It’d be a little cliche to say I was reading something lately…that seems to be the going trend for how I write most of these articles. But I was reading something recently, and I am going to start that way. So ha.
I was recently reading an article in The Atlantic on why we should read fiction by a fellow of the name of Lev Grossman here. Apparently he’s written some sort of “older” Harry Potter (Whatever that means). I’ve never heard of him before, nor have I read his works , so I post a caveat that this post is not a proclamation of his works. Merely of an article I read by him. So if I’ve accidentally introduced some modern Nietzsche, my apologies. There is more than the void.
So with that out of the way, I was reading this article about why we should read fiction by Lev Grossman. For Grossman, fantasy is something that helps us better learn how to deal with the world we live in. He writes:
I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.
When you come to Narnia, your worries come too. There’s something about the world of fantasy that helps us see better what it is we fear, what we’re most afraid of confronting. Perhaps it’s the dragon under the Lonely Mountain. Or maybe it’s the Brain, sitting at the middle of its web of despair.
What reading good fiction shows is how human we really are; it flips things upside down so that we can gain a better perspective on things by putting us in someone else’s shoes. Even something like Jacques’ Redwall, mentioned in my earlier blog here, shows us how much we need good companionship and community through something like food.
I had a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago who was rethinking his school’s history curriculum. His grievance with the current history textbooks was that they simply transposed a series of dates onto a timeline. The problem when we do that, he said, is that we lose sight of why we actually study history. We study history (or used to) in order to learn something about the human person; that’s what history is, after all – a series of events involving the human person, right? People used to read Plutarch’s Lives not just because they were learning about a series of dates, but because they were learning about the human person. When we simply hear about the dates of the Peloponnesian War, we lose sight of what really happened. We lose sight of Pericles and his love for Athens, the city of beauty. Instead, when we learn history through reading the lives of those who came before us, we learn not just dates, but something more. We learn how about the human person as that human person reflects us and those around us. So too with fantasy.
By taking things and putting them inside out, we’re better able to get a sense of where the land lies. By exacerbating things, as Grossman put it, we’re forced to come to grips with things sooner. Edmund undoubtedly would have let things fester for much longer if he hadn’t been put on the line by the White Witch. Yes, sometimes fiction can help us to escape, for a little while, the cares of this world; and sometimes not. Sometimes it is to help us see clearly, to help us turn things inside out so we can get a better look. It’s meant to help us learn more about..us. About you and me. Good literature, then, is one that helps us be better, to be more human. C.S. Lewis’ closing book in his Space Trilogy, entitled, That Hideous Strength, is a wonderful example of this. Within the pages of this book, Lewis paints the human person with all their struggles. One particular character, the scientist Mark, is caught in the middle of the battle between good vs. evil, but in this case, it’s a much more real, more “grey” evil. The evil of Lewis’ Hideous Strength is one that paints itself as “that group” that we all want to be part of; it’s the “inner circle” that we’re all afraid of being left out of. Marc so desperately feels left out, so alone, that he gives up his very soul to be “in”. And do you know what? We’ve done the very same, so many times. Like Mark, we come this close to forsaking what is most dear to us – to find out more what I mean, you’ll have the read the book. Cheers.
Reading then, is not just a path to some escapist reality. Rather, it helps us to see the world better, to get a better angle on things through characters with whom we’ve learned to laugh, cry, and love. Reading helps us see that the wicked prince we hate so much was once good. Really, he was; he just made a few bad decisions, surrounded himself with the wrong people. We see the dragon and realize that sometimes it’s okay to run away when we don’t have Gandalf to protect us. And we see the Pearl of Great Price, so valuable that a merchant would sell all he had to possess it.
So why read fiction? Why walk into the land of Narnia at all? Sometimes, a story can help us see what it is we really value most. It can help us turn our darkest corners inside out, so the light can help us better clean out those dusty corners. And sometimes, it can help us see that good really does win in the end, that we really are made for more.
So maybe reading fiction isn’t your thing. Fine. Good. Go read some history. Go read Plutarch’s Lives. But do think about what you read, and ask yourself this: am I more like Lucy, or am I more like Edmund? Am I like Alcibiades, or am I like Coriolanus? Where are my worries, and how am letting Aslan conquer my White Witch?
Take my hand, then, and take a step with me through the wardrobe. I guarantee you will not be the same.
Who knows? Even brats come back as mighty kings and queens. And sometimes the most unbelievable things really are true – like a lowly village girl becoming the Mother of God.
It’s a dangerous world out there. But it’s a beautiful one.