I haven't (yet) read The Lord of the Rings, an admission that more than once has provoked an incredulous, "You haven't?" There go my literary pretensions-often it seems, even to me, that to be unfamiliar with the work regarded by many as the novel of the 20th century is unconscionable. Still, something about the project has made me put it off. Perhaps that something is no more than the number of pages, but the fact remains that my taste for fantasy is underdeveloped.
However, I've read enough in the genre to recognize a common narrative thread running through recent manifestations of it, from The Black Cauldron to Star Wars, from explicitly Christian fantasies (Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness) to explicitly anti-Christian ones (Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy). Even the Harry Potter books manage to weave it into what is essentially a British school story. This narrative might be described as "The Dark is Rising" legend (with apologies to Susan Cooper, who wrote a fantasy series of that name for children).
As the saga begins, ordinary folks are going about their peaceful (if boring) lives on their planet or shire or small town. But evil purposes are stirring abroad, usually generated, or at least appropriated, by a single being of extraordinary ability, seduced by the lure of power. This wizard or spirit gathers flocks of minions and begins a program of destruction and intimidation designed to bring the known world under his control.
Opposition to the darkness finds its focus in an unlikely hero, young and naïve, with some special ability or trait that sets him apart from his peers. With the aid of a wise mentor and the companionship of loyal friends, he sets forth on a mission to defeat the darkness-usually at the cost of confronting his own evil impulses. The journey takes him from the familiar and ordinary into the strange and supernatural, elevating him to a new level of awareness from which he can never return.
Variations of this narrative can be found throughout literary history, but it has exploded in the past 50 years. Obviously, the theme resonates in a society that has lost its spiritual bearings and doubts its ability to judge good and evil. But a theme so big can easily get a swelled head. Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, and Lloyd Alexander let their protagonists "progress" so far from the nubbiness and texture of everyday affairs (thinking bigger and bigger thoughts) that the reader longs for them to stub their toes on something hard. A sense of humor keeps J.K. Rowling from pomposity (so far), but Harry Potter fans are taught to despise the "muggles" for their ordinariness. As for George Lucas, it's a good thing he's a filmmaker instead of a novelist, or else Luke Skywalker would have become an insufferable bore.
Christians should do fantasy better-first because their faith keeps them humble, and second because it reveals to them the uncommon nature of the commonplace. Lewis credits the fantasies of George McDonald that he read in his youth with changing his spiritual landscape; instead of creating dissatisfaction with the real world, they made him more appreciative of it. Lewis didn't realize at the time that he was being educated to see God's fingerprints on everyday surroundings. His Narnia books are layered with homely detail, even while recounting extraordinary events. Tolkien famously created an entire world in Middle Earth, with its poetry, social customs, and favorite recipes scattered among the epic battles. The Bible has that same odd juxtaposition: fire on the mountain laying down rules about mildew control and bodily discharges; a blind man's sight restored when another Man spits on the ground and makes a paste of mud. And then there's the Incarnation.
At the Incarnation, Christ actually reverses the great Darkness Rising narrative. Rather than the ordinary becoming supernatural, the supernatural has become ordinary, incorporating itself in human flesh, because that's where the darkness is always rising. Darkness manifests itself not in evil magicians, but in pettiness, selfishness, ingratitude. Our unlikely hero (who created the universe) left footprints on the sand, probably banged His thumb with a hammer, slept in the hold of a boat, died on a Roman cross. Because He did, the sand sparkles, honest work is noble service, a boat rocking on the water is poetry. And everyday life, in the long shadow of that cross, now has eternal consequences.
I do intend to read Tolkien's trilogy. But it's hard to see how any fantasy could improve on real life, as I've come to know it.