Authors Explore Fantasy in From Homer to Harry Potter
- Thursday, September 21, 2006
Although that's a very functional definition of myth, C.S. Lewis, writing on myth, makes much clearer the true function of myth: "It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives." Or, to quote Emmylou Harris, "If there's no heaven, what is this hunger for?"
Myth, then, is not restricted to just make-believe stories, but is more expansive, encompassing any story that deals with issues of great significance and gives a basis for understanding the world. And when we encounter these stories, we feel a longing for such places, a longing that is not explained easily by rational words.
It is at this point that Dickerson and O'Hara make one of their really big observations: the difference between what they call the mythos and the logos. (Please note that they are not talking of Christ as Logos.) For them, mythos is the relating of truth through story, whereas logos is the relating of truth through reason. Both express themselves to us through words, but logos lays itself out through explication, whereas mythos conveys itself to us through less rational means. They both speak, but in different languages.
Dickerson and O'Hara write that the fantastic "is not a place to deny the supernatural, but neither is it a place for systematic theology or philosophy of religion. [The fantastic does] not deal in mere propositional truth or morals, as fables and sermons so often do, and we should not look to them for that." When we experience the fantastic, either in a movie or in a novel, we often find ourselves feeling a strange connection to what is being said, but when we begin to analyze that sense of connection, we lose it. That is the mythic.
But this still begs the question of "why." Dickerson and O'Hara tackle this by looking at the difference between science fiction and fantasy, two genres that are closely related in the popular mind, so much so that they are often shelved together in bookstores. As they explain it, "Science fiction is based on science - or, more accurately, on the assumption that everything is explainable by science." That is, science fiction doesn't leave room for the numinous; it "tends to be marked by a progressivist's optimism about the power of scientific knowledge to improve the lot of humanity." Or, in other words, the grace of God is incidental and not really needed.
Fantasy and the fantastic, on the other hand, create a better sense of causation by not embracing such a worldview: "Fantasy has a more complete view of causation than does most sci-fi. [...] Fantasy's view of cause is one that corresponds more to Aristotle's view of there being four causes (formal, material, efficient, and final) for everything, over against the Enlightenment and Newtonian view of there being only two causes for every event, the material and the efficient (i.e., matter and energy)."
That's quite a mouthful of a sentence, but it really boils down to the fact that fantasy leaves itself open to the possibility (and reality) of events being caused by things outside ourselves; it allows for God in its worldview. "The crucial element in sci-fi is the natural [...] the crucial element in fantasy is the interaction of the natural with the supernatural."
A personal favorite quote (not mentioned by Dickerson and O'Hara) is from Act II, Scene III of Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well": "They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear."
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