I recently stumbled across what is actually a very old article in The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis & Alien Worlds.” It’s the sort of article that was designed for me.
When I was a pre-teen/early teen, my family switched not only churches, but theological traditions. Combined with other difficult events in my life, all the questioning and re-thinking I had to do about my faith was disconcerting. That was when I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’s apologetics material, which became my lifeline to sanity. Afterwards I explored his fiction, and even some of his academic material, and I have long thought I owed Lewis a sort of debt as my father in the faith.
I stumbled onto Lovecraft, fittingly, at an equally insane time in my life. Lovecraft was not my father in much of anything, though he framed certain questions about the world in interesting ways. I also tend to think he’s refreshingly honest and self-aware for a materialist, but I’ve always been skeptical of materialists who take anything like an optimistic outlook on life.
I would not call myself an expert on either of these men, though I have lived with someone that I think could claim that title on Lewis. I would say that I’m more than casually familiar with both, though, and each has done quite a lot to influence my writing in various ways. This is why I was delighted when the piece in The Imaginative Conservative highlighted a common thread between them, and in doing so, helped me to understand the world of fantasy literature a little better.
The Tools of Fantasy
The article focuses on how Lewis and Lovecraft both told stories about alien life.
For Lovecraft, alien life was fundamentally strange, disgusting, disturbing, and indifferent to the existence of mankind. There is no basis for friendship between our species and one of theirs, and often not even for communication. Our goals are different, our minds are different, the ways we see the world are different, and we are not even made of the same kind of matter. Any encounter between us drives one or the other to insanity or death.
For Lewis, life outside our sphere may be strange, but it is not disturbing. Though we might not understand the aliens at first, soon we can grow to appreciate them, to admire their beauty and their skills, and the ways they interact with their environment. Each kind of creature is built for its own place, and though it may not thrive outside of the place, there is no fundamental opposition between one place and another, one species and another. There is a harmony at the back of all creation, and simply because one voice in the chorus may seem strange to another does not mean it does not have a place in whole.
This is exactly the sort of thing fantasy literature is adept at highlighting. Both these men want to examine the nature of sentient life. To do this, they both created sentient life-forms in situations far different from our own, some of them taking forms that were utterly inhuman. They were then free to exercise their imagination and come to a deeper understanding of what it meant to be sentient. They also wanted to examine what it would be like to take a creature built for one place and let encounter a creature built for another. In fantasy literature, which I am using a shorthand for all speculative fiction, you are allowed to do that.
Fantasy is a genre with the potential to examine the world in ways almost no other genre can. It can examine the structure of the cosmos, or expose its lack of structure, simply by sending you on a journey. It can explore the meaning of humanity by setting the human next to the inhuman, or by turning one into another. It can ponder the possibilities of predestination and free will by inventing prophecies or engaging in time-travel. The limitations nature imposes on the scientist and philosopher in the real world are overcome through the power of imagination in fantasy literature.
The Readers of Fantasy
This aspect of the fantasy genre has always attracted me to it, the fact that it lies so close to the surface in both Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis is probably a major part of what attracts me to their writings. But this is not all that fantasy is, and that must be taken into account when examining the genre.
J.R.R. Tolkien, who has the authority to speak on such topics, says that “fairy stories” are good for a number of things, and one of them is escape. We do not live in a perfect world, and at times it is good to rest from our labor, to enjoy a vacation of the mind to strange and distant place, from which we can return refreshed. If real suffering is a prison, fantasy allows us to fly the coop.
This is a good and healthy use of fantasy, and the fact that Tolkien acknowledges it is quite honest. Some people criticize this use of fantasy, but he does not. There is a difference, he says, between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. And there is also a word for people who are constantly worried about escape—he calls them prison guards.
But an unhealthy kind of escapism, the kind Tolkien calls “the flight of the deserter,” does exist. I missed quite a lot of my teenage years while squirreled away in my room reading Harry Potter, or off in a corner trying to make my way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think a lot of fantasy readers can say the same. After all, it does take quite a lot of time to tear through five hundred page paperbacks, especially when there are a dozen to a series. The world is not built out of free time, and time spent there is not going to be time spent with family and friends.
But it’s not just the amount of time spent that worries me. A large portion of the fantasy world, as has often been pointed out, is just repackaged Tolkien. It is not a genre known for innovation, though there are notable exceptions. The industry that nerd culture has become also expands this beyond unoriginal books and fills tabletop games, MMORPGs, card games, TV shows, and movies with the same old tropes. The worlds are familiar, the fantasy races are familiar, the MacGuffin swords and rings are familiar, and the characters and plots are old as dirt.
There is something to be said for that. One of my favorite things about medieval literature is that authors didn’t feel the pressure to invent something new every time they set pen to paper—a reworking of old material was perfectly acceptable. Old and familiar is good for binding a community together, and allows you explore those same themes with a level of depth constant novelty just doesn’t allow. If you use it that way.
But if fantasy is a genre with unique tools that allow it to explore the cosmos, and the nature of humanity, and other philosophical and scientific worlds in new and exciting ways, if all that is true, then this kind of thing is disappointing.
Lewis taught me to think about hierarchy and place, the nature of being human, the nature of being male and female, and who God is in new and exciting ways.
Lovecraft taught me to understand just what it means for man not to have a privileged place in the universe, and what the truly Other would be like if there was no harmony behind it all, and to contemplate the difference between science and magic, between religion and cosmic politics.
Tolkien taught me to consider that great power that appears to be a gift may come at an unthinkable cost, and to realize that in a fallen world, death in its time might be a gift.
I don’t want merely to escape. I don’t want to waste time in a world not my own simply because my own can get rough. I want to be equipped to handle that real world better. I need relaxation and refreshment, to be sure, but also need wisdom, need news eyes for the world. Fantasy has the ability to grant that, but when the genre becomes an exercise in revisiting the same old elves and dwarves, and the same old magic swords, it loses something important. It loses the magic that makes it unique.
That’s not the fantasy I want to read.
That’s not the kind of reader I want to be.