On Fantasy and Wonder

On Fantasy and Wonder

It started with a discussion on Santa Claus…

In comments on the thread below, discussion developed about the subject of fantasy and wonder. Now fantasy is a pet topic of mine and I’ve been contemplating a post on the need to encourage children to have a fantasy life, to play let’s pretend, and to develop their imaginations.  Katherine(Cecelia’s Mommy) and I have decided to explore the subject, focusing especially on childhood and fantasy as a key stage in child development. I’m coming at it from a literary perspective, Katherine from a philosophical/ theological. We’re both interested in branching out into the psychological and we both want to root it in a Catholic vision of the world. (If I’ve left anything out, I’m sure she’ll correct me.)

Fantasy. It’s a pet topic of mine. For years I’ve been trying to find a satisfying literary theory that will help me tackle some key issues in reading fantasy novels. But I’m also interested in the topic in a more general way. A discussion with someone coming at it from a non-literary perspective might really help me clarify my focus and at the same time broaden my area of inquiry. I’m interested in fantasy as a literary genre, in fairy stories in general, in children’s literature and in children’s life of the imagination. Obviously these topics overlap and diverge, and there’s a pretty broad field here for a discussion to meander through. I’m just throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what bounces back. I don’t have a road map or an agenda, at least not consciously.

As good starting point as any, and better than some, is Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and his short story “Leaf by Niggle”. These two works really delineate his theory of “sub-creation”, and it’s a good, solid, Catholic place to start. And they’re a pretty quick read. They can be found in The Tolkien Reader

Following through in that line of thought, I think I explored C. S. Lewis as well, especially in terms of his literary friendship with Tolkien. It was Tolkien’s theories of Christianity as “true story” that helped Lewis in his conversion. I’m trying to think of sources.

Joseph Pearce is a great Catholic literary critic and I’ve found his work on both Tolkien and Lewis to be very helpful in helping me to grasp their ideas and clarify my thoughts. His biography of Tolkien, Tolkien: Man and Myth, is supurb and I found his work on Lewis entrancing, though it might be less germane to the point at hand (C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church). There’s also a good recording of a lecture and seminar-style discussions, at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of all places, which summarizes Tolkien and Lewis’s philosophy myth and Pearce’s ideas about literature evangelizing the culture.  (Creator, Creation, and Creativity: Understanding Tolkien and Lewis’s Philosophy of Myth, Forum Part 1, Forum Part 2, Resurrecting Myth Pearce’s response to a response.) Hmm. I’m going to have to go back and listen to these again.

Another key influence for me, and anther great Catholic scholar is University of Dalls professor, Louise Cowan, with whom I had the privilege of studying when I was at UD. There are a couple of her lectures online that might yeild some gold: Poetry and Therapy, Prometheus and Zeus: The New Epoch and the Education It Requires, which I previously blogged about here. Cowan talks about “myth” rather than “fantasy” or “wonder” and I still have to tease out what the connection or correlation between those terms is. I’m too tired to deal with it tonight. That’s another post. But Cowan has been key in shaping the way I think about literature and for me her discussions about myth are foundational to any discussion of literature from a Catholic perspective.

And then there’s a whole page of links I haven’t explored yet, but which might bear more fruit in the Tolkien line at the Ratzinger fan club.

I agree with Katherine about the psychological being a fruitful angle and also her distaste for Freud. Recently my dad sent me some links to essays about moral development in children. And I’m reading a book called The Spiritual Life of Children which may prove useful. I’m planning to write a review of it soon. I’d love to find someone who’s done some work on children’s fantasy life. Perhaps my dad will be able to suggest some lines of inquiry in that direction. He’s the psychology expert in my family.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m going to follow up very soon with a post that tentatively tries to lay out some thoughts and possible directions to explore. I’ll try to do some re-reading and summarizing of those sources as well. Hmm, seems like quite a project to have taken on. I hope poor Katherine isn’t overwhelmed.

Anyone, feel free to leave your thoughts: what does fantasy and wonder mean to you? What was your fantasy life like as a child? What is the best way to nourish a child’s fantasy life? How important is it to encourage children to have a fantasy life and a sense of wonder? Why is it important or why not? What do you think about fairy tales? Should parents set boundaries? What about child-guided vs parent-led fantasy play? And, let’s not go over ground we’ve already covered, but what about telling kids that stuff like the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are real? What about kids believing in imaginary friends, fairies, monsters under the bed, dragons and unicorns, ghosts and goblins and the Loch Ness monster?

Ok, it’s late and I’m rambling. Time to go to bed!


I knew Dom would help clarify things amazingly.

He says, there are a few times when we (or at least some of us) tell children that things exist which are not “real”: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy (I add, if you go see the play Peter Pan, kids will be asked to clap if they believe in fairies). But a small part of him, a small part, is afraid of that backlash, the child who gets angry at finding out he’s been deceived. We’ve all heard at least one story along those lines. In the past week, I’ve seen several while surfing across the blogosphere. So why do we do it? And is it ultimately more harmful or helpful. Don’t be too quick about your answer. Question your assumptions. For every story of a crushed child, I can think of a story of one whose mature faith life was nourished by such childhood fancies: Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton. They all credit their adult faith on a foundation of fairytales. And it isn’t clear that as adults they were altogether able to separate themselves from the fantasies they spun. Is this kind of fancy a rare thing, limited to literary souls? (I can’t think of specific works from Chesterton to add to the list above; but he’d be another good source.)

I’d like to see some discussion from the psychological end, if that’s possible. What evidence is there for or against this kind of belief helping children to form a mature faith? Can finding out Santa doesn’t exist crush one’s faith in God? How exactly does fantasy connect with the ultimate reality that we Catholics believe in which much of the secular world will tell us is just make-believe rubbish?

If I recall correctly, Tolkien referred to the incarnation as the ultimate romance, the true fairy tale.

And what does this mean for us parents? How do we prevent our children from being crushed? How do we nurture the soul of the young Tolkien at our knee? I’ve noted before that we parents can get quite defensive about our choices; but we all want what is best for our children. Let’s try to have a civil discussion, respecting each other’s choices and learning from them wihtout getting defensive or attacking, and without perceiving attacks where none are intended.

Another talking point that comes to mind is the movie Big Fish. About a son reconciling with his dying father. The dad has been a spinner of tall tales his entire life, seemingly unable to distinguish the boundary between fantasy and reality. The son rebels against this, just wanting his father to admit to spinning tales. Have you seen the movie? If not, I urge you to do so.

Ok, I think that’s enough to go on for now. Probably too much. Goodnight. For real this time.

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