Ancient and Beautiful and True

George R.R. Martin famously wrote in The Faces of Fantasy:

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth.[1]

I love what Martin sees here, but I think he’s missing a core truth. C.S. Lewis writes of a longing deep within the human heart, a fierce desire for our true home–a place both familiar and foreign. Whether for our ancestral home in Eden or our future home where all is right and good, I encounter this longing most often when I enter the imagined worlds of others.

For me, fantasy is alive in ways other literature is not–more real than real and pregnant with truth older than myth. It is the lodestone pull of the home we lost but just might find again. It’s flavors I’ve never tasted, textures I’ve never felt, and scents I’ve never smelled but somehow recognize even so.

Fantasy is a glimmer of reflected light that calls me homeward. Eden is forever out of reach, but the longing for my lost home is really the reaching for my true home, a place I’ve never known, but have seen and smelled and tasted in fleeting flashes that always leave me craving more.

We know these flashes when we find them, I think. Our hearts are filled–for a moment at least–and we linger in a long magic moment, savoring the spices of eternity. We know then that what we yearn for we will never find while our hearts beat with earthbound beats. There will come a day when life as we know it will be swallowed up by Life, and the mortal will put on immortality. When that day comes and our eyes open in Valinor, we will see that the towers of Minas Tirith were just a shadow of the Undying Lands. We will see that the beauty of fantasy and the longings it sings are satisfied at last. For it is not an imagined world we long for–it is Heaven.

I read fantasy, I think, because at its best it points me homeward.  And though I have called my yearning for Home many things and mistaken it for many others, I yearn just the same. So I savor fantasy now and let it awaken the longing. But I know that while it points me home, it’s not home–it’s just a glimpse.  And if a mere glimpse enraptures me so readily, I can only imagine what Home will be . . .

Adam B. Shaeffer is a student at the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology and has been an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction for more than 20 years. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in Jabberwocky and Residential Aliens.

[1] The quote appeared in The Faces of Fantasy: Photographs by Pati Perret © 1996. You can also find it at: http://www.georgerrmartin.com/musings-writing-fantasy.html

4 Comments

  • Cole Matson says:

    One of the most hopeful visions of Heaven I’ve encountered is the end of The Last Battle, when the children find out that Heaven is actually the Real Narnia – and the Real England (and presumably the Real Middle-earth!). King Arthur and Camelot will survive when Death itself has been destroyed. And that is a very encouraging thought.

    Nai hiruvalye Valimar!

  • Adam B. Shaeffer says:

    @Cole Matson

    Amen!

    And that’s so very like CS Lewis to point us beyond our experience to a reality that’s somehow more real than what we see around us. Perhaps because it is a more complete picture of the fullness of God’s grand and glorious creation…

  • Allison says:

    Fantasy literature, the tales of Narnia, Middle Earth, and even George MacDonald’s Phantasties and Lilith excite and draw to the surface until it is overflowing an excitement within me in a way that other genres or art don’t. Not only do these worlds and tales individually touch me on a deep level, but they compliment each other as different colors and different brush strokes on a canvas that feeds my soul and imagination. Without fantasy…well, we all know how gray the world would be without the hues of fantasy.

    • Adam B. Shaeffer says:

      @Allison

      Fantasy does stoke the imagination, doesn’t it? It fuels that portion of God’s image in us that seeks creative expression, that seeks to make and build and invent, that seeks to instill a small piece of ourselves in something others can enter into and enjoy.

      The brush strokes and colors are both rich and striking, and the world is a lovelier and livelier place thanks to fantasy.

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