Fantasy Literature’s Evocative Power

by John H. Timmerman

John H. Timmerman is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 17, 1978, pp. 533-537. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock


Fantasy literature as a genre has the capacity to move a reader powerfully. And the motions and emotions involved are not simply visceral as is the case with much modern literature — but spiritual. It affects one’s beliefs, one’s way of viewing life, one’s hopes and dreams and faith.

The fact that Ballantine Books has created a special division to publish only fantasy literature testifies to the enormous interest in such works. Indeed, the purchases -- and one would assume the reading -- of fantasy books are staggering. According to the New York Times Book Review (October 16, 1977), this year Ballantine expects to sell 850,000 copies of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, a work which the author abandoned early in his career but attempted to revise and finish before his death, and which was finally completed by his son Christopher. Sales of Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a fantasy work of the first order, are expected to reach 125,000 copies during: its fourth year in print -- the figure attained in one month by an "epic" fantasy, Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara. And 100,000 copies of the perennial Winnie-the-Pooh will move into young and eager hands.

The list could be continued, on into the satellite propositions such as the Brothers Hildebrandt’s Tolkien Calendar which sold nearly a half-million copies last year. But numbers alone, however impressive, are relatively meaningless -- particularly in the publishing world. For example, over 8 million books on Elvis Presley were sold in the three months following his death (5 million ordered in one week). We also recall that Raynor Unwin (of George Allen & Unwin, Tolkien’s British publisher) expected to lose £1,000 on the first edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which had an initial printing of only 10,000 total copies.


However entertaining and impressive -- the figures, we have to look well past them to assess the significance and grasp the meaning of fantasy literature.

Fantasy literature as a genre has the capacity to move a reader powerfully. And the motions and emotions involved are not simply visceral as is the case with much modern literature -- but spiritual. It affects one’s beliefs, one’s way of viewing life, one’s hopes and dreams and faith. Since I have had all these -- beliefs, hopes, dreams, faith -- affected by such literature, I feel compelled to ask somewhat uncomfortable questions about the experience.

Questions like these: What is the worth of this thing fantasy? What does it do? Why and how does it do what it does? I have not found these questions adequately addressed in the dozens of secondary works I have read on fantasy and fantasy writers. That the works do have such an effect everyone readily admits, but few care to say just how it comes about.

Indeed, it may be precisely in defiance of such theorizing that fantasy exists. Still, I am concerned, professionally and spiritually, with its why and how. Something that works this powerfully on the human spirit needs to be understood. Thus my concern here will not be to craft a paean to fantasy literature, but to attempt a theoretical understanding. In considering why, how and to what end fantasy literature operates, I am tempted to turn to well-known authors -- Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin, Tennyson, L’Engle -- for convincing examples. I shall resist that temptation insofar as possible and stay with the theory.

First, a confession: After my initial reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, I was not immediately swept into "Hobbidolatry," and I still resist that adulation which conceives of Tolkien as a presiding deity over his created world. Too many people, it seems, want to leave our world for a fictive one. Like Robert Frost, I feel that "earth’s the right place for love." Further, it strikes me as all too easy, as in some recent critical circles, to make a point, however flimsy; gloss it with a quotation from C. S. Lewis; and consider it thereby as apodictic truth, beyond disputing.

The understanding of the form is important, I believe, because authors of fantasy are often visionaries of the spiritual nature of man. The question which has confronted them in making their art is this: Given that vision of man’s spiritual nature, his spiritual needs and the answer to them, how does a writer incarnate the vision in art so that others may also see? Further, how can the artist focus the optics of insight so that others not only see, but see themselves within the vision, so that the world the artist creates becomes the world of the reader?

Ideally, all literary art strives for this interpenetration of the reader and artist in another world reached by the mind, so that the "I" of the reader becomes one with the "I" of the work. The great task of all literary artists is to show others their vision, posing it in such a way that others may say: Yes, this is true, this is a part of my life, this is valid for my life.

"A child," J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, "may well believe a report that there are ogres in the next country: many grown-up persons find it easy to believe of another country" ("On Fairy Stories," The Tolkien Reader [Ballantine, 1966]). Here is the invitation fantasy holds out to the reader: to recover a belief beclouded by knowledge, to reaffirm a faith shattered by fact. We know there are no ogres in the next country, yet we may well believe there are. The lure of this recovery has attracted thousands to Tolkien’s writings, has sent readers tumbling through the enchantment of his literary kingdoms, has in fact delivered what it promised: a recovery of being, a refreshment, a keener realization of the importance of our spiritual nature. The surprise is that so many readers are surprised by the experience. The lure of great literature has long been precisely this which fantasy holds forth in a new way: the lure of losing self in order to rediscover or recover one’s self in a fresher, revitalizing perspective.


In order to characterize a work as fantasy literature, I would argue, there are six traits which must be present to some degree: story, common characters, evocation of another world, use of magic and the supernatural, a clear sense of good and evil, and the quest.

The fact that fantasy relies on a compelling, well-spaced story, while seemingly obvious, nevertheless is often overlooked. Stated quite simply, the story is the narrative plot line, the unfolding of events, the fleshing out of characters into living beings who think about actions, who do act, and whose actions have effects. Moreover, a story must move through a beginning, a middle and an end, and in the process must move the reader.

By describing the story in traditional terms I thereby exclude from fantasy literature the allegory, which is frequently mistaken for fantasy. The fantasy story must be significant in its own right and not, as in allegory, always subservient to the interpretation -- a situation that casts reins and boundaries upon the imagination. Story seeks to free the imagination, to allow it for a time to live in another world. Allegory imprisons the imagination within an intricate puzzle. Essentially two dimensional, allegory moves without variation from the plane of the narrative to the plane of the allegorical meaning in an interrelationship that must be patterned, precise. There is a certain satisfaction in fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, but that is the end of the matter. Story, on the contrary, has the capacity to live on in us. Rather than merely working out someone else’s puzzle, we appropriate the story as our own.

Such a view of story would also disallow a great deal of what is variously described as "reflective," "analytic" or "stream-of-consciousness" fiction. While the characters in fantasy often have powerful mental and spiritual struggles -- struggles that lead them through vales of sorrow and dark tunnels of the mind -- they never forget that they are acting in a drama which involves others and which is moving resolutely to an ending. The mental struggle itself is not the end. The characters in fantasy can be as profound as life itself or as illuminating as a sunrise, but the life moves somewhere and the sun not only rises but sets. In fantasy the story, often a powerful tale, is compelling upon the reader, but it is also impelling in the work, providing action, encounter, desperation and resolution.


The second trait of fantasy literature is that the central characters are of a common nature. In the fantasy tale they might be any one of us -- and that is precisely the point. We are asked not to stand on the outside and survey this tale from detached perspective, but to enter into it so that the story becomes ours. Thus we find characters quite like ourselves.

Even when the characters are not human beings, they are like us; Tolkien’s hobbit far prefers an easy chair and a pipe full of good tobacco to an adventure. Elwin Ransom of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, a philologist by profession, is forced to undertake a quest. Many of the central characters of fantasy are country people, like those in Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion tales and other Welsh fantasies, The wizard Ged of Le Gum’s Earthsea Trilogy is the son of a bronzesmith on a rustic island and is referred to as "goatherd."

By virtue of the common character it thereby becomes easier for readers to see themselves in the action. Even though we may all like to play Superman, in literature it seems that we stand outside the larger-than-life hero. He is ably equipped, after all, to fight his own battles. In fact, we usually know at the outset who will win; we’re just not certain how. But with common characters we recognize their shortcomings (they are our own), and want to come to their aid. When a character gets knocked down, which occurs frequently, we would like to help -- from the safety of our easy chair. Maybe between us we can pull it off.

There are two other considerations that account for the trait of the common character. First, the common character is naïve, retaining a certain innocence rather than becoming cynical, hard-bitten, or spoiled by the world. Common characters have not lost the childlike trait of wonder, the willingness to engage adventure. Tolkien explored this idea in his essay "On Fairy Stories," and Lewis has commented on the nature of the fantasy character, albeit indirectly. Often the characters of fantasy are children, since authors have found in children a universal, common human nature, unspoiled by the specialized, regimented and categorized adult world.

The second reason for the use of a common character has to do with heroism. In literary history the hero has often been a figure who acts for us, who stands in our place in the face of danger and by superhuman powers overcomes on our behalf. The theme in fantasy literature is that anyone may be called on to become the hero. Each person may be summoned to tasks which seem beyond his or her capability -- tasks such as a sojourn through sorrow, a struggle to define the nature of goad and evil, the quest for joy. Each person has to act in these instances, has to rely on his or her own insights, cunning, or in some cases strength. Even in tales which clearly envision a supernatural presence, a ruling God, the individual is forced to act on his own strength.

The point of a fantasy is not to hand us tidy morals, but to provide us with growth by experience. Since in fantasy we learn not morals but lessons on life’s way, it is necessary that we clearly recognize this distinction through the characters. They are called not to be heroes, but to be human -- to recognize the human situation for what it is. and what possibly can be done about it.

Evocation of another world, the third trait characterizing fantasy literature, has received attention in critical circles and has been well elucidated by such scholars as Eric Rabkin, C. N. Manlove and J. R. R. Tolkien. So I will simply remark on several qualities of the created (in Tolkien’s terms, "subcreated") world in which fantasy characters live and move and have their being.

First, the world of fantasy is not a dream world, a never-never land, but a world that matches ours in reality. The characters confront the same terrors, choices and dilemmas that we do. Why, then, create a fantasy world at all? The reason is to make it possible to confront more openly and daringly a spiritual reality too often ignored in our world of system and fact, According to Eric Rabkin (The Fantastic in Literature [Princeton University Press, 1976]), "Admittedly, the fantastic is reality turned precisely 180 degrees around, but this is reality nonetheless, a fantastic narrative reality that speaks the truth of the human heart." Perhaps it is the case that when these realities of the human heart are devalued in daily life, one must look to another world where such realities can be restructured and given credence and value.

It follows, then, that the world of fantasy is not an escapist world but one through which we begin to see our own world more clearly. No one, I believe, has addressed this quality more eloquently than Tolkien in his essay "On Fairy Stories." Rather than attempt to reproduce his argument, which would somehow seem to derogate it, I refer the reader to it. In fantasy there is always this reciprocating action, an interchange between two worlds. One of E. Nesbit’s stories is entitled "Whereyouwantogeto" and ends "Whereyoustartedfrom." Precisely.


In Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1975), C. N. Manlove has argued that the use of the supernatural -- and I would include magic -- is not simply a possibility in the fantasy tale; it is a driving force in the story and takes a central role in the development and shaping of characters as well as plot. In going into this fourth characteristic of fantasy literature, magic and the supernatural are terms which I use interchangeably (at some risk) to connote the presence of powers whose origin and nature lie outside of human knowledge or common experience.

One form that magic takes is found in the tradition known as "high fantasy," with the supernatural or magical power providing much of the story’s driving impetus. The story is, if you will, about magic and how it affects people. In this form of fantasy the powers are always mysterious, but by certain rites, incantations or motions they can be drawn upon by humans and used to human ends. In Le Gum’s A Wizard of Earthsea (Bantam, 1968), the mage Ogion says to young Ged:

Ged, listen to me now. Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise. Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do you must know the price that is to pay!

Not only are the powers of good or evil controlled by people, there is, further, a sense of balance between such powers, an equilibrium. People can tip the balance either way.

Another form of magic in fantasy occurs when authors, specifically Christian authors, reject what in this approach appears to be a Manichaean dualism with good and evil in conflict and with its resolution left in human hands. Authors in this camp clearly establish the view that the power of evil is limited, and that the power of good (or God) is the absolute authority which sets the limits. Evil does wield a certain power when individuals allow themselves to become a receptacle through which it can operate. Even so, the power of good is always seen as the prior and absolute power, not dependent on human nature but always working directly. In fact, people are often surprised at its appearance, for it lies beyond human expectation and comprehension. Because this power is wholly outside their control, the characters sometimes describe it by the adjective "magical" simply to indicate that it is not understood. One might also use the word "miraculous."

The fifth trait follows from the above, for in all fantasy literature there is a keen recognition of forces of good and evil, a sense of right and wrong -- but also a driving necessity to act on such recognition. It may be the case, however, that in the character’s human struggle to act on choices between good and evil, the distinction becomes blurred. Often the character does not know for certain whether the action is correct until he or she has acted. Often the choice must be construed from what appears to human perspective as a gray area, and it is precisely this, as Robert Browning pointed out in The Ring and the Book, that constitutes "life’s terrible choice." Distressed by the obscuring of the clear word in the modern age, Goethe rephrased the first chapter of the Gospel of John as "In the beginning was the deed." And so too in fantasy. One must act in order to see clearly. The act itself may be committed in great tension and uncertainty, but it is only by acting that one arrives at certainty.

In fantasy’s portrayal of such choices is a keen awareness of the terror of life as well as its joy. There is held forth as one of fantasy’s central tenets the belief that the end of a successful fairy story is joy: not a joy apart from sorrow, however, but a joy distilled from the experience of agonizing choice and a painful awareness of the errors in human decision-making. Only through such decisions, and the actions attendant upon them, may the often hazy edges of good and evil be clarified.


The final, and perhaps most important, characteristic is that fantasy is always marked by a quest. If one must act, one must often seek long and desperately for a basis for action. The quest is distinguished from mere adventure, a trait which marks a great deal of nonfantasy fiction (going back, perhaps, to the picaresque novel). While the adventure may be undertaken for any number of reasons and may lead anywhere, the quest is always toward something, although that fact often becomes clear only with the seeking of the goal. It is generally a spiritual or religious undertaking, with its grave or serious nature contrasting with what may well be frolic in the adventure,. Further, the quest is always marked by a sense of struggle, of imminent or actual danger in which all of the character’s will and power will be called forth in order to push on.

In his essay "The Quest Hero" (Texas Quarterly, 4 [1962]), W. H. Auden distinguishes the nature of the true quest in historical literary tradition, illuminating as well this central factor of fantasy. The true quest, he argues, is typified by the following:

(1) A precious Object and/or Person to be found and possessed or married.

(2) A long journey to find it, for its whereabouts are not originally known to the seekers.

(3) A hero. The precious Object cannot be found by anybody, but only by the one person who possesses the right qualities of breeding or character.

(4) A Test or series of Tests by which the unworthy are screened out, and the hero revealed.

(5) The Guardians of the Object who must be overcome before it can be won. They may be simply a further test of the hero’s arete, or they may be malignant in themselves.

(6) The Helpers who with their knowledge and magical powers assist the hero and hut for whom he would never succeed. They may appear in human or in animal form.

Auden observes, moreover, that each of these six elements "corresponds to an aspect of our subjective experience of life." That observation, I believe, is of crucial significance in fantasy, for frequently the quest is an interior or spiritual one. The real struggle is for self-realization. For example, The Hobbit has a clear-cut quest which fulfills all of Auden’s criteria. Yet the book’s real quest goes on within the protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. Hence, when Bilbo descends into the dark cavern to confront the mighty dragon Smaug (who possesses the "treasure"), the narrator can say that Bilbo "fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait."

There, in essence, lies the goal of fantasy: to lead the reader into a keener self-understanding. This is the central point of the genre. The artist of vision and fantasy expects us to learn something about ourselves by having made a sojourn through fantasy, to probe our spiritual nature, to grow in experience, to resolve our lives toward new directions. If fantasy begins in another world, it is in order to reach that mysterious other world of the human soul.


There is a further question I personally have to consider, and that concerns the role of fantasy in a Christian life. On this issue, fantasy literature has come under some insensitive and often bitter attack. For example, Dove magazine, a publication of Faith Ministries Association in Pittsburgh, once carried an essay that denigrated fantasy as pernicious, false and a tool of Satan ("Satan’s Fantasy," March 1974). Tolkien, for one, suffered unmercifully in the attack, although the writer gave no evidence of any firsthand reading of Tolkien.

There are other reasons for such questioning of fantasy, however, and several of these tie in with what I have already written. For example, many distrust the power of fantasy to affect the human spirit. That is precisely why I felt compelled to consider the nature of the genre in a systematic fashion.

Can one, however, construct a convincing argument for the appropriation of fantasy in a Christian life? In many respects, the Christian life is not wholly unlike fantasy as I have described it. (In fact, Tolkien maintained that the gospel was the world’s greatest fairy tale.) Consider these points.

Christianity cherishes story, not in the sense of a fictitious tale, but rather in a view of life which is whole, with a beginning (creation), a middle (the incarnation and crucifixion), and an ending (the resurrection). History is often said to be God’s story, the revelation of God to humankind. In a sense we are actively partaking of that story. We are characters in the universal drama which God is writing in time.

Notice too that the characters of this story are common. Jesus Christ, himself a carpenter from Nazareth, proclaimed that he came to save sinners. That, I would contend, is our common unity -- our fallen nature. No one can write the eternal story of ones own life; all of us are wholly dependent on Bethlehem’s child-king.

Christianity does more than merely evoke another world; the Christian, albeit with faltering footsteps, attempts to walk in the Kingdom of God, a world we live in now as we try to do the king’s will. This other world is not a never-never land, one divorced from everyday reality. Indeed, it is the true world of the spirit by which we are called to redeem the world of the present age.

I have sought to indicate the different perspectives by which fantasy views and engages themes of magic and the supernatural. In the Christian life there is no "magic," yet the word may serve as a marvelous term (properly understood) for the illimitable power of God, who works in ways which we cannot comprehend and whose response to our need is often beyond expectation. Whatever we see shadowed in part always seems to us something magical.

Moreover, this ultimate power reigns sovereign over evil. From our worldly perspective good and evil seem to be at war, and often we can’t tell which is winning. Yet, the Christian "fantasy" presents us with a vision of evil as being eternally cast in chains, and a vision of God’s daily protective power against evil. It was with keen recognition of this struggle that Paul wrote the moving eighth chapter of Romans. Also, we Christians are mindful that we are instrumental in the struggle. We are not allowed to sit on the sidelines awaiting the final outcome, but must be players in the game, often frustrated, joyful when there are small gains, and always in the thick of it.

Through all this, however, the Christian is steadfastly confident that the struggle on earth is not the end of the matter. The quest to do the Maker’s will finds completion in the lost treasure of the Quest, that treasure from which we were separated at the fall and which we eagerly anticipate: the restoration of union with our Maker. Then the fantasy will indeed be recognized as reality itself.