One Does Not Simply Read Fantasy: Living with a Less Than Fantastic Modern Reality

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” – John Rogers

January 3, 2013: the 121st birthday of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Simply typing that name makes me feel like a dirty, little, modern man trying to emulate a real mensch. But as Freddie Mercury once said, “the show must go on.” And so, I must ask: “What happened to fantasy?” Well, last I saw it, it was sitting in the dumpster outside the Wendy’s down the hill from Holy Cross. Sitting there old, beaten, and subsisting on that chain’s new sea salt-seasoned French fries, he asked me if I thought evil existed. With a puzzled look on my face, I told him I was pretty sure there was no such thing as objective truth, good or bad, or that’s what E.L. Doctorow told me to believe anyway. And how could he be wrong?

Now, whether that little anecdote was the result of another Saturday night on Mount St. James or a little explosion of that all-too-rare human faculty we call imagination, I’ll never tell. The important thing is to recognize that that little dumpster dweller raised a fantastic, pardon the pun, question: what does fantasy have to do with evil? Sure we all put on our Gandalf costumes and rushed The Hobbit premiere like Jacobins to Marat’s funeral. But much like those French revolutionaries, we found the Marquis de Sade inside eulogizing our fallen friend.

I do not mean to demonize Peter Jackson and I’m certainly no Christopher Tolkien. No, what I’m proposing is much more insidious: that we need fantasy more than ever. From de Troyes to Tolkien, the fantastic has been inspiring the imagination and drawing us out of our regular lives into wonderful realms of infinite possibilities. Of course, only nerds like me like orcs and dragons and all that garage-dweller garbage. But maybe we truly ought to read more fantasy. The genre is more than princesses and weird Lacanian male projections. It is a moralizing force in an amoral world. Sauron is evil. We are not asked to understand his dark, yet ultimately comprehensible intentions. Nothing about him is meant to be grasped. We can take his evil as a given and therefore concentrate on defeating him. It’s not as if during Frodo’s struggle to dispose of the ring on Mount Doom it is revealed that Sauron was actually misunderstood the whole time. Thankfully, he wasn’t just being manipulated by his bully of a father, Boromir, who never actually died but was controlling everything safely from the goblins’ cave from The Hobbit.

I do not imagine such scenarios for my own benefit. Such a conception of evil as evil is exactly what our society needs. In a time when everything can be comprehended, where to dare to imagine is to dare too much, we need fantasy literature. Our minds are hemmed in on all sides by a technocratic emphasis on technical knowledge. But I say, expand your horizons; remember that truly bad, and truly good, things do exist. And never, ever be afraid to undertake a mental and imaginative journey. Fear is surely natural. We all contain a little Baggins’s blood. But do not forget, we all have some from the Took side as well.

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