Mything the Point: Why Some Stories Strike True and Others Fall Short [Part One]

Have you ever noticed how some stories make a deep impression on certain people yet fail to make a dent in others? You know the sorts that go all in for certain stories: the Trekkies for Star Trek, the Ringers for The Lord of the Rings, the fans, the geeks…need I go on? The group members share a common passion and bond like family members, while those outside think the groupies are simply nuts. To the fans, however, there is a music in the stories they love. Metaphorically, they are sitting in a concert hall listening to their favorite band and singing along madly while wondering at the other concert goers asleep in their seats. In the library where I work, these are the folks who have been so moved by the books of our authors that they stare in awe at their surroundings with a look in their eyes that says: “Do you understand that I’m not a visitor, this is my heart’s homecoming?”

Why is it that story, and indeed any form of art, can act on one person in a life-altering manner while leaving another wholly untouched?

One clue rests in the approach of the reader himself. C.S. Lewis examines this “reader mindset” in detail in his book, An Experiment in Criticism. He cautions, “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”[1] Each of us has a barrier between what goes on in the world and what we will allow our inner beings to engage with seriously. Lewis elsewhere calls this barrier our “watchful dragons.” For those unwilling truly to engage with story, to let down a bit of their dragon guard, there is little hope for story to be transformative. After all, how can a medicine work unless you first swallow it?

Another clue rests in the writing, and hence also the author doing the writing. The master storyteller, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s words, “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”[2] This proverbial “suspension of disbelief” concept no doubt takes considerable skill and craft by the author in order to be successful. Yet even a well-crafted secondary world may be embraced differently by different readers. A scientific-minded individual may find fairy tales and their elements of magic too far flung to “believe,” and yet this same person may have a deep-seated passion for science fiction. The failure of creating belief therefore may lie either with the author or with the reader.

The secondary world must entail more than a convincing setting in order to fully capture its reader, however. We will pick up our investigation there on Friday.

Laura Schmidt is the archivist at The Marion E. Wade Center, and welcomes all lovers of story to a seat by the fireplace in our book-lined reading room.

[1] Lewis, C.S. “How the Few and the Many use Pictures and Music.” An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969, p. 19.

[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966, p.60.

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  • Laura Schmidt is the archivist at The Marion E. Wade Center, and welcomes all lovers of story to a seat by the fireplace in our book-lined reading room.

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  1. says: Cole Matson

    Thanks for this, Laura!

    The two characteristics you point out for a story to capture the reader – a reader willing to let down his guard and enter the story, and a story that creates a coherent and interesting Secondary World – might hold true for stories of all sorts of different genres, and their readers. As you point out, some readers may be willing to let their guard down about fantasy, but not sci-fi, and vice versa.

    Are there any characteristics that you think are particular to the reader (or writer) of fantasy?

    1. says: Laura Schmidt

      Oh Cole this could certainly be the spark of endless debate and other articles. 🙂 I think that readers and writers of fantasy must delight in the fresh sense of “otherness,” which most stories based in realism do not have. I’ll explain what I mean by “otherness.” A beloved teacher once told me that fantasy stories are like all other stories, but in different wrapping paper. Instead of names like Tom and Jane, you have Voldemort and Galadriel. Instead of places like New York, you have Archenland. Instead of science, you often have magic. It is the reader’s discovery of the unexpected and the writer’s exploration and creation of new rules, new names, and new lands that is fascinating to the fantasy lover, but which can deter a reader or writer who would prefer resting his feet on a story with a basis in the everyday world where “Tom lives in New York and practices science.” You also have low fantasy vs. high fantasy which has different levels of “otherness.” One reader might be fine with the low fantasy of Mary Poppins the extraordinary nanny or the fact that Charlotte the spider can weave amazing things in her webs, but not be quite willing to read about otherness involving Eragon the dragon rider in a high fantasy world entirely separate from Earth.

      The variance between fantasy and sci-fi in this respect can be a tenuous and debatable one since both share many qualities. Sci-fi often rests heavily on science or technology rather than magic or the fantastic, it can be futuristic and hence an almost cautionary tale of where our world might go if we make certain choices, and it often involves space travel. While fantasy stories are not devoid of these elements, I think I can safely say they are not the general emphasis of the plot nor the traditional setting in fantasy. A reader and writer’s personal preference for these elements would then determine whether or not they want to fully engage in reading or writing a story which includes them.

      Can we say that fantasy lovers are those who like to remain on earth so long as they are able to meet talking animals and an occasional wizard? 🙂

      1. says: Cole Matson


        I’ve come to believe that the word “taste” is actually useful, not so much to mean “ability to discriminate between good and bad and preference for the good”, but in terms of which flavours we enjoy. Some people enjoy salty, some sweet. I love broccoli; others can’t stand it. I do worry when I meet someone who just has absolutely no taste for fantasy, and I admit that I am a bit wary of people who actively dislike Lord of the Rings. (It takes a bit of work to get over that initial hurdle to friendship!) But at the same time, there are genres and authors I know others enjoy, which I just can’t get into, even though I can see there’s goodness there. (Jane Austen, for example – though I need to give her another shot.)

        But it’s not only taste. I tend to think that some genres are more worthy of devotion in themselves than others – fantasy is more worthy than horror, for example, though some fantasy can be utterly devoid of merit and some horror vehicles of grace.

        You’re right, it would take a while to disentangle these threads!


        1. says: Laura Schmidt

          Hear hear, Cole. Well put about “taste.” But those who actively dislike LotR are hard to understand, I agree, and harder to actively befriend (joking there, but not entirely). And yes, you DO need to give Austen another try. 🙂 Have you seen the A&E version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth? I’ve seen that convert some people into Austenites. 😉 It’s looong, but it’s goood.

  2. says: Holly Ordway

    This is an interesting line of thought to follow. Fantasy today tends to be “all or nothing” as a genre: either people love it, or they reject it entirely. Yet elements of what we would call ‘the fantastic’ appeared in literature through the past few millennia, without being separated off into a generic ghetto. Beowulf, the Divine Comedy, the Faerie Queene, Macbeth… My theory (in part) is that modernism has corroded our ability (as a culture) to recognize that ‘fantasy’ or the fantastic can convey truth and be ‘realistic’ in a deep sense. Those who understand that fantasy can be true will dive in and enjoy it… but for many, the very idea of fantasy being true is so preposterous that they reject the entire experience. (As if things like ‘reality TV’ were more realistic than LOTR…)

    1. says: Laura Schmidt

      I agree Holly. I think that we (at least in Western culture) are still very much under the sway of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in this respect. The Enlightenment makes us think that all data must be rationally presented and intellectually absorbed for it to be true. The Industrial Revolution gives us undue confidence in our ability to control and manipulate the world around us, producing expected results to meet our demands. Still, I feel the pendulum is swinging back in favor of fantasy over the last 2 decades as more people feel that we can’t fully explain everything happening in our world, nor control it, and fantasy stories are filling that hunger for creating meaning in a very chaotic world.

    2. says: Cole Matson

      Spot on, Holly! (Especially that last sentence.) Such rediscovery of truth through the imagination is the point of the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts! (Though I believe Lewis saw reason as the “organ of truth”, and imagination as the “organ of meaning” – would you agree with his distinction, or disagree?)

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