There was a quote, just a few words from Kafka, that I liked to post on my bulletin board when I taught 9th and 11th grade English. “A book should be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” My students understood that quote. It excited them. I saw it in their faces when we read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Scarlet Letter. They sensed the power of those stories, sensed the changes taking place inside them even as we read. They knew that stories mattered.
For younger children, the value of story is obvious, and hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear a mom or a blogger or a momblogger talking about the importance of shaping her children through good stories. I’m right there with those moms. I want my children to read stories that encourage their love for beauty and goodness, stories in which characters face difficult challenges and make wise decisions, stories in which truth ultimately triumphs over the enemy’s lies.
Stories shape children. They shape teenagers. But ask one of those vocal, story-championing moms what she’s reading right now, and I bet you’ll find a discrepancy. Like most of us, she’s reading a little modern fiction, just enough to keep up with her book club. She and her husband might be working through a devotional. They’ve got some great works of heavy theology they’re planning to dive into, and they’re drowning in self-improvement books promising real change for their real lives. At some point, we grown-ups seemed to decide that stories could no longer impact us. We settled down into the frozen seas of our beliefs, our worldviews. And for years and years it hasn’t even occurred to us that fiction, much less fantasy, could change us.
We’re so busy, after all. We’ve reached our thirties and forties and fifties, and there are kids to be raised and bills to be paid. We have goals; we have life plans. We don’t have time to “read for entertainment.” We scarcely have time to consider what we think or feel about anything. If you ask us, we will tell you that stories have enormous value. They’re shaping our children right now. But for us, most of the shaping has been done. The few books we do read are for fine-tuning, just little tweaks around the edges.
But I believe a work of fiction can shake you to your foundations. A fantasy novel changed my concept of God. No joke. Through the actions of Eugenides, the Queen’s Thief (in Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia), I came to understand the sovereignty of God. No sermon, no song, had ever reached me like that story did. I’ve never experienced racial discrimination, but M.T. Anderson’s The Pox Party left me weeping with grief, undone by one man’s cruelty to another of a different color.
Even now, there are stories that would change the framework through which we view the world, stories whose characters would reach us in deep places we’d rather avoid. There are worlds we desperately need to visit, and fantasy worlds are perfect because, in them, there is no room for cynicism. In fantasy worlds, we do not escape reality, or truth. We escape the pressure to live as if there is nothing left to fight for. We escape the embarrassment of grief. We escape our generation’s disdain for noble action. We escape a world of endless bleeding gray areas. And we find beauty. We find space to recover our less refined selves, space to rage against injustice, space to remember all the precious things we’ve forgotten. In fantasy, we are stripped of our expectations, stripped of our cool mastery of the modern world. In fantasy, we return to what is most true. We find again what we most believe.
I want to write stories so beautiful and full of longing, they feel like wounds; stories so potent and full of sorrow, they feel like songs. I want to write stories that get under your skin, stories that impact you, no matter how old, no matter how settled. I want to write stories that leave your ears ringing with the silence that follows the final page, stories that become a refrain for your weary heart, that reacquaint you with courage, that reacquaint you with hope.
I believe a fantasy novel can change you, that it can hack through the rigid, deadened places inside you and wake you up to something wonderful. It’s a gift I’ve been given on countless occasions, and one I long to pass on.
To those of you who’ve taken the risk of wasting your valuable time, who’ve taken the journey with me into the Shadow Realm, thank you. I hope very much that you have been impacted, moved, changed. Let’s keep finding new worlds to explore.