Reading Fantasy

This post is adapted from a forum discussion on what fantasy literature people allowed their children to read. (It is not a post fantasizing about reading more, although that would be good, too.)


Imagination is a precious gift of God, part of the image of God in us, our pale imitation of him as Creator, and it should be cherished and nourished with the right food. Part of my job and joy as a mother is finding the best possible food for this faculty in my children.

I have known families who rejected fantasy as false and evil, and have seen that attitude result in significant problems. For children who are not naturally imaginative, it creates a pedestrian view of the world as all facts or lies, without any vision of the beauty of seeing deeper truths. Most of the Bible is a closed book because it can only be read for the bare facts on the surface instead of learning to probe to find out what truths God was trying to tell us through communicating those facts. (And yet both Jesus and Paul probed the Bible for symbolism and allegory to use in teaching.)

For children who are naturally imaginative, a strict rule against fantasy teaches them that they must suppress who God made them to be in order to be “good”–or else that since imagination is evil, they might as well imagine evil since they are in trouble anyways. For these children, fantasy–good fantasy–is an essential gateway to understanding and appreciating the spiritual realm, as well as an important part of personal growth.

Another function of fantasy is to open our eyes to the wonder and beauty of the world God made. By participating in imagining the world in different ways, we are reminded of the wonder of the particular way God did make it–he could have made it otherwise, but he made it *this* way, for our good and to reveal himself.

I also find that in modern fantasy “magic” is often analogous to science or deeper knowledge in the real world–and reading those books has given me much food for thought on our relationship as humans to increasing knowledge.

As far as specific authors go, my children are too young for most of my favorites–C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, George MacDonald (who should be mentioned much more often!) At least, I am saving them because I want them to enjoy them most fully in a few years. But we do read many fairy tales. The “darkness” so often critiqued in fairy tales and fantasy is part of the benefit–children know evil and violence exist; by giving them a moral context in which evil is plainly apparent and justly punished (which so seldom happens in this world), it gives them a safe way to deal with these ideas and a vision of courage and faithfulness to combat them. One of our all-time favorites, beautifully illustrated, is *St. George and the Dragon* by Margaret Hodges.

We know as Christians that someday all wrongs will be righted and all evil brought to light, but to feel this, to believe it in such a way to act on it in faith when we cannot see it yet–that is part of the place of fantasy.

That said, I don’t care for the Disney-fied version of fairy tales, so we have not watched those. I was also not overly impressed with Harry Potter, although I would not mind my kids reading it when they are old enough. (There are many current fantasy writers on the YA shelf that I find more enjoyable: Lloyd Alexander, Patricia Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett.) I also have no problem with the fantastical elements in other classics, such as Shakespeare, the legends of King Arthur, etc.

One more thing I believe is essential for my children to learn is that there are no safe books. All books are dangerous; we must always read with our minds awake, thinking about and weighing what we are reading. Yes, even the Bible, which we read through the interpretations given to us over the years and our own prejudices–we have to keep asking ourselves, “Is this really what it says? Does it fit together? Or am I misunderstanding something?” That doesn’t mean that all books are worth reading, of course–but that the key question for me is not the absence of any particular thing as it is the presence of what is worthy.

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