Friday, 4 November 2011

What to say to kids about fantasy


Kids read and watch vast amounts of fantasy and make believe - many kids, (and I was one) find the world of fantasy more appealing than this world.

Indeed, it seems that this world - for all its distractions and excitements - is simply not enough.


Kids want so much for the fantasy to be real.

They ask: But is it real?

(If not real here and now, is it real at some place and time, or could it become so?)


So there is, on the one had, this world - which is not enough to satisfy the human spirit; and, on the other hand... what?


There is the perspective which says nothing.

That this life is real and all there is, fantasy may be nicer, but it is make believe and exists only in your mind.

And if you don't like this life, then that's tough - your life will be a miserable waste of time.


What can this perspective advise? There is only one thing: you must try to enjoy this life: it is absolutely imperative.

You must cease to yearn for the impossible, and make do with the attainable. The attainable may seem crumby - but that is all that is on-offer.

Grab and hold as much attainable pleasure as you can cram-in; don't waste a moment, fill your life with it (and use attainable pleasures to displace dissatisfaction and the yearnings).


Yet if this advice succeeds, then all it achieves is to convert a miserable waste of time into a pleasurable waste of time.

Is that what we should tell our kids?

Is it true?


For much of my adult life, especially the decade c 1998-2008, I was a sort-of Jungian; which was in fact not much different from the above.

As well as Jung, I  read deeply in James Hillman, Joseph Campbell, Daniel C Noel - and sampled 'new age' writers widely.

Although this Jungian view claimed to have solved the problem of meaningless this life versus meaningless fantasy, in fact the problem was still intact.


The Jungian view has it that everything is psychology - nothing is outside of psychology - but psychology is shared.

Reality is wholly subjective, because the mind 'creates' everything; but not solipsistic exactly because the mind is (in some way) shared between people.

So, for Jung and his followers, everything is as-if. Fantasy is just as real as this life; but neither are realer than ideas in human heads.


But if my own imaginations are inadequate for life, then so is Jung's psychology; because it merely expands the scope from my psychology to human psychology - but does nothing to affect reality - because reality is regarded as a product of psychology.

In effect, Jung says that delusional reality is the only reality, but asks us to be happy about this because at least the delusion is (to some extent) shared among all humans.

We are not alone in our delusions...


Talking with a child makes one realize that while such tortuous abstractions may (apparently) satisfy adult intellectuals - they do not satisfy the basic human craving for reality.

Children want to know 'but is it real': they are at root not satisfied with make believe, even if that make believe can be sustained almost indefinitely by the abundance of modern media.


A thought experiment.

Suppose you love The Lord of the Rings and were totally absorbed by it on first reading. Suppose you feel that the fantasy world of Tolkien is more real than this life.

Would it be enough to spend your whole life reading LotR?

Okay - you would get used to it, habituated, it would lose its effect...

But, supposing your memory was wiped between each reading; such that each time you read LotR it was like the first time and undiminished?

(Something of this type happens in certain forms of brain damage, and might in principle be possible with some technical interventions.)

Would that be enough?


Ah, but you would know at the back of your mind that LotR was fantasy...

Suppose that that knowledge could be removed; suppose you dwelt in LotR as you read it - like an alternative or virtual reality, and unaware of the fact?

(Technically, this might too be possible - insight and awareness disappear in some psychotic illnesses - so they should be able to be abolished artificially.)

SO - you can read and re-read Lord of the Rings each time as fresh as the first, and this is taken to be this world in which you dwell - is it enough?


Well, is it enough for the creature who actually dwell in Middle Earth? The Hobbits, Men, Elves, Dwarves, Ents?

Is Middle Earth enough for them?

Obviously not.


So when a child yearns for the reality of fantasy, and implicitly recognizes the inadequacy of this life; in fact the fantasy is not itself an answer.

So this life does not satisfy, and the fantasy would not satisfy even if it became our own life (or was apparently our own life, by some kind of technical intervention - some kind of subtle brain damage).


The child's yearning, sparked by fantasy, in in fact a profound statement of the human condition; and a heart-felt recognition of the inadequacy of this world, and of any imaginable world, to our desires.

At this level the problem is inevitable and insoluble.

The problem can, indeed, be solved only at a transcendental level; and in a manner which cannot be understood.

Just as any actually imaginable fantasy would leave us yearning; so we cannot imagine what would satisfy our yearning to be ourselves-yet-transformed in a world which was like this-world-but-transformed.

Yet that is precisely what we yearn for; and nothing less could or would ever satisfy.

That is what the child's question 'but is it real?' is telling us.



Kristor said...

Thank you, Bruce, for the gift of this essay.

Our innate apprehension that the world is haunted, and the child’s inquiry into whether the haunting is real, and our deep longing for its facticity, and to be able somehow to find ourselves awakened in a really haunted world, are all operations of what Lewis called sehnsucht. Wikipedia’s entry on the word is simply wonderful:

“Lewis described Sehnsucht as the "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what." In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress he provided examples of what sparked this desire in him particularly:

That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.[3]

It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call "home".”

We are all children of Moses, strangers in a strange land. If that homeland we miss is in fact utterly missing, then are we truly bereft, and lost.

The last chapters of The Last Battle are Lewis’ attempt to describe how our sehnsucht will at the end of all things find its final, full satisfaction. Narnia ends, and the reader who has loved it well enough to get to the last book in the series cannot but bitterly mourn its passing. But then the children whose lives have ended in their native Britain find that Narnia and Britain have both been caught up and continued, and their lives both renewed and ennobled, in a larger, deeper world that somehow includes and integrates them both without confusion. The children find that they have godlike powers, while yet being only, if yet more truly and wholly, their homely old selves, their truest selves. All their old friends are there with them, from all times and places, likewise renewed and enlarged. No good thing of the worlds that had ended – the children see that from the perspective of this new Narnia/Britain that all worlds have already ended – has been lost, nothing true or worthy has failed to find resurrection. And the new Narnia/Britain is twice as real, twice as vivid, rich, concrete and material as the old.

The death of Narnia is real, but its resurrection is even more real.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks Kristor.

You have, of course, gone straight to the source.

I think I should put a disclaimer at the head of this blog:

"Anything here which is both true and interesting may safely be assumed to come from Tolkien, Lewis or Seraphim Rose..."

The Crow said...

Children haven't sorted out the world, yet, with its myriad complexities. Adults behave as if they have. Children believe adults are omnipotent and wise. Adults encourage them believe this.
Children, then, manufacture a world they can understand: one lacking cause-effect. One lacking consequence. An imaginary world.
How could a child know that adults do exactly the same thing?

dearieme said...

I found the whole landing-on-the moon project very dull: I'd read about it, and better than it, in science fiction novels years before.

John Wright said...

Lewis also rather wryly deals with the modern demand that fantasy be disregarded as unreal in the scene in PRINCE CASPIAN where the green witch, usurper of an underground world, convinces by means of a morphine fume Puddleglum and the children that the surface world is illusion, the sun merely an exaggerated lamp, the Lion an exaggerated cat.

Puddleglum, that august theologian, replies that if Narnia is fantasy, it has the reality of drab under-earth 'beat hollow'. He asks the witch why, supposing surface and heaven and Lion and sun to be make-believe, their make-believe is richer and stronger than her reality, if reality is all that there is?

The modern distrust of fantasy was at its peak when Lewis wrote. In those days, no sober gentleman would dared have been seen reading science fiction or fairy tales. Experimental fiction, realism, degradation, quotidian tales of persons smaller than life were all the rage. In our modern Science fiction soaked environment, is it well to recall that there was a time when political pundits (for example) did not make references to Star Wars or Mordor.

Manwe said...

Very nice essay!

This expresses something I have felt for a long time, but had trouble explaining it myself. So thank you for doing such a wonderful job with this essay!

I also really like how you point out that even the fantasy characters of LOTR didn't think their world was enough for them! Very good point!

@John Wright
I see you have made your way to this blog, it's certainly worth your time! Quick comment though, the Narnia tale you were referring to is not "Prince Caspian", but "The Silver Chair". And I clicked on your name and it took me to an old blog of yours that I didn't even know existed, go figure.

Anonymous said...

the scene in PRINCE CASPIAN where the green witch, usurper of an underground world, convinces by means of a morphine fume Puddleglum and the children that the surface world is illusion

Not everyone is a mystic.

But if you are a mystic, and you are trying to explain your outlook to a non-mystic, quoting that scene often helps.

Aside from spiritual mysticism, of course, there are psychic phenomena.

I am not sure if our host, Dr. Charlton, is willing to concede that paranormal phenomena exist. I don't know his opinion of the various peer-reviewed journals in which parapsychologists publish.

For example, the SSE has put many copies of their journal online.

If parapsychology is real, then children who enthuse about The Lord of the Rings might be yearning for practical, down-to-earth careers as parapsychologists.

Daniel said...

Sometimes I think the purpose of a work like the Lord of the Rings is to keep some small ember burning deep in the ashes, until the current storm has passed, so that the great fire may be lit again one day.

It has worked this way in my own life...

JRRT Reader said...

Reading "Leaf by Niggle" and "Smith of Wooton Major" would provide a good grounding in the theoretical basis behind Tolkien's work and fantasy more generally.

However, these works are less interesting in themselves than his major creations. That being said, there is probably no better way to answer the questions of what fantasy is supposed to be and what is its nature/goal.