C.S. Lewis on Misunderstanding Fantasy
“Good stories often introduce the marvelous or supernatural and nothing about Story has been so often misunderstood as this.”
On Stories—C.S. Lewis
The early decades of the last century saw the loss of credibility of fantasy literature among the academic elite who ruled it a popular genre with little to no scholarly merit. Little that had had the misfortune of being dubbed fantasy had escaped the blacklist cast upon the field. Many critics had also labeled the fantasy genre as largely cliché, full of shallow characters, and as having no value beyond being purely escapist entertainment. These generic labels, applied wholesale to fantastic literature, had pushed it off the radar until readers of Fantasy had become literary lepers, lurking in the corners of accepted literary societies.
Recent big screen blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and its sequel, The Two Towers, as well as the two Harry Potter films have restored much attention to the oft-ignored genre. Despite the commercial success of the two fantastical franchises, however, Fantasy has not regained much standing within the academia, as scholars continue to neglect contemporary fantasy literature when choosing curricula and fail to give the genre its due while unwittingly including much that is fantastic in classical literature courses. Although these classics have been accepted, they have often been held either as the exception to the rule or have not been labeled as Fantasy at all. Further, the lack of Fantasy in the curricula of colleges across the country has become so egregious as to ignore modern literary giants such as George R.R. Martin who competes every year for the highest honors given authors of Fantasy. Martin and his contemporaries are only studied as curios in specialty literature courses designed to focus on popular fiction.
Accomplished science fiction and Fantasy author C.S. Lewis saw the defamation of the Fantasy genre beginning during the early decades of the Twentieth century. Lewis was well aware of the strengths of the genre; from his youth he had been enchanted by fantastical stories of paranormal phenomena that included Norse mythology. Upon reaching adulthood and becoming a noted member of the English faculty at Oxford College, Lewis published a science fiction trilogy dealing with the clash between science and religion and between good and evil. He followed the well-received series with the Chronicles of Narnia, seven Fantasy novels written for children bearing large motifs of Christian mythology. And along the way, he managed to defend Fantasy, science fiction, and myth from its critics in a series of explicative essays dealing with literary theory.
Similarly, Lewis’ colleague at Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien also defended Fantasy, or as he called it, “fairy-stories.” Tolkien was known for his fantastic works that included...