Is Fantasy Foolish?

lion of lyonSome of the smartest people around dismiss reading fantasy as a crazy waste of time. At the same time, many of the most brilliant people I know love nothing more than passing from their mundane lives through a magical wardrobe into a land of wonder.

On a recent episode of the television series Castle, the eponymous Richard Castle,* a best-selling author and private eye, has a great line. Castle is defending his hyperactive imagination (which frequently leads to the solving of the crime of the week).

A suspect calls him “reality-challenged.”

To which he responds, “I prefer fantasy-augmented.”

Now, there’s a description that would fit most readers of Mere Inkling. We’re “fantasy-augmented.”

It would also fit most of the Oxford Inklings. Not all of them, of course. Some of them, like C.S. Lewis’ brother Warnie, were more oriented towards factual, historical literature.

The fantasists among their ranks were not lacking as writers of nonfiction either.

However, it was the fact that they were “fantasy-augmented” that has led to the inclusion of several of their members in the first ranks of twentieth century writers.

Narnia and Middle Earth are as real to many people today as Ogre, Latvia, Humpty Do, Australia, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales, and Frankenstein, Missouri. (Perhaps more real!)

In 1936, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to Charles Williams, praising his recent novel.**

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.

I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life–comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

The following day, Williams wrote a letter of his own to C.S. Lewis. It began:

My dear Mr Lewis, If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed. It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me. My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day. To be exact, I finished on Saturday looking—too hastily—at proofs of your Allegorical Love Poem.

William’s reference to coincidence is poetic. He doesn’t rely on the timeworn “divine Providence,” which is so prevalent in literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Returning to Lewis’ missive, we learn exactly how Williams’ fantasy so deeply impressed him.

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life—comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

There are layers and layers—first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then, what is rarely (tho’ not so very rarely) combined with this, the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification.

It’s unlikely that any of us should ever author a work that would equally impress C.S. Lewis. Still, what a grand goal for any fantasy-augmented writer to strive for!


* Castle is played by Nathan Fillion, who captained the spacecraft “Serenity,” in a delightful series entitled Firefly.

** You can download The Place of the Lion in a variety of formats at ManyBooks.

The illustration above is used with the permission of its creator, Charis Tsevis.


Marrying a Writer

museA recent episode of the series Castle illustrated something all of the spouses of writers know—they are wed to peculiar people.

The premise for the program, currently in its seventh season, is that a mystery novelist accompanies homicide detectives in New York City on their investigations.

Despite his frequently outlandish theories, Richard Castle often contributes significantly to solving the crimes. His counterpart is Kate Beckett, the senior detective who leads the team.

The two of them recently wed, which led to the following exchange while they were on their honeymoon, which doubled as a homicide investigation at a frontier “dude ranch.”

Faced with complex evidence, Castle says, “That’s why we approach this as writers.”

Beckett responds with a comment representative of literary spouses. “So we procrastinate and we make things up?”


That strikes a bit close to home. The second element—making things up—can be construed by our nimble minds as an actual compliment. Yes, we do think creatively and out of the mundane box. Thank you very much.

On the other hand, the procrastination label . . . well, speaking for myself, it fits far too well.

Writing, after all, is not simple. Even poor writing requires effort. And, if one hopes to write well . . . it requires time, skill and practice.

Few can sit down at the keyboard and imperiously command their “muse” or inspiration to be at hand. This is true for all authors, including Christian writers who seek guidance from the Holy Spirit.

The simple fact is, however, that if we waited until we felt fully inspired, most of us would accomplish little.

In my own case, I sincerely attribute anything good that I might write to the Lord. The chaff comes from me. I won’t presume to guess what small percentage of the words are wheat, but I will confess that I am most productive when I discipline myself to write. And, this discipline typically involves a self-imposed deadline.

Thus the reason for the graphic at the head of the page. I have recognized in the fall of life, as I seek to pursue my writing avocation more seriously, that “The deadline is my Muse.”

Beckett knows very well that her fictional husband often requires a deadline to complete his novels.

My wife sees the same principle at work when I request her urgent proofreading of something I’ve waited too long to complete.

C.S. Lewis had ample experience with deadlines himself. And he knew well that even a required submission date could not guarantee literary production. In 1958 he wrote to his editor, Jocelyn Gibb, saying that he may, or may not, be able to provide a contribution to an upcoming edition of The Psalms as Poetry.

Dear Gibb, Thanks for the book, a very nice bit of work. I’ll try to re-read Miracles for mis-prints while I’m in Ireland, where my wife and I go tomorrow. When is deadline for your Fifty-Two? Not that I’m sure I can pump anything up anyway.

He did manage to provide a contribution, which he later included as part of the introductory chapter for Reflections on the Psalms.

I’m not certain whether Lewis wrote those pages simply because inspiration compelled him to . . . or if the issue deadline provided a little supplemental motivation. I suspect it was the latter.

To any writers out there who never require the encouragement of a deadline—consider yourself uniquely blessed!

To the masses who share my battle with the plague of procrastination, you have my sympathy. Still, after pausing for just a moment to commiserate, let’s get back to the pleasant labor of writing, and the thrill of “making things up.”

Wasp Wars

This fall I’ve entered into combat with some of fallen nature’s most ferocious and merciless creatures. Thus far, they are winning the war.

A couple months ago my castle (i.e. home) was invaded by a ruthless tribe of wasps or hornets (the latter is a subset of the species, as are yellow jackets, so they are all members of a single horrific animal family).

They found a small, un-caulked opening into our attic . . . strategically placed just above our front door. I’m sure they had thousands of alternative bastions in the forest that surrounds our house but, being wasps, they knew this was the precise location from which they could wreak the most violent havoc.

The initial fray was brief. I sprayed copious amounts of wasp insecticide into the crevice, in the hope of encouraging them to nest elsewhere. It appeared to act as an attractant. After it failed and added more recruits to their number, I donned armor and climbed a ladder after dusk when they had settled in for the night, and noiselessly attempted to close the space with insect-proof sealant.

Alas, their sentinels were vigilant. They swarmed me, and pushed me off of the ladder causing me to land on my back and crash my head on the ground. Unfortunately, my long sleeved armor did not include a concussion proof helmet. Like a craven coward I lifted my bruised body from the rocky ground (nope, we haven’t planted a lawn yet) . . . and I ran for my life. All the while I was thanking God that I was only standing on the third rung.

Aside from my bruises, they had only inflicted a single piercing wound—on my index finger. Of course, being predators, wasps carry a very nasty venom, and for the next week it failed to heal as the poison festered, despite diligent attention from my corpsman-wife.

I’m waiting patiently for winter now, when they are partially dormant and “hibernating.” When the queen wakes up in the spring, she’ll find herself sealed in a crypt. (At least, that’s what I’m hoping.)

Wasps in Narnia

C.S. Lewis, being a lover of the outdoors, was well acquainted with the hazard posed by wasps. In The Chronicles of Narnia,

When the Pevensie children are drawn back to Narnia for a second time, it is a jarring and initially frightening experience. As we read in Prince Caspian:

It was an empty, sleepy, country station and there was hardly anyone on the platform except themselves. Suddenly Lucy gave a sharp little cry, like someone who has been stung by a wasp. “What’s up, Lu?” said Edmund—and then suddenly broke off and made a noise like “Ow!”

“What on earth—” began Peter, and then he too suddenly changed what he had been going to say. Instead, he said, “Susan, let go! What are you doing? Where are you dragging me to?”

“I’m not touching you,” said Susan. “Someone is pulling me. Oh—oh—oh—stop it!” Everyone noticed that all the others’ faces had gone very white.

“I felt just the same,” said Edmund in a breathless voice. “As if I were being dragged along. A most frightful pulling—ugh! It’s beginning again.”

“Me too,” said Lucy. “Oh, I can’t bear it.”

“Look sharp!” shouted Edmund. “All catch hands and keep together. This is magic—I can tell by the feeling. Quick!”

“Yes,” said Susan. “Hold hands. Oh, I do wish it would stop—oh!” Next moment the luggage, the seat, the platform, and the station had completely vanished.

The four children, holding hands and panting, found themselves standing in a woody place—such a woody place that branches were sticking into them and there was hardly room to move. They all rubbed their eyes and took a deep breath. “Oh, Peter!” exclaimed Lucy. “Do you think we can possibly have got back to Narnia?”

Later, Edmund offers some wise advice in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He alludes to the deceptive natural and inherent ninja skills possessed by the killers.

“We must all show great constancy,” Caspian was saying. “A dragon has just flown over the tree-tops and lighted on the beach. Yes, I am afraid it is between us and the ship. And arrows are no use against dragons. And they’re not at all afraid of fire.”

“With your Majesty’s leave—” began Reepicheep.

“No, Reepicheep,” said the King very firmly, “you are not to attempt a single combat with it. And unless you promise to obey me in this matter I’ll have you tied up. We must just keep close watch and, as soon as it is light, go down to the beach and give it battle. . . .”

“Perhaps it will go away,” said Lucy.

“It’ll be worse if it does,” said Edmund, “because then we shan’t know where it is. If there’s a wasp in the room I like to be able to see it.”

Back to My Own Campaign

Just as I became resigned to my strategy with the vicious intruders, I became aware of a second army of insect brigands. This multitude had invaded the crawlspace under my home, through some weakness in the screens guarding my ventilation openings.

Noting that I would not require a ladder to engage them in combat I foolishly thought, oh how you will rue the day you trespassed in my domain!

I purchased a new screen to cover the entire opening, but their guards remained vigilant even during the night and before I could even begin the project, they swarmed and had me fleeing across our back lawn (yes, we do have some grass). Running recklessly in the dark I naturally stumbled and still bear some significant bruises. These would be bad enough, but two of the villains stabbed me with their poisonous stingers before I secured myself in the house.

With the aid of my faithful border collie, I discovered an infiltrator who insidiously snuck into the castle proper clinging to my pants. I immediately dropped my leggings and proceeded to stomp on them for several minutes. I was thorough, walking repeatedly over every part of the crumpled clothing. Naturally, he survived. I did manage to rewrap him in the trousers and see to his demise.

I am reconsidering my strategy now, and leaning towards placing commercial wasp traps directly outside the vent when the vermin reawaken in the spring. I’m also contemplating periodically banging a hammer near their hidden nest to disturb their rest during their hibernation. I haven’t determined yet whether this would be effective, as it is when interrogating terrorists, or whether it would simply be sadistic.

Trying to learn their weaknesses (they don’t have any) I did learn one reason why wasps are so aggressive and merciless. They are almost all female! While queens alone reproduce, and they keep a few males handy for their sole role of mating and dying, the rest of the army consists of “asexual female workers.” These perform community duties such as building the hive, gathering food, feeding the young, and protecting the colony!

Now, lest I be unfairly accused of misogyny, let me make clear that it is not their “feminine” nature that makes them violent. Rather, it is a corruption of their natural maternal instincts which cause them to guard their nest so belligerently that all rationally minded people desire their utter annihilation.

And, Once Again, to Narnia

The final book in the Chronicles has been my favorite ever since I first read the series forty years ago. I gained an even greater appreciation for The Last Battle when I read this description of the heavenly Narnia into which all of Aslan’s faithful were ushered.

Tirian had thought—or he would have thought if he had time to think at all—that they were inside a little thatched stable, about twelve feet long and six feet wide. In reality they stood on grass, the deep blue sky was overhead, and the air which blew gently on their faces was that of a day in early summer. Not far away from them rose a grove of trees, thickly leaved, but under every leaf there peeped out the gold or faint yellow or purple or glowing red of fruits such as no one has seen in our world. The fruit made Tirian feel that it must be autumn but there was something in the feel of the air that told him it could not be later than June.

They all moved toward the trees. Everyone raised his hand to pick the fruit he best liked the look of, and then everyone paused for a second. This fruit was so beautiful that each felt “It can’t be meant for me . . . surely we’re not allowed to pluck it.”

“It’s all right,” said Peter. “I know what we’re all thinking. But I’m sure, quite sure, we needn’t. I’ve a feeling we’ve got to the country where everything is allowed.”

“Here goes, then!” said Eustace. And they all began to eat. What was the fruit like? Unfortunately no one can describe a taste. All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grapefruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour. And there were no seeds or stones, and no wasps.

Despite our repeated failings, the victory will ultimately be won by our divine Champion!