In 1986, a writer named Stephen R. Donaldsen published an essay called “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”. By then a renowned fantasy author himself, Donaldsen achieved fame through his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, which was famous for it’s handling of moral issues. In this essay, Donaldsen elaborated on the two terms he used to define his work – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’. It is these two terms that I’d like to look at and evaluate, not simply because I found the essay insightful, but because I believe that the terms epic and fantasy as Donaldsen describes them find their fulfilment in Jesus (as all things eventually do).
In part 1, we’ll look at the more familiar term, fantasy. The word itself when applied to entertainment needs almost no introduction, as shown by the popularity of the Lord of the Rings series of films, and more recently, the Game of Thrones television series, which seems to owe no small part of its success to scenes of sexual violence, torture and gore. The word ‘fantasy’ conjures up images of a pseudo-medieval world where men (or women) in shining armor prance about, alongside wizards and dragons. But is there really all there is to the Fantasy genre?
Donaldsen doesn’t think so. According to him, fantasy fiction portrays worlds where the internal struggles of the characters are portrayed as external conflicts. Whereas in ‘realistic’ fiction, characters tend to be products of the world around them, fantasy is about the world as an extension of the character’s inner struggles. One easy example that comes to mind is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Rowling has famously said that she does not see herself as a fantasy author, but viewed in this framework, her magnum opus does fit the conditions outlined here by Donaldsen.
Over the course of seven books, we see that as Harry Potter comes of age, he has to confront his inner demons and his status as someone who is always ‘different’ from other people in some way or the other. This is compounded by the fact that the antagonist Voldemort comes across as a dark reflection of Harry, a wizard who embraced his isolation and darker impulses and seeks to lash out at the world. Throughout the books, Harry and Voldemort are shown to share a tangible, almost spiritual connection, the implication being that Harry could very well end up like Voldemort if he isn’t careful. By trying to overcome Voldemort, Harry is truly attempting to overcome his own inner struggles. In contrast, I would say that Game of Thrones, and the A Song of Ice and Fire novels that it is based on, have more in common with ‘realistic’ fiction despite the fantastic trappings – Martin’s protagonists often find themselves the victim of political intrigues that are beyond their control, and which they are often unaware of until it is too late.
So how does this analytical framework apply to our spiritual lives? Well, I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about how our imaginations can help us to pray and understand ourselves better, using such methods as the Ignatian Contemplation. But for me, Donaldsen’s essay calls to mind one biblical incident in particular – the temptation of Jesus in the desert. As told by Luke in Chapter 4:1-13 of his Gospel, we see here described a situation that would not be out of place in a fantasy novel, the scene where the hero must undergo a test or trial to prove himself worthy of his quest. It is telling that in many artistic portrayals of this scene, one recent example/being the movie Days in the Desert, the Evil One is often depicted as looking exactly like Jesus himself.
This is not to say that the devil is not real or just a manifestation of our darker impulses, but that he can use these dark impulses to lead us further down the path of moral decay. We are told that Jesus was ‘hungry’ during that time – he was physically weak and thus correspondingly more (apparently) vulnerable to using a shortcut or an easy way out, even if those shortcuts would damage him spiritually.
It may seem trivial to turn a stone into a loaf of bread to satisfy one’s hunger in the middle of the desert when no one is watching. What is at stake here, however, is not the act itself but rather what this act represents. Jesus’ fast was a preparation for his greater Mission, just as a fantasy hero’s trial shows that he is worthy to take on his adversary. Jesus needed to hold fast to his spiritual preparation in order to show the truth of His Father’s words: “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.” (Lk:3:22).
Later on, Jesus would teach us that “Whoever is faithful in small matters will be faithful in large ones; whoever is dishonest in small matters will be dishonest in small ones” (Lk 16:10). Jesus knew that one dishonest act can quickly snowball into a mess of larger ones. When we commit a sin, no matter how small, it does have repercussions. No one sins in isolation. When we commit a sin, even if no one is watching, it affects our perception of self. We no longer see ourselves as trustworthy people, and that cuts us off from others and the good we are potentially able to do. As Tennyson puts it in his poem ‘Sir Galahad’: “My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.” Only with pure hearts can we do the Father’s will.
Thus, I believe Jesus fulfilled in reality what Donaldsen describes fantasy characters achieving in fiction. Not only that, but Jesus as our elder brother also shows us the way in which we ourselves can overcome our own struggles and live lives pleasing to God. For what is fantasy but our own desire to go beyond ourselves and our human limtations? Let us then turn to Him and ask for his help in these struggles, for “By man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).