Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” [See Preface to the Second Edition of The Silmarillion. ] C.S. Lewis knew this well.

In his essay on fairy-stories, Tolkien mentions the intriguing fact that the word “spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.”  The term “magic” in his epic tale The Lord of the Rings has a very similar dual meaning.  A clear distinction is made between the Magic of The Enemy and what men in their ignorance call “magic,” the Art of the Elves.  Elven magic “is Art delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product and vision in unflawed correspondence).”  The goal of all artists, Elves and Men, is Enchantment, and the instilling of a Secondary Belief in a Secondary World, a goal that Fantasy, when successful, achieves most perfectly.  “ At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician.”

Power, on the other hand, the Magic of the Enemy, is the mechanism by which the user seeks to alter the Primary World, to subdue Nature and the Free Will of others to his own.  It is for this reason that the Catholic Church warns its members not to engage in witchcraft and other occult activities.  Just as it is inherently evil to use or attempt the use of violence against against another human being to impose your will, it is wrong to use magical devices such as crystals, Tarot Cards, and Ouija Boards to compel a spirit.  Supernatural beings, good or evil, have a Free Will, and were given that right to self-determination by God.  Any use of Power, whether in the form of a magical ritual or the mechanism of the State,  no matter how good the intentions, can only have bad results.  [See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116-2117]

Fairy-stories, whether read in a book or acted out in a game, can endanger neither your soul nor sanity.  The goal of a Dungeon Master is not to exert power and control over the other players of Dungeons and DragonsHarry Potter was not written to undermine a child’s faith.  Their purpose is like that of all artists from all time, that of creating something new for the enjoyment of others and imparting to them a vision of things unseen.  It is neither good nor evil, but fun, and taints the soul not with sin nor virtue, but joy.

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.


Justin T.P. Quinn, who lives in New Jersey, is a freelance writer who has done project management for both private firms and nonprofits.

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