C.S Lewis on Fantasy vs Real-World Fiction

Geoff ChapmanFound, Linked0 Comments

Regarding the relative dangers and merits of fantasy and real-world fiction C. S. Lewis writes:

“The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.

“Do fairy tales teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment—’fantasy’ in the technical psychological sense of the word—instead of facing the problems of the real world? Now it is here that the problem becomes subtle. Let us again lay the fairy tale side by side with the school story or any other story which is labeled a ‘Boy’s Book’ or a ‘Girl’s Book’, as distinct from a ‘Children’s Book’. There is no doubt that both arouse, and imaginatively satisfy, wishes. We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land. We also long to be the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl, or the lucky boy or girl who discovers the spy’s plot or rides the horse that none of the cowboys can manage.

“But the two longings are very different.

“The second, especially when directed on something so close as school life, is ravenous and deadly serious. Its fulfillment on the level of imagination is in very truth compensatory: we run to it from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world: it sends us back to the real world undividedly discontented. For it is all flattery to the ego. The pleasure consists in picturing oneself the object of admiration.

“The other longing, that for fairy land, is very different. In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven. Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new ‘dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing. The boy reading the school story of the type I have in mind desires success and is unhappy (once the book is over) because he can’t get it: the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind has not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story.”

—C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (1946)

From Justin Taylor at TGC

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