When I first picked up a copy of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid, I was mesmerized. It was in a church library and I found it much more fascinating that the sermon, so I sat and read it during the church service.
Then came the rest of the Narnia series. After that was Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Since then I’ve read some other fantasy literature, some quite good, but nothing that capture my imagination like these stories.
Lewis was greatly influenced by George MacDonald, a pastor and author who lived from 1824-1905. I recently bought the complete works of MacDonald for the kindle, looking forward to not just diving into his fiction but also into his non-fiction. Friends of mine who do not read fiction have raved about MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons and other works of theology.
First, I read the work that Lewis cited as baptizing his imagination, Phantastes. It is the story of a man named Anodos who is taken to the land of Faerie and has many adventures there. Faerie is the name of the mystical land inhabited by, well, fairies. But we ought not think of fairies as just the Tinker Bell variety, instead think of Tolkien’s majestic Elves. Faerie is a world of magic and danger, of giants and goblins and spirits.
It is easy to see the influence Phantastes had on Lewis’ writing. At the same time, Phantastes is a tougher read then the Narnia books. I found it kind of weird at times, sort of meandering. It is the sort of story that a second reading would shed greater light on, for the threads that hold the story together are not clear throughout. In other words, the story makes you think. There are many metaphors and imagery that demand further reflection. And, again unlike Narnia, there is no simple allegory where MacDonald’s Christian faith is obvious.
At the end of the story Anodos returns to his world and is challenged to live with the lessons he learned on his journey through Faerie. That may be the lesson for the reader.
When we come to these stories, from MacDonald to Lewis and Tolkien and even into more contemporary fantasy, we find ourselves changed. Not all fantasy does that of course, some of it ends up just being an hour or two of escapism. But the best fantasy stories lead us into another world, revealing things about our world and ourselves that, when we put the book down, move us. We do not leave unchanged.
I grew up in the church my whole life. I knew the stories of Jesus. But honestly, it was reading the sacrifice of Aslan in Lewis’ work that really, in my childhood mind, helped me grasp what the sacrifice of Jesus truly meant.
As MacDonald has Anados say at the end of the story:
My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land? These questions I cannot answer yet. But I fear.
That last phrase strikes me. What does he fear? That he will forget the lessons he learned and have to relearn them all?
When we read these stories, and ultimately the story of scripture, may we not come away unchanged. My hope would be that such experiences, such journeys into the written word, would shape us into whole people.