Enjoying fantasy can be dangerous business. You enter into a story, and if you don’t hold onto a form of disbelief, there’s no knowing where you’ll draw parallels between the fantasy and reality. You might find something true amidst the unbelievable.
Charles Taylor, philosopher and author of A Secular Age, argues we live in an age of disenchantment. He describes a shift in our sense of identity, from the “porous self” of our ancestors to the “buffered self” of today. Taylor describes the shift as more than the shedding of supposedly irrational beliefs, but as the “loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment.” As moderns, we have trouble getting our heads around things like faeries and visions, and Taylor points out how we explain psychologically what our ancestors took at face value: there are faeries in the forest. Today, we believe that “Whatever has to do with thought, purpose, human meanings, has to be in the mind, rather than in the world.”
Writing about the relationship between fantasy and the buffered self, Alan Jacobs summarizes this shift:
…a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark—of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family.
The buffered self believes that it has more control and is therefore safer than the porous self, which contends with this “network of terrors.” But there are two sides to this story. If the universe is as empty as our buffered condition would have us believe, then we are insulated from both the “network of terrors” and the possibilities of external good, even divine good.
However, our buffered selves can still act as tourists in an enchanted world. Jacobs argues that works of fantasy allows buffered selves to participate in the “enchanted world” of our ancestors without losing the safety of our buffered state. As a genre, fantasy doesn’t constitute the porous self that Taylor speaks of, but rather hearkens back to it. Without relinquishing any control, we suspend our disbelief and simulate the porosity of our former faerie-fearing selves.
Fantasy resonates so deeply with many because, often, we’re not yet resigned to a wholly silent universe. Indulging in fantasy requires the temporary adoption an enchanted vision of the world, whether our own or another. Fantasy winds its way into the cracks of our vision and illuminates alternative ways for how—and who—operates the universe. Covering our eyes does not preclude the shining of a light just as a bulwark of manufactured meaning doesn’t foreclose on deep, spiritual truth. Fantasy invites us to look at the world in the light of a strange, new sun.
For this reason, good fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, can animate and enlarge life itself.
This hit me this autumn while going through the most difficult semester of my academic career. I began studying journalism with a desire to tell great stories but came up against structural restrictions and found myself disillusioned, overworked, and lonely.
In search of respite, my wife and I invited a friend over to watch The Lord of the Rings films. Our friend had never seen them, and we were excited to share the joy we find in the stories with her.
Down in the Mines of Moria, Frodo’s dialogue with Gandalf echoed my struggle to accept personal failures and an uncertain future:
"I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened."
"So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil."
An encouraging thought, indeed, but not an easy one. I cried. I cried silent tears and sat in the dark with Frodo and found truth under the mountain. Yet, beneath a mountain of doubt, a light broke through; here was truth or, at least, the promise of life beyond the present shadow.
Gandalf’s advice brought me to a place where I understood what it meant to say “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.” The givenness of life comes with the weight of responsibility, but it isn’t a weight that must be carried alone. When a burden is given it must have a purpose, and it’s by discovering this purpose that life’s joys are sweetened by its pains.
Further in their quest, Frodo and Samwise have what’s essentially a discussion on the relationship between divine will and human responsibility; the perennial question of determinism. “I don’t like anything here at all […] but so our path is laid,” says Frodo.
To which Samwise replies:
"Yes, that’s so,” said Sam, “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same; like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?"
The Fellowship of the Ring ends with a note on which most worldly quests fall apart. The fellowship breaks; the damage of Boromir’s betrayal can’t be undone despite his redemption, and the path before Frodo becomes even darker.
In spite of all that, when the credits rolled I found myself strangely resolved to my fate—whatever that may be. Instead of escaping into the story, the story had passed into me and overwhelmed my doubts.
If this world isn’t enchanted, then after the breaking of the fellowship, Gimli was right to say, “it has all been in vain.” Disenchantment has a diminishing effect; it makes us small, insignificant features of a quiet universe instead of participants on an awe-inspiring stage. Disenchantment leaves us to toil in obscurity or to grasp at power with what little agency we possess, often to the detriment of those around us. Disenchantment offers us fleeting, minor victories in the face of life’s daunting, and often crushing, trials.
Good fantasy, and the world it invites us into, animates because it presupposes a power both above and beyond us. It invites us into a universe that sings. A world in which we do not merely exist, but have being. Good fantasy can open us, make us porous to this divine good, which means we can work towards goals—our quests—with the hope that not everything will be in vain or, better yet, that nothing will have ever been in vain. After all, “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt,” and we most certainly do not.
Good fantasy lets us see our lives aren’t wholly personal, or even how I might not be the hero of my own story, which frees me to ask this question: what kind of tale have I fallen into?
“I wonder,” said Frodo, “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
If you enjoy a good story this is good news of the highest order. Our stories have purpose; there are more reasons to get out of bed than to hide in fear. It’s a mercy to our unyielding desire for meaning that we don’t have to save the world to find our purpose in it, or even to change it.
Experiencing the enchanted worlds of fantasy is not escapism. Rather than providing a hiding place, it can lay our world bare, stripping away the buffers of our self-justification. If my troubles are the result of my poor choices then I’m just a fool, but if my path has been laid before me—given to me—then there is meaning in my struggle, no matter the outcome.
The wisdom of elves reminds us that it’s often the small hands that move the wheels of the world, a truth, when taken with the givenness of our stories, simultaneously lays a burden of responsibility on us while ensuring its lightness. As enchanted creatures, what we decide to do with what we’re given will carry on beyond this life, but we aren’t left to make the most of our lives alone. There is good in this world, and beyond it.
The Lord of the Rings is not a story about heroes; it is a story about becoming heroes, and that makes a world of difference. An enchanted world frees me to be a pair of small hands that matter, a character in a story full of songs about great deeds, and not all of them necessarily my own. Good fantasy reminds me that the world is enchanted and that the real escapism is a cocoon of manufactured meaning, a retreat from the illumined universe where we imagine ourselves both the author and the hero of our stories. This is an escapism that crushes, and suffocates.
True freedom comes with risk, and if we live in an enchanted universe then the risk is real, but the burdens are light.