The Fantasy Myth
Is fantasy a bane or a blessing for children? The question is one of increasing concern to Christian parents. However, before we can answer a question about the value of fantasy, we must first understand fantasy's definition and purpose. In the broad sense, fantasy can be defined as a genre or type of literature in which one or more of the following characteristics exist: the setting is a nonexistent or unreal world, the characters are fanciful (i.e., fairies, dragons) or unreal (i.e., personified abstractions, animals, or objects), or the conflict focuses on physical or scientific principles not yet discovered or contrary to present experience (as in science fiction). The purpose for creating such settings, characters, and conflicts may be "merely for the whimsical delight of the author or reader, or it may be the means used by the author for serious comment on reality" (C. Hugh Holman).
Knowing the definition and purpose of fantasy helps us recognize that the genre itself is amoral. Like any other genre, fantasy can be used either for moral or immoral purposes. A historical view of literature supports this fact. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, for example, is a noted literary work which uses the elements of fantasy for a moral end. Unfortunately, there are also negative examples, such as those found in the occult fantasy movement. The negative examples have prompted some to reject the entire fantasy genre. But is such rejection necessary or even wise?
Let us look first at the argument against the use of fantasy. Second Corinthians 10:5 is often used as a basis for rejecting fanciful literature. In this verse we are admonished to cast "down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and [to bring] into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ." The word imaginations used here comes from the Greek word logismos (from which we derive the word logic). Paul's warning is not against creative imaginings but against ungodly reasonings. It is true that ungodly reasoning can be found in other types of literature as well. Of course, as Christian parents, we would discourage recreational reading of all such stories, regardless of the genre used to present them. Another argument against fantasy is its current focus on the superiority of physical strength, the desirability of lurid violence, the triumph of evil over good. But again, fantasy is not the only genre currently focusing on these negative characteristics (cf. Jack London's Call of the Wild). We can conclude, therefore, that the answer to dealing with these legitimate concerns is not necessarily to reject an entire body of literature. The answer is to apply the same standard of evaluation to every story regardless of genre.
As stated in the first paragraph, the purpose of fantasy may simply be whimsical (for pleasure) or may be to make a serious comment on reality (for instruction). It is the second purpose that evokes our greatest concern. We want to be certain that the instruction provided is Biblically sound. Our primary concern, therefore, in judging any literary work should not be its genre but its moral tone. To determine the moral tone of a work, we can ask ourselves questions like the following: Are the sympathetic characters in the story noble? Does the action of the story encourage the reader to accept virtue and reject vice? Is evil presented from a condemning perspective? Is evil made to appear both dangerous and repulsive? Regarding the evil presented in a work, there are two other important criteria to consider: Is the representation of evil purposeful or is it presented for its own sake? Is the representation of evil, if purposeful, present in an acceptable degree? The answers to these questions can help us determine whether the instruction provided by the work is Biblically sound. (For more information, see Christian Educational Censorship on bjupress.com.)
To this point we have concentrated on the potential negative effects of fantasy. Let us look now at the positive side. Rebecca Lukens, author of A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature, points out that high or pure fantasy "often appeals to the intellect and raises thoughtful questions." It is, therefore, particularly effective for broadening a child's world and helping him to take an objective look at universal problems. Fantasy can provide what we might call "mock encounters" that will better prepare the child to live a pure life in a fallen world.
Fantasy can also help the child develop valuable literary skills. The sensory images, extended beyond metaphors, personifications, symbols, and allusions that fill fanciful stories can develop a child's ability to discern the difference between the literal and the figurative use of language. Such skill is essential for a full understanding of God's Word. An inability to understand figurative language may, therefore, result in a misappropriation of truth. Mark 8:14-21 gives us an example of such error. Here Christ warned his disciples to "beware of the leaven of Herod." His disciples took the work leaven literally and assumed that Christ was rebuking them for forgetting bread. "How is it that ye do not understand?" Christ asks. The disciples' failure to grasp the Lord's figurative use of language caused them to miss the point completely. They were not being rebuked about bread but warned against false doctrine. (See also John 6:53-65). There is, of course, much in Scripture that is expressed literally. But these examples are only two of the many that show us the Bible also makes use of figurative language to reveal and emphasize truth.
Having looked at the evidence, we may safely say that fantasy--in itself--need not be shunned. Careful evaluation will enable us to discard specific stories that have a negative moral tone. But we can go a step further. By teaching our children the benefits of reading good fantasy, we can help develop in them an appreciation for and understanding of figurative language used in Scripture. Is fantasy a bane or a blessing to our children? The answer depends on our willingness to evaluate each selection and to develop in our children an appreciation for literary skills.