There Be Dragons!

The ideas from fiction, even the most fantastical, are valuable because the ideas which animate them are real. (Part 1 of 2)

“I don’t do fantasy or science fiction…”

Recently someone relayed to me that they just didn’t appreciate fantasy or science fiction. One would think at this point that I’d be used to this sort of thing. Now this young lady, Lord bless her, is still young and figuring it out (and she has yet to spend enough time with us!) but I’ve heard this from full-blown adults… some even responsible for raising kids (*shudder*) so it occasionally feels like an issue worthy of addressing… directly.

As much as I hesitate to make the mystical too much of a trend, let’s dive into the value and reality of fiction.

Let’s start with the objections to fantasy and science fiction, which seem to come from three different directions.

First is the position of the devout Christian and the notion that fiction cannot comport with either a Biblical or liturgical truth. The second is from the angle of needing to know something is “real” scientifically or materially in order to be relevant (so kind of the precise opposite objection as the first). The third objection to fantasy and sci-fi comes from the more pragmatic notion of making sure that what we fill our minds with is “useful” (especially in terms of what we can do with it productively.

Going in reverse order, let me address the pragmatism objection right out.

Is it… useful? What is “useful?”

The first question to ask is, of course, what does “useful” even mean? Useful for what? For a career? For life? For survival in case of apocalypse? What are we using our literature for? The assumption, always, is that what we really mean by useful is something that will help us in our career or “productive” life. Even things we’re supposed to learn that are not “academic” or “job-related” are still put in terms of what our responsibilities are in the marketplace. (SEE: the latest episode of ROTG where Jessica and I discuss Joseph Pieper’s 1947 masterpiece of work, Leisure: the Basis of Culture) How many times do we hear, “the kids should be taught how to balance a checkbook” or manage their investments, or fix their own car (to save money), or cook a nice meal (to be healthier and more productive) or any number of other things which make us independent citizens not on the public dole and making it to our job every day.

Our entire educational system is geared for “college and career”… which means wasting time on fantasy and sci-fi (the most fictiony fiction) should be discouraged. Sure we’re good with literature which makes us more historically informed and better communicators … so we can get a better job or better at our jobs.

Anyone who spends any time with me on education knows that “career readiness” is at best a secondary, and most likely a tertiary concern… especially in an age where a) our problems are more related to a failure of moral imagination than a failure of properly using SAT words and/or navigating a balance sheet and b) the odds of having a long term “career” where you work at the same company (or even the same industry) for extended periods is dwindling quickly.

But more importantly, how high on the importance rank should we put career readiness anyway? Does it make us happy? A better wife or husband? Father or mother? Maybe we are marginally more likely to be good providers, but that sounds more like a prerequisite to a good life than a real qualification.

“True” and “factual” are not synonymous

So let’s assume that an appreciation of higher level thinking or deeper meaning is already a goal, then what about the disconnection of fantasy or sci-fi or any other kind of speculative fiction and the “real” world? This is actually tougher to answer because our own modern culture has begun to put so much weight on experiential learning and pursuit of happiness, justice, love, etc. that it seems silly to make things up from whole cloth.

Seriously, there are hundreds of years now of historical accounts of real people doing real things, living real lives and accomplishing wonderful, miraculous things against impossible odds. These were people who lived in this earth and really existed and people knew them and in some cases could relay their wisdom and virtues directly and with purpose. Use what we know to be provable and verifiable. Explorers, philosophers, theologians, politicians, kings and queens, peasants, activists, former slaves, escaped prisoners from tyrannical regimes… the list goes on and on and on. Real answers about most of the real struggles we’re having are there… with Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, there for the taking and application.

This is all true, and apparently it’s all not good enough. Otherwise, why would there still be a problem? If all the answers are there in history, and we still keep making many of the same mistakes, driving headlong into the same traps and ignoring the same truths. (Or coming to different conclusions and not agreeing on the truths).

Why? Well we’re humans for one… with sinful fallen natures and inadequate motives, means, and opportunities for interpreting “truths” purely without fail. We don’t necessarily learn all that is required of us from facts because facts can’t really give us the “why” of something (as we discussed before) but also we simply don’t know as much as we think we know.

Look at “historical fiction” for instance. I’ve seen three different renditions of the period of Henry VIII on screen (probably more than three but three come to mind, and besides there are probably dozens I haven’t seen). One from the point of view of Thomas More (A Man for All Seasons), one from the point of view of Henry VIII himself (Tudors on Showtime) and one from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall). They all three took completely different ideas from the story and relayed three different narratives — based partially on the different points of view in focus in the story but mostly on different points of view of those telling the story.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”

Take the most widely acclaimed “historical fiction” writer in the West in the last 2000 years: William Shakespeare, and answer this question:

Which speech has had the greater impact on the modern world, our view of war and sacrifice, of monarchy, of patriotism, “manliness," leadership, courage (and any number of other things): the speech that Henry V actually gave to his men on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, or the speech that Shakespeare wrote for him. Just for reference, here’s the “St Crispin’s Day Speech” from Shakespeare:

WESTMORLAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What's he that wishes so?
My cousin, Westmorland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made, 
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

We know the answer to this question. Real people are made into legends in a myriad of ways and their legends are at least as educational and valuable and worthy of our reading, studying, and analyzing as are their “real” characters who could be more complex (which has value for sure) with virtues and vices which are more opaque and harder to access (especially if, since we don’t know them, and weren’t there, we aren’t likely to ever know their true natures anyway).

The main reason why Homer’s Achilles is so legendary and mysterious, mythical, and almost superhuman is that he is more distant. He might have been a real person, or a compilation of characters from the Trojan War and Greek mythos. Who is to say that George Washington, several centuries from now doesn’t become as mythical and heroic as Achilles (In some ways he already has, though obviously not to the same degree… only as a matter of degree, not a matter of kind). He is lionized and almost idealized. His virtues are what we care about. Finding out he (or Achilles) was just a flawed human being with foibles and flaws has less value than we might think. Sure it’s good to be “relatable” but after the first few dozen historical characters have been shown to be human while still accomplishing great things, that particular lesson begins to lose its value. The virtues or ideals or character traits that helps people pursue good, truth, beauty, justice, etc, etc… and of course the stark examples of characters that display traits that almost always stem from one of the Seven Deadly Sins…that’s the gold. That’s the value.

(I’ve been unable to thread this within my article after the fact due to time constraints, but could be tempted to do so for Part II, which will come out next week, but the work of Joseph Campbell on “The Power of Myth” which has some multimedia support on Amazon Prime now is a worthy deep dive into this topic. Thanks to one of our IndED parents for reminding me of it!)

(Part II, next Week)