Fantasy, morality and “the Tao”

Stories can be powerful things. I think it is no accident that much of our scriptures come in the form of stories; God, if he’d wanted to, could have chosen instead to give us an inspired Gospel Principles manual… but he didn’t. And in many instance I believe that – while it is important to know that such events took place (particularly with things like Christ’s resurrection) – in many instances there are messages we can learn from those stories that go far beyond the simple fact that such events took place. And I’m not alone in that: Paul writing to the Corinthians states the scriptural events  “happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11) while Alma looks upon the account of Lehi and Nephi’s journeys through the wilderness as a “type” of our journey through mortality (Alma 37:38-45).

Fiction too can teach powerful things. While fiction can’t serve the same purpose as, say, Christ’s ministry in 3 Nephi (where the text’s ability to serve as a witness depends very much on it having actually happened), I think fiction can teach of true things. I personally enjoy quite a bit of both fantasy and science fiction, for instance, but I’ve long been persuaded that – while talking of quite unreal things – they can teach of really true things like courage, justice, duty, humility and many other things. Balrogs and magic rings may not exist, but the seductive appeal of power and its corrupting effects seen in The Lord of the Rings does.

I occasionally have a desire to write some stories that have been on my mind for a long while, so I think of this sort of thing occasionally. In the last couple of years, my attention has been drawn to more recent fictional franchises, and as it has I’ve become a little more aware, and slightly disturbed, by the “moral universes” depicted in those works. What I mean by that is the morality and the moral consequences displayed in those works. This has been justified as “more realistic” or more “gritty”. But they are not. Even a godless world would be simply amoral, yet in these created worlds fate itself bends so that evil triumphs, even when said perpetrators of evil have behaved in a stupid, reckless or short-sighted manner. The accusation is that works in which good wins because it is good are naive. In some cases it is. But what then are we to make of works in which evil wins simply because it is evil? I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the postulated moral landscape of some of these universes are not godless worlds; they have a god, and he is the devil. A world in which chance itself reliably rewards the most outrageous performer of evil is one based on a thoroughly unpleasant calculus. What sort of world is that imagining? What can that inspire or teach?

So I was very interested to come across the following article by some chap called Tom Simon, who explores this whole issue in fantasy in some depth drawing upon C.S Lewis’s concept of “the Tao“. The whole thing is worth a read, but a couple of highlights:

When I turn from real life to fiction, I find a curious difference. In the stories of the past – in nearly all fiction before, say, the late nineteenth century, and all popular fiction until a much later date – the Tao is taken for granted; only there is a class of people who do not observe the Tao. These people are called criminals, or outlaws, or villains. In the older kind of fiction, the villain upsets the Tao to take advantage of a weaker party, and the hero restores the Tao by avenging the victim.

He then covers some of the directions that fantasy literature has taken, including anti-heroes such as a Conan, the supposed “simplistic” Tolkien (a critique he neatly dismantles) and then the more recent “full-throated reaction against the Tao” seen in things like Game of Thrones and Sin City. And he goes into both why such works caricature reality and why they may be so popular today as they cater “to a thoroughly jaded and desensitized audience”

However, I particularly like how he finishes. His essay is not a counsel of despair, but rather a call for “superversive fiction”:

…But people want stories about violence and criminality? Very well; let us tell them. But let us tell the whole story, with the post-mortems and the blood feuds and the vengeance. And let us contrast it with some instances of actual heroism…

There does, I believe, come a revulsion; a point where people are no longer content to be fifteen-year-old rebels even in their fantasies, but want more sustaining food for their imaginations. Let us be there to give it to them. We can produce better effects – better conflicts – with chiaroscuro, with darkness and light, than the nihilists can ever produce by layering darkness upon darkness.

I highly recommend reading it all.

 

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