I just finished Philip Martin’s The Purpose of Fantasy. It's a lovely book, and a gift to any lover of fantasy fiction. Among other things, it tackles head-on the way in which fantasy is unjustly marginalized in the literary world.
In the chapter about Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Martin offers an illuminating quote from an earlier interview he had with Beagle. In it, Beagle expresses his distress about the way in which fantasy works are misunderstood: “The problem is just that fantastic literature isn’t taken seriously. It simply isn’t reviewed. It isn’t considered literature…It’s still—all of it—pulp fiction, to be read under the covers.”
Martin explains why such dismissal is a mistake. And since the best refutation comes from great works of fantasy themselves, Martin invites the reader to explore with him twelve selected works of fantasy. In the process, the reader is reminded of old friends and—at least in my case—invited to make new ones. I now have several new books on my reading list that I’m eager to plunge into.
Each exploration of a select fantasy combines an introduction to the story and representative passages with illuminating background information and, more significantly, Martin’s own reflections on the work’s message and significance. He even includes thoughtful discussion questions at the end of each of each chapter.
His broad theme, laid out in the introduction and nicely developed in the subsequent chapters, is that fantasy literature offers a distinctive—perhaps unique—vehicle for engaging narratively with the deeper spiritual and ethical dimensions of our lives. The fantasy medium allows authors to illuminate our understanding of those things that transcend the physical side of our existence—good and evil, the yearning for something more—through the construction of metaphorical realities.
In fact, however, Martin suggests that fantasy may offer “a land beyond metaphor.” In his chapter on Neil Gaiman’s phenomenal little book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Martin puts it this way:
In English class, we all learned the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Fantasy, though, offers a third possibility that eclipses those two. If the narrator in a fantasy book says, “My nanny was an evil witch,” or “The pond is an ocean,” these statements might prove to be neither simile nor metaphor. They can be fantastic images that are magically real in the story.
This insight connects with another persistent theme in Martin’s book: because fantasy stories dispense with the rules of reality as we know it, inventing worlds and rules that all of us recognize as make-believe, they can never be mistaken for factual. But truth and fact aren’t the same thing. And fantasy, precisely because it moves beyond metaphor into the domain of imagined new realities, allows fantasy authors an enhanced freedom to wrestle with truths that transcend the facts.
This was a theme that G.K. Chesterton pressed home in his essay, “The Ethics of Elfland” (found in his book, Orthodoxy), an essay that Martin discusses and builds on in his book. Chesterton argued that by changing the rules of the world, fairy tales remind us of the contingency of those rules. And the wonder that the fantasy world evokes becomes a reminder of the wonder we should feel at the world as it is: “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
Fairy stories invite us to step outside the rules of this world and this life. In so doing they enable us to see this world and its rules from the outside. And from that new vantage, we can discern truths that are harder to see when we are bound by the facts—truths such as the fact that an apple’s color is a fitting subject for wonder.
I am a life-long lover of fantasy. I’m also a professional philosopher of religion and ethicist. I’ve always sensed a deep connection between my professional passions and my love of fantasy literature. Martin’s new book helps to lay that connection bare. And for that, I’m grateful.