Some readers raise eyebrows at the idea of science fiction and fantasy being considered
literature. But I believe, if held to the same high standards of writing as more traditional genres,
speculative stories and poems can be literature of the best sort. Not only that, but I believe there
is a need for the fantastical in our lives.
Make-believe is one of childhood’s greatest gifts and, if we’re lucky, an enduring part of
our lives. From daydreaming and wishful thinking to the imagined worlds of books, television,
films, and video games—it is woven into our culture. Make-believe is a large and varied
universe, but there is a special corner where magical beings and miraculous events have
thrived since our ancestors first told stories around a cooking fire while shadows played on the
cave walls. And the reasons for the hold of fairies, magic, and monsters on humankind haven’t
changed much since Homo sapiens stood upright.
Though there are somber messages hidden in the fairy tales of childhood, we often
associate these narratives with warmth and security. Many of us recall snuggling beside a parent,
grandparent, or favorite aunt while she read about a fairy godmother helping the uncomplaining
and overworked Cinderella. Or perhaps we shared a plate of cookies with our siblings as we
heard about the youngest brother who overcomes monstrous creatures and wins the princess
because he is honest and brave. Those stories assured us that if we were virtuous, everything
would work out. We’d live happily ever after.
The Chronicles of Narnia books by C.S. Lewis and the films based on them are examples
of goodness being rewarded with a happy ending. And not only do Peter, Susan, Edmund, and
Lucy saves a distant world from evil, and they return at the end of their adventures, a bit wiser, to the
same wardrobe in a safe English country manor from whence they departed.
Fairy and folk tales also tell us that society needs rules. They’re often cautionary stories
that warn of dire consequences for misbehaving or not listening to your elders. The punishments,
whether magical or commonplace, for unacceptable behavior in the original Brothers Grimm and
Hans Christian Andersen’s tales included death, disfigurement, and banishment. Though these
might be too harsh for modern tastes, we still feel satisfaction when there’s a reckoning. The
world is in balance again.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Middle-earth is filled with turmoil.
Characters are kidnapped, killed, wounded, maimed, and taken over by an ancient evil. But in the
end, each is recompensed for their actions, and peace returns. Even the condemned ghost king
and his soldiers answer the call to save Gondor and finally find peace.
Part of the popularity of these books and films is due to the return to normalcy at the
conclusion of the narrative. On the last page of The Return of the King, when hobbit Samwise
Gamgee approaches The Shire, we read, “And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire
within, and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. ” Despite broken rules and terrible
events, Tolkien assures the reader, ordinary life resumes.
As in Tolkien’s imagined world, the land of Faerie and her creatures present an
explanation for our fears. If trolls skulk in the forest, giants sleep in caves, and sea monsters
swim just off-shore, then we aren’t foolish but prudent, to dread such places. J.K. Rowling links
into those phobias in her Harry Potter books. Many of our childhood boogeymen are magnified
and made a part of Hogwarts school and its adjoining lands. Trees can attack the unwary. Armies
of huge spiders lurk in the woods. Graveyards hide malefic beings. Fantastical stories remind us
that even the most courageous men and women need to be aware of monsters crouched in the
Besides suggesting the roots of our fears, fantasy and folktales acknowledge evil does
exist. They offer an explanation for why sinister things happen. If your cow won’t give milk,
witches must be to blame. If your newborn sickens and dies, it must have been a fairy
changeling. If your neighbor is cruel to her children and animals, she must be possessed by a
demon. People need to believe there’s a why and wherefore when dreadful events occur.
In Nancy Werlin’s young adult novel, Impossible, the author offers a Faerie curse as the
genesis of generations of madness and teen pregnancy. To break the pattern, teenage Lucy must
solve the riddle presented in the old folk ballad, “Scarborough Fair.” This scenario not only gives
a reason for wrong but introduces another lasting element of fairy and folk tales: there’s an
answer to every quandary.
Here is where magic frequently appears in fantasy narratives. Whether a handful of magic
beans, a wand, a ring, a cure-all potion, or a bow and arrows that never miss, the characters in the
story are aided by a little hocus-pocus. And why not? When we’ve exhausted all rational options,
how lovely it would be to rely on the benevolence of a compassionate wizard to help us out of a
quagmire. In fairy stories, there is always an antidote, a Rosetta stone, or a password. There is
Since things are rarely what they first appear to be, fantasy reminds us to beware of
judging others. Beneath the dirt, rags, and donkey-skin hides a beautiful princess. Within her
monkey guise lives a clever wife. And underneath his beastly exterior, a prince is learning to be a
better man. As Neil Gaiman shows us in his book, Stardust, and in the film of the same name, the
rough opening in a stone wall might lead not to an everyday-world meadow, but to Faerie. And
the concept of inner beauty, a mainstay of fairy stories and folktales, has a ring of truth to it even
in our scientific times. It’s magical indeed to witness the splitting of a geode. The plain exterior
of the rock gives no hint of the sparkling crystals at its center.
Lastly, and most importantly, fantasy allows us to distance ourselves from our day-to-day
lives and worries in order to reflect on complex issues. The version of Arthurian legend
presented by Marion Zimmer Bradley in The Mists of Avalon does its best to make the reader
rethink traditionally held beliefs concerning the roles of women and religion in the Camelot story
and beyond. J.R.R. Tolkien examines industry, the environment, war, and friendship in The Lord
of the Rings. And countless fairy stories, folktales, and Charles Dickens’ ghostly A Christmas
Carol takes a look at miserliness, poverty, and lack of education, through fantasy.
This is fantastical literature’s greatest gift. Through make-believe places, races,
characters, and creatures, the authors of these tales use metaphor to help us examine the
controversial issues of our world. How much easier is it for us to see how the industry is abusing the
environment when Tolkien’s Treebeard surveys the decimated landscape around Isengard? Like
the hobbits and tree-herder, we understand it’s wrong to cut down trees and burn them to fuel the
fires needed to forge weapons for a goblin army. Tolkien holds up a mirror to our own
experiences, and we recognize the waste and destruction of greed, power struggles, and war.
As long as human beings allow themselves to suspend their disbelief and make-believe,
fairy stories, folktales, and legends will exist. Unlike the world we view on the evening news, in
the realms of fantasy decency triumphs over wickedness, people get their just desserts, everyone
can be afraid sometimes without ridicule, and there’s a reason for bad things. Most of us take
comfort in a place where there’s a solution to every problem, things can be beautiful underneath
an unattractive exterior, complex issues can be fairly resolved, and at the end of the story, the
universe is balanced.
And in case you think it’s the books and films of the past that fill the need for the
fantastic, a quick glance at your library and local bookstore shelves and the previews of
upcoming films and television should convince you otherwise. We need fantasy as much today, if
not more so than in the past.
From early childhood, we are exposed to make-believe worlds. No matter how strange the
locale, they are familiar because we recognize a part of ourselves in the characters. Fairies,
magic, and even monsters will continue to be threads running through the human tapestry
because they offer us hope and bring order to chaos.
Let the following excerpt from March Cost’s The Bitter Green of the Willows serve as
your invitation to visit the gossamer-winged, dragon-scaled corner of the make-believe universe,
“And why I’ve told you this is just because we never know what lies in wait for us some
Primrose Eve, for when next the Silent Magician, who lives behind the rain, waves his wand for
you and me, we may wake to find we’ve landed in another, very different world…” (p.73-74)
Some readers raise eyebrows at the idea of science fiction and fantasy being considered